What you need to know about the Google Possum algorithm update
Jana Haecherl |October 10, 2016 |9 min read
When you think “Google” and “possum” you might think of something like this:
Or, if you’re a grammar geek like me, you might just twitch a little at the spelling. But that’s neither here nor there.
Possum is the nickname of Google’s latest algorithm update. If you’re staring at the screen blankly right now, let me break that down for you:
Google’s algorithm is the basis behind what shows up in Google search results. The algorithm crawls the web looking for indicators (such as traffic, fresh content, working links, matching information, and much, much more) that it uses to determine whether or not your website is useful to Googlers. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of wooing the almighty algorithm so that your business shows up in the top search results, which ultimately brings you more customers.
Because Google is always updating their algorithm, SEO trends are constantly changing and evolving along with it. Here’s the lowdown on the most recent Google update and how it will affect your SEO strategy:
So where did Googlers get the nickname ‘Possum’ for this new algorithm update? Previous updates to the Google algorithm have usually had animal names that start with “P” (except for the odd one out: the Hummingbird update in 2013) - Panda in 2011, Penguin in 2012, and Pigeon in 2014.
Googlers chose ‘Possum’ as the nickname for the new algorithm update because business listings that have the same addresses (such as listings for dentists who all work at the same dental office) will be filtered out of top Google search results to prevent duplicates. Business owners might think their listing is gone, when really it has just been filtered - it’s “playing possum” in Google search results.
Here’s all the stuff that is new since Google Possum went into effect:
There is a bigger emphasis on a user’s physical location.
“Near me” searches doubled from 2014 to 2015, so Google started customizing search results based on the location of the searcher. Thus, a person searching for “self storage in Kansas City” from their phone in Kansas City may see slightly different results than a person searching for “self storage in Kansas City” from their phone in St. Louis.
Below shows the 3-pack results for “self storage in Kansas City” - the first conducted from a Kansas City zip code, the second conducted from a St. Louis zip code.
- Kansas City
- St. Louis
If you want to check your local search results and ranking from different zip codes, conduct a search using a tool that lets you customize your location like this one from Bright Local.
Variations in keywords have a more significant effect on results.
We are seeing more ranking fluctuation in the 3-pack for searches using slightly different keywords with the new Possum update. To see this in action, check out these screenshots of the 3-pack results when I used slightly different search terms: the first for “St. Louis Self Storage”, the second for “Self Storage St. Louis” and the last for “Self Storage in St. Louis, MO.”
- St. Louis Self Storage
- Self Storage St. Louis
- Self Storage in St. Louis MO
When a searcher changes their keywords and searches again, Google changes its search results slightly to cater them to the new search. The more a searcher changes their keywords, the more variation in the search results.
The takeaway for your business: follow SEO best practices and your business will still consistently be in the top results.
Google is now filtering based on address and affiliation.
Businesses that share the same addresses and business affiliation are being filtered out of local search to prevent duplicates.
Before the Possum update: Peggy is looking for a dentist in Fargo, North Dakota. She conducts a Google search for “dentists near me.” The top five local listings for dentists are all at the same address, Big Smiles Dental. Big Smiles Dental is a large dental office in Fargo. They have a website for their dental practice, but they also have separate listings for each dentist that works there. Because of this, Big Smiles Dental appears multiple times (once for each dentist) in Peggy’s local search results.
After the Possum update: Peggy conducts the same Google search, but this time she gets more variety in her local results. The top five local listings show a variety of dental practices - no more duplicate listings for Big Smiles Dental. Listings with the same address and business affiliation are filtered out, so just one listing shows per address.
The overall goal of this is to reduce the number of duplicates in local search results, making more room for other companies to show up in local search rankings. Because of the nature of the self storage industry, this shouldn’t have a significant effect on the ranking of your self storage business.
Separation between local and organic search.
Local search (searching “self storage near me”) and organic search (just searching “self storage”) are operating more independently from each other since the Possum algorithm update went into effect.
