How Google Determines the Relevance of a Page

Google SEOHave you ever wondered why Google.com delivers different results for a user in the US than for a user in Germany? This is a question I recently had to answer for a client, and it would have been much easier to send him to a link than to spend half an hour trying to explain what many skilled SEOs already know.

For Web searchers though, the reasons are not so obvious. Of course, they can deduce that Google delivers results based on the geographic location of the searcher, which is determined by the IP address of the user. This is generally true for Google local domains too, like google.de or google.com.au, but, the IP address is not the only factor influencing search results. Also, many webmasters will be lost if this was the only factor determining search results in Google. Knowing some of the following, you will also know why search results vary from location to location, and how to optimize your pages to be relevant for your targeted audience.

  • Top level domain name: it’s already common knowledge that TLDs are strongly weighted for local search results by Google. Other TLDs like .info, .tv, .biz are given less authority because of a large number of “spammy” sites with these extensions. TLDs with high authority seem to be .edu, .gov, .org and .mil. The most popular TLD remains .com and although it can be used by sites in any country, it still doesn’t guarantee that the rankings will not fluctuate in the Google SERPs. See below.
  • Server location: as I said, .com can be used by anyone, but Google also takes into consideration the geographic location where the domain is hosted. A .com hosted in Australia is seen as an Australian site, whereas a .com hosted in Germany is seen as a German site. So, if you target an American audience for example, and you want to be given priority in the US search results, getting hosting in the US is a good move.
    Google SEO by Location.
  • Location of ITL (incoming text links). If your target is international try to get links from sites hosted in as many different countries as possible. The same is true if you target local audiences, get as many links from sites hosted in the country you target. For example, if most of your links come from Australian sites Google will figure that the site is Australian one, or of interest to Australian searchers.
  • Page language: it’s possible to rank for pages you translate in other languages too, even if your site is not hosted in the country whose language you target. In this situation the ranking factors include, aside language, encoding characters, and meta titles and descriptions, which should be translated too.
  • Last but not least, take care how you set up your Google Webmaster Tools. When you sign up for this service, Google asks you to set up the geographic location of your site. You can also set this up at a later point, or edit it, but this option is not available for a country specific TLD like .de, .fr, etc. But for .com and other generic TLD sites, this Google Webmaster Tools setting replaces the server location signal and is particularly useful to set a different geo-location for each subdomain you want.

I hope this little primer on page relevance is helpful in understanding how Google reveals results for users, and how you can optimize your site for this variable. With so many factors to consider in SEO, using relevant but crucial tidbits like in these primers is one way to incrementally improve your search ranking easily and painlessly. Obviously everyone cannot change their domain name, server location, languages and links all at once, but those things that can be optimized, should be, if ranking in the search engines is important for your site.

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  • engkiat

    thanks for the article. :)

  • Sueblimely

    It bugs me that when I am searching for world wide results, Google still serves me Aussie results first. If I want Aussie results I will search Google Australia!!

    I am going to check my Google Analytics settings now – although I have a .com and US server I may be classed as an Australian site and not perform so well in US searches.

  • http://june-js.com/ haiku

    Great article, Miha :)

  • GenesisDavies

    Interesting article, I wasn`t aware of much of this! Definitely a good reason to look for US hosting, considering that I live in Guatemala, but my main audience is in North America.

  • http://www.tutorialdo.com skandalouz

    Are there any official links to prove this information? I’m not doubting you it’s just that there’s a lot of information posted online about SEO and you can never tell when exactly people are guessing or when they’re talking about solid facts. The things you say make sense, however I would still love proof in some form.

    Thanks for the article!

  • glenngould

    Other TLDs like .info, .tv, .biz are given less authority because of a large number of “spammy” sites with these extensions. TLDs with high authority seem to be .edu, .gov, .org and .mil.

    Any proofs? It’s already common knowledge that this is a myth. Please correct me if this is not the case any more.

