From Pigeon to Possum

Jenny Pearse | October 6th 2016

On the first of September this year, SEO experts from around the world saw the biggest shake-up in local search since Pigeon landed two years earlier – Google’s “Possum” algorithm update. In a recent article, local SEO expert Joy Hawkins explains the meaning behind the name:

Phil 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.


What We Know

Although Google hasn’t directly confirmed the Possum update, it has been a hot topic for many SEOs.


Taken from Algoroo, the above graph illustrates an increase in ranking fluctuations in September – around the time of the Possum update. The green represents a typical amount of ranking fluctuation.


Additionally, MozCast is showing an increase in ranking fluctuations around September. The first few bars of the graph show August but a definite spike in algorithm turbulence can be seen after, rising to over 110 degrees.

Discussions on the popular Local Search Forums show individuals reporting both positive and negative changes in the local pack. Here are some of the comments:


Image Source: Search Engine Roundtable

It would seem that the Possum update impacted the 3-pack and Google Maps results, providing users with more accurate local search results than previously. With this in mind, the two major changes that have been reported and investigated since the update rolled out are:

  1. the rise in ranking positions for businesses that fall outside city limits; and
  2. filtering based on address and affiliation.

On the same day there was also talk of a second update that targeted organic search results. This is being referred to as a quality update due to the removal of spammy local results by Google.

Below, in finer detail, we’ll look at the recent changes made by Possum and how they impacted the local search results for businesses.

Outside City Limits

Back in 2014, Andrew Shotland, the proprietor of Local SEO Guide, commented about improved distance and location ranking parameters after the Pigeon update:

Google, in its infinite algorithmic wisdom, sees a small search area, like a neighbourhood, and wants to give the searcher results from outside the hood in order to give a more robust set.

Although it wasn’t entirely clear what the distance and location ranking parameters were, there were vast improvements seen by local businesses in areas that fell outside of a city centre.

Since the Possum update this has greatly enhanced with geographical proximity being widened. Previously, where some businesses were missing out (mainly those who fell outside of the city centre and found it difficult to rank for keywords that included a city name), they have started to report positive rises in ranking positions.


Image Source: Local Search Forum


Linked to the enriched geographical proximity changes, it has been noticed that a variety of short- and long-tail search phrases are having a significant effect on results. Where earlier variations would pull the same or very similar search results, a number of ranking fluctuations are being seen in the local 3-pack.

As you can see, both of the below examples are showing different results.

Search for “manchester plumber”:



Search for “plumber manchester”:


Address and Affiliation

The second, but just as significant, change was felt by Google My Business listings being filtered based on address and affiliation. Previously businesses with one main listing and several affiliated listings ranked; a drop in rankings is now likely to be seen. Now only one or two businesses with the same address etc. are likely to show. It would seem that duplicated Google My Business profiles that share a similar phone number or domain are being filtered from the maps. Joy Hawkins explains this change in more detail:

Keep in mind, this filter is not the same as a penalty. Google isn’t removing the listing or preventing it from ranking for anything at all. Instead, it works much like the organic filter, which picks the “best” and most relevant listing and filters others that are too similar.

Since Possum, it has become much harder for one company to dominate one spot. This might be bad news for businesses but from a user perspective this makes perfect sense. If you were searching for a dentist, would you really want to see the same one listed numerous times?

Below is an example of businesses that are being filtered out when ‘dentist manchester’ is searched for in Google.


Highlighted in orange are the normal (with filter) results displayed within Google maps. As you can see only one company is showing under the business address ‘14 St Anns Square’. Highlighted in red and zoomed in (no filter) two additional businesses now show under the same address.

It should be noted that results will vary depending on the keywords that are being searched for.

What Happens Next?

With most Google updates it usually takes a few weeks for the storm to settle before we can really start assessing the damage. With trackers like Algoroo and MozCast still showing fluctuations, this could indicate that Google are still running some tests. Although most businesses have seen positive changes, we would recommend keeping an eye on your rankings until things settle down.

With the recent changes to filtering in Google Maps, could this mean the end of virtual offices? Especially for businesses that offer the same services and are registered to the same address. Look out for a follow up blog on this.