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Local Search Part 3: Google Gets Local With AdWords

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In my earlier parts of this series on local search, I covered Overture's new local paid listings and crawler-based methods from Google and Mobilemaps as attempts to improve local searching on general purpose search engines.

Today, I had planned to examine new local search moves by CitySearch, as well as the great content available from online yellow pages. However, I'll instead be stepping back into the world of Google, because of a new paid local product it launched on Friday.

I did a short write-up of the new product in last Friday's SearchDay. Now I've had a chance to talk with Google more about the program and have added some additional details.

I'll be moving forward with CitySearch and yellow pages next week, with the series now set to continue into a fourth part on November 6 and perhaps even a fifth part to follow the week after.

Google's New Regional Targeting

Google has long allowed ads to be targeted on a country-specific basis. For example, it's easy to make your ads only be seen by those in the United Kingdom, if you want to target the audience there.

Now Google has rolled out regional targeting to the local level within the United States. For instance, an advertiser could choose to have their ad for "dentists" appear only in front of those searching from within the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose). Outside this region, the ad would not be seen.

The change will be a real relief to some advertisers. Imagine the dentist based in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. They may wish to target those seeking dentists in surrounding areas. Before this system, the only choice was to ensure they keyword-targeted the names of nearby cities along with the word "dentists," such as:

  • san francisco dentists
  • oakland dentists
  • daly city dentists
  • pacifica dentists
  • san bruno dentists

With the change, they can simply target the word "dentists" and restrict to the San Francisco region. Then they'll come up for any search involving the word "dentists" by someone in the San Francisco area (assuming they don't modify from the default broad match option).

Not Solution For Everyone

Regional targeting won't eliminate the need to do keyword-based local targeting for some advertisers. Google offers up the example of real estate agents who sell in one area but want to reach those in another.

"You can imagine in real estate an agent whose base is local but they also want to attract people from outside the area," said Salar Kamangar, director of product management at Google. "To reach those, they need to buy the regular geographic keywords as they did before."

In other words, picture someone selling homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. By using the new regional targeting feature, it's now easy to make their ads show up for anyone in the Bay Area searching for a phrase containing "new homes." However, a person in Dallas thinking of moving to the area would never see these ads, if they did a local search such as:

  • san francisco new homes
  • new homes in oakland
  • prices of new homes in san bruno

Instead, the Bay Area real estate agent will still need to target all the regionally-specific terms, as well.

Getting Closer To Perfection

An obvious solution to the problem above would be for regional ads to also be keyword-based, in addition to being delivered according to a searcher's location.

In the current system, ads are targeted regionally and only show up before those detected to be in a particular area. You select your ads to appear for the Bay Area region, then those physically within the Bay Area will see them.

In contrast -- or in addition to this -- Google could look at the query itself to see if a Bay Area location is mentioned. If that should happen, then it might show the regionally targeted ads, even if the user was outside of the area, such as in Dallas or New York.

Google wouldn't comment on if this is something they are considering, so we'll wait and see. However, it is effectively the system that its crawler-based local search product uses. In that system, regionally specific results are shown based on the query entered, rather than the user's location.

Still Competing Against Nationals

Another issue to keep in mind is that unlike Overture's local search product, Google's regional targeting does not place your ads into an entirely separate system where "competition" might be less.

Specifically, let's say you wish to target those seeking "new homes" in the Bay Area. You regionally target your ad to show up in front of searchers in the Bay Area. That will happen, but those in the Bay Area will also see "nationally" targeted ads, as well.

In short, competition for the phrase "new homes" isn't reduced at all. However, all new ads with Google do start off on an equal footing alongside established ones, Google said. The system is designed to ensure that new ads have a chance for their relevancy to get tested. That's important, because relevancy, as measured by clickthrough, is part of what I call the clickvalue rate that Google calculates to determine which ads to show.

Google believes that over time, searchers may deem regionally targeted ads to be more relevant to some searches. In turn, that will give these ads a good clickvalue rate and perhaps an edge over some national advertisers. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen.

