Your Guide to Google Possum

Google's Possum Algorithm Update
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Last updated: March 2023
In September 2016, Google tweaked their algorithm for local search results in a major way. As with the Pigeon update in 2014, no official name was given to the new algorithm, so the SEO community took it upon themselves to mark the event by branding it ‘Possum’.

The marsupial moniker made sense because many companies believed their Google My Business account had vanished overnight, when in fact their profiles simply weren’t ranking as well – they were ‘playing possum’, appearing dead but just hiding.

The flip side, of course, was that other businesses saw huge leaps in their search engine presence. According to a Search Engine Land study, Possum changed 64% of local search results, for better or worse. That is a huge shift in results for any one update so one to definitely take notice of and learn from.

Essentially, Google adjusted the filter they use to determine how local results are displayed, so here’s everything you need to know to ensure your website is fully-optimised for local search:

Playing the Possum algorithm

Firstly, this was great news for businesses operating outside of official city borders. Previously, our client Washware Essentials, based in Portishead, may have struggled to rank for Bristol-based keyphrases, such as “steel urinal supplier Bristol”, because their HQ isn’t technically within the city of Bristol.

Despite only being a 20-minute drive away and undoubtedly one of the most qualified companies in the region to handle such a query, the search bots would have favoured rivals that were closer to the BS1 post code.

Thankfully, the algorithm change has levelled the playing field, and now takes into account the overall quality of your website rather than giving too much weight to just your precise location, giving companies on the outskirts of town a chance to compete in the SERPs if their SEO is up to scratch.

Not caring for sharing

One of the most noticeable changes came in the shape of businesses operating in a similar field and sharing the same address (i.e. several marketing agencies based in the same building) no longer appearing alongside each other in the ‘Map Pack’ (the top three Google My Business profiles that often appear at the top of search results).

Ultimately, Google is on a mission to deliver the finest user experience, and it would seem that varying such results is preferable to bunching them all together, appearing to give users more choice.

However, such instances can change day-to-day, with the firm currently topping the pack replaced by a rival tomorrow. Additionally, these results are likely to change depending on specific keywords, i.e. one firm not making the cut for “marketing agency Bristol” might well top the bill for “content marketing Bristol”.

Incidentally, we don’t share a building with anyone else, but thanks to our quality approach to content marketing, we do currently top the pack for “content marketing Bristol” (when searching from south Bristol – the other side of town from our Kingsdown HQ, so we must be doing something right).

Local pack results for 'content marketing agency Bristol'

However, thanks to Possum, the searcher’s location does have a greater impact on results. If you’re in London and searching for “content marketing Bristol”, it’s highly likely you’ll see completely different results to people searching within Bristol.

Results are also likely to change based on very slight variations of keywords. If you enter a second search, “Bristol marketing agency”, for example, the ‘Map Pack’ will most likely change entirely, as you’ve refined your search.

It has also been noted that people owning two businesses in the same niche who previously enjoyed both ranking in the ‘Map Pack’, now only see one of their interests ranking highly (and these may swap day-to-day). Google has got wise and limited results per business owner, so as to remain fair and not create monopolies.

Be a local SEO hero

There have been some surprise winners in the Possum playbook, often websites that have been filtered out of organic search now appearing in local results.

Previously, the tactic of duplicating content across multiple websites, i.e. using the same text but creating individual sites for each city you operate in, would have been punished; Google would effectively ignore each sub-site, only indexing the original, as content duplication, at whatever scale, doesn’t add value to the Internet at large.

However, post-Possum, it has been noted that these regional sub-sites now appear prominently in local rankings – a backwards step that’s somewhat out of tune with Google’s quality guidelines.

It’s still bad practice to duplicate content across multiple sites, and several commentators believe that, as such, these results are teething problems which suggest the update is incomplete, especially as Google never officially announced anything in the first place.

The best way to maximise your local search presence is to invest in quality copywriting and content creation that follows SEO best practice to ensure that every word works hard. If you don’t want your website to ‘play possum’, call us to discuss a free local SEO strategy review.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, or would like to discuss a specific issue with your site, please get in touch using the form below.

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Magnus Linklater SEO Consultant

Author: Magnus Linklater

Magnus is an SEO specialist and online marketing professional with over 25 years of digital and traditional marketing experience.

As the founder of Bespoke Digital, Magnus has worked on technical site audits and content marketing campaigns for hundreds of clients and regularly writes about SEO strategy, tips & tricks.

Find Magnus on LinkedIn

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