Recently, Google changed their search results algorithm to feature local listings, primarily for companies in service industries. It makes sense. If you’re looking for a local service, local companies should come up first. Executed properly, it’s more useful for both the server and the business. No longer will users have to include a location keyword in their search- they can just search for the service and local results are displays.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice there are some obvious issues with what Google has unveiled.

Traditional SEO factors are weighted heavily in the local results as well, which is a good thing.  Some of the other major ranking factors include proximity to the searcher’s location, completion of the Google Places profile (owner-verified listing), and reviews on business listing sites. Sure, that might work well if you’re looking for a pizza shop. Great if you need stamps. Fantastic if you want to go bowling. But what if you need a skilled service? Isn’t that way of ranking a bit callous?

Is that how search results should be for cancer treatment centers? For doctors and surgeons? Do you want to go to the closest lawyer? Probably not. Quality is certainly a difficult thing to quantify with an algorithm.  Google tries, as they should, but they’ve got to realize they can’t fully succeed (maybe they aren’t trying hard enough if proximity to the center and including pictures in your listing are so important… but I digress).  No, I don’t expect them to be perfect, but they do need to realize the implications of that method, the problem with proximity assumptions, and account for it.  Namely, Google needs to stop penalizing professional service firms inside a much larger radius than they currently are.

Take Vega Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery, for example. Dr. Vega provides services that no other surgeons in his area provides, is well-known for providing the highest quality service in the area (and ranks high in organic searches), but since he is located in a suburb, he isn’t even listed on Google Maps! I don’t know about you, but if someone is taking a knife to my face, I’d probably drive an extra 20 minutes to have it done right.

The same could be said for many other services. Do you want your aging mother at the closest relevant facility, or do you want to find a high-quality facility even if it means driving an extra 15 minutes? Should you trust your toddler with anyone, or put him/her into the skilled and caring hands of a professional child care provider?

Those are obvious issues, but the problem exists in lesser degrees for all companies. Proximity always matters somewhat, but the degree to which it matters is highly variable.  Where are you going to get your hair cut? Buy a new sofa? Buy a new car? More than proximity matters here. Maybe free, niche directory sites like Golf RV Resorts are more reliable – giving information, reviews, and information.  Similar directories can be found for many industries, although often it’s difficult to tell the difference between real directories trying to provide useful information and those trying to make a quick buck.

So, is there any easy answer? No. Are local listings all bad? No. But expect a lot of changes in the near future. There just isn’t enough information provided in listings, and they are far from perfect. At the least, Google should start allowing larger radius searches for more skilled industries, which they can easily determine.

Author: Mike LaLonde is an online marketing specialist with Londes Creative Digital Marketing, specializing in search engine optimization and local SEO.  He has over 10 years industry experience, and has worked with a number of small businesses on design, optimization, and maximizing online profit.