The following column was originally published October 23, 2016 in The Gazette.
If you noticed a change in your Google listings in the last few weeks, it’s not your imagination. Google has rolled out yet another algorithm change that is having a major impact on local business search results and rankings.
Google hasn’t officially named the update yet, so the search engine optimization (SEO) community did the honors. In the alliterative tradition of previous updates like Panda, Penguin and Pidgeon, local SEO experts have dubbed this one “Possum” to reflect the many hidden listings that have resulted.
In this update, the searcher’s location, as pinpointed in real time by GPS on mobile devices, is a primary ranking signal in determining how high the business listing will appear on the results page. Previously, search results centered on the location of the business and how well the business listings optimized for that location.
You’ve Been Filtered
What will the Possum update mean for businesses? As always, there will be winners and losers. Google believes users want to see the search results closest to where they are physically at that moment. Businesses on the outskirts of a city or town who had previously been slighted in the search results because of their out-of-the-way location will benefit from Possum.
The losers may be those multi-business locations who invested time and energy in creating multiple Google My Business listings for each individual entity in the business (for instance, a law firm with multiple attorneys). In an effort to merge local and organic ranking signals, Google is now filtering similar results to eliminate multiple citations for the same address. The listings didn’t just drop a few positions, either. They are simply nowhere to be found in the search results, although the listings remain active.
In addition, businesses with a wider geographical target may see a drop in rankings because customers who are searching for their products and services will see more results from businesses closer to their location. For instance, previously, if your business was located in Hiawatha, but you wanted customers from Iowa City, you could rank for searches in those areas by including that location in your website content and meta data. Today, searchers in Iowa City are likely to see Iowa City businesses in the search results first, regardless of how well a website located in Cedar Rapids has optimized for Iowa City customers.
Each Google algorithm change usually takes a few months to play out. At this point, there are a few recommendations for businesses. For those multi-business locations, SEO experts are recommending businesses retain only on the most relevant Google listings and removing the rest. Businesses can include more information about individual contributors on their main Google My Business Page description section.
Businesses that need traffic from outside of their immediate geographic area may need to beef up their marketing mix to include stronger directory listings, more targeted advertising, social media and pay-per-click campaigns.
Possum is just one more critter to add to Google’s menagerie of algorithmic changes that businesses will need to tame. Location is more important now - but it is not the only signal. You still have to take care of the basics when creating your online presence. Strong content, sound website development and good on-page optimization as well as off-page citations like reviews, directory listings, and quality links all contribute to greater online visibility.