All of the major search engines use geolocation as an important ranking
factor. The basic premise for this practice is that the geographically closer a website is "located"
to a user, the more relevant that site's information will tend to be for that user. But the
search engines don't always make it clear how they determine in which country a website is
deemed to be located. And because this is a major factor in your website's rankings, it's important
to convey the correct information to the search engines. This SEO tutorial will show you how the
search engines determine a website's geolocation, and what you can do to control it.
The major search engines maintain separate sites (domain names) for individual countries. These localized search engines allow users to restrict their search results to websites that reside within their own country. But most webmasters are not aware that even normal world-wide searches are heavily biased by geographic location - a ranking factor often referred to in SEO circles as "geo-location". Naturally, website owners need to insure that the search engines are aware of their site's intended geographic location. But how do you accomplish this?
The answer is really very simple. The major search engines - Google, Ask, and Bing - use two common criteria for determining the country where a site is located (ie. its geolocation). The first is to check the Top Level Domain (TLD) name. If your site has a Country Code Top Level Domain Name -that is, a domain name that ends in a country code like ".ca" for Canada, ".uk" for the United Kingdom, or ".fr" for France - then your site will be included in the country-specific search results and will receive a ranking benefit in all searches originating in that country (with a few exceptions). The second method used by the search engines to determine the geographic location of a website is the IP address of the site. If your site is hosted on a server that is physically located in the target country, then that site will be included in the country-specific searches even if you have a generic TLD domain name like ".com", ".net" or ".info".
In addition, Google has hinted that they also use other signals for a country's geolocation, such as the geolocation of websites that link to yours. The other search engines don't acknowledge any additional means for determining the country where a website resides, but it's reasonable to assume that they may be doing it now or some time in the future, so it's always a good idea to focus your link building efforts with this in mind. Note, however, that these seem to be minor factors in the process and would never override the effect of a Country Code TLD.
What does all of this mean to the small business website owner? It means that if you buy a Country Code TLD domain name, you can have your site hosted anywhere in the world and still be automatically considered to have a geolocation in your target country. Until recently, web hosting was very expensive in many countries outside the US. But it's still easier to find cheap hosting in the US than elsewhere. This leads many small companies to buy hosting services in the US. The requirements for getting a country-code TLD domain name, if any, are usually limited to a residency or relevance requirement that is easily met. WikiPedia has excellent links to all of this information for each Country Code Top Level Domain that include the governing registrar, the second-level domains, and other requirements.
Google has enhanced the Webmaster Tools console to allow you to select the preferred geo-location of your site with their Geographic Target tool. In fact, Google has gone several steps futher than simply setting the country for a website. You can now set the exact location in conjunction with Google Maps, and have different geo-location settings for subdomains and subdirectories within a single domain. So if you have a generic Top Level Domain, a single website can be targeted to several different countries. This might not be a solution for every website since you would need to create unique content for each target country, and thus divide your efforts and search engine ranking strength among them all. But in many cases, it is an absolute boon to webmasters to be able to target users outside their native country so easily and effectively.
To set your website's geolocation in Google, log into the Google Webmaster Tools console and select the Tools tab. Choose the "Set geographic target" option and you'll see a form that you can fill in with your website's target location. Once you've done that, you can also add your website to Google Maps. If you search for Rainbo Design in Google Maps, you'll find me in south Minneapolis. This is another important reason why you should definitely participate in the Google Webmaster Tools program. See the Google Webmaster Blog Video on this subject for details on using the Geographic Target tool.
If you're a non-US website owner and you've already bought hosting service in the US and using (for one reason or another) a generic TLD domain name (ie. ".com" or ".net" etc.), all is not lost. You can always buy a Country Code Top Level Domain Name, and move your site to the new domain by installing a server code 301 redirect for all requests for your old domain name. This will preserve most of your old domain name's search engine rankings by transferring the link popularity (a.k.a. PageRank). There will be a period of weeks (or, sadly, months) during which the rankings of your site will be impaired while the search engines absorb the change of domain name. Even before the new domain name has replaced the original domain name in the search engines, you should also request that your link partners to change their links to your new domain name to capture the full benefits of those links.
The situation gets more complicated when you have a website that is designed to serve more than one country. I don't mean a site that might be appreciated no matter where the user is located. I mean a site that has a limited set of target countries. Google has some great information on Multi-Regional Sites that discusses the issue and offers some basic solutions.
Its also very useful to examine pages like Google's Country-Specific Search Advice to see how they advise users to do country-specific searches. Checking the search engines' online documentation can lead you to a much better understanding of how search engines operate, as well as how actual users do their searching. And Google's Matt Cutts has posted a good video on this topic that I've included here:
Bing Webmaster Tools now offers an equivilent website geographic setting. You'll find it in the Webmaster Tools console's left-hand menu under:
Dashboard -> Tools -> Configure My Site -> Geo-Targeting
Bing allows you to specify the geolocation for the entire domain, a subdomain, a selected directory, or even a single page. So you can easily have specific sections of your website targeted to different countries. Very nice!
Note that there are a handful of Country Code TLDs that Google treats as being generic. These ccTLDs are from small countries that have been used by commercial interests to such a large extent that the geolocation signal for them is not reliable. The list of generic ccTLDs includes: ".ad", ".as", ".bz", ".cc", ".cd", ".co", ".dj", ".fm", ".gg", ".io", ".la", ".me", ".ms", ".nu", ".sc", ".sr", ".su", ".tv", ".tk", and ".ws". You can see the current list at Google Answers, where they refer to these as Geotargetable TLDs, which means you can select a Geographic Target for them in Google Webmaster Tools (more details below).
This page was last updated on April 25, 2016
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