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Google Totally Messes up Country Specific Search

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Monitoring visits from search engines often brings up strange results. The other day, someone visited the free WordPress template offered on this site from the Bolivian country directory of Google (www.google.com.bo). Nothing strange in that, but the keyword they searched for was “power”. On replicating the search, it turns out that the Real Free Website page is the first result!

Google Bolivia result

Ranking only for country search

While “power” is no doubt a non-competitive term in a mainly Spanish, Quechua and Aymara speaking country, it is still surprising that a page offering a WordPress template download is the number one result, especially as there are approximately 16,200 results. I can only imagine the surprised reaction as my Andean visitor realized that this download did not offer him/her any sort of “power” whatsoever!

Interestingly, if you “search the web” for power, the Real Free Websites page doesn’t appear in the first 800 results!

Google Bolivia Web result

That makes much more sense, but it just makes the “searching pages in Bolivia” result all the more crazy. Real Free Websites is not based in Bolivia, does not have a server there, and yet it is coming up in the “pages from Bolivia” search. The only connection between Real Free Websites and Bolivia is a link from the Portfolio page to Care Bolivia. Oh, and now there’s this page that mentions Bolivia - so no doubt even more confused Bolivians arriving here…

How Google connects websites to a country

Google associates websites with countries using a variety of factors. One obvious way is through domain names, e.g. .co.uk is the country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) for the UK. Google also looks at web host location, although the importance of this is likely to be in decline as more people host their website remotely. More recently, Google allowed webmasters to set the geographic target of their website using Google Webmaster Tools.

Google also seems to make assumptions based on the data it has for websites. This data can be drawn from many different sources, such as on page information and language, Google searches, clicks from the search results page, and Google Analytics (a popular web stats tool).

It may look at the volume of traffic from one country that accesses a particular website, and statistics of the pages that link to it (and the volume of traffic these pages receive). What is clear from this result is that Google will also use statistics about the pages that the website links to (in this case Care Bolivia).

What does this all mean

It means that Google isn’t very good at deciding what pages belong to which country. Further proof of this comes from SEOmoz, where Duncan Morris highlighted an error in Google’s ranking for Apple in the “pages from UK” search. Apparently Apple’s UK subdirectory does not even rank for the search term “apple”!

It also means that a black hat, or malicious, search engine optimizer may be able to take advantage of the fact that Google’s results can come out strangely. By doing something as simple as linking to a website based in your target country, you may be able to get Google to think you are associated with that country. If you want to try that, good luck to you, but act fast, as they’re probably already looking in to it, and bear in mind, if you get caught, you may well be penalized by Google!

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