Google’s goal is to return the most relevant and useful sites in response to a user query. Consequently, the results they show to a user in Vancouver, BC; Canada will most likely vary from the results returned to a user in Toronto, ON; Canada as the user’s location is a major factor for determining search results’ relevancy.
This is not something new. In fact, Google hasn’t displayed “un-customized” geo-located results for over a decade. A change however, came with the “Venice” update at the end of February 2012, when hyper local search results were pushed.
The “Venice” update
The update missed many SEO’s attention since it didn’t affect the results as badly as Penguin and Panda did. But only the fact that this algorithm got its own code name means it was deemed pretty significant by Google.
More than that, location-based customization should be recognized as an important factor for better user experience as Google doesn’t even allow turning it off; it does not require your consent, and it will even occur when browsing in “incognito” mode.
This makes total sense if you think that no one is going to use the services of say, a plumber, who is 4,000 miles/km away from his location. Take a look at the rankings for “car insurance”, a business model that accepts applicants online from anywhere in Canada:
However, even services that are not tied with a physical location will get personalized results. I dare say that all organic results are now influenced by user location in one way (straight IP detection) or another (sneaky toolbars or mobile phone tracking).
Moreover, Google has acquired IPS patents (indoor positioning systems, which let you locate yourself inside a building). In the near future, innovators like Google will be able to capture your exact position (floor level and distance to a store in a mall) and deliver the most relevant ads and content. I wonder how this is going to personalize search results in 2013…
It is not the purpose of this article to detail how search engines identify your location, but here are a few pointers:
• Identify Contact Us pages on the website and find partial or complete addresses
• Use of landmark identifiers on the About Us/Contact Us page (references such as “We are two minutes away from Canada Place in Vancouver”)
• Use of the HTML address tag
• Structured markup such as microdata
For those interested in more technical details on how search engines might track location and use geo data, here’s a list of patents assigned to Google for such activities:
• Assigning Geographic Location Identifiers to Web Pages
• Inferring Geographic Locations for Entities Appearing in Search Queries
• Geographic Coding for Location Search Queries
• Refining Location Estimates and Reverse Geocoding Based on a User Profile
• Scoring Local Search Results Based on Location Prominence
Test your rankings for different locations
Location-based customized results pose a specific challenge to business owners who operate at national levels and would like to track the rankings for their targeted keywords in specific locations.
And if you might think that your keywords and rankings are not prone to customization based on geo location, I challenge you to test that.
1. Go to Google (.com, .ca, .de or other country code) and sign out if you’re logged in.
2. Remove all cookies and then disable customization based on history.
3. Search the keywords you track rankings for (by default Google will try to get your location based on your IP and personalize the results).
4. Change the city and search again.
Keeping track of rankings with Excel
If you need to go about checking the rankings for multiple keywords in several cities, on a regular base, you might end up with a file that looks like this:
In the image above, Column #1 lists the rankings of AdWords ads, column #2 the places rankings, and column #3 the rankings for organic. You could eventually log news or video results too if they are relevant for your business, but you should be aware that the more data you track, the more difficult it will be to build this sheet manually.
Our approach at Pitstop Media Inc
Frustrated by the enormous time required to do this manually and by the inability of many rank tracking tools to record rankings for city based searches, we initially started working with a programmer on our own rank tracking tool (PHP +MySQL).
The basics came together pretty well – within a week we were able to input, gather and scrape non geo-location results, ability to bucket/ignore local, video, news and image results.
After a while we decided it was not worth the time and investment and that we could get better advantage of our efforts if they were put into a solution that was already effective. That is when we started using Advanced Web Ranking.
I am not going to re-write something that’s been previously explained in detail, so if you wish to know how exactly AWR works for tracking geo-location customized results, please read Rankings by geo location.
However, we did not consider our mini-project a failure – we now believe we know what needs to be done if we want to make such things work in the future and how we can maximize search engine visibility for our business in different locations.
Tracking geo-location customized search results could vary from business to business which makes it so challenging for any SEO. Therefore, your own thoughts and suggestions on this are much appreciated so, please share them in the comments below.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.