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Google Local Search Update: How Does Possum Affect You?

Part of working in SEO means that any morning you can find out that something major has changed in your industry. A practice that moved the needle for your clients in the past is rendered ineffective, while a new practice takes its place. Most of the time, these changes involve small shifts within very specific areas; they are not life-altering. However, the changes on September 1, 2016, directly affected local search. For us, this is a major update. Since we are so focused on healthcare, most of the businesses we work with have physical locations and depend on local search for people to find them.

September 1 saw the rollout of “Possum,” an update targeted to local search that had a few pretty major effects:

Businesses outside of a municipality now have a much stronger likelihood of ranking for queries within that municipality. This had always been a huge issue in local search: If you didn’t have a physical address within a town, good luck ranking in that town! It appears that Google has finally recognized this as an issue and is using a combination of proximity to the location and relevance rather than being so tied to individual towns.

Local search filtering has improved. In other words, if you have multiple Google My Business listings with some common information on them (same address, phone number, website, etc.), it is less likely now that more than one of those listings will show up in the search results. Google has added some pretty advanced filtering logic into local search.

Actual location is more important now to local searches. This was partially covered with the first point about businesses ranking outside of their municipalities but deserves its own point of emphasis. This makes sense as Google continually tries to make their search results more relevant to your searches, and we would expect this to continue to become more and more relevant at a more and more granular level.

What does this mean for our clients and the healthcare industry as a whole?

First and foremost, it means that we will be watching our local traffic closely. It’s one thing to read about Google updates and their effects, but quite another to actually experience the results and be able to gather first-hand insights. What we see on our end might fly in the face of the news; we shall see.

We expect this update to help larger businesses (sorry, little guys!) with stronger web presences. With actual locations becoming more important and towns less important, it means that businesses within the same category are going to have a wider area of competition. If there are big players within this area, we expect them to start outranking some of the smaller local businesses that were ranking well within their individual town.

While this update sort of hurts the emphasis that we have always placed on Google My Business listings in terms of actual impact, we do not think that this should lead to setting up one listing then calling it a day. In healthcare especially, you have a unique opportunity to set up not just a listing for your location, but also another one for each doctor at each location from which they practice. Even if Google irons it out so well that they never show more than one related listing (which they have not yet), by setting up all of these listings, you give Google the opportunity to serve up the one that is most relevant to the searcher. For example, if you are a large orthopedic practice and your Google My Business listing is set up to be optimized for “orthopedic” searches, but a searcher is looking specifically for a hand surgeon, it will be really helpful to have another Google My Business listing set up for the hand surgeon that is a part of your larger orthopedic practice.

It also means that it will be a little harder to test local search results without actually being at the location. There are still online tools that allow you to run local searches remotely, but simply punching in a physical location into your search (e.g., “Morristown orthopedic practice”) will not get you the same results as someone doing the same thing who is actually in that physical location.