Google rose to prominence at the turn of the century and justifiably became the number one search engine of choice for many users. Apart from its innovative clean search page (a godsend in the days of dial up) it was also uncannily accurate. So much so that almost overnight it developed a reputation for being the search engine to go to if you wanted to get a relevant result to the query you had.
In the days before webspam the algorithm was as near to perfect as you could get; it took the view that the more people linked to a page of content the more likely it was that the page was useful. A simple concept but one soon subsumed by a wave of links and the arrival of link farms and other dubious practices. And so the never ending battle began with Google trying to ensure that its algorithm still brought back relevant results and spammers trying desperately to find ways round this to ensure that the sites they wanted to see top of the rankings stayed there.
Fast forward to today and the battle continues but now with over 200 different ranking signals Google has got a lot better at sorting the wheat from the chaff; or has it?
Just last week in conversation with one of my friends they bemoaned the loss of the old paper directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson arguing that for all their faults, they still had a place and in some respects did a better job than Google.
Take for example a simple search for a builder in your local area. In the past you would open a directory and find a complete listing of all the builders, either with line entries or a paid advertisement and they would be displayed over a number of pages, organised alphabetically and fairly easy to navigate. Granted there were bigger and smaller advertisements and sure people tried to jump to the first page by inserting A1 in front of their company name but on the whole you knew where you stood. More importantly in a local market you could find a local builder with very little fuss.
Try doing that today with Google and you are entering a different world completely. Today for example a search for 'Builder in Runcorn' has brought back the following in the top 10 results;
10. Runcornandwidnesweekly news.co.uk
Of the ten available slots there are only two local building firms showing with the other available slots taken by aggregators. Now this isn't a dig at aggregators, some of them do a fine job however currently they appear to be inserting themselves between the seller and the buyer and in the majority of cases adding no real value. Each of these websites have clearly and deliberately been optimised to appear on Google and are achieving that goal of appearing in a local search. The aim of course is to grab a slice of that local search market and to establish themselves as the place to go when you are looking for a local service, much as the local newspaper or the local directory did in the past. But this approach misses the point in that end users, that is you and me, don't need an aggregator these days to find what we want; we've got used to Google doing it for us.
So when we type in 'builder in Runcorn' what we want to see is a list of the local builders in Runcorn, not a list of sites that contain lists of builders in Runcorn. It adds time and unnecessary complexity to the purchase journey and frankly gets in the way.
Of course some would argue that Google Places helps in this respect as it shows the local builders on a map, but once again this is flawed as the current listing I can see has just two out of eight entries which are local builders. Even page two of the search results is no use as again it has eight out of ten entries belonging to aggregators. So where exactly are all the local builders?
In many cases they simply haven't bothered with a website or if they have then it's something thrown up for them on the cheap by a friend who knows someone down the pub and it most certainly isn't optimised. It has not thought about end user experience, usability or engagement. It isn't linked to any social media and certainly doesn't have a regularly updated blog. These people simply don't have the time, resources or desire to do the things that Google might expect of a site owner and as a consequence they don't get listed.
The problem therefore and ultimately the point at which Google search comes undone is that it can only search what's available and the algorithm that carefully examines over 200 different ranking signals simply can't cope with local search. It can't cope with tradespeople who haven't the time or inclination to follow Google's rules. It can't cope with the tens of thousands of local businesses who have limited resources to spend on a website and it can't cope with people who just want a list of local builders when they need a job doing.
In that respect perhaps the old directories with their 'free line entries' did have a place and despite the recent woes for Yell (or hibu as we're now supposed to call it) and Thomson maybe there still is a place for them?