Takeaway from Google’s New Local 3-Pack: Go Niche, Young Man!

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Google’s dreadful new 3-pack of local results is a push toward AdWords, without a doubt.  They may also pass it off as a usability improvement, but it’s mostly classic Mountain View skullduggery.

But I think it also at least hints at what kinds of local-business results Google wants to show when money isn’t involved: a handful of results for local specialists.

The same shop that ranks for “auto repair” will be less likely to rank for “transmission repair.”

The dentist who ranks for “dentist” probably won’t also rank for “emergency dentist” or “pediatric dentist.”

The landscaper who ranks #1 for “landscaping” probably won’t also be #1 for “patios.”

And so on.

Google can show relevant results for the more-specific terms (its claim to fame as a search engine), and rake in the AdWords bucks for the broad “ego” terms that tend to create absurd bidding wars (e.g. “criminal lawyer”).

I’m not saying that’s how it is right now.  I think more-specialized, granular results are what Google is shooting for.  As Brian Barwig has pointed out, the results still suck in many cases.

The bottom line is that I’d say the best way to get anywhere in your local SEO – by which I mean ranking well and getting customers – is to position yourself online as a specialist.

That means you don’t try to rank for every term.

It may mean your homepage plays up some service(s) more than others, and you don’t cram every last stinking keyword into your title tag.  It means you don’t pick all the Google Places categories you could pick.  It means you may pursue fewer links, but only ones relevant to your niche.  Maybe you even rename your business.

You may already see things that way, in which case I’m preaching to the choir.

But if you’re not sure whether it’s worth specializing, consider these points:

  1. The quality of traffic and leads is usually better for niche terms. Sure, fewer people type them in.  But those people are more likely to know what they’re looking for, and are less likely to be tire-kickers.
  1. It’s even harder to rank in the top-3 than it is / was to rank in the top-7.

  1. It’s usually easier to rank for terms where you’ve got fewer competitors.
  1. It’s easier to rank for fewer search terms than for many.
  1. It’s easier to optimize a given page of your site to one specialty (or a couple) than to several.
  1. If you’re considering a rebrand, it’s easier to gear your name toward one specialty.
  1. If you go as far as changing your business name, you’ll probably get more clicks. That’s for obvious reasons and, as Darren Shaw has shown, it can influence your rankings.
  1. Why do you think Google lets businesses with “keywords” in their business name rank well (often unfairly)? Why hasn’t Google followed through on removing descriptors from business names – as they said they’d do over 8 months ago?  Because the name probably helps Google categorize the business.  “ABC Transmission Repair” may not rank for “auto repair,” but Google will probably show it for transmission-related terms.  That business picked its battles.
  1. You may rank in more cities, or even for statewide search terms (e.g. “Florida kitchen remodeling”). As the number of local competitors gets fewer, Google has to grab relevant results from farther away in order to fill up even a 3-pack of Google Places results.

  1. It may be quicker to rank. You don’t want your local SEO maybe to pay off only once you’ve put in the ridiculous amount of effort it can take (and then wait) to rank for “dentist” or “lawyer” or “roofer,” or whatever your goal is.
  1. You may find it easier to create better, more-focused “city pages.”
  1. It may make your SEO’s job easier to accomplish 🙂
  1. You can always branch out or broaden your targeting later.
  1. If you don’t rank well in the local 3-pack for some keywords you really want to rank for, you can always go after organic rankings and AdWords to fill in the gaps.
  1. The way things have been going, if you don’t rank well in the local pack for important keywords, you could probably just buy your way in.

Specializing may or may not make sense for your business.  But I hope you’ll at least consider it.  It may make life easier, it may make your local SEO easier, and it may get you more and better phone calls for your effort.

Do you agree?

Any reasons I missed for why you should position yourself as a specialist?

How does Google’s new 3-pack change your local SEO strategy?

Leave a comment!


  1. Hey Phil, good points. In addition to potential local search benefits, “going niche” is likely to improve your conversion rates. More customers (clients) are likely to be persuaded to contact “the specialist” over “the generalist.”

  2. Hello Phil. Great post. It seems Google has been steering everything lately towards getting the small business owner to spend more money with Adwords. I agree that since there seemed to have been no real rhyme or reason with the 7 and or 3 local pack anyway, that the focus should be more on a combo of organic and or Adwords (if you must) to try and get as many possible positions on 1st page from as many sources as you can. Thanks again for the timely info.

    • Thanks, Terence. I agree.

      Still, although I’m not a kind glass-half-full kind of guy, I think this change will give some business owners clarity they may have lacked, in terms of setting goals and recognizing success. The thinking that goes, “Well, I’m ranked #6 for my main keyword – even though I have no reviews and my website sucks – so I must be doing something right” will be less prevalent.

  3. #15 “…if you don’t rank well in the local pack for important keywords, you could probably just buy your way in.” Are you referring to Adwords or something else?

