It's been a few years since Google launched the ability to geographically target websites to particular countries and markets through Webmaster Central using a simple setting. It seems high time to re-examine this whole approach.
The issues of duplication and correctly targeting the right pages for Austria, Switzerland, or Germany, all of which have a common language, was a prominent discussion during several panels at SES Berlin.
I was stunned by the comments of one speaker who suggested that marketers should jettison their local .de, .at or .ch domains and switch to targeting the Germanic world using a .com. This is contrary to my advice and philosophically can't possibly be right.
What on earth could possess a German-speaking organization based in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland already operating with local domains to move to the .com from domains with a clear cultural attachment to its home market?
ccTLDs Aren't Welcome in Webmaster Central Geo-Targeting!
The basis of the recommendation: it's easier to achieve accurate geo-targeting of these markets using Webmaster Central settings -- but Google doesn't allow you to target ccTLDs or local domains within Webmaster Central. Sadly, to use a Google feature that would solve a problem for German marketers, you have to move away to a generic non-identifiable domain.
We should bear in mind that Google and the German webmasters aims are fully aligned. Google wants to include the most relevant local content in its results when people search and the marketer or webmaster definitely wants to searchers to land on their relevant country pages and not those from an adjacent nation.
Google Says Local Domains are Already Associated with Geographic Regions
In its Webmaster Help section, Google says, "You can only use this feature for sites with a generic top-level domain, such as .com or .org. Sites with country-coded top-level domains (such as .ie) are already associated with a geographic region..."
Basically, Google is saying that they really don't need to make any adjustments or use any geographic settings because the local domains already do that job successfully.
Google goes on to provide useful guidance for those of us who prefer to use local domains anyway:"If no information is entered in Webmaster Tools, we'll rely largely on the site's country domain (.ca, .de, etc.). If an international domain (.com, .org, .eu, etc) has been used, we'll rely on the IP address. If you change hosting provider for a country domain, there should be no impact. If you change the hosting provider of an international domain to a provider in another country, we recommend using Webmaster Tools to tell us which country your site should be associated with."
So Google's picture of things is pretty clear. Local domains already do the job of geo-targeting, but if you happen to have a .com and are finding it difficult, then it's a good idea to use the Webmaster Central settings.
What Google isn't suggesting anywhere is that if you're having difficulties with your local domains for multinational German sites, switch to a generic domain such as a .com.
Why the puzzling advice at SES Berlin? It was connected with duplication and with using a local domain with multiple markets.
Even when using local domains there are problems with duplicate content. Additionally, if you want to target customers in the Swiss market with a single domain such as a .de, then both solutions are inappropriate.
Geo-targeting Not Recommended for Languages
Webmaster Central restricts the scope that your language content can reach. Many don't realize this is a limitation of the Webmaster Central settings approach.
Here's what Google says:"The tool handles geographic data, not language data. If you're targeting users in different locations -- for example, if you have a site in French that you want users in France, Canada, and Mali to read -- we don't recommend that you use this tool to set France as a geographic target.
A good example of where it would be useful is for a restaurant website: if the restaurant is in Canada, it's probably not of interest to folks in France. But if your content is in French and is of interest to people in multiple countries/regions, it's probably better not to restrict it."
Time for a Limited Extension of Geo-targeting?
A plea was made for Google to reconsider its approach in Webmaster Central to allow settings for local ccTLDs. I agree with this -- but with limited rollout and to only meet particular local difficulties.
Here are a couple of examples of what Google could do to make Webmaster Central geo-targeting more useful for many non-U.S.-based marketers:
- Allow .de domains to be set for Germany, Austria, or Switzerland.
- Allow any Scandinavian domain to be set via folders or sub-domains for any other Scandinavian country only.
No doubt, there are many other "local" examples of where this approach would work. I stress, I don't believe Google should open the floodgates to this as it would definitely be of use to spammers, but for local neighborhood situations -- such as the German-speaking world or Scandinavian -- this could be a very good solution.