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Geo targeting is one of the most asked questions at the Global or International SEO sessions. Geo targeting has become one of the biggest challenges for many big websites that deal with multiple languages and target multiple markets. Since Google announced in last May that they expanded a list of “Generic” top level domains, which you can set the geo targeting, I think it’s a good time to go through the Geo targeting best practice for SEO.
What is Geo Targeting?
Not just Google, but most major search engines try to serve the pages near the location of the search users in the search results. This happens even if a search query doesn’t really specify or limit the information they are looking for to a specific location. It means that a person searching for “apple” in US would get different search results from a person searching for “apple” in UK, France, Australia, etc. A person in Australia would see more pages related to “apple” from websites in Australia in the search results. A site owner may think that his/her English website should work for all English speaking countries. It should, but the reality is that without taking the right Geo targeting steps, his/her English website is not competitive outside the home country.
How does Geo Targeting work?
The search engines use several signals to determine the location that the website is likely targeting (regardless of the website owner’s intention.)
The main signals that they look for are:
- Domain – ccTLDs such as “.co.uk” for UK and “.com.au” for Australia
- Web server/hosting location
- Language used on page
- Geo targeting setting (Google Webmaster Tools, not applicable to other engines)
They also look other signals like where are external links coming from. For example, if your “.com” site hosted in US have many links coming from websites in Australia, the engines take it as your website is relevant to people in Australia, too. Now, you don’t have to meet all above conditions, but keep in mind that ccTLD domain has the strongest impact on the Geo targeting, and also gives not much flexibilities.
When a website has ccTLD domain such as “.cn” for China or “.fr” for France, the search engines view them as websites designed for a specific market. Therefore, Google Webmaster Tools won’t let you set the target Geo location for websites with ccTLD. If your website has one of generic domains such as “.com”, you can set the Geo location using the Webmaster Tools.
Of course, this is not a good news to website owners who chose to use ccTLD for their websites. When they first launched a website, probably Geo targeting wasn’t a big issue. Just because you have “.in” domain, it doesn’t mean that you don’t want to target other countries. A good news is that Google announced last May that they expended a list of ccTLDs that they recognize as “generic”. The list includes ccTLDs such as “.co” and “.lo”. Those ccTLDs, which recognized as “generic” are the ones that everyone can register regardless of the business location. So, if you have “.co.jp”, your domain is still restricted, but this is a change for the right direction.
Google stated that you don’t have to host Geo website in each country. In that statement, they said that other signals such as ccTLD and Geo targeting setting in Google Webmaster Tools override the server location. This is actually a known fact for many of us SEO practitioners. If you read their statement, it also means that if you don’t have ccTLD and don’t set Geo location using Google Webmaster Tools, the server location still speaks loudly to specify the target country.
Beside Google’s statement, hosting website in each country would also help the download speed. A page download in less than 4 seconds in US could take more than 10 seconds to download in many countries. If you are targeting other markets, this is something you should consider improving. Also, the Geo targeting you set in Google Webmaster Tools would only work with Google, and not with other search engines. If you are targeting countries where Google may not be the main search engine of choice, such as China and Russia, having a right ccTLD and hosting website in the right location could become a great investment for your business.
What do you do, if all fail?
If you take these steps to send a signal to the search engines, but still have problem with wrong country page showing up in some countries, the best measure to take would be to create a href=language XML sitemap, and submit it to the search engines. It should solve the problem, although you should first investigate to identify the cause of the problem, and try to fix them.