    • That point was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I was referring to Google’s test of a “sponsored” 3-pack of “Qualified” local plumbers in San Francisco. I doubt it’s an invite-only feature of AdWords at this point, but I suspect it will eventually fall under the AdWords umbrella.

  4. Google 3 pack will have devastating consequences for small businesses that cannot afford Adwords bidding wars.
    For years the internet made the playing field even, small guys could stand shoulder to shoulder with the big guys.
    Unfortunately it is becoming like all the other forms of media, deep pockets always win.

    • The move isn’t good for the average business owner – no doubt about that. But arguably the playing field has never been completely level, and rather it’s been a question of the little guys taking advantage of opportunities the big guys miss. As I’ve argued, I think the 3-pack represents one of those opportunities.

  5. As always Phil a bang on observation of the latests and not-so greatest news about local presence on the big G. Your points are bang on with solid reason to BE known as the specialist in your area. One that comes to mind that you didn’t mention is, because consumers want it! Yes, people are looking for a way to differentiate your business from others – a way to say, “I’ll try that one.” And the most obvious choice will be the one that closely matches their needs and wants. So, if I need to sure someone I’m not just looking for a lawyer, I’m looking for a trial lawyer or a litigation lawyer. And if I live in Victoria I don’t just want a trial lawyer from anywhere, I want a Victoria Trial Lawyer. It just makes sense!

    • Thanks, Mark. Excellent point: specializing does give you a crisper USP, or at least makes it a little easier to think of one. In most cases searchers won’t know your USP in the search results until they click through or read your reviews or something. But pre-click is maybe half the battle.

  6. Hi Phil,
    I totally understand what you are saying and agree with the general advice to be a specialist. However from what I’m seeing and the input I’m getting from the industry – your examples shows something that I think is a bigger factor.

    Every one of your examples has the root KW in the name. EMDs and PMDs have ruled the roost in local for a long time. In most competitive packs, the top 2 – 3 have KW in the name. So since the algo has not changed, those same EMDs and PMDs that were on top, are now in the new Local Stack (3 pack).

    • Great point, Linda. I alluded to it in points 6-8. I think Google pays too much attention to what’s in the name, but I can also see why they wouldn’t devalue it as a ranking signal.

  7. Phil, when you’re right, you are damn right! We’ve been moving toward this niche path for months now (as we discussed previously). I wish we could have made transition a little smoother and more gradually, but shit happens. To survive, one must adapt to new conditions. Your advice here is invaluable to any and all in this business.

    Still, I would encourage you and your followers to voice your concerns to Google itself via support forums, G+ communities, wherever Googlers may be hanging out. Concerns not about our business, but theirs. Irrelevant search results. A frustrating user experience. The abandonment of a platform that so many users have embraced.

    When customers get frustrated and feel abandoned by any service provider, that service provider becomes less relevant. And that’s not good for business.

    • Thanks, Jim. I agree that Google has screwed over a lot of people, especially smaller business owners. But it’s a wake-up call.

      Also, it’s possible that – like 2013’s “carousel” results – Google will eventually realize that their baby is ugly. It’s always possible they’ll bring back search results that at least seem useful and fair. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

  8. Another excellent contribution Mr Rozek. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  9. I might be missing something, but doesn’t the advice to go niche have to go hand in hand with an expectation that people on the average will search with highly inched terms? I personally can’t imagine the search traffic I see coming in to my local biz clients being sufficiently specific to bring anywhere near enough traffic to a business that has decided to take a niche tack.

    One of the reasons I am thinking this way is because of closely watching search queries that are visible in Adwords campaigns and how the queries indicate that people often can’t accurately describe what they are searching for. It’s often the case with me as well when I need some service but don’t know the lingo. I most definitely don’t know the specific terms for certain law practice specialties, so if I need a lawyer I’m going to search on lawyer plus my locality name.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that going niche seems risky because it assumes a searcher has sufficient prior knowledge of the specialties within a given service type, and / or is sufficiently adept in the local language to accurately describe whate they are searching for. I’ve found that the latter has noticeable seo and sem implications in regions with a high concentration of non-native speakers (of English, in this case).

    • I agree, Steve: there is some risk in going niche. Whether / how to do it just depends on the case, I suppose.

      But here I’d highlight point #1 again: the traffic is less, but it’s better. And as Mark wisely alluded to, a specialist is usually in a better position to convert that traffic.

  10. Great post, Phil. Thanks for linking my post as well.
    I certainly hope Local doesnt become a Pay to Play for everyone but it looks like it is heading down that dark path. Good points on having KW in the Title and Name – been seeing a good amount of that in the Insurance industry and the results are dreadful.
    Digging the Glengarry video as well 😉

    • Sure thing, Brian. You’ve done a great job of covering the 3-pack.

