Within the last few months, service area business (SAB) websites started to see rank fluctuations aligned with the rollout of Google’s helpful content and spam updates around late August through October.
Chatter around those fluctuations picked up in the local SEO community during this period in various forums, including the Google SEO Mastermind Facebook group.
The common theme with sites that were impacted the most seemed to be related to duplicate content, specifically location pages – in other words, doorway pages.
However, sites weren’t getting directly penalized by rank. Instead, pages were being automatically deindexed, which in turn caused ranks to drop for queries related to the corresponding location pages.
Deindexing of location pages
Schieler Mew, admin of the Google SEO Mastermind group on Facebook, posted this video explaining what he saw with over 200 SAB sites.
In the video, he explains that sites with relatively low authority or a lack of helpful content throughout the site saw a deindexing of their “duplicate content” location pages en masse.
Scheiler and I jumped on a Google Meet, where he shared some data and screenshots below of what had happened in Search Console to these sites.
The first thing that was noticed was a large shift in the middle of September regarding indexed pages. This seems to line right up with the completion of the helpful content rollout.
Digging into it, the next screenshot is all the pages that were deindexed seemingly overnight.
Finally, the report on the timeline of the affected pages.
The mass deindexing of pages that heavily contributed to geographic ranking vanished, taking the rankings with it.
This seemed to be the case for numerous other pages, although there were a few outliers.
Websites with seemingly higher authority or location pages that used unique content weren’t deindexed.
This leads me to believe that the helpful content and spam update algorithm seem somewhat unfinished. In this case, it tackled the easiest target – duplicate content location pages on sites with low authority.
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How the helpful content and spam updates contributed
Most SEOs were under the assumption that these updates were targeting AI-generated content. (Recall that in an office-hours hangout in April, John Mueller referred to it as “spam” and made it clear it was against Google’s policies.)
On November 7, Danny Sullivan squashed this in a tweet, stating:
- “We haven’t said AI content is bad. We’ve said, pretty clearly, content written primarily for search engines rather than humans is the issue.”
This is when I started putting two and two together.
SAB sites are dropping in rank right around the rollout of both the helpful content and spam updates, and we know it’s primarily targeting pages that have content written for search engines rather than humans.
What kind of pages would a local SAB have that almost every SEO in the industry creates?
Understanding doorway pages
A doorway page is essentially what Danny Sullivan was talking about in the above tweet. It’s a page written to rank for a specific keyword but provides little to no value to a user.
An example of doorway pages in the local SEO industry is location pages. In other words, a page that exists for the sole purpose of ranking [city #1] + [service A] multiplied by the number of cities and/or services the business is trying to rank for.
These can be created faster if the content is duplicated and only the keywords are swapped out. Additionally, you can write custom content for each page, but it’s still a doorway page.
SEOs in this sector hate to admit it, but location pages are doorway pages. Mueller confirmed this in February.
Doorway pages have always been against Google’s policies, but there had never seemed to be a way to suppress these algorithmically.
The only punishment seemed to be manual actions, and until this year, SABs seem to have been put on the Google backburner – so no one really ever saw any consequences for doing this.
Recent Google updates to local SEO
In the last few months, waves have been made within the local SEO community, not just with doorway pages, including:
For the most part, Google has addressed a few of these issues, such as the suspended business profiles and reviews hovering in purgatory – usually giving credit to “bugs.”
At some point, SEOs have to ask themselves why suddenly there are so many bugs in a specific sector.
Aside from the bugs with GBP profiles, Google has also made some obvious and strict changes to how profiles are now verified.
This, mixed with business profiles suddenly being suspended over minor issues, started to raise flags that Google was finally tackling the SEO spam in the SAB community.
Fast forward to September this year, SEOs in communities and forums started to see declining rankings for location-dependant keywords and pages.
All of this being said, it looks like Google is seriously cracking down on local businesses that are violating their spam policies.
Can location pages still work?
The short answer is, “yes”, but it’s only a matter of time before location pages fade into archaic SEO practices like hidden text or meta keyword stuffing.
Google deindexing duplicate content location pages is just the first step in the conquest to punish sites for using doorway pages that don’t benefit humans.
It’s unclear whether or not Google will institute rank penalties for doorway pages in the future or continue to not index the pages.
My theory is that this is a temporary fix. Location pages are something local SEOs should be leaving in the past.
At the end of the day, Google wants content to exist to provide a positive user experience, not to influence rank.
As a consumer, I’ve never found a location page to benefit my user experience. This is how we should think when creating pages and content.
First, think about how it can help the user and then how it can be optimized to help your rank – in that order.
Alternative optimization options to rank in nearby cities
Suggesting that location pages may be coming to an end isn’t cause for local SEOs to throw their hands up on optimizing for neighboring cities and areas.
There are alternative things we can do that put the purpose of the content back in the direction of helping humans first.
Target your primary service area in your H1s and page titles
Chances are you or your client have a number one area they want to target.
Make sure this city is mentioned in your H1s and page titles. This will make it clear to Google from a content standpoint where your primary area of service is.
Make sure to have a general service area page
Make sure to have a general page that tells users where you or your client serves.
List out all counties, cities, or neighborhoods and include a map that visualizes that service area.
Create project pages
This is my favorite. If you or your client have project-oriented work like landscaping, roof repair, construction, etc; create pages for specific projects that were completed.
Treat it similarly to a blog or gallery. Add before and after pictures, explaining the job or project details.
Mention what city it was located in, how much it cost, some challenges, etc.
This method will not only show potential customers what your company is capable of and the type of work you do, but it’s also a great way to rank your service and the city where it was performed.
An example of a project page for a landscaper could be titled “Modern Highland Stone Retaining Wall in Minnetonka, MN.”
Local newspaper press releases
Reach out to local newspapers in the surrounding areas and issue a press release.
Brag about your company regarding a past or upcoming charitable contribution or discount you give. Newspaper and local publishing sites typically link back to your website.
Join multiple local Chambers of Commerce
These typically have an annual fee associated with each one you join, but each city you or your client is targeting has one.
If it’s in your budget, join them for the location-relevant links and geographic authority.
Where do we go from here?
Google’s enforcement of service area businesses is long overdue, but it seems like the action is now being taken.
Some location pages still work as long as the site has high authority and good overall content. It’s duplicate content location pages that are getting deindexed.
Overall, SABs are now under Google’s magnifying glass. If SEOs aren’t getting hit with penalties yet, I would put money on it being something that will be happening in the very near future.
It’s important to remember that Google is always evolving. Even though something like unique content may still work for location pages, I bet that Google will tackle this next.
Google’s SpamBrain AI is updated every now and then. This time, it may be evolving to target easily distinguishable doorway pages.
It’s only a matter of time before it understands a location page as a standalone doorway page with unique content.
As SEOs, we must review our local business sites, stick to the core principles of local search, and do some housekeeping per Google’s policies – before their algorithm team pays us a visit.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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