The Google Geolocation Nightmare

Google Places is big news this week but it is exposing a massive flaw in the methods Google uses to find out where searchers are physically located.

The main problem Google has is that they use IP geolocation which is woefully inaccurate in the UK. The second issue they have is that they use two separate systems – one for Adwords and one for the normal Google Places results.

This brings up the ridiculous situation that when I search for “pizza” from my IP address in Harrogate Google shows Adwords ads for pizza restaurants near Manchester and Google Places results for pizza restaurants near Great Yarmouth. I use Sky Broadband and Google guesses my location differently every day, sometimes they get within 50 miles but most of the time it shows results hundreds of miles away. The same applies to our office connection on BT – the results are always inaccurate.

The image above (click for full size version) shows just how bad this situation is. I can understand they might get the location wrong but surely they can use the same system for both Adwords & Places.

Google needs to accept that geolocation in it’s current form simply doesn’t work for the UK and then they should stop showing geotargeted results for generic queries that have no specific local intent. Either that or partner with the big broadband suppliers to get more accurate data.

Google should take this post as constructive criticism because if they can figure out how to geolocate people to their actual location as accurately as Twitter seems to be able to then they will be hard to beat in this sector.

By Patrick Altoft. at 9:30AM on Monday, 01 Nov 2010

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events. Follow Patrick Altoft on Twitter.

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34 Responses to “The Google Geolocation Nightmare”

  1. John says:

    Surely it does not work in my country (Asian) too. I can understand it here – as the infrastructure is not as sophisticated as it is in high value countries such as UK, Canada and US.
    Still you are right on the dot that mere IP tracing is not a way to show geo-results.

  2. Interesting point – I’d have expected better testing on this one from Google.

  3. LinkMunki says:

    I don’t get what you get, when I search anything generic I just get plain old serps, only when I put locative info does google start integrating google local results, and i have tried it a couple of times, using firefox, then chrome, then chrome incognito, tried it both signed in and not signed in!
    But you are right, it is a mess, and it really needs to be sorted.
    John

  4. Chris says:

    Well spotted, I also wonder how accurate the geo-targeting is by region within the UK ie England, Scotland, Wales

  5. ady berry says:

    Doesn’t work for PC based searches for sure but I’m reckon Google are looking more at this from a mobile search point.

    I definitely don’t like the idea of some generics producing localised searches – whether it be for mobile search or not – this is a bad move.

  6. SEO Liam says:

    Hi Patrick

    It will be great if it removes all the directory listings that have littered the local searches for years.

    I think Google is trying to overcome the IP issue by asking about GEO positions when people search (e.g. the local search box appearing as well as the “set your location” request that appears from time to time).

    I am guessing this would be cookie based therefore there is the issue of privacy etc. that always goes along with this – however if people begin to get better, more relevant search results, maybe this will be accepted much quicker by the user?

  7. Seeing lots of results like this today. My favourite so far is in a Google.co.uk search for ‘Soho Hotels’. I get adwords results in London & New York plus Places results in Korea. Places results are even in the Korean language :-)

    http://www.caroline-bell.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/soho-hotels.png

  8. Geolocation is feature that needs further improvent. But when I put city in the search box, results are great for my location.

  9. [...] the problem. Google will see where you are based, according to geo-ip (although it’s pretty much hit and miss at the moment) and give you search results based on your location. First of all, that assumes that [...]

  10. Chris says:

    Soho hotels is an interesting one to pick ….. !!!

  11. Paul says:

    Always fun to explain to clients who don’t see their area and therefore themselves!

  12. Stephen K says:

    The whole feature of geolocation has become a key new addition to sites like Facebook, Twitter and social media in general. Considering this it’s surprising how inaccurate it is and how many issues Google appears to be having with it.

    Following on from the comments regarding Twitters accuracy it seems very surprising that Google is trailing Twitter. Clearly they are using a different, and less successful system. It’ll be interesting to see how Google responds to the criticism, as they will no doubt need to address this for their PPC campaigns.

  13. Diane says:

    Strangely when Facebook adds a locator people get upset at the idea that you’d be spied on.

    A simple way would be to ask the users where they are and if they mind google having the data.

