Google Location, the best of results, the worst of results

Google announced on their official blog a couple of days ago that location was the new black. Enhancing search results by allowing the surfer to rank results ‘nearby’, or pick another location by name.

This is just a continuation of the direction on-line technologies have been moving with social media leading the charge. Services like foursquare giving people their constant location fix. Twitter has even gone local allowing you to share your location in 140 character chunks.

Up until now the only real down side of this location hungry trend has been the exact same thing touted as the benefit of telling the world where you are. Namely that the world knows where you are. Privacy concerns are rife as the mobile social media crowd go about their daily lives in a virtual fish bowl.

pleaserobme.com highlights this by aggregating public location information from various social networks and figuring out if your house is empty. How long before insurance companies wise up and use Social media as a reason for not paying out on your house insurance? “But Mr Jones, you told the entire world you were away from your house, you encouraged the burglar.”

The last thing on earth I would want to do is share my location real time with the world but I was keen to experience the Google location search to see how it actually effects search results.

The impact of location based search is going to be far more noticeable in the real world than the failed insurance claims of some iPod users.

The Google blog entry says that this is available to English google.com users, but we don’t have it here in New Zealand yet. We might have been first to see the new millennium, but not so much with Google changes.

To get my Google location fix I used a secure proxy based in the US and took in the view or the world from Colorado. Pretending to be within the 48 States is handy for all sorts of things.

LocationI did some searches from a clean browser install on a fresh virtual machine, so that personal search preferences or history would not taint the results. I then set about testing some long-tail search phrases that give top 5 results consistently for our website at work.

No surprise that I got essentially the same results as I do here in New Zealand, but with more ads due to targeted adwords detecting that I was in the US of A. What was disturbing was that selecting ‘nearby’ knocked our search result down past the tenth page of Google.

We sell products to the whole world, and do not have a geographical target so the location search will clearly have an impact on our organic results as it rolls out. A business which is targeting a local area such as a coffee shop or Restaurant might well benefit from the location search, assuming that Google knows where your website is.

But there’s the rub. How did Google decide our website was not near Colorado? Our webserver lives in Dallas TX, our offices are in New Zealand and Thailand, and we regularly sell products to over thirty countries.

Which leads to the impact of location for web developers and the SEO community. How do you tell Google what your ‘Local’ is? I messed about with location names, and putting in ‘Christchurch’ where our business is based got our long tail hit back up to the front page, but only a fraction of our business comes from Christchurch, dispite it being where our head office is.

I suppose anti-globalisation campaigners in their hemp shirts and sandals will be rejoicing at this news but I’m not so sure I’m going to be celebrating this development with the same enthusiasm.
A quick search for meta-tags or other methods of identifying your geographical target came up dry, and even if there was one we can only gently suggest to Google that it index and present things the way we as web site owners want.

When the dust has settled and the ‘Nearby’ link is clicked Google are the only ones who know what the best results are. It just might be that their best just became your worst if your business has a broad geographical target and weak organic placement.

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