Google is totally unpredictable.
SEO practitioners know full well that things can change in an instant, and search engine dominance today means nothing tomorrow.
Or as Babe Ruth put it,
Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.
One of the more significant updates Google made in 2016 was Possum.
In fact, it’s arguably the biggest change Google has made to local SEO since the Pigeon update back in 2014.
As you might imagine, it’s shaken things up quite a bit and has switched up the SEO landscape considerably.
I’d like to dive into this topic and explain how it may have impacted your local rankings as well as what you need to know moving forward.
Why is it called Possum?
The first thing you’re probably wondering about is why exactly the SEO community called it Possum. Google usually names their updates after animals, but a possum isn’t as cute as a penguin or as awe-inspiring as a panda. Possum? Really?
Well, the term was coined by Phil Rozek.
According to Search Engine Land, “Rozek suggested the name, pointing out that it is fitting since many business owners think their Google My Business listings are gone, when in fact they are not. They have just been filtered—they’re playing possum.”
Okay, so the possum name is supposed to make you think of something playing dead when really, it’s not dead.
It all went down on September 1, 2016.
Although it was never actually confirmed by Google, it was clear that a major change had occurred that specifically impacted the 3-pack and Local Finder, which you probably know better as the local results or Google Map results.
Here’s a screenshot from Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History:
All of a sudden, many of the websites that had ranked so well for so long had lost traction and saw a dip in their rankings.
However, other sites that once had difficulty ranking saw a noticeable spike in their rankings.
To get a better idea of the implications, it’s helpful to take a look at some data from an article published on Search Engine Land.
In an attempt to determine precisely how big of an impact Possum had on local search, Search Engine Land reached out to Bright Local to conduct a study.
In this study, Bright Local “took a look at the ranking trackers for 1,307 different businesses, which were tracking 14,242 keywords. Then they compared the difference between September 7 and August 31 (the date before Possum).”
Here’s what they found:
9% of the keywords had the business pop into the Local Finder when they weren’t there previously.
11% of the keywords showed the business had increased in position by three or more positions.
15% of the keywords showed the business had increased in position by one to two positions.
35% of the keywords showed no change in position for the business.
15% of the keywords showed the business had decreased by one to two positions.
14% of the keywords showed the business had decreased by more than three positions.
Here’s a graph to illustrate how this all breaks down:
The bottom line is that “64% of keywords saw some type of change.”
This is obviously significant, and it’s easy to see why so many people freaked out over Possum, especially those whose rankings were adversely affected.
What does this mean for local SEO?
Perhaps the most noticeable change was that businesses that aren’t located directly within the city limits now have a much better chance of ranking well.
Here’s an example:
Say there’s an Italian restaurant located in Hialeah, Florida. It’s very close to Miami but not located within the city limits.
Prior to Possum, that restaurant would have had difficulty ranking for keywords such as “Italian restaurant Miami” or “Miami Italian restaurant.”
But now, after Possum, that restaurant has a chance to rank for those keywords.
And this makes sense when you think about it.
Why should businesses very close to the city suffer just because they’re not exactly within the city limits?
Odds are, many of those businesses would be just as relevant to the searchers as others located directly within a city.
This recent update basically levels the playing field between businesses located right within a city and businesses located in the suburbs and other surrounding areas.
As long as a business is within a close proximity to a city, it has the chance to rank when that city’s name is used in a search query.
In my opinion, this is a logical move that will be beneficial in the long run. This spreads the wealth and ensures that search engine users find exactly what they’re looking for.
IP address is a bigger factor
In the past, what popped up in search results was primarily based on the entered keywords.
But with Possum, Google will now take a search engine user’s IP address into account when generating search results.
This is Google’s way of ensuring users get the most accurate results when performing a search.
The main reason for this change is the massive volume of people using mobile devices.
Google is continually looking for new ways to accommodate mobile search users.
Because people are often on the go, this ensures they’re always getting the best results based on their current location.
This is something you’ll want to keep in mind and use to guide your local SEO approach.
I think that Inc.com offers a smart suggestion:
“Your QA team should test your work as a user within the region of the business and not simply test it by Googling the business name and location.”
Doing so should definitely give you an edge over competitors still basing their strategy primarily on keywords (an outdated strategy as this point).
There’s more variance in search results based on keyword selection
Before the Possum update, users could enter similar keyword phrases and get virtually the same results.
For instance, entering “Italian restaurant Miami,” “Miami Italian restaurant,” or “Italian restaurant Miami FL” would generate pretty similar results.
But that’s no longer the case.
In fact, there could be a considerable variance depending upon the specific keywords a user enters.
Let’s look at an example.
Here are the results I got when I used “Italian restaurant Miami” as a keyword phrase:
And here’s what happened when I used “Italian restaurant Miami FL” as a keyword:
Notice by simply adding “FL” at the end, I got completely different results. Pretty interesting.
This just goes to show that Google is “spreading the wealth,” and even a small keyword nuance can produce entirely different results.
Why did it happen?
Because Google has been quite secretive about this update, it’s hard to say what their logic was.
We’re definitely not getting anything out of Matt Cutts for the time being.
But with a little deductive reasoning, I came up with four probable reasons:
It’s likely a way to switch up the local search results and prevent only a handful of businesses from dominating.
It’s yet another step in Google’s unending mission to destroy spam. By implementing this algorithm update, they made it more difficult for black hat SEOs to game the system.
It’s another way to ensure that search engine results take user intent into account.
It should enhance the mobile experience even further.
At least, that’s my take on things.
A final note
Unlike most other major updates, Possum only affected local search results.
That’s why I think it hasn’t received the same level of attention of past updates such as Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird, and so on.
If you’re trying to reach a nationwide or even global audience, the Possum update shouldn’t affect you all that much. It’s just business as usual.
But if you’re a mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar type of business with a much more finite demographic in a specific region, it can have a tremendous impact on your approach to SEO.
In this case, you may need to restructure many elements of your local SEO campaign.
Google is always reinventing itself.
That’s been a major contributor to its success and longevity.
Possum is just one of many updates that influences the way SEO practitioners approach things, and I would imagine this particular update has received a mixed reaction.
It probably didn’t go over so well with many businesses located within city limits because their rankings took a collective blow.
However, it has leveled the playing field for those that aren’t within city limits but are located within a close proximity.
I’m sure these businesses are quite happy about the updates.
When it comes to search engine users, I think Possum should improve their experience.
I know I want to have the most accurate results possible when I’m searching for a business wherever I happen to be. Considering I’m a heavy mobile user, this should be beneficial to me.
And there’s one last thing I’d like to point out.
Since Google never formally “fessed up” to this update, it’s likely incomplete.
After doing a substantial amount of research on the subject, I get the idea that there are still more changes to be unrolled.
We’ll see what happens in 2017.
Have you noticed any major changes to your local search results since the implementation of Possum?