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The Future of Search

Google’s recent reduction of local listings signal big changes ahead for the future of search engines. Here’s how you can position yourself to profit from them.

This past August the Google+ Local Pack that we’ve come to love and depend on reduced from seven listings to three (a “snack pack”). Many dental practices who were ranked four through seven on that list all of a sudden noticed a decline in new patients.

Why did Google makes these changes and what does that mean for SEO?

1. Paid Local Listings

As soon as we saw the local listings change many experts predicted Google was getting ready to roll out a paid model. Sure enough, they’ve begun experimenting with it in San Francisco. Soon, you’ll have three paid ads at the top of a Google results page followed by three paid local listings followed by the organic results.

What does this mean for the average dental practice? Get ready to increase your Google budget. At some point in the near future, if you want to be listed in the local pack, you’ll have to pay for it. I still believe local search results are a massive value and probably the single best marketing investment you could have made in the last five years. Especially as mobile use continues to grow, local search will become more and more relevant. We’ll continue to get great returns on our investment, Google just wants part of the profit.

The next question is: what about reviews? Will they still matter? Yes. They’ll continue to lend credibility. Paid local ads will be expected to have lots of reviews and may even be rewarded for them. Think quality score and lower bids. Those who pay for local listings without a significant number of reviews will not be viewed with the same amount of consumer trust.

It’s also rumored that Google will begin including a sort feature in the new local pack. This will allow consumers to rank the listings in order of ratings. A huge advantage to those practices that have worked hard to collect reviews.

2. Curated Lists

The other big move is the shift to curated lists. For example, search “restaurants Washington, D.C.” and you won’t find specific restaurant websites. You’ll find lots of curated lists of D.C.’s top restaurants. Yelp has a listing of their top spots. So does Zagat and the Washingtonian and Trip Advisor. Esquire did an article on the top trendy restaurants in 2014 that also makes the first page.

Instead of opening to a page of 12 specific restaurants, Google is trying to put power back into the hands of consumers. They realize that they’ve given businesses an unfair advantage by placing them on the first page. Long-term it’s not a good play for Google. It maintains too much control and opens up a window for a competitor to exploit.

So what does this mean for your practice? First, if you want your practice specifically listed on the first page, you’ll have to…. wait for it… you know what I’m going to say… you’ll have to pay for it. It’s probably best to get used to that thought now.

Second, your strategy will shift to appear on curated lists. Consumers will click on three to five of these links. Will you be on them? Yelp’s top ten dentists in your area; healthgrades premium providers. We may even see the yellow pages all of a sudden become relevant again. Gasp!

3. Google+ Local

Google+ was launched in 2011 as Google began to realize they had missed the social media boom. But it was too little too late and G+ never really caught on. After years of forcing everyone in the plus platform (including business pages), Google announced this summer that they were ending the service. It’s rumored to be breaking up into Google Photos and Google Stream with business listings becoming Google My Business.

While the future of what Google My Business will look like is uncertain, we do know that the changes are just getting started. As Google pivots their platforms to take advantage of mobile advertising dollars, business pages will likely be the most effected. I predict more functionality and control as your business page becomes a virtual store front.

These moves by Google have lots of long-term benefit and will force us to rethink our SEO strategy. The really interesting question is what happens to all those SEO companies who charge an arm and a leg to “keep us at the top?” We never really understood what they did or whether or not it was necessary. Those days are over. Every SEO company is going to have to do a major pivot or risk going out of business. In the end, it’s a great move for the entire industry.

The one thing we know for sure is that search will always change. Those who understand it and play the game quicker ALWAYS profit it from it faster.

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