Changes you’ll need to make to comply with the EU’s geoblocking restrictions

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  • November 28, 2017
Stephen Kenwright

Stephen Kenwright

Strategy Director

The European Union has announced it will end “unjustified” geoblocking within 9 months of passing the legislation.

What is geoblocking?

When a computer tries to access online content its IP address is sent to the server hosting the webpage. Geoblocking is the automatic exclusion or redirection of computers located in certain countries, identified by their IP addresses. So when you can’t access BBC iPlayer while on holiday in Spain – that’s geoblocking.

The press releases deems 3 scenarios “unjustified”:

  1. The sale of goods without physical delivery – for example, a Belgian customer wishes to buy a refrigerator and finds the best deal on a German website. The customer will be entitled to order the product and collect it at the trader’s premises or otherwise organise delivery himself to his home (without the seller being involved);
  2. The sale of electronically supplied services – for example, a Bulgarian consumer wishes to buy hosting services for her website from a Spanish company. She will have access to the service and will be able to register and buy the service without having to pay additional fees that a Spanish consumer would not have to pay; and
  3. The sale of services provided in a specific physical location – for example, an Italian family will be able to buy a trip directly to an amusement park in France from the amusement park’s French website without being redirected to an Italian website.

An EU Commission survey found that 63% of the websites it assessed used some form of geoblocking and that less than 40% of websites allowed “cross-border customers” to complete a purchase. 15% of Europeans currently make purchases from stores based in another EU country – the European Union wants to increase trade between its member countries as part of its Digital Single Market initiative so geoblocking has got to go.

Didn’t Google just geoblock everyone?

Less than a month before the EU’s commitment on 20th November (but after the proposal was first tabled during September’s Digital Summit in Tallinn, Estonia) Google product manager Evelyn Kao announced that searchers will only be able to access results from their local version of Google.

After ruining everyone’s SEO reports for a few weeks while rank tracking software providers got their acts together, this is probably going to have to be rolled back before the ruling comes into force in 9 months’ time. Sorry Google.

What is the most significant change for everyone else?

Similarly to Google a lot of websites automatically redirect visitors to their local version. You’ll have to make changes if a German user types yourdomain.com and you’re using GeoIP redirects to send them to yourdomain.de.

We’ve published a guide to domain strategy for international websites: how to choose between subdomain, subfolder or ccTLD for international expansion.

It’s also important to remember that Google crawls your website using a US IP address – failing to make exceptions for Googlebot usually results in the US version of your website being indexed and the international versions being ignored (and very unlikely to receive traffic from search engines).

There are exceptions to every rule but most businesses should implement hreflang and content-language attributes to prevent search engines from sending visitors to international versions of your website.

Implement hreflang and content-language attributes

Hreflang and content-language tags don’t forcibly redirect users to different language versions of your website but do prevent search engines from showing different language versions in search results. Using alternate hreflang tags on yourdomain.de and yourdomain.com should prevent yourdomain.com from surfacing in google.de and will go a long way to helping you comply with the regulation.

Here’s our guide to implementing the hreflang tag.

Bing doesn’t recognise hreflang attributes so if this is your strategy you’ll need to use the “content-language” meta tag to encourage Microsoft’s search engine to show the correct version of your site to international users.

You’ll need to choose a destination for all EU countries that aren’t currently specified – hreflang and content-language will ensure that specified countries do land on the right website and everyone else is still able to check out on a “generic” international version.

You probably shouldn’t ask visitors to select a country via popups

An obvious solution would be to use a lightbox/popup and ask visitors which country-specific version of your website they’d like to visit (based on the idea that you can’t forcibly redirect users but you can with their permission). However, Google’s recent interstitial penalty means that “intrusive” popups will probably cause a website to lose visibility and therefore traffic, so this probably isn’t a solution.

We think this means that Google will double down on press for its hreflang attribute rather than doing a u-turn on interstitials. Portal-style .com homepages could be an option in this case, with international versions in subfolders or on subdomains/ccTLDs like .de – but this will require hreflang and content-language to preserve visibility.

As an absolute minimum you should set up Search Console profiles for each international subdomain/subfolder and select geotargeting options.

Ecommerce sites will need to look at payment providers

Recent Ofcom research suggests that UK users are more likely to trust online retailers that take PayPal payments (or that link to other reputable payment gateways). Integrating PayPal is a quick fix to ensure you’re compliant with the European Union’s requirement to remove “…barriers such as being asked to pay with a debit or credit card issued in another country” and more realistic than accepting every credit card issued in Europe (although we’re sure someone will add that horrific dropdown).

We think you’ll need to look at delivery options

Under the new rules businesses won’t be required to deliver to every country in the European Union. Their example:

“A Belgian customer wishes to buy a refrigerator and finds the best deal on a German website. The customer will be entitled to order the product and collect it at the trader’s premises or organise delivery themselves to their home.”

…but the Belgian customer must be able to complete the transaction so businesses will have to implement some way of arranging delivery separately. This will cause several problems:

  • You won’t want German customers of the German electronics website to be able to checkout without selecting one of your preferred delivery options because that will increase call centre volumes, emails will be missed and complaints will ensue
  • You won’t want the Belgian customer to be able to complete her purchase without being fully aware that you don’t intend to deliver the goods to her house otherwise you may have to process a lot of refunds and complaints will ensue.

The simplest way will be to auto-detect a customer’s location and change the checkout process for that customer (or create an additional “select your country” field – again, please don’t use a dropdown for this). This can be implemented by developers or using JavaScript injected by a platform like Optimizely.

Bonus: server location can no longer be a ranking signal

The EU press release cites an interesting example – “A Bulgarian consumer wishes to buy hosting services for her website from a Spanish company. She will now have access to the service, can register and buy this service without having to pay additional fees compared to a Spanish consumer.”

Server location is thought to be a signal search engines use to rank websites – a website will appear more prominently in Spanish search results if it’s hosted in Spain, for example (although we believe it’s a pretty minor signal). With the new rules Google will likely be forced to debunk this or change its algorithm.

Step one: questions to ask

There are still some questions to be answered by the EU Commission and European Parliament, but equally there are some questions that you will want to ask yourself:

  • Where do visitors from each EU member state currently land and how do they get there?
  • Do I inform search engines which version of my site they should send searchers to?
  • Are my Geo IP redirects preventing my non-US websites from being crawled and indexed by Google?
  • Can I accept payments from credit and debit cards issued in the EU?
  • Are users able to complete my checkout process from another country?

Need help planning for these changes or implementing hreflang? Contact us or find me on Twitter.

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