Search engines often confuse server location with Web site country or language. How multinational firms can optimize SERP relevancy.
Buzzing around the planet, I get to see SERPs (define) in many different locations and languages. Generally, clients I work with are multinationals, so their SEO (define) related hosting issues can be tricky to tackle.
A while ago, I had a nightmare hosting issue with one of my clients in China. I turned to my friend and colleague Teddie Cowell, a leading SEO professional with U.K.-based SEM (define) firm Neutralize for a little help and advice. There's no doubt Cowell is the industry expert when it comes to search engines and geolocation/-targeting.
"I personally believe geotargeting/-localization of SERPs is one of the biggest yet probably easiest addressable bugs with most search engines. Why, in 2007, should search engine optimizers still have problems getting their clients' Web sites into a specific country's SERP?" he ranted to me, clunking his Guinness on the bar.
The problem really affects non-region-specific domains, such as .com, .net, and .org. Historically, Americans have misinterpreted .com addresses as being U.S. rather than international, as was intended. This mindset influenced the current attitude on domain names. Additionally, because of the Internet's global nature, businesses are likely to locate their sites wherever it's most cost effective. Cowell still hosts some applications in the U.S., for instance.
There are other scenarios where businesses are forced to host in different countries, such as when their CMS (define) or e-commerce systems are hosted by an ASP (define) and all the servers might be in one data center in another country.
Thus, Web sites intended for one country's SERP sometimes end up somewhere entirely different. And there might be technical reasons they can't be physically moved.
Cowell gave me a crude example and hack using the language-versus-country filters. He ran a search for .com domains in English that contain "U.K." in the URL and title, don't include the words "Sweden" or "Scandinavia" in the page, and allocated to the "Web sites in Sweden" filter.
"Obviously there is a mixture of Web sites in there, and I've probably missed loads that weren't so clearly referencing the U.K. in their pages," he observed. "But many of this set are clearly U.K.-specific domains and should be assigned to a U.K., not Swedish, filter.
"A similar problem is reported by many companies who host their sites with 1&1, a very popular hosting company in the U.K. But they're based in Germany, as are all their servers, and as a knock-on effect, so are the Web sites," he added.
Let's say an end user goes to Google and selects pages from the U.K. Some U.K. sites won't show up in the SERP because Google's localization filters aren't immediately associating some sites with the U.K. They can have the domain associated with somewhere else, which, Cowell says, "can lead to less relevancy in the SERP, making it a big issue for many Web site owners who want to get in front of the most relevant audience but aren't."
What's the answer to this location mishmash?
"How about some way for Webmasters to manually change their localization settings somewhere in Google Webmaster Central?" suggests Cowell. It seems like a good idea: a manual override that could fix the domain level filters and take factors such as hosting location out of the picture.
But the problem is actually bigger than that, because Google's localization filter is only assigned at domain level. This means Google can't filter content in subdirectories to different geographic regions. And this is the way many multinationals have their content structured -- a different subdirectory for each country and language. There's still a lot of room for improvement in localization and SERP relevancy.
"You're pretty much screwed if you have your content set up on the server this way and want coverage in multiple country SERPs," Cowell said. Of course, SEO wisdom is usually to recommend setting up specific domains and hosting in the targeted countries. This is simply not an option in so many cases, however.
I asked Cowell what other localization clues we could give search engines. "I really like the attribute," he told me. This was introduced as part of HTML 4.01. Not only is it part of the W3C accessibility standards, you can apply it on a per-page (even per-element) basis, he explained.
He also suggests using U.K. or local language spellings and getting listed in the country-specific sections of Open Directory and Yahoo (Open Directory recently reopened its doors for business). Finally, he sees a future trend in the potential use of microformats, such as hCard and Address. This, he says, will make it easier to identify your office locations further down the line.
Here's something else to consider. All regional Google sites have an option to search from the searcher's country. (Except for Google in the U.S., where there's no "Search pages from U.S. only." Why is that?)
Sure, there's another solution to geotargeting: you could just cloak it (IP delivery). But with Google, that's not advisable!
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