Did you ever turn in a school paper full of vague ramblings, hoping your teacher wouldn’t notice that you’d failed to read the assigned book?
I admit, I once helped my little sister fulfill a required word count with analogies about “waves crashing against the rocks of adversity” when she, for some reason, overlooked reading The Communist Manifesto in high school. She got an A on her paper, but that isn’t the mark I’d give Google when there isn’t enough content to legitimately fill them local packs, Local Finders, and Maps.
The presence of irrelevant listings in response to important local queries:
Makes it unnecessarily difficult for searchers to find what they need
Makes it harder for relevant businesses to compete
Creates a false impression of bountiful local choice of resources, resulting in disappointing UX
Today, we’ll look at some original data in an attempt to quantify the extent of this problem, and explore what Google and local businesses can do about it.
What’s meant by “local filler” content and why is it such a problem?
The above screenshot captures the local pack results for a very specific search for a gastroenterologist in Angels Camp, California. In its effort to show me a pack, Google has scrambled together results that are two-thirds irrelevant to the full intent of my query, since I am not looking for either an eye care center or a pediatrician. The third result is better, even though Google had to travel about 15 miles from my specified search city to get it, because Dr. Eddi is, at least, a gastroenterologist.
It’s rather frustrating to see Google allowing the one accurate specialist to be outranked by two random local medical entities, perhaps simply because they are closer to home. It obviously won’t do to have an optometrist or children’s doctor consult with me on digestive health, and unfortunately, the situation becomes even odder when we click through to the local finder:
Of the twenty results Google has pulled together to make up the first page of the local finder, only two are actually gastroenterologists, lost in the weeds of podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, general MDs, and a few clinics with no clarity as to whether their presence in the results relates to having a digestive health specialists on staff . Zero of the listed gastroenterologists are in the town I’ve specified. The relevance ratio is quite poor for the user and shapes a daunting environment for appropriate practitioners who need to be found in all this mess.
You may have read me writing before about local SEO seeking to build the online mirror of real-world communities. That’s the ideal: ensuring that towns and cities have an excellent digital reference guide to the local resources available to them. Yet when I fact-checked with the real world (calling medical practices around this particular town), I found that there actually are no gastroenterologists in Angels Camp, even though Google’s results might make it look like there must be. What I heard from locals is that you must either take a 25 minute drive to Sonora to see a GI doctor, or head west for an hour and fifteen minutes to Modesto for appropriate care.
Google has yoked itself to AI, but the present state of search leaves it up to my human intelligence to realize that the SERPs are making empty promises, and that there are, in fact, no GI docs in Angels Camp. This is what a neighbor, primary care doctor, or local business association would tell me if I was considering moving to this community and needed to be close to specialists. But Google tells me that there are more than 23 million organic choices relevant to my requirements, and scores of local business listings that so closely match my intent, they deserve pride of place in 3-packs, Finders and Maps.
The most material end result for the Google user is that they will likely experience unnecessary fatigue wasting time on the phone calling irrelevant doctors at a moment when they are in serious need of help from an appropriate professional. As a local SEO, I’m conditioned to look at local business categories and can weed out useless content almost automatically because of this, but is the average searcher noticing the truncated “eye care cent…” on the above listing? They’re almost certainly not using a Chrome extension like GMB Spy to see all the possible listing categories since Google decided to hide them years ago.
On a more philosophical note, my concern with local SERPs made up of irrelevant filler content is that they create a false picture of local bounty. As I recently mentioned to Marie Haynes:
The work of local businesses (and local SEOs!) derives its deepest meaning from providing and promoting essential local resources. Google’s inaccurate depiction of abundance could, even if in a small way, contribute to public apathy. The truth is that the US is facing a severe shortage of doctors, and anything that doesn’t reflect this reality could, potentially, undermine public action on issues like why our country, unlike the majority of nations, doesn’t make higher education free or affordable so that young people can become the medical professionals and other essential services providers we unquestionably need to be a functional society. Public well-being depends on complete accuracy in such matters.
As a local SEO, I want a truthful depiction of how well-resourced each community really is on the map, as a component of societal thought and decision-making. We’re all coping with public health and environmental emergencies now and know in our bones how vital essential local services have become.
