Here’s what you need to know about Google’s newest local algorithm update

SEO community chatter began last week with a question: Did your listings experience a drop in rank last week? Then on Nov. 6, a tweet from Austin Holdsworth (co-author of this article) went out:

He wasn’t alone. The local SEO community was a consistent chatter about a Google update, specifically targeting Google Maps rank. The consensus became clear – businesses in Google’s map rankings were experiencing drops.

Some drops were massive and widespread across individual geographies.

A conversation from Search Engine Roundtable provided a good summation of the problem:

BrightLocal’s Rank Flux data, which detects fluctuations in local search, also picked up massive changes over the course of the week.

The consensus became clear. Google rolled out its biggest local update since “Possum” in 2016. You might see it called Bedlam as Joy Hawkins dubbed it, or Possum 2.0.

The 2019 update echoes its predecessors’ intentions.

The most important local rank signal

On Sept. 21, 2016, Joy Hawkins wrote about Google’s “Possum” update. (The name was coined by local SEO expert Phil Rozak.) With this update, Google decided the most important local rank signal it had was user location. Post-update, Google My Business listings had a greater chance of showing up if they were closer to the user performing the search.

The impact of this update shifted how SEOs thought about local.

Over the course of the next three years, strategies and software changed. New rank-tracking tools, like Local Falcon, measured a radius of rank instead of organic positioning. SEOs began to measure success for discovery searches in terms of proximity.

Now in 2019, Google is doubling-down on that signal – the major rank update that occurred last week was another proximity update. Businesses that are closest to the user performing a discovery search win out again.

Proximity data findings

Using the tool Places Scout, we’ve been tracking several listing’s rank per location per zip code.

Post update, our listings that saw massive drops only saw those drops in zip codes they weren’t actually in. The new listings that surfaced in these zip codes were a mixture of legitimate and spam. All were closer to the zip code we lost traction in.

Others in the local SEO community have corroborated the proximity findings. Here is a quote from a user in the Local Search Forum:

“I just tried comparing data we had on a client from Oct. 17 to new data pulled just now. Previously the average distance between the search location and the results in the local pack was 9.98 mi, now it’s 4.87.

You’d have to do something a lot more rigorous than some quick Excel work to get a full picture, but it does seem that a number of results that were ranking from farther away no longer are. Previously competitors were ranking around this client from 60 miles away, now no one’s ranking from farther than 17 miles.”

~Matthew Summers

Algorithm rollout and adjustments

The initial rollout’s impact was extreme to those who were affected. Some dropped out of the Google Map’s rankings entirely.

Over the course of the algorithm rollout, Google made adjustments. There are reports of rank initially dropping, then having been restored (slightly) a few days later. It appears Google may have felt it was too aggressive in its initial rollout.

According to Rank Flux data, the post-update adjustments have ceased. The new rank that has been established is the rank that is likely going to stay.

4 things this update is not

1. An SAB update

Curiously, the day of the update Google released a post capping the ability for businesses to add service areas. The new service area limit was 20 cities, districts and postal codes per listing. Many in the community began thinking this update was related to SABs, but there have been several tests to disprove this.

If you change your service area geographies in Google My Business, no rank increase in the selected area occurs. This has always been the case and still will not affect rank. The only thing that will change (which is not rank related) is your knowledge panel users perform a direct search.

2. A spam update

This update did not affect spam. As with updates of a proximal nature, Google Maps spam is usually benefitted.

As we saw with the last Possum update, when Google increases the strength of proximity, it increases the ability for lead generation spam to rank in Google Maps. This problem was explained in a Wall Street Journal article on June 20.

With the publication of the article came a massive crackdown on spam. With this latest local update, further increasing the impact of user location, it is likely we’ll see spammers use similar techniques to mass-verify Google My Business listings again.

3. A review update

There was speculation the update affected which listings appeared in the Map pack based on aggregate review score. This has been disproven with the large amount of low-review spam listings that are now showing across the board.

4. An industry-specific update

Early tweets hinted at specific industries that were targeted in the update. Since, there have been several forum posts communicating a wide variety of industries that were affected. It should also be noted, that Google typically does not target specific industries in its local algorithm updates.

How should you respond if you were affected?

In the Local Search Forum, Joy Hawkins offers the following:

“I never suggest making sudden, rash changes as a result of an algorithm update. I think it’s important to learn what we can and adapt ongoing strategies if needed. Often I don’t find much about our strategies ever change as the result of Google updating their algorithm.”

She’s right. These changes are likely here to stay. Going in and making rash, quick changes can cause more problems than not. The same strategies used pre-update are the same ones to use post-update.

This is further backed-up by a Search Engine Land article written around the time the original Possum came out.

That said, it is still possible to have wide-coverage in light of this new update. Listings that still cover a wide area are still being spotted.

Further analysis

As with any rank update, the losers are understandably very vocal. That said, don’t anticipate Google to revert anything.

With any increase in proximity as a rank signal, the question of Google My Business spam follows. Anticipate an increase in this form of spam, specifically lead generation listings.

Businesses and SEO agencies will need to be more vigilant about fighting spam in affected areas, and start reporting through Google’s Business Redressal Complaint Form.

In addition, with the new limitations on a business’ ability to rank, there may also be a heavier reliance on Google Ads if a business wishes to quickly extend its service radius.

Google has not commented on any update as of yet.

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