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The Google 3-Pack vs Organic Conundrum

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Google Map 3 Pack

August 7, 2018

One or the Other?  Say it ain’t so!

Since mid-2017 Google has without a doubt been aggressively pushing more “answers driven” search results. This was first seen by Google introducing the Knowledge Graph (more detailed snippets about a business, brand or product), carousels for courses, recipes, etc. as well as real answers pulled from other site’s content. As the majority of searches shift from desktop to mobile, so to do the results you experience as a user. Local search (the map-pack) has never been more important for your business to rank in. The Map 3-pack is usually the first thing people see on a mobile device search. 79% of the time, a potential customer isn’t going beyond the map-3-pack results to make their click. Ranking consistently in that top 3 is key. You can learn more about how to rank better in Google’s Map-Pack here, while learning about our affordable Local Search Marketing package, but that’s not necessarily the point of this post.

In mid-2018 we’ve started to notice a little bit of a concerning trend with how Google is ranking some businesses organically in relation to their local search (map pack) presence. A majority of businesses that are now ranking in the Map 3-pack are now seeing lower organic rankings in the organic SERP sets. This is a very new trend. While it certainly has been this way for a few outliers in the past, it was just a few months ago that many businesses who were on top of their SEO game could realistically rank in the top 3 map results as well as in the top 1-4 organic rankings. The new shift in 2018 has Google seemingly more likely to give you one or the other but not both.

3-pack ranking example
Here is another real example. a search for “Thai restaurants Virginia Beach”. The top Map Pack result is not even organically on page 1. While Maps #3 result is on page 1 they are now down from where they used to be #2. You also find businesses not in the 3-pack now outranking ones that are.

Now, only in situations where there’s an undisputed #1 in the marketplace will you see that business in both the 3-pack and #1 organically. The vast majority are now either ranking organically 1-4 and not present in the map-pack, OR they’re in the map pack and now ranking outside of the top 5 spots organically. We’ve seen sites that had been consistently in the 3-pack and ranking about #2 or #3 organically over the past couple years fall out of the 3-pack about 2 months ago while maintaining their good organic ranking – only to see them regain their 3-pack presence while simultaneously dropping down to about #6 organically overnight. Our own site experienced this for the search term Web Design Virginia Beach. It’s a message that unless you’re the undisputed powerhouse in your keyword category, you’re not going to have both. It’s as if they’re trying to create a more fair playing field by balancing things out, and who am I to necessarily say they’re wrong in doing so? But it can certainly be frustrating for any business who’s accustomed to having their cake and eating it too to having the fork pulled out of their mouth.

We’re not sure if this trend is here to stay or if Google is just experimenting with it. They themselves haven’t made any statements about it yet, but Google now has what’s referred to as a rolling algorithm now, meaning that they make little adjustments all the time “on the fly” as opposed to the 1 or 2 big updates they used to make on a yearly basis. In other words, things are constantly changing which makes it harder and harder for SEO’s to keep up in this aspect. All we can do is follow closely and continue to practice proven recipes of white-hat success and the results should pay off in the end.

So what to do? Which is better…
Ranking locally in the top 3 of the map pack… Or ranking #1 or #2 organically?

Analytical data from numerous tests we conducted pointed to the following;

• The #1 organic spot still has a TON of value. Be happy if you’re here but not in the map-pack. There’s still hope you can get in the 3-pack so continue soliciting positive reviews on Google My Business and strive to have accurate directory listings across the web.

Being in the Map 3-pack has absolute value. If you’re there, good for you. Enjoy it, but also follow the recommendations above and strive to maintain your position here.

Being #2 or lower organically is proving to have less and less value if you’re not in the Map 3-pack also. Time to panic (just a little). The good news: You’re like #2 or #3, 4 organically for your keyword on Google. That’s a solid place to be, and with a little work you can leapfrog back into #1 or #2 spot and maybe even into the 3-pack on the maps.

  •  If your approach is to get to #1 organically, look at a number of things from your social presence and activity (are you posting/engaging enough?), pages or content vs. that of your competitors, to link-building efforts, blogging, adding fresh new keyword rich content to your site, and so on and so on.
  •  If your approach is to get back into the Map 3-pack, then you should both follow the instructions above for organic success AND focus on soliciting positive reviews online, especially on your Google My Business listing, strive for accurate information across all web directories and consider giving CCM’s Local Search Marketing plan a try since it easily pays for itself month after month with its low cost and proprietary advantages.


Marc Bethel is Co-Owner of Commonwealth Creative Marketing, a full-service marketing specializing in website design in Virginia Beach, VA. Read more posts by Marc at