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Does Google Trust Yelp More Than Merchant Circle Now?

If you’ve owned a local business or have been providing Local SEO services to clients for half a decade or more, I’m sure you can recall a time, not long ago, when Merchant Circle had a dominant presence in Google’s first page results for local-type queries.
Back in 2009, when Mike Blumenthal penned this post about Merchant Circle buying up thousands of local domains, his wry tone reflected a general sense of wonderment in the Local SEO community over various tactics employed by the then-prominent local business index giant. Back then, you couldn’t seek a local pizza, dentist or landscaper without Google displaying you a handful of Merchant Circle-based profiles. Wish I could dig up a screenshot, but I’m betting you remember this without a visual prompt.
Doubtless owing of their high visibility in Google’s SERPs, Merchant Circle predictably drew a high level of scrutiny from the local business community and made a number of headlines, which as I recall, culminated in 2010 in a $900,000 settlement for ‘unlawful marketing practices’.
Since that time, even as engaged as I am in Local SEO, I must confess that Merchant Circle has pretty much fallen off of my radar. Yes, they are still a citation source worth knowing about, but it recently dawned on me that it had been a long time since I saw them coming up on the first page of Google for any type of local search I’d done in the course of daily work or daily life. While Wikipedia is still a favorite Google response to organic queries, it appears to me that Merchant Circle isn’t feeling Google’s love in Local any more, and hasn’t for some time, and that their plum placement has been usurped, by, you guessed it:

google loves yelp

From all that I’ve seen, Yelp is Google’s new Merchant Circle du jour. And it’s not just for looking up ‘pizza’. Searches for laywers, dentists, florists and car dealerships are all returning me Yelp results above Google’s own packs of local businesses. Indeed, given the top 2-3 organic placement of Yelp results for so many core local industries, you’d almost think Google trusts Yelp’s data more than they trust their own.
When did this changing of the guard occur? Can you pinpoint a date, a deal or an update that moved Merchant Circle off the front page for so many powerful queries? And how would you compare Google’s one-time go-to-index to their new one – Yelp? It’s interesting to me that Yelp and Merchant Circle have faced similar ‘reputation management’ issues over the years. Why would Google trust Yelp more than Merchant Circle? Is it simply a popularity contest? In other parts of the country, where Yelp isn’t quite as well-known as here in California, are you still seeing lots of Merchant Circle entries on Google’s Page 1? Do you see a pattern?
I’d be really interested to know. It’s been a long, long time (I’d say 3 years) since I’ve written or talked to anyone about old Merchant Circle. If you’ve got some thoughts to share, I hope you will!