Google also hopes that the location identifiers used for regionally-targeted ads will help boost relevancy. All regionally-targeted ads on Google.com have a fifth line showing the area they are from, such as "New York, NY."

Dealing With Targeting Inaccuracies

Google's system works by identifying the IP address of a user, a system it has long employed to allow advertisers to target ads to specific countries. The US targeting matches the 210 "designated market areas" that are used to define television markets.

Google won't say how they are doing the IP mapping, but they are on the client list of Digital Envoy. That company's Net Acuity technology provides an IP mapping service that sounds exactly like what Google offers.

IP matching usually works, but it is not perfect. I live in the United Kingdom, for example. Occasionally in the past, Google's IP detection has gone haywire and forced me to its Google Germany site because my ISP has assigned me an IP associated with a German physical address. And currently, Google shows me ads targeted to those in the US. I connect through AOL, so it thinks I'm in the US.

Google's solution is that if it can't identify a person's location, it will serve up "national" or non-regionally targeted ads instead. Unfortunately, among the group it currently can't identify are any of the millions of AOL subscribers, Google said.

There's also a chance that someone's location will be misidentified, Google admits. However, it says this is usually a case where they are shown ads for a nearby geographic area, rather than some place well removed from their location.

"In those cases, often we aren't mapping them to a region like opposite coasts but the next region over," Kamangar said.

One solution might be to use a corrective feature that Google already employs for country-specific targeting. As mentioned, occasionally Google has directed me to its Germany site, although I live in the UK. This rare problem usually gets solved if I then choose the easily spotted "Google.com In English" link. That lets Google tag me as wanting to use its US site.

You can imagine that in cases where Google doesn't detect someone's geographic location, it might provide a prompt saying, "Enter your ZIP code to see local ads." Those that do so would let Google know exactly where they are coming from, providing better accuracy than even its current system.

A similar system could be used to help those identify if they've been mistargeted. Somewhere on the page might be a message that says, "Ads for San Francisco Bay Area. Not in this area? Click here." The invitation might in turn lead to a place where you could enter your ZIP code.

Would Google do this? The company wouldn't comment on it. However, it's notable that competitor AltaVista already uses a method like this for some locally-oriented queries.

Try a search for dentists at AltaVista, and you should see an option to specify your US state and ZIP code or telephone area code. Doing this doesn't change the AltaVista results, but it does filter you into local yellow pages results powered by SMARTpages.com.

Somewhat similarly, Excite used "creeping personalization" like this back in 1998, when it was trying to get users to provide some basic data so they could have a better start page. It could be a very effective way for Google to further enhance its local listings.

Determining a person's geographical location is also an issue for where Google shows ads outside its own network of web sites. For instance, AOL and others have their own search engines that incorporate Google's paid listings. Only at some of these will regional targeting work. At others, it will be disabled because the Google partner doesn't pass along enough information to make regional targeting accurate, Google said.

AOL Search is an example of one of Google's syndication partners where regional targeting is not being used, but the company hopes this will change over time.

"We want all the syndication partners to work with this, and generally they are very excited to do it," Kamangar said.

How about local targeting outside the United States? At the moment, Google says that IP targeting isn't good enough for this, but it may come if the data quality improves.

Viewing Regionally Targeted Ads

As an advertiser, how do you see how your regionally targeted ads appear alongside others on Google's actual search results, if you aren't in the area targeted? Via a URL parameter override!

A what? Andrew Goodman, author of 21 Ways to Maximize Profits on Google AdWords, turned me on to this handy trick useful for seeing ads targeted to those in a particular country, if you are outside that country. I'll talk about this first, then show it applied to the new US regionally targeted ads.

Do a search, then add &gl=us to the end of the resulting URL that appears in your browser's address bar. Congrats! You've just added a search parameter to the URL. Hit return, and this override will bring back ads as if you were in the US.

A recent WebmasterWorld thread brought out some additional codes: uk for the UK, fr for France and ca for Canada. I found that de works for Germany, so Google seems to be using the top level domain codes for various countries as a parameter for making this override work.

