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I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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January 06, 2011

#Google Search and The Limits of #Location

I broke my own rule earlier today and twitched (that's tweeted+*itched -- you read it here first) an impulsive complaint about how Google does not allow you to opt out of having it consider your location as a relevance factor in the search results it offers you:

Epic fail

I don't take it back.  But, I do think I owe a constructive suggestion for how this could be done, in a way that doesn't compromise the business logic I infer behind this regrettable choice.  Plus, I'll lay out what I infer this logic to be, and the drivers for it, in the hope that someone can improve my understanding.  Finally, I'll lay out some possible options for SEO in an ever-more-local digital business context.

OK, first, here's the problem.  In one client situation I'm involved with, we're designing an online strategy with SEO as a central objective.  There are a number of themes we're trying to optimize for.  One way you improve SEO is to identify the folks who rank / index highly on terms you care about, and cultivate a mutually valuable relationship in which they eventually may link to relevant content you have on a target theme.  To get a clean look at who indexes well on a particular theme and related terms, you can de-personalize your search.  You do this with a little url surgery:

Start with the search query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]

Then graft on a little string to depersonalize the query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]&pws=0

Now, when I did this, I noticed that Google was still showing me local results.  These usually seem less intrusive.  But now, like some invasive weed, they'd choked off my results, ranging all the way to the third position and clogging up most of the rest of the first page, for a relatively innocuous term ("law"; lots of local law firms, I guess).  

Then I realized that "&pws=0" tells Google to stop rummaging around in the cookies it's set on my browser, plus other information in my http requests, and won't help me prevent Google guessing / using my location, since that's based on the location of the ISP's router between my computer and the Google cloud.

 Annoyed, I poked around to see what else I could do about it.  Midway down the left-hand margin of the search results page, I noticed this:

Google Search Location Control

 

So naturally, my first thought was to specify "none", or "null", to see if I could turn this off.  No joy. 

Next, some homework to see if there's some way to configure my way out of this.  That led me to Rishi's post (see the third answer, dated 12/2/2010, to the question).  

Unbelieving that an organization with as fantastic a UI aesthetic -- that is to say, functional / usable in the extreme -- as Google would do this, I probed further. 

First stop: Web Search Help.  The critical part:

Q. Can I turn off location-based customization?

A. The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven't provided a way to turn off location customization, although we've made it easy for you to set your own location or to customize using a general location as broad as the country that matches your local domain...

Ah, so, "It's a feature, not a bug." :-)

...If you find that your results for a particular search are more local than what you're looking for, you can set your location to a broader geographical area (such as a country instead of a city, zip code, or street address). Please note that this will greatly reduce the amount of locally relevant results that you’ll see. [emphasis mine]

 Exactly!  So I tried to game the system:

Google Search Location Control world

Drat!  Foiled again.  Ironic, this "Location not recognized" -- from the people who bring us Google Earth!

Surely, I thought, some careful consideration must have gone into turning the Greatest Tool The World Has Ever Known into the local Yellow Pages.  So, I checked the Google blog.  A quick search there for "location", and presto, this. Note that at this point, February 26, 2010, it was still something you could add.  

Later, on October 18, 2010 -- where I have I been? -- this, which effectively makes "search nearby" non-optional:

We’ve always focused on offering people the most relevant results. Location is one important factor we’ve used for many years to customize the information that you find. For example, if you’re searching for great restaurants, you probably want to find ones near you, so we use location information to show you places nearby.

Today we’re moving your location setting to the left-hand panel of the results page to make it easier for you to see and control your preferences. With this new display you’re still getting the same locally relevant results as before, but now it’s much easier for you to see your location setting and make changes to it.

(BTW, is it just me, or is every Google product manager a farmer's-market-shopping, restaurant-hopping foodie?  Just sayin'... but I seriously wonder how much designers' own demographic biases end up influencing assumptions about users' needs and product execution.)

