Local SEO’s Share Geo Location Tips From Around The World

Geo location is becoming increasingly relevant to search engine optimisation. This interview aims to ask questions about some of the hottest issues out there.

I spoke to 5 experts who are all active in the SEO world. The answers here have only been edited in the lightest sense of the word. No-one saw the replies of others before submitting their own responses so any overlaps have been included for interest’s sake.

(A quick nod should made in the direction of Sugar Rae’s excellent interview with five link development experts, which inspired the format of this post. If you haven’t read it, you should.)

Tadeusz Szewczyk of onreact.com- a German specialist in white-hat SEO techniques with an SEO 2.0 blog. He was born in Poland but now lives and works in Germany and answers our questions with respect to these two languages.

Maria Soledad Balayan is based in Argentina and works as an online marketing consultant for La Di Tella Marketing Club

Joost de Valk is an SEO consultant and webdesigner based in the Netherlands who works at Onetomarket.

Ciarán Norris is based in the UK and works just around the corner from us in London as the SEO & Social Media Director at Altogether Digital.

Duncan Morris is a Director here at Distilled in London and has been involved in web design and SEO for more years than he can remember.

1. How do accented characters or non-English letters of the alphabet affect SEO?

Maria- would there be any differences optimising café instead of cafe?

You need to decide if you are thinking purely for SEO or for the impression you want users to get from your site as well. I will always go for the proper way of spelling. Misspelling could be really bad for reputation and trust; even though people make a lot of mistakes when writing, they expect you don’t. Sometimes if people search using accents they do it because they are expecting to get that exact result. An accent can change the meaning of the entire sentence.

You can always run an AdWords campaign paying for the word without the accent to see what impact it has.

Last year Spain announced that the letter “ñ” was going to be accepted when registering domains and this will clearly cause changes in the way people from Spain and other Spanish speaking countries use it in domains. In the long run that affect will be translated to SERPs too, but it will take a lot of time to see that happen.

From the SEO point of view I am not sure if I will register a domain with a word that contains the letter “ñ” on it unless it is a powerful word or if I don’t have any intentions to appeal to other languages.

Tad - would you optimise with or without an umlaut or does this not make any difference?

German umlauts do affect SEO. Also Polish letters do, but in a different way. German umlauts are easy to mimic in that you write “ae”, “oe” or “ue”. You will notice though that an umlaut and its mimicked representation rank differently.

In Polish you have plenty of letters that do not exist in English or other languages. Thus you have to take into account that many people using non-Polish keyboards will not be able to spell correctly. In German this happens also but not that often.

For both languages you need to make sure the umlauts or special characters are rewritten correctly in your URLs. In German you get the above mentioned “ae” etc. but in Polish you just take the English equivalent. You should tag your pages (the Web 2.0 way) with additional spelling variations.

Ciarán- do you have any experience of this?

We have an interesting case study here – my name! A Google for my full name (Ciarán Norris) with and without the accent (or fotha to give it its correct, Gaelic, name) shows only very minor differences suggesting that the engines are getting better at determining that words with & without an accent may well be the same thing.

And the same question to number 5, Duncan- any thoughts?

Since english doesn’t have any accented characters this isn’t really something I have come across. There are definitely differences, though I think most of these are jusified, i.e. the addition of the accent changes the meaning of the word. If you search for cafe you get a different set of results (with overlap) than if you search for café. The most obvious change being which wikipedia page is indented.

From a usability point of view unless a native speaker said otherwise, I would always advise ensuring the URL doesn’t contain any accented characters. The following URL just looks messy to me, and I’m fairly sure that native speakers don’t read %C3%A9 as é!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caf%C3%A9

(To be fair to wikipedia, in this case the page that ranks takes you to a non accented version, and they do redirect between the two. However, a search for Zurich returns a wikipedia page with the ‘less attractive’ URL.)

2. What, if anything, would you do differently if you were targeting speakers of one language, irrelevant of where they were physically located? For example, a .com domain is more likely to appeal to both the French and French Canadian.

Joost I’d pick the domain extension that would work for the biggest group of people :)

Duncan As with many things, its a balancing act. Whilst a .com is likely to appeal to a wider range of people it can make it harder to get it to rank in the local search results.

