How Google Pigeon Affected Franchise Businesses

Patrick Coyne
Patrick Coyne Director of Organic & Local Search

Google has turned the world of search on its head with another algorithm update, colloquially known as Pigeon. A new algorithm update from Google isn’t actually all that rare. But occasionally, one of these updates has major ramifications on the world of Search. Pigeon, which was launched July 24 2014, falls into that category.Google Maps

One of our SEO clients has hundreds of franchises throughout the country that rely heavily on local search traffic. Pigeon, which was primarily focused on local search, had a huge impact on these businesses. Luckily, Arc Intermedia was quick to act, and devised a plan to solve our client’s bird woes. Read on to learn more.

So What the Heck is Pigeon?

Pigeon has reshuffled local search rankings.  Rank is now based on a number of different factors such as IP address of the user, the user’s proximity to the local business hoping to appear in the search results, if the business has an optimized Google My Business directory listing the number of Google reviews on that directory listing, , and many, many more.

Here’s the Big Issue for Franchise Businesses:

Each of our client’s franchises targets a set of unique geo-modified terms, featuring the town in which they’re located, as well as several nearby towns. Our client has franchises that are sometimes within less than 25 miles of one another. So we were extra careful to make sure that none of these franchises were targeting the same nearby territories.

Unfortunately, Google’s Pigeon has essentially decided for itself whether people from a neighboring town are interested in one local business over another. Despite our best SEO efforts, and being able to previously rank for some of these secondary territories within local search, Google Pigeon has reassigned these secondary territories for us.

If that Wasn’t Clear Enough, Here’s an Example:

Let’s say you run a comic book store in Metropolis. Most of your customers are from Metropolis, but you also have plenty of customers from nearby Gotham. Knowing that, you write content for your website letting prospective customers know that your store serves Metropolis and Gotham. In a pre-Pigeon world, your site might even have a chance to rank within the local search results for terms such as “comic book store gotham.” But Post-Pigeon, Google has dropped the hammer, and decided that anyone searching for “comic book store gotham” from a Gotham IP will not see your listing. Even if your Metropolis store has plenty of Gotham customers AND your store is even closer to the user than some of the stores in Gotham, Google has decided that your listing isn’t right for that user, and you will not be appearing in the local search results.

Unfortunately, local businesses are now at the mercy of Google. It’s Google’s game, and we have to play by their rules.

How are We Solving the Pigeon Issue?

Step 1: Conduct an Audit:

We first looked at a ton of data to determine which franchises were affected and identify any pattern in the ranking changes.

For each keyword (which is geo-modified to target a secondary territory), we looked at several metrics, including:

  • Rankings throughout key Google results offerings and modules
  • Distance from the spa to the secondary territory featured in the geo-modified term
  • Additional Google elements such as Google+ page reviews

Through this research, we uncovered several factors, like a ratio of distance and competitors – if there are less competitors in the area, can we have a greater distance between the location and our preferred optimized territory? And the weight of Google+ reviews – if one location is further away but has more and better reviews, will it rank better?

The data didn’t provide us with total insight into the magical and mysterious world of Google’s local rankings algorithm. But we now knew which of our franchises are affected, and had a vague understanding of what factors impacted local search results.

Step 2: Territory Reassignments

Based on the data we gathered, we then assessed which keywords needed to be replaced for certain franchises. We also were able to see which franchises now ranked for new territories that were not assigned to them. This helped us in the next step of our process: Territory reassignments.

We started moving secondary territories to other franchises based on Google’s new local search associations. Occasionally we would come across an orphaned territory that didn’t fit into any existing franchise. We came up with a strategy for these cases as well.

Step 3: New Keywords and On-Page Content

So we’ve got our new territories, which means it’s time to…redo keyword research and on-page content! Unfortunately there’s no two ways around it. If you’ve already done your foundational on-site SEO and you’ve been impacted by Pigeon, you’ll need to redo some of your keyword research and on-page content.
Additionally, if you’re a new business or you’re launching a new website, you should do some research into existing local listings to get a sense of where businesses similar to yours are ranking in local. There may be some locations that you can just never rank for now, based on Pigeon, so you shouldn’t even waste your resources.
Going back to our comic book example: Say you’re opening a store in Gotham. Will people in Metropolis be served local search results for Gotham comic book stores? Try switching your location settings in Google and see if any comic book stores in Gotham appear when you search “comic book stores metropolis.” This will give you a preliminary idea of whether it’s possible for your store to rank for Metropolis keywords, and whether you should target these keywords in your on-page content. Otherwise you may need to identify some other territories (I hear Smallville is lovely this time of year).


So yeah, it’s unfortunate that we have to bend to the will of Google. But as we pointed out to this particular franchised client, more than 90 percent of their traffic and conversions come from Google. And if we expect to continue to see traffic and conversions grow, we need to focus on the territories that Google says our franchises can rank for, rather than futilely trying to rank for other territories that Google will simply never associate.
With greater traffic comes great responsibility to adhere to Google’s Machiavellian laws. Wait, did I just paraphrase the wrong comic book universe?