International VS. USA

It’s a well known fact that Earth is the center of the universe, and by natural extension of this quixotic reasoning, the United States is the center of the Earth (to be perfectly exact, the center of the universe is Tulsa Oklahoma. Duh).

As a Canadian, I’m okay with this – it’s very hard to upset me. As an SEO, I’ve always been a little perturbed to know that the American oriented Google index has, as its home, the aggrandized domain.

Yes, yes I know Al Gore’s dog Tipper invented the Internet, and that it’s as all American as apple pie (which was in fact originally imported by the Spaniards in the late 19th century – source), in fact, I probably still have an ARCnet network running somewhere in my basement, I know this stuff cold – but really, can’t Gooooooogle give America its own index? Actually, at the start of 2008, they did – they just didn’t bother to tell anyone.

Round aboot January ‘08 Google effectively changed their domestic search results (those produced when searching from inside the USA), filtering out, or down, sites they had deemed non-US centric. Simultaneously they started pushing out geo-targeted results to people who searched from other countries, like CanadEH. Almost a year later, it doesn’t look like it was a mistake (much to the chagrin of many a webmaster who lost rankings in the US), and the trend isn’t going anywhere. Google is proudly cloaking its index internationally.

So, effectively:

  • has its own, very Canadian index
  • searched from within Canada has its own, kinda Canadian index
  • searched from within the USA has its own (anti-Canadian?) index

What’s a boy to do when their site, which faithfully serves an international audience quite well thank you very much, gets labeled by Google as being associated with a country other than the US of A?

There are no hard and fast rules for governing which index your site is most commonly associated with, more likely (as is true with many decisions that Google makes) is the idea that a set of variables contribute to the determination, with mysterious ratings shrouded in algorithmic darkness. This problem plagues a huge number of .com sites with an intended international audience but a Canadian association. In some cases the differences between rankings at the US .com and the Canadian .com are massive.

It’s fairly easy to know if a site is associated with the Canadian Google index – if they rank better at than .com, and rank even better for ‘pages in Canada’, you’ve got a Canuck site.

I just wanted to start a dialogue on the controllable variables which may contribute to Google’s country attribution, and what actionable items might exist for helping a Canadian (or any other foreign) company who wants to market their site to a US audience. Let’s take a look at a few of these variables:

Webmaster Central location setting

Websites that have registered with Google Webmaster Central and have verified that they own their site (by uploading a verification file to the webserver for example) have the option of associating their website with a specific location. This is a relatively new option provided by Google, and obviously should be considered a high priority task for any site in their efforts to become associated with the American index.

But it’s worth asking, is there any risk to current Google Canada rankings by setting USA as the preferred region in Webmaster Central? It’s not unreasonable to think that Google might discredit a site’s prominence in the Canadian index if they have chosen the US as their ‘region’ – since such an action spoils the idea that the company should be more relevant for Canadians than Americans. What should Google do – give a domestic bump to sites which explicitly state that they want to play on a world stage, or not?

Presumed weight: 4/5

I’d love to give this a 5/5, and it may very well be an overriding variable most of the time, but in my experience Google rarely places all of their eggs in one basket.

Location of website Hosting

If a website is hosted in a country outside of the US, Google may take this as an indication that the company holding that domain is based in the same region. This is certainly not an absolute variable, as there are indeed websites hosted in Canada that rank well in the US index.

In the past this variable seemed to play more of a prominent role – my experience with achieving rankings in a variety of European countries around 2004 was heavily related to local hosting. Once Google realized that companies choose their hosting based on price more than physical convenience, and hosting companies, quite logically, wanted to be able to advertise their offerings as being applicable and usable by companies outside their country borders, the search engineers presumably ratcheted down the weight of this variable. If, however, you do plan to market your site to a defined country, it’s certainly not a bad idea to host within its borders.

Presumed weight: 2/5

Inbound link profile from Canadian vs. American sites

One variable that Google is likely to consider important is the ‘link profile’ of the site – that is, the nature of the websites which link to the domain in question. If a significant portion of the incoming links to a website come from sites which are themselves associated with a specific region (ahh classic Google recursive reasoning), this region association is probably going to be transferred to the domain in question.

Google may indeed place a large portion of weight on this variable as it is formed relatively independent of the site content itself.

The only remedy for this is to build links from sites and pages that are associated with the desired region until a certain ratio is reached significant enough to change Google’s previous association. Google probably likes this variable because it’s all fuzzy and recursive and organic and gooey, or as I call it, FROG. Dang, I was hoping that would come out as a better acronym.

Presumed weight: 4/5

Geo-based language on the site

If a website refers to a specific region numerous times in their content, Google may logically presume that the site is geared towards an audience in that region.

If you’re always talking about Albania this Albania that, maybe your audience is Albanian.

This is way too logical to explain any further.

Presumed weight: 3/5

Canadian vs. USA physical addresses listed on site

In much the same manner as the previous point, a company proclaiming their physical presence in a region by literally listing their address on the site is providing obvious location information.

Google doesn’t really have too many variables to rely on in its efforts with regional association, and so might weight this more than a fair amount.

More than fair that is because every multi-nation oriented website is inevitably going to have an address associated with a single nation.

Presumed weight: 2/5

Google Local listing

Companies can register with Google Local – the presumed intent being to integrate the location data for companies with Google Maps, providing a separate set of results at the top of a Google results page when that company itself is searched for. Even if a company does not have a physical store-front it is possible to register the business and provide specific location information. This is perfectly reasonable, people need to find your offices even if you’re not selling out of them.

Once again this is some solid location information that Google might overvalue as indicating the indented audience of a website, when in fact all it is truly indicating is the physical location of an office. It’s a difficult one to predict the weighting of, but in my experience it appears to play more of a role than it should.

Presumed weight: 3/5

Overall the important point of issue here is Google’s conception of the relationship between a company’s operating country and their intended audience. North America would be a much more accurate description of tens of thousands of businesses in both the US and Canada, but this region setting is not an option in webmaster tools.

The same must be true of loads of countries – do chip manufacturers in Belgium not market beyond their borders? Are running shoes made in Ireland not intended for sale in the UK?

This will always be an issue that plagues Google’s efforts to serve localized results, and webmaster tools’ current offerings are a step in the right direction, but lack the versatility to effectively service a huge portion of the *world-wide* web.

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