      I doubt “local” will become entirely pay-to-play. There, I said it. (You can laugh in my face later.) I suspect Google’s play is to see just how much pay-to-play they can get away with and not (1) get sued into the Stone Age and (2) make every consumer realize that Google’s not even trying to show the “best” results anymore.

      That was probably the most swear-free part of Glengarry Glen Ross 🙂

  11. avatar John D. Moore says:

    Hi, Phil,
    I’ve been following your blog for awhile after my brother told me about your site. I think the points you made here are great and are super helpful, I honestly think we’re heading towards a complete pay to play environment. In other words, Big G may just decide to charge rent to have a golden listing on the snack-pack. That may sound absurd but that just seems to be the way the wind is blowing.

    Quick observation: just lack week we got a big mailing from Google with Adwords coupons. Just a coincidence?

    Anyway … All any of us can do is continue to create meaningful content that’s got a local tilt. What’s that old saying – you can’t control the wind but you can adjust your sails? Ha

    Thanks for the post. At least you are trying to offer solutions.

    • Thanks, John.

      It’s anyone’s guess how far Google will push pay-to-play in the local results. I think Google will make more money if they take eggs but not flesh from the Golden Goose (i.e. users’ trust in search quality).

      Yes, I’d say the AdWords mailer was just a coincidence. They’ve been sending those for years. The one you got was the first of many.

  12. Great post Phil, I totally agree. I can imagine local going pay, though I don’t think it will. My hope is that San Francisco plumbers and locksmiths will be more troublesome that G imagined and make it not worthwhile. However, I can image G thinking this is not really a big deal. After all, before the internet how could I advertise my business for free? Nowhere. Why wouldn’t they charge to find a service?

    That is why focusing on a niche and having blog material to catch people during the research phase is so important. I may not have the deep pockets needed to compete for “Landscaper”, but if I find people earlier, when they are researching the benefits of a certain kind of landscaping? Maybe I can keep them from ever even making that search.

    • That’s an excellent point, Ben. A lot of people (like me) tend to begin by searching for EXACTLY what they’re looking for. Only if they’re disappointed in the results do they widen the net and type in something broad.

  13. Curious…. What are your thoughts on why they would remove the phone numbers that the 7 pack displayed? They don’t show the phone numbers on a SERP anymore. Bummer.

    • It’s all an AdWords push. For one thing, Google wants to condition people to have to click on one of the listings in the 3-pack to see any meaningful details. Once Google has done that, monetizing the bejeezus out of the 3-pack (via AdWords) will be easy.

  14. Dear Phil – great article indeed.

    Out of curiosity, what advice would you give to a dentist/lawyer who would like to go niche, if his services were described along with those of other dentists (each providing different services), on a same dental office web site ? By focusing on writing content on the web site where other (dental/legal) services were described you would not be providing niche signals to google would you? Should the person focus on improving his/her FB, local GMB profile? But that is like building a house of rented land, isn’t it? Best Andy

  15. Dear Phil,
    Almost every non-SEO professional I meet says this is another attempt to further Google AdWords. Interesting that the SEO industry isn’t jumping up and down, most likely because we see Google go through these changes so often and we simply adapt. Clients of SEO companies, those who are not included in the 3 Pack are going ballistic. Google users are still confused, the people I talk with think the 3 Pack is for shoppers looking for brick and mortar stores, so they ignore the listings if it isn’t something they need. Others think the 3 Pack is an extension of AdWords and really ignore it. Many see the 3 Pack as taking up way too much screen real estate and providing far too little information. Attempts to analyze Google’s true intent require a dart board and are futile.

    • Scott,

      I agree that it’s a push toward AdWords, as I mentioned in the post.

      Beyond that, the post simply is my advice for some of the many business owners who are wondering, “OK, what now?”

  16. I strongly believe consumer search behavior is headed towards niche as well. People nowadays use more descriptive search queries to get more relevant results fast. so instead of ‘pediatric dentist’ searches like “emergency kids dentist that accept medicaid” are becoming far more common. It is impossible to optimize for these kinds of low volume, specific keywords so your best bet is to re-brand your practice as a pediatric dentistry and then mention emergency dental services along with insurance plans you accept.

  17. Agree 110%. Fortunately, years ago I was just lucky enough to direct all my clients to specialize and do it myself, too. It’s so hard to rank for one category it’s absurd to “divide focus.” I tell SEO clients if you compete in two marketable categories (e.g. criminal law/injury law, computer repair/data recovery, carpet cleaning/storm damage repair) choose one! — don’t try to compete in both — period. No exceptions.

    Great blog and funny & appropriate video. Always enjoy revisiting and rereading your old blogs. Off to Whitespark next…

  18. I’ve recently been seeing “pay per lead” style results… but only in certain geographic areas. For example, “san francisco plumber” is one search query that displays an alternative to the map-pack. It’s a much smarter way for Google to monetize their local search results in my opinion.

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