All you need to know about Google’s latest algorithm updates including Possum and Penguin
September has so far seen some important developments in Google’s algorithms, with an update released at the start of the month making some key changes to local search. There is also news on the next, and final update, to Google Penguin.
An algorithm was rolled out on September 1st by Google which has been so-called Google Possum by industry commentators. It’s the biggest local update in more than two years and appears as though it may still be in testing by Google to some extent, so expect fluctuation in the results over coming weeks.
It all affects local search, and the “3-pack” of local search results in Google, with the emphasis appearing to be on reducing spam and duplicate business entries, as well as diversifying local search results somewhat.
Here are the biggest changes that Possum appears to have instigated
Improved visibility for businesses outside of a city limit or boundary
One of the on-going frustrations for business owners looking to rank locally in the 3-pack is that previously businesses falling outside of a city limit would often fail to appear within the local results.
For example, when searching for “Architect in Birmingham”, businesses that have a physical address of Birmingham but are actually outside of the city boundary according to Google Maps, would likely not be returned in the 3-pack.
Since the update was rolled out, many businesses that experienced this frustration previously have reported considerable increases in referrals, and a higher listing within Google local search.
In fact, Red Alien is a prime example of this part of the update. Previously when we moved our offices to Duxford on the outskirts of Cambridgeshire away from the city of Cambridge we fell out of the local pack for terms like ‘SEO Cambridge’. However since the updates for many search locations we are back at number 1 in the local pack despite us being about 10 miles from Cambridge city centre. We retained our position for county searches like ‘SEO Cambridgeshire’. See the screenshot below.
New filters based on physical address and ownership
Google’s local pack results have in the past seen the same business rank in all of the 3-pack positions, or multiple times in the extended local results if they have different company names and websites. This was a way for some SEO practitioners to ‘cheat’ their way to improving the referrals locally for businesses.
However, Possum seems to have taken steps to put this right, though it is already having a negative knock-on effect for some. Businesses with the same address are seeing the referrals decrease markedly. This has also led to genuine businesses with no affiliation to each other being ‘penalised’ if they are located within the same building. Think of business parks or office blocks for instances where this may be a problem.
We use the word ‘penalise’, but in actuality, it is not a penalty in the true sense of the word. Instead, if for example, Google identifies four businesses at one physical address, it may alternate which it shows in the local pack. It will not penalise their rankings. So in effect, each business will be displayed much less than before.
The other interesting report coming out from the US is that at least one business owner has seen this happen to their two businesses despite being on opposite sides of the road, operating in two wholly different industries and even hosting their respective websites on different servers/locations. In fact, the only thing in common between the two businesses was the name of the company owner, leading to speculation that Google pays a lot more attention to US business licenses than they previously let on. This level of detail could potentially roll out in the UK.
Physical location of the user is even more important than before
Another key element of the Possum update is that the actual physical location of the user performing the Google search is now more important now than ever before.
When performing a search that has the service/business type and city, the further outside of that city you go an increase in the local results will be shown as Google Maps zooms out further. This means that if you are tracking your local search rankings, ensuring your search location is correct is now of the utmost importance.
There are a few different websites online that enable you to set your search location, so it is worth testing which local pack you see for each of the locations that matter to you.
A slight variation in keywords can make a difference
There also appears to be some fluctuation in terms of minor changes to keywords that are returning local results filtered differently. A search for “Cambridge Web Design” and “Web Design Cambridge” can now return different results, and in the US adding the state code to the search also (e.g. “chiropractor Los Angeles LA”) has also resulted in a variation in local results. This is also apparent when using county and region searches in the UK.
As mentioned earlier, we’d expect to continue to see local pack results vary as Google continues to test its new algorithms, and potentially A/B test different variants on users.
Google Penguin – to work in real-time
A major change confirmed by Google only last week is that the Penguin algorithm is to become real-time.
The next Penguin update, Penguin 4.0, will be the last in the sense that it will continually re-crawl and re-index sites, rather than the previous way of being updated periodically.
Penguin was originally introduced in 2012 with the purpose of identifying and penalising sites that were deemed ‘spammy’ but out of reach of its regular spamming systems.
Once a site had been penalised, they would have to wait for the next Penguin update for their site to be re-tested and hopefully for them, re-instated in the search. The last update to Penguin was two years ago – an agonising wait for publishers and webmasters that had previously fallen foul of the algorithm.
Moving real-time will allow pages to be regularly re-crawled and re-indexed constantly, and those sites previously captured by Penguin will be freed should they have taken proper action. Although at the moment there is no talk about if this would happen instantly or in a gradual process.
The previous versions of Penguin inflicted sitewide penalties, so even if there were only a small amount of pages classed as breaking the guidelines this could, in fact, have a negative impact for a whole website. The new updated version Penguin 4.0 will reduce the value and possibly deindex specific pages rather than a whole site. This will allow webmasters to focus on fixing those pages that are problematic rather than trying to recover a whole site.
Penguin 4.0 is to be rolled-out steadily in the coming weeks and months, and Google has said as part of this process it will not provide on-going updates about Penguin. So although this is not the last you will hear from them, this is the last you are likely to hear about Penguin updates, so don’t wait around for a Penguin 5.0 and if your site has been impacted take action now don’t wait around.