September 22nd, 2008.
Being based in the UK I find that SEOs on this side of the pond have to get very familiar with website geo-location factors. It’s an unfortunate quirk of search engines that one of the main criteria that search engines use to determine a websites location is the location of its webhost.
If you’re looking to target a specific locality, then it’s vital that your site is recognised by search engines as being from that territory. Local websites are featured more prominently in local versions of the search engines, there are also surfers are given the option to see only pages from their location excluding foreign based sites.
Up until fairly recently UK hosting tended to be fairly expensive in comparison to our US cousins. For this reason many UK based sites found themselves running into problems when they tried to save costs by hosting their sites in the USA.
Don’t take it for granted that by hosting with a UK based company that their servers will also be based in the UK. Many UK hosting companies locate their servers overseas including one very well known host that bases their servers in Germany. I’m sure this is the case the world over. When signing up for hosting contracts, if location is an issue for you, always check that the servers are located geographically where you would expect them to be.
There are several factors that are theorised that effect the location of a site in terms of search engines. This list tends to include,
- The top level domain extension (.co.uk, .fr, .de)
- The location (IP address) of the website host
- The geographic location of the domain registrar
- The language that the site is written in
- The location of incoming links
- On page factors (addresses, telephone numbers)
- Registering with Google Local
Obviously some of these factors hold more importance than others, some I theorise are used marginally, others I believe not at all, or their effect is too minimal to test.
Using The Correct TLD (Top Level Domain)
This is your best case scenario. You have a site that you’re targeting to UK consumers, holding a .co.uk site will pretty much guarantee that you’ll be found in the UK search results, even if you choose to host out of the country. For example the server for whois.co.uk is based in the US, but the site is still returned in the UK only version of a Google search.
Website Host Location
There are of course many instances of websites that are targeted to a specific country but are using a generic top level domain such as a .com or .net. In these cases simply ensuring that your hosts servers are geographically located in your marketplace should ensure that the site is recognised as being local. The Datadial site for example is using a .net TLD, but as its host is located in the UK is still appears for UK only queries. ASP.net which is located in the US does not appear for the equivalent query.
Geographic Location Of The Domain Registrar
I feel this is a factor that is sometimes overlooked by many webmasters, but as Google has access to the geographic location such as the location of the domain registrar it would make sense for them to make use of this as well. This along with other registrar information such as Whois data could well be used as a ‘tie-breaker’ when country-specific TLDs are hosted elsewhere. For example many country specific TLDs such as .fm, .cc, and .tv are now being used because of the brandability of the domain extension. In cases such as these where the TLD extension is indicating one location and the hosting location indicating another then it would be a logical step to make use of the information available from the domain registrar.
Obviously as well as it making sense to make sure your site is written in the language of the search visitors that you’re looking for, it may well be one of the factors that a search engine may use to help determine the location of a site. It certainly isn’t a defining factor though as it’s relatively easy to find foreign language sites within the UK only search results.
Location Of Incoming Links
As above, the idea is that a search engine can use the location of incoming links to determine the site location. Again, I’m sceptical if this is any more than of marginal importance. I have seen lots of sites with low quality link profiles that consist of largely overseas located links and of course news sites with very few links seem to have little problem get geographically placed before backlinks have had a chance to develop.
Site Addresses/Telephone Numbers
Again, it’s just good practice to have local contact details for local markets. There is also speculation that this may be used to place a sites location. Again this is difficult to test but I’m doubtful if this is would be anything more than of marginal importance.
Registering With Google Local
Again, hard to test, but it would make sense for Google to make as much use of all the information that was made available to them. Yahoo and MSN also have similar local services.
Going back to our original list I would place the factors in the following order of importance,
- TLD extension
- Hosting location
- Domain registrar
- Google local registration
- Incoming links
- Site language
- On page addresses/phone numbers
Of course, many of these factors are very difficult to test on their own as it’s difficult to isolate individual factors on their own. Certainly the first three seem to influence the outcome the most.
Site Targeting In Google Webmaster Tools
Last year Google added an option in Webmaster Tools to define a geographic location for a website. Unfortunately this is only an option if you site is already on a non-specific TLD.Â Vanessa Fox wrote on SearchEngineland,
If your domain is a location-specific TLD (such as the .fr example above), Google will show you the country that your site is associated with but won’t let you specify something different. However, if your domain is not country specific (such as a .com or .net), you can indicate the location of the site…
You can provide information at a more granular level than country. For example, if your site is for a pizza restaurant in Seattle, you can specify up to the street address (although you can input any granularity that makes sense for your business such as city or state).
One of the most useful things about this tool is that it lets you specify different locations for each subdomain. This can be extremely helpful for large corporates which could save them from having to purchase domains and/or source hosting in many different localities.
The SEOMoz Geo-detection tool is is a useful way of checking how well a website is targeted to a specific country or market.
Get Elastic – Location Targeting In Google
Webmaster Central Blog – Better Geographic Choices For Webmasters
Search Engine Journal – On Site Geotargeting And SEO
Search Engine Land – SEO And SEM Outside The US