Ciarán I actually think that a .fr might well be more likely to appeal to French speakers which highlights the fact that ther are two elements to decisions like this- cultural and technical.

If I was aiming to target a group of English speakers (across UK, US, Aus, NZ etc..) I’d probably go for a .com, based in the US as that’s where the biggest market is and therefore where the biggest potential SEO win is. I’d then rely on PR/buzz marketing to raise the profile of the site in other English territories.

There would have to be a similar decision making process for any group of languages (also remembering that as in many ways what may seem to be the same language actually isn’t- French Canadian for instance is a distant dialect).

Tad I’d use local TLD and servers: .de, .at and .ch for German, .pl for Poland. I’d also use local hosting for each country and of course translate the site in question.

When targeting a new market in a different language the most important thing is to do new market and keyword research. If you assume the people want and search for exactly the same things everywhere then you’ve already lost.

You should also strive to get links in the particular language you target, ideally from sites based in the respective country.

Maria Even when people speak the same language, if they live in different countries that could mean that they have cultural differences and different usage of words (slang). You need to be aware of that and consider those things when writing copy, managing website content and optimizing that content for specific keywords.

3. Do you think SEO is easier or harder for smaller countries or languages that don’t have many speakers?

Joost It’s easier because there’s less competition.

Tad It’s easier due to less competition. It’s harder due to smaller market (less traffic).

Maria Locally, I think that when you have less competition everything is easier, like in any industry. Fewer amounts of SERPs mean less websites to compete with and better chances to get ranked on top. Of course, if you need to compete with the whole world, it’s more complicated.

Duncan I think the law of averages should make it easier since there won’t be as many competitors. The flip side is a lot of the major sources of traffic (certainly from a social media standpoint), don’t have such a presence in the smaller countries.

4. What changes do you think 2008 will bring with regards to localisation issues?

Duncan I don’t envisage any massive leaps forwards. It wouldn’t surprise me to see another tweak to the display of local results.

I’d like to think these local results will continue to improve. I think there is still too much of a bias on how close you are to the arbitrary centre of the town / city you are in.

I’d also like to see changes (or clarification) on what exactly google.com is meant to be when the searcher is in the UK. Given that the default search engine for firefox is google.com the percentage of people using google.com from the UK is, in my opinion, likely to increase. It seems a shame for these people to see less optimal results than those people using google.co.uk. Currently it appears to be a (random?) mix of American results and UK results.

Maria As the amount of websites increases, localisation is going to have an important role because is going to provide (at least it should) more accurate results to users. I would love to have the “find business” feature from Google maps applied on other countries.

Ciarán All of the engines are looking to provide more & more locally relevant results, and the growth of mobile is only likely to fuel this. Take for example the search for coffee on a mobile: Google presents Wikipedia, Yahoo! aims to return the nearest café. If they can translate this to web searches (where they admittedly lack GPS) it could be a huge change in the SERPS. The release of Android is only likely to fuel this.

Tad More inclusion of geotargeting into ranking algos plus more reliance on reviews and local review sites.

Joost I think search engines will become even better in recognizing and dealing with smaller languages. Especially Google has been getting increasingly better in Dutch over the last years.

5. There was a time when updates (both algorithmically and aesthetically) took a long time to work their way over from Google.com to google.co.uk. Was this the same for other country-specific tld’s in your experience? Is it still a problem?

Tad There is still a difference but some changes are rolled out simultaneously while others that have been in the US still are not online in German. Poland is more often left behind.

Maria It used to happen but it is getting better with time.

Joost Yeah, we lag behind up to 3 months behind the UK and the US

Ciarán Sorry – no real opinion on this one!

Duncan I don’t think the algorithmic updates lag behind, though I do think the tactics used by (your average) UK SEO-er do. The SEO industry from the eyes of marketing departments is also a couple of years behind.

A topic fairly close to our hearts is reputation management. If you look at the ‘cleanliness’ of the politicians over here versus those in the US you will see that at the moment we don’t appear to have a clue!

6. In your experience, does the tld effect the click through rate in the SERPS? For example, would a result with a country-specific tld such a .fr have a higher ctr than a result with a generic .com tld?

Tad It depends. For tourism related sites you want a site from the destination country not the country you are from.