    After their data sweep doing google streetmaps though they should in theory have enough info to id where you are. Although again data privacy means they’re going to delete that data… Mixed messages perhaps as people might find more targetted local results useful.

    In the old days though there was nothing wrong with expecting to have to write “Pizza in Oldham” into a search engine. Perhaps we’re expecting too much?

    A large voucher site that’s quite well known is using a new data capture thing to capture shopping baskets data including address. Does that mean they’ll be able to target users better when they’ll be using their site – knowing where someone is might enable you to show them different versions of your site, or is it also an invasion of privacy.

    Where we are is often fairly easy to assertain, sometimes just asking does the trick.
    On the other hand there are privacy issues that mean we shouldn’t expect any website or search engine to have that info about our location unless we expressly decide they can have it.

  14. Hello Patric, really nice post to be shared.

    Thanks,
    Brian Valentine

  15. [...] Read the whole story at Blogstorm SEO Blog. [...]

  16. @SEO Liam – If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Directories litter the local results in the US, but it makes sense when you think about it. A guy that Google’s “maryland plumbing companies” is looking for a directory. The local directories are doing Google’s presorting/prescreening job for them!

  17. Google places is good for businesses that have a physical location, but for those that are internet based it’s useless.

  18. Property lady, Places is definitely not useless it’s just more beneficial for some businesses than others. Even a purely internet based business can benefit, at least to a degree. It’s just a matter of how you apply it.

  19. I remember using a triangulated technology for telephones going back over nearly ten years ago. That was pretty accurate. It really does amaze me that google haven’t got it right yet.

  20. Mike Groves says:

    I’ve just disconnected my Adwords and Places accounts for some of the reasons outlined above. So far I’m less than impressed by Places – yet still believe that local search is a big opportunity – for Google and agencies alike.

  21. London PR says:

    Really interesting article.

  22. ady berry says:

    Hi Patrick –

    We got a reply from G as to how to solve this when we blogged about geolocation issues – didn’t really solve it apart from for the example – http://www.i-com.net/blog/does-google-understand-user-intent-422/#comments

  23. The Google Places results that rank above organic listings are a problem for local businesses who are based in one city, but cover 5-6 surrounding cities. We rank highly in our city and are top for other cities in organic listings, but that is below Places listings for these other cities. Very frustrating!

    Google Places should be about the cities you serve, rather than the city in which you are based, but perhaps that would result in more spam on local listings?

  24. Mark says:

    Hi,

    I have just started using adwords for a picture book I wrote and published, according to the statistics it is being clicked a lot but i have yet to find it and it’s quite expensive. Anyway my book is called ‘Jacob and Sorrel a story of two caterpillars’, I wrote it as a children’s book which would be fun for adults to read as well. Looks like maybe I should stay away from adwords, but what can you do. It’s probably being advertised with horticulture.

  25. [...] Google has aggressively pushed into regionalization and localization, but sometimes they miscategorize a website’s target market or a user’s location … delivering irrelevant search results. [...]

  26. Peter says:

    Hi, I made a similar observation here in germany with my vdsl connection. I am near munich but the various locations that are served to the www from the telecom are scatered all over germany.
    I am not sure whether this is an issue only with these high speed connections or not. I will research this further as I also have clients interessed in the local marketing…
    Regards,
    Pete

  27. [...] Google has aggressively pushed into regionalization and localization, but sometimes they miscategorize a website’s target market or a user’s location … delivering irrelevant search results. [...]

  28. Captain Smegma says:

    I only need to locate to a specific country. What is the best way – Google, IP tracing or something else?
    Many thanks,
    CS

  29. ken hill says:

    Well, you have most certainly made a valid point – I have checked various key word searches and you are on the button – cannot believe that Google are trailing Twitter! Thanks for sharing!

  30. I also have been having this problem, google seems to be trying to personalise search results too much. I even get different results from my laptop upstairs to my computer downstairs in the same house using the same router.

  31. I don’t know why google is obsessed with using geo location when it is innacurate.

    I also don’t think its fair that it shows the local maps results much more prominently now, before the natural search listings.

  32. Muggsy says:

    I’ve also had a few “odd” results but maybe that’s jkust because it’s early days. Google would probably put it down the “teething troubles”. Personally, I dont find it that useful either.

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