Hospitals are local businesses and should care about Google's latest algorithm update.

When Google updates its algorithm, rest assured, something in the search results gets a shake-up. Earlier this fall, as Google rolled out its Possum update, that “something” was local search results. In fact, Possum focused entirely on fine-tuning local search. But is this Possum a friend or foe to businesses impacted by local search?

Since hospitals are typically local by nature – the average distance to obtain routine or urgent care is only 8.6 miles – we’ve been analyzing the impact of this update with particular attention to how it will affect healthcare organizations. Possum, as it turns out, has provided some of the biggest changes to local search rankings we’ve seen in recent years. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Hospitals outside city limits are faring better. Prior to Possum, businesses that had a physical address just outside the city limits were often excluded from the Google Local Pack. For instance, a dermatologist in a close suburb but not *in* the city of Cleveland may not have ranked for the search term “dermatologist in Cleveland.” Google seems to have listened to the objections of these businesses because they’ve eased up on location boundaries. Some hospitals may have seen a substantial jump in search engine rankings. This is positive news for healthcare providers: ranking locally should be easier now (especially if you’re in a suburb), and it serves up better, broader results to the user.


  • Search location determines results. The user’s physical location has an even greater impact on their search results. Why? Because Google is shifting search results to be more heavily weighted on IP address (as opposed to search terms). This fits with their strategy to create a top-notch mobile experience. While this will be good for the health consumer, healthcare marketers may feel a slight sting as they Google their own providers and facilities. If you’re a health system with locations in different parts of a state, or different states entirely, and you want to see whether your facilities or physicians come up for a particular search, you’ll need to set your device to the location where you want search results. For example, searching for a “Cleveland dermatologist” while in Cleveland will yield different, more encompassing results than searching that same phrase while in Cincinnati.
  • Local filtering is by address and affiliation. While Google has eased up on location criteria, they’ve battened down on local filtering. Say you have a dermatology practice with a main listing for that practice, plus individual listings for each dermatologist in the practice. Or, say you have a practice with multiple locations, but the same “business owner” listed for each. In an effort to diversify search results, Google is selecting the most relevant listing and filtering out those that it views as too similar. So that dermatology practice with multiple docs? It’s probably going to show just one listing, determined by Google. The others are still there, just lower in the search results. It’s clear that Google doesn’t want to repeat the same address or practice repeatedly in the search results.
  • Local and organic search results are separating. Yep, Google’s organic and local search results are parting ways. This is good news for local businesses, which may have had Google My Business (local) listings previously filtered in organic search. Google filtered out the specific page that you were linking your listing to, which would have a negative impact on rankings. And because healthcare organizations, care providers, and specialists are local businesses by nature, this change should be a positive!
  • Search results can be finicky. Now, even slight variations in keywords can produce different results. Don’t assume that the queries “Cleveland dermatologist” and “dermatologists in Cleveland” will yield the same search results. Testing and optimization for closely related search terms are essential.

So, what’s our verdict on whether Possum is a friend or a foe for local search, and more specifically, healthcare organizations and providers? Google is still tinkering with the local algorithm, but overall, updates that are good for user experience are good for everyone. And great user experience is what’s at play here. The most important aspect of any Google update, whether it’s Possum, Penguin, Panda, etc., is awareness and adaptation so that your hospital maintains its online positioning.

Interested in a personal healthcare marketing evaluation to determine your organization’s online position? Request an assessment here.