Launch date: September 1, 2016
Hazards: Tense competition in your target location
How it works: The Possum update ensured that local results vary more depending on the searcher’s location: the closer you are to a business’s address, the more likely you are to see it among local results.
Possum also resulted in greater variety among results ranking for very similar queries, like “dentist denver” and “dentist denver co.” Interestingly, Possum also gave a boost to businesses located outside the physical city area.
How to adjust: Expand your keyword list and do location-specific rank tracking. Local businesses now need to be targeting more keywords than they used to, due to the volatility Possum brought into the local SERPs. As you check your rankings, make sure you’re doing this from your target location (or, better yet, a bunch of them). You can do this in Rank Tracker under Preferences > Preferred Search Engines. Click Add Custom next to Google. Next, specify your preferred location — you can make it as specific as a street address.
What is Google Possum?
GOOGLE POSSUM INITIAL RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
“Possum” is the name given to an unconfirmed but documented update which appeared to most significantly impact Google’s local pack and local finder results. Because the update was never officially confirmed by Google, local SEOs have been left to hypothesize about the potential update’s purpose and concrete effects.
Many have perceived Possum’s purpose to be a diversification of local results. While the assumed update certainly did have this effect, one of its challenging “side effects” was the filtering out of legitimate business listings if they happen to share Google categories with other entities in the same building. One study of 1,307 businesses suggested that Possum affected 64% of Google’s local results.
On the organic side of search, MozCast documented a simultaneous shakeup of the organic results. This may have been part of Possum or it could have stemmed from a separate but simultaneous update.
Impacts of Possum
The Local SEO industry reported the following phenomena which were hypothesized to stem from this major update:
1. Filtered results based on affiliation
Pre-Possum, it was normal for multiple businesses sharing affiliations (same Google category and located within the same building) to appear in the same local pack/local finder result. The local pack results are the set of (typically three) local business listings that appear in conjunction with Google’s organic results when a query has a local intent. The local finder results are the expanded results reached by clicking the “more places” link at the bottom of the local packs.
For example, 6 personal injury attorneys at 123 Main St. could all potentially appear in the same local finder results for the same query. But, post-Possum, Google filtered out many of these affiliated listings at the automatic zoom level of Google Maps. Now, Google might show just one, or possibly two, of the personal injury attorneys at the location, instead of all six of them. This loss of local pack/finder rankings may cause business owners to fear that their Google My Business listing has been removed, but by zooming in on the map, the listing pops back into view within the local finder results.
One example of this filtering phenomenon comes from a thread in the Moz Q&A forum. A fishing charter business sharing a dock building with a number of other businesses represented by the Google category “fishing charter” abruptly disappeared from the local results. Only by zooming in on the map or by choosing user filters like “Top Rated” would the business reappear in its former high-ranking spot in the local finder. Since the time of this forum discussion, the business in question has regained its former visibility in the local pack/finder views, calling into question whether Google is continuing to experiment with this filter over time.
2. Businesses beyond city borders move up the rankings
Respected Local SEO practitioner Joy Hawkins documented the phenomenon of increased local rankings for businesses that have a postal mailing address within a given city but which are physically located beyond Google’s concept of that city’s borders. You can see how Google demarcates a city’s borders by looking the city up in Google Maps and observing the area shown in pink:
In one example of this borderlands scenario, Joy Hawkins noted a business had jumped from #21 to #10 in the local finder view. This is notable because it has long been observed in the Local SEO industry that companies beyond city borders have little chance of earning local rankings for queries originating in those cities or containing those city names.
3. Additional theories about Possum’s effects
Several additional theories have been put forth in the Local SEO industry regarding the effects of Possum. These include an increase in the sensitivity of searcher proximity—the distance between the physical location of a human searcher and the businesses Google shows in their local pack results.
Additionally, there is some thought that Google’s local filter is running more independently of their organic filter post-Possum, in that businesses are earning high pack rankings for listings pointing to website pages that have low or “filtered” organic rankings. Over the years, the degree of overlap and/or separateness of Google’s local pack and organic results algorithms has been a matter of ongoing debate. At present, it is believed that the organic strength of a business strongly impacts local pack rankings. Because of this, the observation of some businesses doing well in the local pack despite low organic rankings is interesting, but, again, only speculatively tied to Possum.
How to know if you’ve been hit by Possum
If your Google My Business listing formerly enjoyed high local pack/finder rankings that vanished on September 1, 2016, Possum is a likely candidate.
If your business shares a category with another business in the same building (even if you have a different suite number or other address element), do a search for your typical keyword phrase (like “dentist San Diego”) and then zoom in on the Maps view next to the local finder to discover if your listing reappears. If your answer is “yes” to all of these criteria, chances are good that you are feeling the effects of the Possum filter.
How to recover from Possum
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to regaining your former visibility if Google is filtering out your listing due to shared affiliation or location. Adding a real or fictitious suite number in an effort to differentiate your address does not seem to lift the filter in any way, leaving you with three possible options to consider:
- Remember that Google is always aiming to show the most relevant business to the searcher. Improving your overall Local SEO (including your Domain Authority, links, content, the accuracy and spread of your citations, and the number of your native Google reviews) could help to “convince” Google that if they are only going to show one business in your category and building, it should be yours. Possum represents a good opportunity to do an audit of a competitor who isn’t being filtered out by Possum, to see if they have achieved certain metrics that are making them Google’s most relevant answer.
- Because one of the triggers for Possum appears to be the presence of multiple businesses in the same category and at the same location, you might choose to experiment with changing your primary Google My Business category. For example, if your current primary category is “General Practice Attorney” and you are being filtered out because a stronger competitor in your building is also using that category, you might test switching to “Elder Law Attorney” if no one else at your location has chosen this designation. *Be advised, changing categories can result in massive ranking and traffic fluctuations and should only be undertaken with a clear understanding of potential negative impacts and of Google’s category guidelines. However, if your traffic has already gone to zero due to filtering, experimentation could prove informative and beneficial.
- Because Possum has set the stage for filtering listings based on shared affiliation, this calls into question the wisdom of building multi-practitioner listings for medical and legal practices, real estate agencies and similar business models. If Google will only show a single listing at your location, and the listing for the main business gets filtered out in favor of the listing of one of the partners at your practice, this can create a scenario of inequality in the workplace and lead to consumer confusion. Given the impacts of filtering, the Local SEO industry needs to continue to study the risks and benefits of multi-practitioner listings, including how the diversification of Google categories may impact results post-Possum.
Other facts about Google Possum
- The name of this update was coined by Local Visibility System’s Phil Rozek as fitting the new scenario in which local business listings appear to go missing but really still exist—in effect, the listings are just “playing possum.”
- Very few studies have been conducted surrounding the impacts of Possum on either the local or organic search engine results, highlighting the need for further investigation.