How Organic Distance Based Search Results May Be Demoted

by Posted @ Aug 13 2018

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Local Significance Local entities

If you search for a business at a location, you will see a mix of local search results, as well as organic results that Google believes, are relevant. Ideally, you will want to rank highly in both organic results and in Google Maps for local results. But sometimes Google may keep some organic distance based search results from showing if they might be from too far away. A recent patent from Google explains how that kind of demotion might happen, in a patent that focuses upon distance based search results.

Google Maps Results and Ranking Signals

Google’s local search originally was based upon a patent that looks at consistently structured data about local entities on enterprise websites, commercial data distributors, and geographic-based directories called Generating structured information. A Google My Business Help page titled Improve your local ranking on Google tells us about the ranking signals that Google uses for a local search result. Those focus on the following three types of signals:

Relevance – how well does the words in the name of a local entity, or the category it is placed within match up with the query seeking it?

Distance – A local entity search is geared towards finding results that you can travel to. While distance away is important, the type of business is important as well, so a search for a gas station may ideally be answered by someplace closer than a search for a travel agent. This difference in distances for different types of businesses is known as location sensitivity. I hadn’t seen anything else before from Google that focused upon distance based search results, which can be interesting if you may care about whether or not the SEO you are doing may lead to actual visits to a place.

Prominencelocation prominence is the focus of a patent from Google that tells us that citations on pages that mention a business help a business rank in Local search, that links are equivalent to citations, that reviews and ratings of a business may also count as a citation. The Google My Business support page also tells us that the ranking of a page that is the authority page for a local entity can also play a role in how it ranks. (The Help page says, “Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.”)

One of the last times I wrote about local search here, the post was about a different way Google might interpret distance in the post Google to Use Distance from Mobile Location History for Ranking in Local Search. We sometimes see patents that interpret things in somewhat different ways from each other. The one I am writing about today is about organic results but considers distance to demote rankings.

When I search for a coffee house in Google, many of the results are for local places, but as I get to the second page, many of those are for places that are further than I would want to drive to, such as Los Angeles, and Disneyland. There are some news results on the first page for that query term that are in Vegas, Michigan, and New York. What does Google consider when it decides what results to show searchers?

Distance Based Search Results

There was a time when Google Maps used to have two search boxes, one for a “what,” and one for a “where.” Presently Google is identifying the location of the location of a device from which a search query was performed. They tell us that a local search result is one which returns a local document – one that has “local significance” to a particular location of user devices. Also that a local document may receive a “boost” for a query if the location associated with the local document is near the location of the user device. In organic results, Google started giving more emphasis to some results that had local significance as well when a particular patent came out that I wrote about it

So, if someone searches for “coffee shop” the search engine may return SERPs that return web pages for coffee shops near the location of the device the search was performed upon. This is probably ideal because a person searching for a “coffee shop” likely wants to find one of those near him or her.

If you look at organic search results, you may not see Coffee shops that consider location quite so much. But Google has come out with a patent that paid more attention to the locations in organic search results about five years ago. I wrote about that in the post, How Google May Identify Implicitly Local Queries. An update to the patent I wrote about it that one in the post Do Search Click-Throughs Help Determine Whether a Page Appears in Google Search Results? added Navneet Panda to the authors of the patent, and added in the claims that they might look at click-throughs to local results appearing in SERPS to see if people actually look at those local results when they appear in organic results, and click upon them. It’s possible that Google decided to roll back some of those local organic results in some cases, especially when local results aren’t quite so local, and when they might want to pay more attention to distance based search results.

The Problem Caused by Location Independent Scores

Most patents point out issues and problems that they are intended to solve, as does this distance based search results patent. It tells us when an organic geographic-based search doesn’t work as well as it should in a couple of ways. The first of those is stated this way:

Some local results, however, may have very high scores independent of the local scoring boost. This score, which is referred to as a “location independent score,” may be high due to the document being of interest to people outside of a region that includes the location of the local result. For example, a restaurant may have a very unique name, and may also be a famous restaurant nationwide. Accordingly, although the restaurant has local significance, it may still be of very great interest to users nationwide. Thus, a search algorithm that takes into account search traffic and query log data may rank a document for the restaurant (e.g., a web page) very high.

This is likely why I see results from Disneyland on a search for coffee houses. The patent provides a second example of when sites might have a very high “location independent score,” by providing a scenario that possibly happens somewhat frequently:

By way of another example, a power company named after Thomas Edison may have very heavy local traffic in a large state. Thus, the search algorithm that takes into account search traffic and query log data will also rank a document for the power company very high due to the sheer volume of traffic to the webpage by its many customers. However, the power company webpage may be of very little interest to a user several states away. For example, a user may desire to learn about Thomas Edison and not the power company that bears his name. However, due to the large volume of traffic to the power company web page, that web page may be ranked higher than a webpage about the man, the latter of which is more likely to be of interest to a user that inputs the query “Edison.”

Location Significance to Geographic Location of User Device

So, this patent aims at addressing results that appear because of high location independent scores, and how distance based search results might be demoted based upon whether a document involved is one that might have local significance to a location of a user device and the location specified in the local document is beyond a certain distance.

The patent tells us a demotion may be based upon:

1) A maximum distance between the searcher’s user device and the local document.

2) If the user’s search device and the first local document are in regions separated by a political boundary, such as a state line.

3) If the search query does not include a location phrase that explicitly specifies a geographic location, and the data specifying a search query can include a local intent measure that is a measure of local intent for the search query.

This distance based search results patent raises some additional issues and is worth reading through if you are concerned about how Google might demote some potential locally significant search documents from showing in search results.

Distance based search ranking demotion
Inventors: Neha Arora
Assignee: Google LLC
US Patent: 10,031,951
Granted: July 24, 2018
Filed: January 7, 2016

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for processing local search results. In one aspect, a method determines a first local document in a set of local documents for search results is eligible for a demotion operation. The determination is based at least in part on a proximity measure based on the location of the user device and a location specified for the first local document. In response to the determination, for each other local documents in the set of local documents, a proximity measure location of the user device and the location specified for the other local document is determined. The first local document is demoted in its ranking when at least one of the proximity measures indicates a respective other local document has a specified location that is within a threshold distance of the location of the user device.

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2 Comments

  1. Consulenza

    August 23rd, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    Bill, thank you for writing about this, it’s a very interesting subject! Local search just keeps getting more and more interesting. When reading about demoting for “political boundaries”, a question came to my mind: what about things like state, county, and city limits. Does Google value them in the same way to this matter?

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      August 23rd, 2018 at 4:16 pm

      Hi Consulenza,

      Yes, it appears that Google does limit what they show in search results when things like State lines are between a searcher and a business. I lived in Delaware for many years, and was around 4 miles away from a Maryland town of the same size as the one I was from in Delaware. I remembered seeing many more results from towns and cities further away in Delaware than from the much nearer town in Maryland (which would have been a much closer drive.) Many of the local searches I perform now on the West Coast seem to favor businesses in San Diego County and show much fewer results in Orange County. That seems to be what I experience with newspapers and TV News as well. It’s interesting looking at the locations of search results to see how far away local entities are in search results for different types of businesses, too.

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