Now, why would Google care so much about "local" all of a sudden?  Is it because Marissa Mayer now carries a torch for location (and Foursquare especially)?  Maybe.  But it's also a pretty good bet that it's at least partly about the Benjamins.  From the February Google post, a link to a helpful post on SocialBeat, with some interesting snippets: 

"Location may get a central place in Google’s web search redesign"

Google has factored location into search results for awhile without explicitly telling the user that the company knows their whereabouts. It recently launched ‘Nearby’ search in February, returning results from local venues overlaid on top of a map.

Other companies also use your IP address to send you location-specific content. Facebook has long served location-sensitive advertising on its website while Twitter recently launched a feature letting users geotag where they are directly from the site. [emphasis mine]

Facebook's stolen a march on Google in the social realm (everywhere but Orkut-crazed Brazil; go figure).  Twitter's done the same to Google on the real-time front.  Now, Groupon's pay-only-for-real-sales-and-then-only-if-the-volumes-justify-the-discount threatens the down-market end of Google's pay-per-click business with a better mousetrap, from the small biz perspective.  (BTW, that's why Groupon's worth $6 billion all of a sudden.)  All of these have increasingly (and in Groupon's case, dominantly) local angles  where the value to both advertiser and publisher (Facebook / Twitter / Groupon) are presumably highest.

Ergo, Google gets more local.  But that's just playing defense, and Eric, Sergey, Larry, and Marissa are too smart (and, with $33 billion in cash on hand, too rich) to do just that.

Enter Android.  Hmm.  Just passed Apple's iOS and now is running the table in the mobile operating system market share game.  Why wouldn't I tune my search engine to emphasize local search results, if more and more of the searches are coming from mobile devices, and especially ones running my OS?  Yes, it's an open system, but surely dominating it at multiple layers means I can squeeze out more "rent", as the economists say?

The transcript of Google's Q3 earnings call is worth a read.

Now, back to my little problem.  What could Google do that would still serve its objective of global domination through local search optimization, while satisfying my nerdy need for "de-localized" results?  The answer's already outlined above -- just let me type in "world", and recognize it for the pathetic niche plea that it is.  Most folks will never do this, and this blog's not a bully-enough pulpit to change that. Yet.

The bigger question, though, is how to do SEO in a world where it's all location, location, location, or as SEOmoz writes

"Is Every Query Local Now?" 

Location-based results raise political debates, such as "this candidate is great" showing up as the result in one location while "this candidate is evil" in another.  Location-based queries may increase this debate.  I need only type in a candidate's name and Instant will tell me what is the prevailing opinion in my area.  I may not know if that area is the size of a city block or the entire world, but if I am easily influenced then the effect of the popular opinion has taken one step closer (from search result to search query) to the root of thought.   The philosphers among you can debate whether or not the words change the very nature of ideas.

Heavy.

OK, never leave without a recommendation.  Here are two:

First, consider that for any given theme, some keywords might be more "local" than others.  Under the theme "Law", the keyword "law" will dredge up a bunch of local law firms.  But another keyword, say "legal theory", is less likely to have that effect (until discussing that topic in local indie coffee shops becomes popular, anyway).  So you might explore re-optimizing for these less-local alternatives.  (Here's an idea: some enterprising young SEO expert might build a web service that would, for any "richly local" keyword, suggest less-local alternatives from a crowd-sourced database compiled by angry folks like me.  Sort of a "de-localization thesaurus".  Then, eventually, sell it to a big ad agency holding company.)

Second, as location kudzu crawls its way up Google's search results, there's another phenomenon happening in parallel.  These days, for virtually any major topic, the Wikipedia entry for it sits at or near the top of Google's results.  So, if as with politics, now too search and SEO are local, and much harder therefore to play, why not shift your optimization efforts to the place that the odds-on top Google result will take you, if theme leadership is a strategic objective?

 

PS Google I still love you.  Especially because you know where I am. 

 

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