Local businesses that rely on Google for traffic and leads have been having a bumpy month in September of 2016. Listings that used to appear for “personal injury lawyer birmingham” or “air conditioner repair miami” or “(insert your field and location here)” – have vanished for some keyword searches. For others, they’re right there, but some of their long-time neighbors in the Google search results have disappeared.

The culprit is a Google Update called Possum, which (among other changes) is filtering business listings that appear to be connected – so only one will appear per keyword search.

For many small to mid-size businesses, especially those that are service-based (i.e. don’t have products or inventory) it doesn’t pay to rent a standalone building as office space. So they find a space to rent in an office building, in which there are multiple offices. Offices in the building are usually differentiated from each other by suite numbers.

If there’s no suite number in your official address, however, and other businesses list the same address, then Google will assume one of two things:

  1. You’re sharing actual office space with another business.
  2. You don’t actually have a physical presence at that address. It’s a “virtual office” – for the sake of mail, business cards, Google, and maybe the occasional meeting.

Neither one of those two things is okay with Google. It hasn’t been for a long time, but Google tended to look away, which is why it wasn’t uncommon to see two or three personal injury lawyers or air conditioner repairmen in the local Google results – all with the same address, sometimes even the same suite number.

Google has cracked down.

We had an inkling of this coming a few months ago, when we contacted Google My Business support to request merging of duplicate business pages for a client who had changed locations.

Their response:

Thanks for providing the details related to your issue.  At this time, I will not be able to merge the duplicate pages for <law firm in question>. There is compelling evidence that this is a virtual office environment which is a violation of our policy and which makes the business ineligible for a local business listing at this location.  We have found that there are also multiple other law practices running out of this same address location, which is also a violation of our policies.

As a result, all business listings associated with this business address location are subject to page suspensions without notice.  Therefore, I highly recommend that you immediately remove all related pages from your account or that you update your verified listing with an eligible business address.

Oh, dear. We tried again:

Thanks for the information. I’ll tell the head of the law firm, but as far as I understand the office situation from my client, it is an actual office with someone there on the premises to greet clients during office hours. The “suite” is actually a very large area broken into a decent number of small offices – some of which do have other lawyers.

Is that a violation of your policy? Or by “virtual office” did you mean something different (like just a mailing address with no one there)?

Either way, even before I contacted you I had noticed there was another lawyer of the same specialty at that address, and I told my contact at <law firm> that I thought it could cause issues (I was thinking more from the human confusion side, because from what I understood Google could handle multiple businesses at the same address). So I think she is looking to relocate for that reason – but what would you suggest we do in the interim?

The response:

Our guidelines state that you cannot use a virtual office as a primary business location.  That said, even if this were not a virtual office environment, there are multiple businesses working out of the same location which is not allowed either. They must each have their own addresses, entrances and staff to welcome customers during business hours.

Ohhh-kay.

We obviously advised our client that her building was marked for doom by Google, and she had better look for a different location where she could have her own suite number (and preferably there shouldn’t be any other personal injury law firms in the building, even in other suites, just to be on the safe side).

Good thing she did.

Because in situations exactly like hers, searches for “personal injury lawyer location” now turn up one – and only one – law firm per any given address.

(Again, a different suite number will make it a different address, but be careful. It has to really be a different physical suite. Making up a number to make it sound like a different suite may not work now, or may work now but be penalized in the future when Google figures out what’s going on. From some of the examples of businesses that have been filters in the search results due to being too connected to another business there – the connection isn’t always that obvious. But Google somehow knows about it.)

What does this mean for your small service-based business?

  1. If you share a business address (down to the suite number) with another business in your area of specialty, you’re headed for BIG trouble. Figure out how you can change that.
  2. If you share a business address (down to the suite number) with any other business, you’re probably also headed for trouble (although maybe not as fast). See if there’s anything you can do to change that.
  3. If you’re looking for a new location, and it will be in an office building:
    1. make SURE you have your own suite number. And the suite number needs to signify different physical space – not just a number tacked on to make “Suite 200” into “Suite 200-12.”
    2. try to avoid a building that has other businesses with the same specialty as your practice

Good luck finding the right location!