Joost Yes, absolutely, especially in countries like France and Germany, where people are a bit more “nationalistic”.

Duncan I think UK searchers are equally as comfortable seeing and using .co.uk and .com. However I believe (though have no first hand knowledge) that in most of the other european languages the tld is more important. That would make sense for anywhere where english isn’t the first language, since the majority of .com domains are written in english (or american, sorry small dig!).

Ciarán We’ve seen examples of local TLDs receiving more clicks, however again it varies; we in the UK seem less bothered about using a dot com (and indeed often think of this as normal) than many other countries.

Maria I think it could have an impact depending on the user’s experience. If people use local search engines they will expect to receive local results. And more experienced users may use additional keywords to let the search engine know that.

There is a feature that you can use when searching locally that tells the engine to show only results of the specific country (example: google.com.ar let you filter only pages from Argentina) and some people use it. Sometimes these results show .com results too because robots recognize the location or the language. Some websites are not recognized in these SERPs and in those cases they could loose some traffic.

If your business is locally focused you need to know that you will get better ctr if you are able to address that with the information you provide on the website. In this sense the long tail is going to get stronger because as times pass by more results are going to show up so there will be more competition for keywords. On the other hand users will get more advanced with more knowledge and they will apply that to the search phrases they use.

7. What do you think is the best way of handling international geo-location?

There are two common methods: the ‘apple’ method where a main powerful site (apple.com) is then divided into apple.com/uk and apple.com/fr etc; and the ‘amazon’ method where each country has its own distinct domain (amazon.fr, amazon.de etc).

Is there a situation where one is better than the other, or is one always best?

Maria I would say that for international geo-location purposes using .fr vs subdirectories could be a better choice. I am sure there are other factors (non SEO related) that made those companies decide to go for one or the other. That could be a good question to ask Matt Cutts.

Tad For Google it’s the tld domain. For the users in many cases a /de subdirectory would be best. For instance I would love to browse through Amazon or Ebay in English, German and Polish at the same time. I do not like the subdomain thing, it combines the disadvantages of both. Yes, for me (freelancers) .com is best as I rank well everywhere without the need for several domains.

Ciarán Again, this is a situation where more than just SEO is going to come into the equation. By having sub-domains (a la Apple) you can utilise a common URL in all advertising & packaging. We’re currently working with a major global brand who plan to have a single URL for just this reason; they need the URL on the product but they produce all their products in one location and then box them locally.

The Amazon method however allows you to totally own the SERPS and would probably be the method would we recommend if the only consideration is SEO.

Joost I prefer the different TLD’s, but in most cases there’s a solution already there, and you have to work with it. In my work with KLM, who use subdirectories, I’ve noticed that Google is pretty damn good in sending people to the right subdirectory, even if they’re searching in english in say Brazil, they would send them to /travel/br_en/

Duncan There are issues to overcome with either route. I think I’m currently leaning slightly towards having one domain and doing it at the folder level.

The problem with the amazon route is that you split link juice across the various domains you own. Even for a company the size of amazon, this is a problem, since the de-facto URL is always amazon.com. I often see amazon.com outranking amazon.co.uk and have to manually alter the URL.

The nice thing about having multiple tlds is that you have a local tld which can have a homepage in the local language. It also helps you to dominate the SERPS for branded search.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the search engines changing their algorithms slightly in an attempt to help get the relevant results in local searches. For example, I could believe that in the future you will be able to link domains via webmaster central (or the other equivalents) which could somehow pass some of the domain trust of the .com to the local languages.

Going down the apple route solves the domain weight issue, since all links are to the root domain. This route makes geo location harder since you will break a couple of the guidelines in order to rank locally (local tld, server hosted locally). There are a couple of issues with the apple route:

Firstly, if you check the ‘pages from the UK’ button, apple disappears. The 15% [NBED LINK) of people that use this option, will not be able to find apple at all.

The other issue is similar to the amazon.co.uk / amazon.com problem. If you search ipod on google.co.uk and click on the indented result (wtf!) you get to the ipodclassic page, with prices in dollars. If you then click on the Store, you end up in the american store, and have to click a couple more links before you can find a UK store. Here in the UK we often get pages targeting americans.

