Possum Power: Reviewing Google’s Latest Algorithm Update
The mystery as to why some companies saw their Google My Business listings disappear has been solved– it turns out they were playing possum. At the beginning of September there was an update to Google’s local search algorithm, which the search community has since dubbed the “Possum” update. The name Possum was decided on because the algorithm update changed the local filter, making it seem like certain local listings were completely gone, when really they were just filtered out. This is arguably the largest change to Local Search since the Pigeon algorithm rolled out in July 2014.
Before we dive into the specifics of the update, it’s important to note that Possum primarily affects Google’s local search filter, and that filtering and penalties are two separate actions. When a listing is filtered, it’s not completely removed. Users can see the filtered listings by zooming in on the map in the Local Finder. Doing so brings up a higher number of results in a more specific area, thereby showing results that may have been filtered before. Google’s local filter picks the “best” and most relevant listings to show in the 3-pack and in Local Finder, so not seeing your listing doesn’t mean that your site has been penalized, it’s only hidden deeper in the results.
So what are the biggest changes brought by the Possum algorithm update?
1. Google’s Local Filter Adds Additional Parameters.
Google has a filter for Local Results, similar to its filter for organic results, that is based around factors such as the age of the listing, the company’s organic ranking and SERP placement, and the presence of suspicious duplicate listings. Previously, the 3-pack and Local Finder filtered out results that had the same phone number or a similar domain as other results. After this update, we’ve seen it filter based on two additional factors.
One is if the address of a business is the same as another listing in the same category. For example, if there are two pizza shops in the same plaza, and they have the same address info in their Google My Business profiles, the local pack will show one and filter the other because they’re the same type of business. Even businesses with different NAP information in their profile can still be filtered if they’re located in the same building; Google knows that suite numbers and different entrance addresses can still mean that two businesses are in the same building. Google is striving to show users the greatest variety of results in the relevant area, and it makes the conclusion that two companies in the same business category in the same building, are likely related.
The second addition to the local filter is based on affiliation. Google is becoming more aware of owner affiliations and business licenses. For example, if a family owns two pizza shops in the same town, but they have different store names, addresses, website domains, and employees, Google will still filter one of the listings in the local pack. This is because it knows through the official business license that the two are affiliated, and it will filter one in order to increase variety in the local pack.
2. Listings Outside of City Limits Are Being Included.
Google used to be very strict with city limits and census-designated place (CDPs). If a pediatrician’s office is located a few miles outside of the city of Boston, Google would not rank them highly for any queries like “pediatrician’s office Boston” because that office is not within the physical city limits, per Google maps. Even businesses directly over the border of some cities were often left out of city-specific queries. After the Possum update, businesses are seeing a huge jump in rankings for these queries because Google now recognizes that these offices are “close enough”. They’re likely within driving or walking distance of the user, even if they’re technically outside the official city border, which makes them convenient and relevant. Google will now recognize this and include these listings in the top local results.
3. Different Results Are Shown Based on Slight Variations in Similar Queries.
Previously, Google would show the same listings for queries such as “pediatrician in Boston” and “Boston MA pediatrician”. After the update hit, we are seeing more fluctuation in results between similar queries and keywords. For example, it’s been reported that a listing filtered for one location query appeared back in the local results when the state abbreviation was added to the query. This change tells us that every keyword counts within a long-tailed query.
4. The Physical Location of the Searcher Is More Important Than Ever.
Searching for a pizza parlor in Ohio from your office in Boston will cause very different results in the local pack compared to someone using the same query from their apartment in Cleveland. The map in the 3-pack will be more zoomed out the father away you are from the location in your query, and it will deliver results to that location lower in the results. A pizza parlor owner may find that their shop appears first in the local pack for the query “best pizza parlor in Cleveland, OH” when they’re searching in Cleveland, but see it drop to position 8 for the same query if they search from out of state.
If you’re a local business, you may continue to see fluctuations in organic traffic as Google continues to tweak things. In a post-Possum world, the addition or exclusion of a state abbreviation could make the difference of your inclusion in the local 3-pack. Local businesses and companies with multiple locations should ensure all elements of their Google My Business profiles are as up to date as possible, and continue to track relevant long-tail queries and keywords. Google continually updates its algorithms to eliminate spam from ranking, so as long as your listings are clean, relevant, and helpful to users, your company should continue to rank well.
Although they’re not the most friendly-looking of animals, the Possum fits nicely into Google’s collection of algorithms named after animals that begin with “P”. I thought Parakeet might be an apt name for the update, since it compliments Pigeon and would keep local search updates in the realm of birds, but it seems the Possum’s only true talent, playing dead, helped it win out. When the next surprise algorithm comes out, I’m going to suggest the Pygmy Planigale for extra “P” power. For more info on other algorithm updates, check out our previous post on Google’s “Farm”.