Just how big is the problem of local filler content?
If the SERPs were more like humans, my query for “gastroenterologist Angels Camp” would return something like a featured snippet stating, “Sorry, our index indicates there are no GI Docs in Angels Camp. You’ll need to look in Sonora or Modesto for nearest options.” It definitely wouldn’t create the present scenario of, “Bad digestive system? See an eye doctor!” that’s being implied by the current results. I wanted to learn just how big this problem has become for Google.
I looked at the local packs in 25 towns and cities across California of widely varying populations using the search phrase “gastroenterologist” and each of the localities. I noted how many of the results returned were within the city specified in my search and how many used “gastroenterologist” as their primary category. I even gave Google an advantage in this test by allowing entries that didn’t use gastroenterologist as their primary category but that did have some version of that word in their business title (making the specialty clearer to the user) to be included in Google’s wins column. Of the 150 total data points I checked, here is what I found:
42% of the content Google presented in local packs had no obvious connection to gastroenterology. It’s a shocking number, honestly. Imagine the number of wearying, irrelevant calls patients may be making seeking digestive health consultation if nearly half of the practices listed are not in this field of medicine.
A pattern I noticed in my small sample set is that larger cities had the most relevant results. Smaller towns and rural areas had much poorer relevance ratios. Meanwhile, Google is more accurate as to returning results within the query’s city, as shown by these numbers:
The trouble is, what looks like more of a win for Google here doesn’t actually chalk up as a win for searchers. In my data set, where Google was accurate in showing results from my specified city, the entities were often simply not GI doctors. There were instances in which all 3 results got the city right, but zero of the results got the specialty right. In fact, in one very bizarre case, Google showed me this:
Welders aside, it’s important to remember that our initial Angels Camp example demonstrated how the searcher, encountering a pack with filler listings in it and drilling down further into the Local Finder results for help may actually end up with even less relevance. Instead of two-out-of-three local pack entries being useless to them, they may end up with two-out-of-twenty unhelpful listings, with relevance consigned to obscurity.
And, of course, filler listings aren’t confined to medical categories. I engaged in this little survey because I’d noticed how often, in category after category, the user experience is less-than-ideal.
What should Google do to lessen the poor UX of irrelevant listings?
Remember that we’re not talking about spam here. That’s a completely different headache in Googleland. I saw no instances of spam in my data. The welder was not trying to pass himself off as a doctor. Rather, what we have here appears to be a case of Google weighting location keywords over goods/services keywords, even when it makes no sense to do so.
Google needs to develop logic that excludes extremely irrelevant listings for specific head terms to improve UX. How might this logic work?
1. Google could rely more on their own categories. Going back to our original example in which an eye care center is the #1 ranked result for “gastroenterologist angels camp”, we can use GMB Spy to check if any of the categories chosen by the business is “gastroenterologist”:
Google can, of course, see all the categories, and this lack of “gastroenterologist” among them should be a big “no” vote on showing the listing for our query.
2. Google could cross check the categories with the oft-disregarded business description:
Again, no mention of gastroenterological services there. Another “no” vote.
3. Google could run sentiment analysis on the reviews for an entity, checking to see if they contain the search phrase:
Lots of mentions of eye care here, but the body of reviews contains zero mentions of intestinal health. Another “no” vote.
4. Google could cross check the specified search phrases against all the knowledge they have from their crawls of the entity’s website:
This activity should confirm that there is no on-site reference to Dr. Haymond being anything other than an ophthalmologist . Then Google would need to make a calculation to downgrade the significance of the location (Angels Camp) based on internal logic that specifies that a user looking for a gastroenterologist in a city would prefer to see gastroenterologists a bit farther away than seeing eye doctors (or welders) nearby. So, this would be another “no” vote for inclusion as a result for our query.
5. Finally, Google could cross reference this crawl of the website against their wider crawl of the web:
This should act as a good, final confirmation that Dr. Haymond is an eye doctor rather than a gastroenterologist, even if he is in our desired city, and give us a fifth “no” vote for bringing his listing up in response to our query.
