Since November 3, when our local algorithm monitoring tool Local RankFlux alerted subscribers of high volatility in the local pack, the local search community has been abuzz with theories circulating as to what could be causing the major drops and increases in rankings.
On Monday, December 2, Google confirmed it had rolled out an update (previously referred to as the Bedlam update – a term coined by local SEO queen Joy Hawkins) based on neural matching – an AI method used to better connect words with concepts.
Until Monday, theories of relevancy, proximity, link building, and so-called “swapasaurusing” had continued to fill the forums and Twitter threads. Prior to this confirmation, on November 12, Google had addressed the rumors of a local algorithm update, with its Search Liaison Twitter sharing the following:
Some have asked if we had an update to Google Search last week. We did, actually several updates, just as we have several updates in any given week on a regular basis. In this thread, a reminder of when and why we give specific guidance about particular updates….
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) November 12, 2019
While Google’s attempt at clearing the air might have caused some frustration among local SEOs, it did reinforce the idea that something was afoot in the world of local search algorithms. Since Google’s initial statement, flux continued to run rampant, with agencies and SMBs taking to the forums to try to make sense of the seemingly never-ending changes to their rankings.
What is neural matching?
Possibly for the first time ever (according to Search Engine Roundtable’s Barry Schwartz) Google confirmed once and for all what was going on in local search:
In early November, we began making use of neural matching as part of the process of generating local search results. Neural matching allows us to better understand how words are related to concepts, as explained more here: https://t.co/ShQm7g9CvN
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) December 2, 2019
As suspected, Google had rolled out a local search update at the beginning of November – which has now been completed globally. According to Google Search Liaison, this update involved prioritizing neural matching in an attempt to provide local searchers with more relevant results.
One of the most important features of the update is that Google can now do a better job of going beyond just the words in a business’s name or description. In short, the November update will help local businesses that are more relevant to the searcher’s intent rank, regardless of the name of the business – which could be very good news for local businesses with less keyword-friendly names.
Whoa, Google provides more information about the November 2019 Local Search Update that started in early November. Google is now using neural matching for local search, which enables them to go beyond the exact words in the business name and description to better understand… https://t.co/RI4eBUI6LP
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) December 2, 2019
For those still seeing changes to their rankings, Google’s Danny Sullivan clarified:
Neural matching is done. But that said, it’ll keep being improved. More important, we always have other updates. That’s what this part was covering: https://t.co/0zS8kcmIgG https://t.co/0zS8kcmIgG
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) December 2, 2019
A major impact of the update – and what will come as good news to many – is that keyword spam in business names won’t be favored as much as it once was. While Google once relied on keywords in names to provide relevant results, it will now use neural matching to pull results beyond just the business name. There has been some concern as to whether or not this is working quite as planned yet, but it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Oh and before you head to the comments to ask if this update is at all related to BERT, here’s one Danny Sullivan prepared earlier:
No. Neural matching is separate from BERT. There’s no change to what we’ve said about BERT.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) December 2, 2019
In other news, Andy Simpson is all of us right now:
— Andy Simpson (@ndyjsimpson) December 3, 2019
Back to Bedlam
In theory, neural matching is inarguably a great stride forward for local search. Whether it’s being implemented effectively is, of course, a different matter. From what we’ve seen, based on the inconsistent nature and yoyo-ing of results, the algorithm must be learning what to rank as relevant and what not to.
But, there does some to be some concern in the community that the recent update may be doing the opposite of what Google intended. Local SEO consultant Tim Capper voiced his concern that neural matching may be surfacing spam, while others have also claimed to be seeing more spam than ever.
That’d be “Bedlam” then, eh?
Which at explain the yo-yo over the last few days or so… as ‘The Machine’ learns, I guess?
— Ⓞⓟⓣⓘⓜⓘⓢⓔⓨ (@Optimisey) December 2, 2019
And it certainly seems that the rankings volatility isn’t over just yet.
Throughout October, Local RankFlux scores week-on-week averaged from lows of 2.34 to highs of 2.53. Meanwhile, November’s average weekly flux reached heights of 3.73, illustrating just how much the local pack was affected during the rolling out period. To put things into perspective, last week’s average flux was up 24% compared to the average score back in mid-September.
While we speculate whether what we’re experiencing is the new normal, flux continues to be above average. We’ll be keeping a keen eye on any changes tracked by Local RankFlux in the coming weeks, so sign up to regular email updates to stay in the loop.
What you need to do now
So what do you need to do in response to this update? Maybe frustratingly, once again the answer is “nothing” – providing you’ve been executing local SEO properly pre-update, that is. As always, it’s best to wait for the dust to settle before making any reactive changes.
That being said, now is as good a time as any to ensure you’re doing everything you can do to boost your local SEO efforts: building accurate and relevant citations, filling out your GMB listing in as much detail as possible (particularly using relevant business categories), and of course, not making use of blackhat or spammy techniques.
So, the November local search update was about semantic search… which was already applied to Organic, which means nothing to change as far as strategy goes…except you know, write good content. Connect dots….#LocalSEO https://t.co/mJaP6uP2Gs
— Ben Fisher (@TheSocialDude) December 2, 2019
It’s also worth remembering that while neural matching is new to local search, it’s been present in organic search since 2018, so it’s not an entirely new concept we’re working with.
While Google claims the November Bedlam update is complete, a change like this means Google will continually be learning and improving to match users with the most accurate results, so don’t expect your rankings to remain stationary just yet.
And while it may be natural to default to panic-mode when an algorithm update is confirmed, in theory, this update and its reliance on neural matching should mean you’re more likely to benefit from site and store visitors with truly local intent, rather than mismatched users.
Though the update wasn’t created specifically to fight spam, it may help to combat it. We may still be seeing some spam in the local pack and SERPs, but it appears that Google is putting measures in place to at least try to reduce the level of spam we see, and help ensure the most relevant local results are shown to searchers.
Since the roll-out of this update, it’s highly possible you’ll have seen some volatility in you or your clients’ businesses. As with all algorithmic change, the best defense is a good offense – meaning tracking your rankings shouldn’t only be done during times of high flux. To keep tabs on your positions, sign up for a free trial or log in to your BrightLocal account now.
And, to be the first to know about updates or changes to the local algorithm, sign up for daily, weekly, or urgent updates from Local RankFlux.
Does Google’s explanation support the changes you’ve seen to local rankings? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!
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