By Wendy Hwang
A few weeks ago, Google released a new algorithm update affecting its Local Search results, also known as Google Places, Map Pack, and Google Maps. The algorithm was dubbed “Google Possum” by the SEO industry. Prior to the update, it had been extremely difficult for businesses located outside city center limits to appear in the Local Pack search results (found between the paid results and organic listings). This was a major pain point! It hurt local establishments that did business in major cities but were physically located just outside the perimeter. It was a frustration for many service businesses (like plumbing and home repair companies) whose physical location didn’t matter, since the services they provided were in their customers’ homes, not at their place of business. Their listing in the Local Pack would either rank significantly lower than businesses located within city limits, or worse, remain hidden and stuck in ‘ranking purgatory’ despite having fully optimized accounts and being market leaders. Owners of these hidden listings commonly thought the listings were dead, but in fact they were filtered out or “playing possum.”
What Exactly Did Possum Change?
Possum shows Google got smarter about discerning service areas. Since the roll out a number of fluctuations have been reported:
1. Geographical proximity of the business is less important – businesses with a physical address outside the city limit saw huge spikes in rankings.
2. Geographical location of the searcher is more important – The listings are hypersensitive to the searcher’s location. Simply using the keywords within the search result triggers a completely different set of listings than someone searching in the actual location. Our favorite tool to use for mirroring a search in the actual location, is BrightLocal’s Local Results Checker.
3. Enhanced filters on address and affiliation – Prior to Possum, the main weight of what is shown was based on the address entered by the business on their Google My Business account, coupled with NAP found on the website and other directories. We’ve also seen filters based on listings sharing similar domains or phone numbers, an attempt at filtering out duplicate listings. It’s suspected Google is getting their knowledge of the business from other sources – such as what can be found on a business license to identify multiple locations of same name businesses and even two different businesses, websites, and phone numbers that are owned by the same person.
This advanced knowledge should help eliminate “fake listings” where businesses have figured out how to work the system. The spammy tactic includes renting an inexpensive location, like a shared office space, with a mailing address so they can receive the verification postcard needed to create new Google Business listings.
This sophisticated filter also presumably improves the user experience for the searcher. A perfect example is if someone were looking for a general practice doctor. Often times there are listings for each practitioner from the same office/clinic which isn’t very useful for a searcher who should be offered a diverse set of clinics to choose from. These businesses might see this as a penalty, but it isn’t. Google is just filtering to give what it deems the most varied options for searchers.
4. Google Local is more independent of organic – In the past if a website was filtered or ranked lower for organic results you’d most likely see a similar rank filter correlation in local results. Possum is now showing results that disconnect the two search algorithm filter patterns.
5. Keywords matter in local SEO – It appears the Map Pack is hypersensitive to keyword variations. There are much larger variances in the search results between similar keywords than there were before. In the past, searches were shown similar results when searching “Moving Company Portland” or “Portland Moving Company” or “Portland, OR Moving Company”. Since the update, there are a lot more variations to the search results. This is particularly interesting because exact match keywords have gotten more lax for organic SEO.
What Does This Mean For Me?
Possum has definitely shaken things up, and become the biggest change to the Local Search Algorithm since Pigeon was introduced in 2014, and the tweak to the Local Pack we covered back in November of 2015. However, the principle foundations of local SEO hasn’t changed. It’s still important to optimize your Google My Business Listing and any other online sources to ensure they’re consistent and your website is optimized for local SEO.
This is fantastic news for local businesses who service large areas outside of their physical location like plumbers, heating and cooling, and moving companies.
The sophisticated filters in this update should improve the searcher’s experience, especially if they’re using Google Maps to discover new businesses now that they’ll see more diverse results. However, for businesses with multiple listings in the same city limit you might see decreased visibility, but only because Google will only show what it deems the most relevant listing to the searcher’s query.
When rank tracking, it’s imperative to make sure the searcher location is set to the right city for more accurate results.
This is a good time to review your Google listing to see if you’re optimizing all aspects necessary. Review your keywords and monitor your changes.
As with all the new creature algorithms Google introduces to us, we should expect more fluctuations as they continue to test. Happy optimizing!
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