For smaller budgets there is also a duplicate content issue, or a cost invovled with saying something different when you target the UK than the US.

8. How well do you think the major engines deal with deciding which searches need local results? For example, the search ‘php’ doesn’t need a local result, whereas ‘php user group’ arguably does.

Ciarán Not as well as they’d like!

Joost Getting better, but not there yet, sometimes you’re expecting a map to show up and it doesn’t and sometimes it’s there when it shouldn’t be. I’m hardly ever annoyed by it though, which is probably a good sign.

Duncan I’d give them 7 or 8 out of 10. As with most things you can always find edge cases that aren’t caught, but most of the time they get it right. (Assuming you are a fan of the local results, which I’m not!)

Tad They do OK by now. Vertical (local) search engines do better of course ;-)

Maria I am not sure how well they do it but I don’t think it is an easy job either! I think they will need to improve a lot since results are increasing and that will make it even harder for users to find what they are looking for. Because of this, companies need to be informed and should make it easy for search engines to recognize if their website is locally focused or not.

9. Have you used the geo-location settings within Google’s webmaster central? What impact has this had if any?

Joost Yes. It’s had some impact, but not a huge one… Can’t share the details unfortunately.

Tad I did for testing purposes, could not see any real results, did not monitor the results in the long run yet though.

Maria I have never used Google’s webmaster central. I am a marketer that uses SEO as a Marketing strategy and the tool I use most of the time to analyze user behavior is web traffic analytics. I work with a team of programmers for everything that is coded related and they don’t use Google webmaster central either. I may consider use it in the future because I know is really useful for most webmasters.

Ciarán Not as yet – we try to set things up so that we don’t need to.

Duncan Haven’t really used them. We always try to get the fundamentals right so the geo-location settings are redundant. If you rely on this setting there is probably something wrong with the setup that you should get fixed.

10. How do you feel the other search engines (Yahoo, Ask, Live/MSN) handle geo-location?

Duncan Who? You mean Google isn’t the only search engine!?

Tad They fail completely as the do barely exist or not at all in Germany and Poland. So I don’t even bother.

Joost Don’t know them that well. With Google having a 90%+ market share in most countries I work in, I tend to focus on Google...

Maria To tell you the truth I am only focus on Google. Google has more than 80% search market share in Latin American countries so focusing on Google can give you pretty good results, at least for now.

Ciarán It varies – but certainly Yahoo’s advances in mobile have given them some pretty neat case studies.

_______________________

Thanks to everyone for contributing. I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some really interesting opinions in there to think about.

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8 Comments

  1. Really great stuff here, thanks to all involved. Quite eye-opening, esp. for those of us who only do US-based local work.

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  2. I tried Google's keyword tool for 'sante' (with an accent on the e it means health in French). The similar words were santa fe, santa clara etc. So if you want to rank for French language health queries, you need to make French with the Californians and Mexicans!

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  3. Oh, and for php user group ... you could be looking for a forum or online community. If you really want an offline group, just add a local modifier!

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  4. This is a nice article, really good stuff. Thanks for sharing

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  5. Excellent post, great information.

    Appreciate it.

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  6. @ Matt McGee- thanks- I've had that 'it's an eye-opener' response from a few people.

    @Gab Goldenberg- thanks for your comments- I think we could have used a better example than php user group!

    @Sharing Best Practices and HL Web Hosting- thanks

    It's easy to ask the questions- glad I wasn't the one trying to answer them!

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  7. Good information so you deserve the vote :)

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  8. Fascinating post discussing subjects which are very much neglected in online SEO info.

    Regarding accented characters (qn 1) there is definitely more to be said there and I'm surprised the respondents didn't say more. I guess the question was fairly general and hard to answer in a concise manner.

    Question 6 regarding structuring your internationalised sites is something I'm really interested in at the moment. The info here was very helpful... there are also other options for special circumstances, like if your name contains keywords and you don't have a big branding concern, you might translate it for the domain in foreign languages.

    I believe that when building internationalised websites it's important to do a lot of research, or contract the services of someone that has experience in internationalised SEO. There are distinct technical issues where getting it right has high value. We're trying to pitch our company into this space (internationalised website development and now SEO too).

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