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Google Updates Affecting Local Businesses: Are You a Hawk or a Possum?

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: March 15, 2018
Image credit: R.M.T/Shutterstock

The impact of Google's recent algorithm changes, Possum and Hawk, challenge small business owners to keep their websites visible to customers in search engines. Here's what business owners need to know to stay ahead of the game.

Google's two most recent algorithm updates make an effort to diversify the businesses featured in the local map results section of organic search listings. Unfortunately, this has had devastating effects on many local businesses.

While the first update did not directly penalize businesses or delete any Google My Business listings, it did filter them out of the "map pack," earning it the tongue-in-cheek nickname Possum among SEO experts. The Google My Business listings it affected were technically still alive; they were only "playing dead" by being filtered out – just like the update's scaly-tailed marsupial namesake does when threatened.

How Possum affected search results in the map pack

Implemented in September 2016, Possum effectively filtered out businesses that were physically near or had the same ownership as another business in the same industry. If you were in the same building as another business that offered similar services, you could be filtered out in favor of the other listing.

However, a business did not have to share a street address with a competitor to be affected. Even being down the street from a similar business could be enough to filter out your listing.

It also put more emphasis on the searcher's location and relative proximity to the geographic area of their search. For example, a person who lived in Albany, New York, would see vastly different map results when they searched for "Albany primary care physician" than someone would if they searched the same term while in San Diego. 

Possum's intentions and effects on local businesses

The intention of Possum was not to penalize businesses – despite many businesses feeling that way. It was intended to make search more useful and varied for users. By filtering out businesses clustered in the same location or with the same brand name, it makes the results that appear in search more diverse and gives consumers a wider range of options.

Before Possum, for example, if there was a chain of franchise veterinary clinics with multiple locations in one city, someone searching "vet clinic [city name]" may have gotten a map pack that only featured three locations of that franchise. This did not present the customer with a wide variety of choices.

After Possum, they would most likely have received one map listing for the franchise brand and then two more listings for other veterinary clinics physically close to where they conducted the search. This provides them with more choices and does not let the large franchise dominate the search results. 

While this update was intended to help users, many businesses were adversely affected – especially local services such as lawyers, doctors and accountants, who tend to cluster their offices around people in similar industries. If one building or office complex has multiple financial service businesses or medical offices as tenants, that could spell disaster for those businesses' ability to show up in the map pack after the Possum update. 

Google culls effect of Possum with Hawk update

In August 2017, Google issued an update nicknamed Hawk to curb the severe effect of Possum on the local search environment. Specifically, Hawk tightened the proximity filter so that a business located near a similar business would not filter out another listing. However, businesses with the same address, even with different suite numbers in the same building, would continue to be filtered out. 

How local businesses can thrive in a Hawk-eat-Possum digital world

Competition to earn a spot in the map pack is high, and many businesses rely on that exposure as a cornerstone of their digital strategies. Here are some tips for businesses in medical, legal, financial and other commonly clustered services to stay ahead of the game.

  • Have a strong local presence. Use digital marketing resources like Google My Business to maintain local visibility. Be sure to keep your Google My Business listing up to date and to engage current and potential customers with regular posts.
  • Create content with a local focus. Keep up with what's important to your local community, and make sure your content has a local flavor.
  • Expand your local profile. Connect with high-value websites that focus on issues that resonate with your local audience and offer them relevant content. When you do, ask them for a backlink to your website. This will show customers and Google's search engine that you are an authority in your industry.

These steps will help your business stay visible in a post-Possum search environment. In a Hawk-eats-Possum world, you want your business to be the hawk.  

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