Posted on 7th January.
By in Online Marketing, Search

A few weeks back on the SEOMoz blog, Dr. Pete posed the question – What happened on December 13th? On this day, the SEOMoz built tool Mozcast that monitors volatility and flux in the Google SERPs, registered its highest ever temperature of 102 degrees. In a nutshell that means that there was a lot of movement in the Google results.

But as far as I can see, no-one seems to have come up with a definitive explanation of what happened on this day and Google seem to be denying anything happened at all and that it was all a figment of our collective imaginations. After undertaking some of my own analysis I have my own hunch about what happened and who was affected, so this post aims to dig a little deeper into these fluxes and unravel the mystery a little more.

Everyone agrees but Google: So Mozcast is pretty confident a lot changed in the SERPs on that day and it seems that other similar SERP volatility tools agree. SerpMetrics flux monitor and both show peaks on this day, although perhaps not as pronounced as the MOZcast peak. So regardless of what Google say, I and many others in the industry are certain that something happened and that something had a pretty big impact.

SERPMetrics Flux Chart
SERPMetrics Flux Chart flux chart flux chart


Google Helping out the Little Guy? I spent my Christmas break visiting family. While I live and work in Chester in the North West of the UK, I grew up in a small market town in Wiltshire nearly 200 miles to the South and it is here that my family still live. So when I sat down over the Christmas break to look into this a little deeper, I was in a completely different location to the one I usually perform most of my searches from. After Googling a few things, I started to notice that the results looked ‘not how I expected them to look’. I know it seems quite a vague this to say, but there seemed to be a number of big websites missing from the results and there seemed to be lots of smaller local business websites ranking very prominently. And when I say these sites were ranking prominently, I don’t mean in the 7 pack of map results, I mean in the genuine-and-glorious-coveted-10-per-page-organic results. After years of complaints from many in the SEO world that Google favours big brands, was this a shift to redress the balance somewhat and help out the little guy?

Let’s Dig Deeper So thinking about this prominence of local small businesses, I started to look at the sort of queries that might imply local intent. We already know that Google has the ability to work out if a search has local intent because they filed this patent back in 2010 that was granted in June 2012.

Take the query ‘Wedding Photographer’. There are no doubt thousands upon thousands of wedding photographers distributed across the country, most of whom will have put together a small 2 or 3 page website containing their contact details and examples of their work. This is the sort of site that would never rank anywhere in the organic results for a query like “Wedding Photographer” were it not for Google applying local bias to searches (something that they have been doing by default for a long time incidentally). By fiddling about with the location settings in Google we can see approximately how the top 10 differs for this query in different parts of the country:

Note – all searches were performed on Jan 4th 2013 in Google Chrome’s Incognito mode, in a fresh browser each time.

Wedding Photographer – Location Set as Bristol

1. 2. 3.

Seven Pack:

4. 5. 6. 7.

Wedding Photographer – Location Set as Leeds

1. 2. 3.

Seven pack:

4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

Wedding Photographer – Location Set as Glasgow

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Note: no seven pack was present on these results

So from these results, there are 4 ever presents, maintaining the same ranking in each set of results:

1. 2. 3. 6.

The rest seem to be small one-man-band type Websites. As an unmarried man this is probably the first time I’ve Googled “Wedding photographer” and as I’m not a polygamist it’s certainly the first time I’ve searched for this query from multiple locations across the country. Have these sites always been here and I’ve just not looked for them or is this a more recent development? Let’s look at some of the smaller sites that are ranking page one in each local set of results and examine their visibility over time using SearchMetrics.

For anyone unfamiliar with SearchMetrics, it’s a great tool that monitors the rankings for millions of keywords each week across a variety of different niches. Wherever it finds a certain domain ranking for a certain keyword, SearchMetrics assign that domain a visibility score, based on the search volume for that keyword and the ranking of that domain. It does this for every domain it finds across the millions of keywords it checks – therefore you can quickly and easily see how a domains visibility has been impacted by an algorithm update or penalty, or of course as a result of changes in the various SEO elements such as site architecture, accessibility, backlink profile etc. – ranking 4th in a localised search from Bristol – ranking 4th in localised results in Leeds: – ranking 5th in localised results in Glasgow:



So all seem to have seen a dramatic increase in visibility in the last month of 2012. But thinking about how SearchMetrics works, it doesn’t check the rankings for each keyword multiple times from a variety of locations. It checks the rankings for each keyword once per week from a non-personalised static location. So how are these changes in local visibility showing up in SearchMetrics graphs?

The answer is a two part answer. The first part is that SearchMetrics doesn’t stop at the first 10 results. It checks all the way down the 50th result. It also stores the results each week so we can go back in time and see how each site has moved around. So let’s look at and see where they were ranking at the beginning of November when there visibility was 0.

1st November 2012 – Query “Wedding Photographer” – ranking – not in top 50

Compare this with the results from 20th December:

20th December 2012 – Query “Wedding Photographer” – ranking – 29th

Due to the search volume of the keyword, this modest ranking would be enough to register on SearchMetrics visibility chart. But notice the movement of the other sites around them for this query:



The arrow on the right depicts how the ranking has changed from the previous weeks data (up or down) and the number indicates how far it has moved. Those are some big ranking changes! And the snippet of the title tag below each listing shows small photographers from a variety of locations. (click to enlarge image).

The second part of the answer is that SearchMetrics also monitors rankings for a variety of location specific queries, provided they have a sufficient search volume. So for example “Wedding photographer Bristol”. Let’s see how have fared in the rankings for this keyword.

Again, looking first at the 1st November when their visibility was 0:

1st November 2012 – Query “Wedding Photographer Bristol” – ranking – not in top 50 and comparing to the 20th:

20th December 2012 – Query “Wedding Photographer Bristol” – ranking – 5th Quite a dramatic increase.

A similar impact can be seen in other industries with local intent too. Without pulling the full analysis above, take a look at the visibility change for these sites that rank for plumbing related queries:

What Next?

Clearly something happened in Mid December and it seemed to have a big impact. I personally believe that the change impacted searches with local intent and levelled the playing field for the little guy somewhat by increasing the chance that smaller localised sites may rank for these queries – although I currently don’t have enough evidence of this to say for certain. While this post doesn’t fully answer the question of what the change was and what it impacted, hopefully it will stimulate further thoughts from the SEO community – so please let’s start the discussion in the comments below – does this spark any thoughts? does this correlate with what you’re seeing? Have you seen similar results in other niches?