Previously, if your local business listing was linked to your homepage and your homepage was being filtered out of organic search, your local listing would see a drop in ranking. (Websites can be filtered out of organic search if they are too similar in content to other websites that are showing up in organic search.)
This no longer seems to be the case. Local filtering and organic filtering are operating more independently of each other. Your business may see a jump from this change if you were being filtered out organically before the update.
Here are some of the biggest benefits businesses are seeing from the Google Possum algorithm update:
+ Businesses that are outside of city limits are seeing huge jumps in search rankings.
Before the Possum update, businesses that were located just outside city limits ranked poorly in local searches that included the city’s name. The closer a business was to downtown, the higher it ranked for searches including the city’s name - and no amount of SEO could improve it.
After the update, many of these businesses saw a huge spike in rankings, some ranking as much as 20 positions higher. This is great news for self storage businesses that aren’t located close to downtown or have an address that is "technically" outside of city limits. Thanks to Possum, these businesses now have the chance to make it in the top ten of local searches, even though they aren't near downtown.
+ It’s easier for small businesses to compete with REITs in local search rankings.
Big brands with multiple listings used to dominate search results because Google’s algorithm put excessive emphasis on domain authority. Here’s an example of how this would affect your self storage business:
Before the Possum update: Paul lives in Sugar Land, Texas and is looking for self storage near him after recently relocating for work. He does a search for self storage near Sugar Land. A self storage REIT in the area, Big Storage Company, has multiple listings in different locations around Sugar Land that take up the entire first page of his Google search results. Big Storage Company doesn’t have better SEO content than other local self storage businesses, but they dominate Google search results because they’re the largest and most prominent self storage business in the area.
After the Possum update: Paul does the same search for self storage in Sugar Land, Texas. Instead of Big Storage Company taking up the entire first page of his Google search results, Google only allows a few results for Big Storage Company and the rest are other self storage companies near him (ranked by the normal SEO factors).
It’s a win for both large and small businesses: If you’re a self storage REIT, you’ll still be a top search result, you just won’t have as many listings in the search results. If you’re a smaller self storage company, you’ll be more likely to show up in the top results than you were before (since multiple high ranking listings are now filtered).
Here are some of the potential drawbacks of the new Google Possum algorithm update:
- An end to “virtual offices” as a way to increase SEO.
Before the Possum update, a common way to “cheat” SEO was with virtual offices: a way for business to place their business address close to downtown and improve their SEO, without actually moving their storefront.
A Google My Business listing has to be verified through mail, so some companies charge for virtual office services, even offering agents that will answer phone calls for your business at the fake address.
For example, upwards of 1,000 businesses use 223 Regent Street in London as a virtual office (located in the middle of downtown) to improve their SEO. (The first search result for this address is actually a company selling virtual office space!)
Google doesn’t like cheaters - they’ve been going after virtual offices and companies attempting to cheat the system this way for years. The new filtering of address and affiliation, in addition to businesses outside of downtown ranking higher, are more evidence of Google’s attempts to target virtual offices and stop them from showing up in local search results.
With the Possum update, it’s mucher harder than before for businesses to deceive Google and improve their search ranking using virtual offices.
- Similar businesses clustered together in downtown areas may see more competition in search rankings.
Because businesses outside of city limits are now appearing higher in local search rankings, Possum has made it less likely that similar businesses all located near each other will dominate the top local search rankings - think Chinatown listings when searching for “Chinese restaurant near me.” The caveat of this would obviously be if the searcher is geographically close to the actual location of those businesses - if a searcher is looking for Chinese restaurants and geographically close to Chinatown, these listings will still be top local search results.
If your business was previously ranking higher than businesses that are further from downtown (but have much better SEO), you might see a drop in your local search rankings from the Possum update.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, you may also like What You Need to Know About Google Local Updates, How to Clean Up Your Website’s Content, Top 10 Blogs That Will Help You Understand SEO, and What Has the Best Value: Your Content or Your Links?