New Year, New Google Algorithm Update:

How the Vicinity Update Affects Your Optometry Practice

This year Google made one whopper of a New Year’s Resolution. Unfortunately for all of us, they’ve chosen to follow through with it. We’re of course talking about the most recent, somewhat quiet, update to the local search algorithm SEO aficionados are dubbing “The Vicinity Update.” In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the latest changes to local search, and how it impacts your practice’s search results.


What is the Vicinity Update?

Starting in November of 2021, Google began making adjustments to the way businesses were displayed in local search as part of their final Core Mobile-First algorithm update of the year. Businesses that had previously enjoyed a lot of position one ranks and dominated the three-pack for years suddenly found they weren’t ranking on the first page anymore. So what happened?

What the Vicinity Update Did...

As far as we can tell, the Vicinity Update did two main things. First, it shrunk the area around a business that would allow their search result to be tagged as “local” and weighted proximity more heavily against other businesses. Second, it seems to have either eliminated or diminished the use of keywords in the actual business name as an important ranking factor. In other words, now the only thing you rank for is the location listed on your Google Business Profile.

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For example, SterlingSky performed research on the search engine ranks of prominent law firms in their area before and after the update, and found that law firms that used to be located miles away from the market they were ranking in disappeared from three-pack results. Instead, a wider variety of businesses closer to the searcher’s area replaced them. 

Additionally, law firms that included their specialty in their name (i.e. “Smith & Smith Dog Bite Injury Lawyers”) vanished off of the first page and were replaced with more generic sounding firms like “Kemp, Ruge & Green Law Firm,” knocking all of the keyword-rich business names from the top spots.

The Vicinity Update and Optometry: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

So now that you know a little more about what the Vicinity Update actually did, it’s time to answer that burning question you’ve had since you first clicked on this article: How does this impact my practice.

1. The Good

A lot of SEO specialists tend to channel their best Chicken Little impressions whenever a major algorithm update comes out. This isn’t entirely unjustified (major companies losing hundreds of top ranking spots in a matter of days or weeks is nothing to sneeze at) but the sky most certainly isn’t falling. There’s always a silver lining.

In this case, the Vicinity Update has made it much harder for big companies with multiple locations to muscle in on local turf and soak up all the clicks. These companies tend to be over optimized for SEO and may even rely heavily on putting keywords in their business names to secure top spots on SERPs. On the other side of the coin, according to Moz’s Domain Diversity Forecast, this update has drastically increased the variety of businesses being served up in local search for the first time in a long time. This could indicate far more local businesses are displaying at the top of search results that normally wouldn’t have such a large share of voice. 

So if you’re an independent practice facing down your own personal Goliath in the form of a private equity-backed Superpractice, you may have just been handed a fighting chance. Of course it’s still up to you to take advantage of this opportunity. The top search ranks won’t just be handed to you. 

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You need to buckle down and work hard on maximizing your SEO to become the reigning eye care champion in your area. To get started, here are a few tips and tricks you can begin working towards today.

2. The Not So Great

This update is an absolute miracle for smaller independent practices. But for large, multi-location practices, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. 

Let’s start with the positive. According to a study by Search Engine Land, businesses with multiple locations generally saw the amount of top rankings their secondary locations held increase. These gains aren’t small potatoes either. In the businesses they examined, each saw the top rank search engine spots held by their secondary locations nearly double. So if you’re putting resources into trying to expand your practice and grow your other locations, this update will give you a nice boost. 

However, this comes at a cost. In almost all cases, Search Engine Land saw a significant decrease in held top ranking spots for the primary locations of businesses. So while you may see quicker growth in all of your satellite locations, your flagship is going to take a hit. While the decrease in the main location wasn’t as dramatic as the increase in secondary locations, all businesses analyzed in the study saw around a 20% loss in top rankings. 

Ironically, this update actually formalizes a longstanding rule by Google that one website equals one practice. Having multiple locations tied to the same practice website actually tends to invalidate all of the locations in Google’s eyes. Now with the rollout of the Vicinity Update, they’ve started enforcing this.

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3. The Bad

Now that we’ve talked about the upsides and quasi-upsides of this update, it’s time to rip the band-aid off and talk about the negatives.

As we mentioned before, keyword-heavy business names got the boot off of top rankings. While this may not have too much of an impact on general practices, specialty-focused practices may see a bit of a drop. For example, a practice with “Dry Eye Clinic” or “Myopia Specialists” may find general practices might actually outrank them if they’re situated closer to the searcher after this latest update. And while it’s still too early to tell, the severe drop in rankings of businesses with keyword-rich names may even indicate Google has started penalizing these listings. 

With this search factor eliminated, practices need to really start paying attention to what sorts of content they’re posting. The average patient isn’t searching for “myopia management” or “neuro-optometric rehab.” They’re searching for things like “fix blurry vision” and “head injury vision help.” If you’re not generating and optimizing new web content for these sorts of search queries, Google won’t know you’re a good answer to those questions. However, they do know that the general practice down the road is closer to the searcher than you are.

4. The Ugly

Now for the worst part of all.

The Vicinity Update changed the actual look and function of how local search results are displayed. This nifty video from SearchLab explains how the size and scope of the map Google is using to display local results has evolved. Before local search could turn up results for businesses from the next city over, but now the local search area has been vastly reduced. If you look at the maps provided by Search Engine Land of businesses they monitored before and after the update, in some cases the total local search area the business shows up in has been reduced by over half. At the same time, Google has cranked up “proximity” to be the chief ranking factor in who gets displayed in the local three-pack.

This is really bad news for practices that rely on pulling patients from far away. Based on the findings from Search Engine Land and SterlingSky, there’s a chance that if patients are more than an hour out from your location, they’ll never see it in organic search.


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Furthermore, it appears the negative impacts from this update will reach both metropolitan and rural practices alike. Sparsely populated rural areas may find their digital reach restricted to the immediate surroundings, making it harder to grow their current patient base, while metropolitan practices could be forced into fierce competition with other local practices over an increasingly limited patient pool.

Despite What You Think, This is Fantastic News for Your Practice

We know this article paints a very dreary picture. However, it’s not all a total loss. Solid content marketing backed with fantastic SEO practices can still help you rise to the top and stop the competition in their tracks. But it will require more time than ever before. EyeCarePro knows running a practice is busy work. Sometimes there aren’t even enough hours in the day to see all the patients you want to see, let alone work on your marketing and SEO. However, most other optometry practices are in the same boat. So if you could somehow have time to continue running your eye care practice and master your marketing, you’d be unstoppable. With EyeCarePro, you can do just that.

We’ve spent the last 18 years helping thousands of practices get ahead by making them stand out with excellent SEO and fresh content for their websites and social feeds. There’s a reason we’re the industry leaders in optometry marketing. So when Google starts tinkering with the algorithm again, don’t sweat it. EyeCarePro has your back. Let us be your secret weapon in the battle for expanding your patient base. Give us a call at 888.737.5494, or schedule a meeting with one of our optometry marketing experts today, and find out how you can save time and money while still growing your practice.