Earlier this month, Linda Buquet of Catalyst eMarketing made an interesting discovery with regard to some testing Google is doing with its local search results.  While these tests currently appear to be in only the experimental stage, as you will see, if these changes go “google-wide” they may have a significant impact in your law firm’s search visibility.

Here is a screenshot of what Linda found:

Google New Serps

And these local results tests are not limited to dentists.  Here is a result for a local optometrist search:

Local Optometrist Results

Here are some of Linda’s observations:

1)    The Places listings are BIGGER and look like the organic results except they have a map pin.
2)    As you scroll down the MAP scrolls with you. So even when you are at bottom of page in the organic listings the map moves down and shows on right.
3)    ONLY 7 (purely) organic listings show and in this instance most are directories or assn. Only 2 are Dentists.
4)    To get on the top TWO screens you need to be in local. Most of the organic are 2 screens BELOW the fold.
5)    Reviews are more prominent
6)    Link to Place Page is marked as such, instead of just “More Info” which means better branding and name recognition for Google Places
7) It’s pulling meta description from the site – just like organic.
PLUS it adds some snippets from reviews on the Place page. So best of both worlds and BIGGER!

What Impact Could This Have On Your Firm’s Search Visibility?

The Places listings are BIGGER and look like the organic results except they have a map pin.

Probably the most significant change in the test is that the local listings are receiving much more substantial serp real estate.  Not only are they much larger, they have significantly pushed the organic results lower on the page.

Law firms that enjoy significant traffic from their number one organic listing, my find themselves missing out on significant traffic from localized searches.

This puts a much higher premium on increasing your firm’s visibility in the local listings.  This change may also cause many law firm seo consultants to tweak their keyword strategy.  Targeting localized keywords in organic search campaigns will certainly not provide as much value if the number one organic listing is pushed well-below the fold.

As you scroll down the MAP scrolls with you. So even when you are at bottom of page in the organic listings the map moves down and shows on right.

This is another change that will influence searchers to click map results.  Even when users are trolling the organic listings near the bottom of the page, map results will still appear.  This will also have a significant impact on law firm positions within the Adwords sponsored listings.

ONLY 7 (purely) organic listings show and in this instance most are directories or assn. Only 2 are Dentists.

By listing only seven pure organic listings, the competition for first page organic position has been significantly increased.  However, organic positions 7-10 probably were not enjoying much traffic from those positions anyway.  This is especially true for local searches.

To get on the top TWO screens you need to be in local. Most of the organic are 2 screens BELOW the fold.

Not to sound like a broken record, but clearly local results will become the primary traffic drivers.  Once again, this will greatly increase the need for paying attention to best practices for increasing your visibility in Google Places.

Reviews are more prominent

While online reviews and testimonials have long been essential for increased web visibility and conversion, this change would make reviews even more vital.  While positive colleague and client reviews may help you increase visitors and potential client engagement, negative reviews could significantly hurt the value of high local visibility.  For example, a law firm in the first local position with a negative review, could lose significant opportunities to lower firms with positive reviews.

This increased prominence for reviews and testimonials is likely to spark significant ethics debates.  Less scrupulous legal professionals may be enticed to hire web marketers to generate fabricated reviews and testimonials.  If proven, this could lead to severe bar sanctions.  In fact, even legitimate reviews and testimonials, if solicited, could have consequences under certain state bar ethics rules.  No matter what marketing you are doing online, it is essential to be familiar with your state’s rules.

Finally, this increased prominence for reviews makes online reputation management all the more necessary.

It’s pulling meta description from the site – just like organic.  PLUS it adds some snippets from reviews on the Place page. So best of both worlds and BIGGER!

As anyone who has experience with organic search marketing knows, meta descriptions and snippets make all the difference in whether your organic listing is clicked or scrolled over.  This is another change that makes optimizing these components of your law firm website that much more important.  By including language regarding specialization, certification, and other positioning language within meta descriptions and snippets, you can significantly increase your click-throughs from these listings.

As commented by Andrew Shotland of Local SEO Guide

“If this UI goes wide there are going to be a lot of unhappy directories. Ouch.”

Check out Andrew’s Dead Fingers Walking? and Chris Silver Smith’s Google Local Search Experiment Will Give IYPs & SMBs Heartburn

This will be no truer than in legal where directories have been raking in visitors from their superior position in local searches.  It will be very interesting to see what the actual impact will be on the directory traffic of sites such as Findlaw, Lawyers.com, and Avvo.

In addition to the major organic implications, these changes will also have a major impact on paid search listings.  While it appears that the top 3 paid spots will retain prime position (which makes sense as these are keeping the lights on at Google), lower paid search positions are being pushed further down.

So, what do YOU think?  Have you seen these test changes in your area?  Are you paying more attention to your local listings across the web?