The web is vast, and so is Google’s job, but I believe the key to resolving this particular type of filler content is for Google to rely more on the knowledge they have of an entity’s vertical and less on their knowledge of its location. A diner may be willing to swap out tacos for pizza if there’s a Mexican restaurant a block away but no pizzerias in town, but in these YMYL categories, the same logic should not apply.
It’s not uncommon for Google to exclude local results from appearing at all when their existing logic tells them there isn’t a good answer. It’s tempting to say that solving the filler content problem depends on Google expanding the number of results for which they don’t show local listings. But, I don’t think this is a good solution, because the user then commonly sees irrelevant organic entries, instead of local ones. It seems to me that a better path is for Google to expand the radius of local SERPs for a greater number of queries so that a search like ours receives a map of the nearest gastroenterologists, with closer, superfluous businesses filtered out.
What should you do if a local business you’re promoting is getting lost amid filler listings?
SEO is going to be the short answer to this problem. It’s true that you can click the “send feedback” link at the bottom of the local finder, Google Maps or an organic SERP, and fill out form like this, with a screenshot:
However, my lone report of dissatisfaction with SERP quality is unlikely to get Google to change the results. Perhaps if they received multiple reports…
More practically-speaking, if a business you’re promoting is getting lost amid irrelevant listings, search engine optimization will be your strongest tool for convincing Google that you are, in fact, the better answer. In our study, we realized that there are, in fact, no GI docs in Angels Camp, and that the nearest one is about fifteen miles away. If you were in charge of marketing this particular specialist, you could consider:
1. Gaining a foothold in nearby towns and cities
Recommend that the doctor develop real-world relationships with neighboring towns from which he would like to receive more clients. Perhaps, for example, he has hospital privileges, or participates in clinics or seminars in these other locales.
2. Writing about locality relationships
Publish content on the website highlighting these relationships and activities to begin associating the client’s name with a wider radius of localities.
3. Expanding the linktation radius
Seek relevant links and unstructured citations from the neighboring cities and towns, on the basis of these relationships and participation in a variety of community activities.
4. Customizing review requests based on customers’ addresses
If you know your customers well, consider wording review requests to prompt them to mention why it’s worth it to them to travel from X location for goods/services (nota bene: medical professionals, of course, need to be highly conversant with HIPPA compliance when it comes to online reputation management).
5. Filling out your listings to the max
Definitely do give Google and other local business listing platforms the maximum amount of information about the business you’re marketing (Moz Local can help!) . Fill out all the fields and give a try to functions like Google Posts, product listings, and Q&A.
6. Sowing your seeds beyond the walled garden
Pursue an active social media, video, industry, local news, print, radio, and television presence to the extent that your time and budget allows. Google’s walled garden, as defined by my friend, Dr. Pete, is not the only place to build your brand. And, if my other pal, Cyrus Shepard, is right, anti-trust litigation could even bring us to a day when Google’s own ramparts become less impermeable. In the meantime, work at being found beyond Google while you continue to grapple with visibility within their environment.
It’s one thing for a student to fudge a book report, but squeaking by can become a negative lifelong habit if it isn’t caught early. I’m sure any Google staffer taking the time to actually read through the local packs in my survey would agree that they don’t rate an A+.
I’ve been in local SEO long enough to remember when Google first created their local index with filler content pulled together from other sources, without business owners having any idea they were even being represented online, and these early study habits seem to have stuck with the company when it comes to internal decision making that ends up having huge real-world impacts. The recent title tag tweak that is rewriting erroneous titles for vaccine landing pages is a concerning example of this lack of foresight and meticulousness.
If I could create a syllabus for Google’s local department, it would begin with separating out categories of the greatest significance to human health and safety and putting them through a rigorous, permanent manual review process to ensure that results are as accurate as possible, and as free from spam, scams, and useless filler content as the reviewers can make them. Google has basically got all of the money and talent in the world to put towards quality, and ethics would suggest they are obliged to make the investment.
Society deserves accurate search results delivered by studious providers, and rural and urban areas are worthy of equal quality commitments and a more nuanced approach than one-size-fits all. Too often, in Local, Google is flunking for want of respecting real-world realities. Let’s hope they start applying themselves to the fullest of their potential.
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