Using Google’s Search Location Setting. Buyer Beware!

Personalization and Localization of Search

Location marker illustrating local searchOver the years we’ve noticed increasing personalization of search. This is the practice followed by search engines of providing one set of search results to one searcher and a different set to another searcher even though they are entering the exact same search query.

Related to personalization is localization. I normally lump localization of search and personalization of search in the same category because they both do the same thing: customize search results to better fit the intent of the individual searcher.

Whenever you perform a search, you are connecting to the Internet using an I.P. Address, or number. This is a unique number that identifies your Internet connection. I.P. numbers are typically identifiable in general geographic locales. For example if I connect to the Internet here in my office in Grand Junction, Colorado and do a search on Google, even though Google can’t see who I am, they can see that my I.P. number is based in Grand Junction.  This allows Google to display search results that take into account my searching location. Google will favor, sometimes strongly, Grand Junction business websites based on my location.

This presents a bit of a challenge for an Internet professional such as myself, since I work with businesses all over the country and I need to see how well they rank for a Google search.

In the past the Google search location settings have come to my rescue. I can conduct a search, click on “Search Tools,” and set my location to “Las Vegas NV,” for example. (See screen capture below)

screen shot example of using search tools for location override

Search Location Override Isn’t What it Used to Be

But this method is no longer effective for me, because it appears that Google is displaying a different set of results based on whether I specify my search location or let them determine it automatically from my i.p. number.

This creates a problem for a business owner or marketing professional who is wondering just how visible their company website is on a Google search within a particular geographic region, especially if they are not physically in the area they are checking.

Let’s look at the following example, based on one of our own clients. The client in question is the dominant mover in the Las Vegas market, Move 4 Less. Move 4 Less is a local Las Vegas company that regularly beats out national competitors in search results. If I run a search for “Moving Companies” from my Western Colorado location with my search tools set to “Las Vegas Nevada,” here’s what I will see:

Example of search on Google from Grand Junction

Our client shows below the 7-pack, way below the fold in my Colorado search, even thought I’ve specified a location of Las Vegas NV.

 

A Physical Search in Las Vegas is Dramatically Different

Here’s the same search conducted by my colleague Matt from his desktop in Las Vegas.  Note how our client is showing up smack in the middle of the local results (the so-called 7-pack), which is far higher on the page:

from_las_vegas_user_matt_campbell_location_not-set2

 

What Takes Priority in Google’s World?

The physical location is not trumping the location setting in Google Search tools, it appears to be the other way around.  The Search tools setting is actually over-riding the results given by a plain-vanilla search conducted in the physical region.  How do I know?  Note this last screen shot.  It is the same search done from the Las Vegas location, but with the Search tools setting set to “Las Vegas.”  Here the geographic data is trumped and distorted in a very unpredictable way, showing a set of results identical to those I got in Colorado:

 

 

screen capture showing Google search with location hard coded

Search setting trumps physical location. But why it produces the results it does is anyone’s guess.

 

Conclusion

The take away from all of this is simple: don’t trust your own searches – or even your own eyeballs – when it comes to evaluating how visible your Website is in Google searches.  Many businesses obsess over “Googling” their “money” keyword terms, but this is such an imperfect way to measure it’s becoming almost useless.  There are better ways to determine visibility in Google search results, but I’ll leave those for another post.

(Or, if you can’t wait for that future post, either hire Horizon Web Marketing to do some consulting for you, or sign up for one of the SEO workshops that I’ll be teaching in Las Vegas this year.)

Ross Barefoot

Ross Barefoot is the Chief Technology Officer at Horizon Web Marketing. In his work with Horizon Ross brings 35 years of small business management experience, 25 years programming experience, 20 years web development experience, and 13 years experience as a professional SEO. Ross is also currently a certified SEO trainer with the Search Engine Academy and serves on its board of directors.       

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Steve Scott

    I’ve never tried to set the location setting in the same physical location before and compare it to the results of the same search term without it set in that geographic location or from an outside location with it set (confused much).

    I wonder if the actual IP address of the location in Las Vegas has anything to do with it. For instance, I was working with a company that had a location in Tampa but they were getting their internet service from a provider whose IP address was actually seen as being out of Tampa and that impacted the results. Also, I’ve seen changes for very competitive terms when I was physically in a different zip code but within the same city.

    Bottom line though is you are correct… don’t trust rankings as they fluctuate way too much. Oh and thanks to Google’s new “Snack Pack” for local, all your screen shots are going to need to be replaced. 😉

    Thanks Google!

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