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The Vicinity Update: What You Need to Know About Google’s Largest Local Algorithm Update in 5 Years

On December 8th, one of our forum users asked about some serious differences they were seeing in the local pack results.  The thread quickly started getting a lot of replies from users that were noticing similar patterns.  Earlier today, Google confirmed that this was an algorithm update that began November 30.

We started seeing significant changes around December 6th.  I spent a few hours poring over before and after screenshots of the SERPs and analyzing ranking for not just our clients, but also their competitors. I would say that this is the biggest change I have seen to the local SERPs since the Hawk update in 2017.  Although the core updates do impact the local results, they rarely have the type of impact I’m going to highlight below. There was a big update in 2019 that later turned out to be a bug (and reversed itself) so there really hasn’t been anything this dramatic in the local search world for quite some time.

What Was the Vicinity Update All About?

“Vicinity” is defined as the area near or surrounding a particular place.  This update, in my findings, was mainly about proximity.  The Possum update in 2016 really increased the proximity factor but over the last 5 years we have seen more and more businesses in competitive markets be able to avoid the proximity factor and rank very far away from their office.  That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.

I believe that this was an update that impacted proximity, making it weight heavier. It may have also devalued the impact of keywords in the business name.  I’m seeing uniformly that map packs have shrunk, are way more zoomed in, and are displaying a wider variety of businesses, many of which were invisible before. 

This update corresponds with Google changing the layout of the map pack.  Mike Blumenthal shared on Last Week in Local that Google’s new map is square instead of rectangular and the shrinking of the map size could have made it so that the viewpoint Google is looking at for that area could have changed.

Businesses that previously completely dominated the entire market are almost all seeing huge declines in how many SERPs they show up in.  Specifically, businesses with keyword-rich names that dominated an entire market, that never should have, are seeing huge drops. This is also having a nice impact for businesses that were combatting spam

This is a good example that shows the difference this is making for businesses with keyword-rich business names:



Showing the Impact in Numbers:

I looked at several personal injury lawyer terms in one of the largest US cities.  We were tracking several keywords on a grid using Places Scout.  Looking at before the update (October) and comparing it to what is displaying currently, there were a lot of law firms that lost a ton of rankings.

This is the amount of top 3 rankings these firms had across the entire city for several keywords.


      • Law firm 1 (no keywords in the business name) – went from 0 to 248.  This is a law firm that is very well known and has tons of offices. They should rank. The fact that a firm this size had zero 3-pack rankings simply because they have no keywords in their name seemed very wrong and has been corrected
      • Law firm 2 – went from 405 to 211.  This is historically the best ranking law firm in the market.  They have a really good SEO company working with them (no, it’s not us) and spend a lot of effort and money on SEO.  They don’t have any keywords in their business name.
      • Law firm 3 – went from 220 to 26.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 4 – went from 205 to 24.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 5 – went from 192 to 103.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 6 – went from 169 to 22.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 7 – went from 136 to 79.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 8 – went from 1 to 132. They have no keywords in the business name.
      • Law firm 9 – went from 63 to 107.  They have no keywords in the business name.


This market showed that all the law firms who completely dominated before are dominating less.  Big firms that had zero presence before now have a shot because the lawyers with keyword-rich names that previously caused them to dominate the entire market no longer have that benefit.

This market also has 3 lawyers that dominated a very specific type of law.  So, for example, their entire website content, domain names, and business name was specific to that type of law. They all saw a drop in the #1 rankings they had.

#1 Rankings (Oct 25 vs Dec 8)

      • Lawyer dominating bicycle accident lawyer terms – went from 121 rankings to just 11.  He has a keyword-rich business name as well.
      • Lawyer dominating dog bite lawyer terms  – went from 113 rankings to 105.  Although this might not seem like much of a loss, he lost all his one-boxes for dog bite terms. He used to have one-boxes all over the area he was near and these switched to 3-packs.  This makes perfect sense as he is definitely not the only lawyer that does these types of cases, his entirre website and domain name just focuses on them.  He does not have “dog bite” anywhere in his business name.
      • Lawyer dominating dog bite lawyer terms  – went from 110 rankings to just 41.  This lawyer has a keyword-rich business name.

Showing the Impact Visually:

This example is a business that dominated a massive area for several terms because very few of their competitors were investing in SEO or knew how to set up a website properly.  The top of this map to the bottom is probably a two-hour drive.  This update “fixed” this scenario so that now users will be able to see a wider variety of businesses closer to them.


What are you seeing with the businesses you monitor? Feel free to comment here or chime in over at the Local Search Forum thread.  Also, a huge thanks to our VPs Colan Nielsen and Dave DiGregorio for helping come up with a name for this update.

Contact Sterling Sky Inc.

If you’re a local business that needs help with your Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) listing, review strategy, or online presence on Google and other search engines, at Sterling Sky we can help. We offer SEO auditsconsulting, or monthly local SEO services. Contact our office today for more information.

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