In other words, see this list from IANA of country code abbreviations. Now for any country you are interested in, use the country add the country code to the &gl= parameter, which you in turn should add to your search.

Step-by-step:

  1. Visit Google.com (or your local Google)
  2. Enter your query
  3. Look in your address bar, and you'll see a string like this (this example uses a search for "auto")
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=auto
  4. Now type &gl= to end of this, so it looks like this (added part shown in bold)
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=auto&gl=
  5. Now enter the two letter country-code to the end of this. (For example, Australia's country code according to the IANA list is au)
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=auto&gl=au
  6. Now hit return. The ads that come back should match the country you searched for.

Please note that in the example above, Google understands that my language is English. That's what the hl=en part of the URL tells it. If ads are targeted to a particular language, such as German, then the language parameter will need to be changed or removed to show these.

Now onto seeing regionally targeted ads. Google passed on a parameter you can use to see this. It works just like the system above, except that the parameter is &gm= followed by the DMA code of the region you wish to see. Need a list of those? Here you go.

Let's say we want to see real estate ads for New York. We search for those words, then add &gm=501, with 501 the code for New York. That gives us a URL like this:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=real+estate&gm=501

Well, that's the theory. Doing this hasn't changed the ads at all for me. I've also tried a variety of other queries where I thought there should be some regionally targeted ads, like "limos," as well as different regions. No luck so far. Google did say that this is an unsupported feature, but I'll check back to see if perhaps there's more to be added. Or perhaps it just start working on its own!

Search By Location To Get Ads?

As previously written, Google has a map-based local search product, where results are gathered from crawling the web. Will the new regional ads be integrated into that product, which lists web sites for free? Not immediately because of low volume, Google says.

If the Google Search By Location product were to gain traffic or emerge from beta as a tabbed service, similar to the existing Web, Images, Groups, Directory and News search services, then the issue of bringing in ads would become more likely.

The challenge is that there's no way Google's new regional targeting will allow ads to be placed on the map that Search By Location creates as a centerpiece, in the way that Overture's local search product allows. This is because Google's regionally targeted ads don't include physical "bricks & mortar" locations. However, the regionally targeted ads could run alongside the map.

"What we'd likely do is the same thing with a normal search results page," Kamangar said, alluding to how on a regular Google web search, paid listings appear above and to the side of results found from crawling the web.

In particular, Google might look at the city used in a local search's address box, such as "san francisco," and add that to the search term used, such as "dentist," to bring back ads that target all of those words. Ironically, this means it wouldn't use the new regional targeting but rather traditional keyword targeting.

A step beyond this would be the idea I previously described, where any ads targeting a those in a particular region might be mapped to keywords. This would make for a more powerful product, since a number of people might turn to a local search product even if they aren't within the area themselves. Thus, it makes sense that the ads not just be keyed to their physical location but instead their interest.

How about targeting Google's non-paid listings themselves based on a person's location? If someone does a search for "san francisco dentists," might Google automatically try to show them listings from its Search By Location service rather than the "normal" matches from across the web? Perhaps, but not right away.

"If Search By Location works, as we improve it, we would introduce it more aggressively into the Google UI [user interface”. I think we're pretty far from that," Kamangar said.

Similarly, Google says not to expect it to tweak its ordinary web search results based on your location, other than the regional targeting of ads that has just been introduced.

"Would we would look at location and rewire results based on location? Thats certainly possible, but where nowhere near that," Kamangar said.

Still In Beta

Google stressed that its regional targeting is still in beta. The program was already beta tested by about 10 advertisers over the past two months, but last Friday's release is still keeping the beta moniker because the final product is likely to change now that thousands of advertisers will be trying it for the first time.

"We expect things to change, and that's why we are calling it beta still," Kamangar said.

Coming Up Next

In my next part of this series on local search, I'll return as planned to a close-up look at the editorial and paid products offered by CitySearch. I'll also be recapping the excellent online yellow pages resources that are available. Many major search engines offer good, yellow page style listings already, but users may be unaware of these. I'll guide you to these options plus highlight how the search engines themselves are looking to make local search magically happen when it should, without the user doing anything special.


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