Playing Possum: Big Changes Afoot In Google’s Local Results

Dude, where’s my website?!?!

Whether you are a search marketing professional or just generally interested in how your website is ranking locally online, you’ll notice that there are occasionally huge fluctuations in search results (and in your website’s ranking!) as the search engines roll out updates and changes to algorithms and filters. Some shifts in the search landscape are more dramatic than others. This month we’ve seen a full on revolution in Google’s local search results, by what is currently being described as Google’s “Possum” Update, coined by Phil Rozek.

Possum Is Creating Changes In Local Search

As Barry Schwartz reported for Search Engine Land, September 1st caused a great deal of commotion for the local digital marketing community. The Internet was ablaze with discussion and search theory, but with no comment or announcement from Google, very little to go on. The only thing Google would say was that it was not associated with the long anticipated Penguin Update, which was finally announced on the Google Webmaster Blog September 23rd. The only thing that was certain was Google possum local searchesthat the effects were far-reaching and impossible to ignore. People saw top ranking websites on local search disappear from the results. After poking around a bit, it was clear that the sites weren’t being “penalized” and it didn’t seem to affect the ranking capability of the site, but the sites weren’t listed where they were expected to be. So, if they weren’t taking a ranking hit- what in the world was going on? It turns out, depending on certain local search criteria in search user’s queries, some sites were playing “possum,” i.e. filtered out dependent upon the whims of Google. Hence the name among local search professionals- the Possum Update.

According to Joy Hawkins in her piece on the Possum Update on the Search Engine Land website, “the main purpose of the update was to diversify the local results and also prevent spam from ranking…” She noted that there was an increase in visibility for businesses that reside outside cities’ geographical boundaries, which typically had a negative impact on ranking locally. She further explained that it seems local search has become much more intelligent, deciphering information on a minute level such as Google filtering out a result based on a shared location (i.e. two technically separate business street addresses in a shared building- one website will be filtered out of the result), and there is more variation of results due to the language used in the search query. Joy Hawkins also determined that “local” search results would vary drastically depending on your physical location at the time the search is performed. Finally, she explains that it appears that the local search filters are responding independently from the overall organic filters Google uses.

The Takeaway

The world of search is incredibly fast paced and constantly evolving. What worked yesterday might not work today and may in fact cause harm tomorrow. Any company dealing with local search results worth their salt needs to stay abreast of the changes and adjust their strategies to benefit their clients as changes roll in. To be truly great in this industry requires thinking two steps ahead and keeping a firm finger on the pulse of the industry at all times. Recent additions to the overall Google algorithm like the machine learning tool RankBrain, which considers the intent of a search user, and Google’s insistence that content is the key to ranking well, it’s imperative that professional search marketers move away from gimmicks and schemes to help their client’s sites rank and focus on improving the quality and user experience of websites. Search is getting smarter daily. Winning the Internet is NOT a sprint- it’s a marathon. Your digital marketing strategy needs to be based on long-term success.


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