    Are .gov and .edu back links still considered more “link juice” than the common back link?

    This is a common misconception–you don’t get any PageRank boost from having an .edu link or .gov link automatically.

    Check out SitePoint Forums SEO FAQ for more:
    http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/showthread.php?t=356031
    http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/showthread.php?t=182915#Section37 (and #Section9)

  • glenngould

    Oh, I qouted the one about pagerank, but the information is still there on the FAQ pages. Please check.

  • http://www.brianswebdesign.com skunkbad

    I have always included my target region, cities, counties, etc. in the text of the home page of my sites, and I feel that I get good search ranking for my sites because of this.

  • Hyena

    Other TLDs like .info, .tv, .biz are given less authority because of a large number of “spammy” sites with these extensions

    If other site elements are optimised well, .info domains can still rank first in results, so don’t discount them completely.

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @glenngould I am not talking about PageRank here, I am just talking about how Google delivers search results and what a webmaster can do to have better success in localizing his/her pages. Show me some cases where info, tv and biz appear before a com on Google’s first page.
    Also, I am not talking about “link juice” but about link location. The FAQ you sent me to is irrelevant for this article – it contains no information on the topic. :)

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    Hyena – that’s right. However, many authority SEO advise against these. See http://www.seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors#f29

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @skandalouz – there should be some other SEOs discussing this – I bet you’ll find something relevant on Matt Cutts http://www.dullest.com/blog/type/googleseo/

  • http://www.e-brighthorizons.com Saboma

    Thanks, Mig. I certainly understand more than I did. Now if I could only get officially logged into my acct here at SitePoint, instead of it just teasing me. I logged in, the comment box announces that I am logged in, yet it in the comment preview page, it is posted that I am here an anonymous instead. If I could only conquer that, I’d have the world my the tail and be a very wealthy person living in Germany with my extended family.

    TA and *hugs* to everyone!
    Saboma

  • http://www.wiseweb.co.nz wiseweb

    Hi thanks for the great article. It certainly helps answer the question in regards to different results searchers are getting from google.com when they locate in different countries. I have always been asked the similar question.

    It’s good to know that Geographic location you choose in Google Webmaster Tools will actuallly replace the server signal. Although I’ve always included a target city and country name on the homepage of the website and it helps rank ‘locally’.

  • glenngould

    Okay, another quote from the SitePoint FAQ:

    One observation many make is that .coms tend to rank higher then other domain extensions. They assume it is because .coms are given preferential treatment. This is a poor assumption. .coms seem to rank higher then other extensions because they are by for more popular then any other domain extension (there are more .coms than .net, .org, .biz, .edu, .gov, and .info combined) so they naturally have a greater chance of ranking higher vs other domain extensions through sheer quantity alone. .coms also tend to be older sites so they have had a chance to establish themselves whereas newer domain extensions have not. They have also used this time to acquire more backlinks which is an important factor in search engine algorithms.

    It is also commonly believed that .gov and .edu sites are given preferential treatment from search engines. This is also untrue. Web pages on .edu and .gov domains tend to rank well because they contain quality content and many webmasters will link to their content as a result. Both of these are key elements in SEO. But the fact that they are .edu or .gov domains does not benefit them directly in the SERPs.

  • sta

    Very useful post. Can you please explain the role of encoding characters in the page language section.

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    Glenn, what are you trying to prove? As I said, this is not about which domain TLD is better and which ranks higher, it is about how Google delivers results to searchers from different locations and what webmasters can do to target their local audiences better. It’s common knowledge that .coms rank higher because of their popularity.I am not arguing that. Actually I am not arguing anything. Even the greatest SEO minds cannot agree upon the importance of TLDs http://www.seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors#f29 – Graywolf, Stein, Claiborne, Aaron Wall agree that .edu and .gov get a boost for example. Other SEOs disagree. From personal experience, doing SEO since 2002, I can also tell you that edu and gov are regarded as trustworthy by most of the search engines. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your input, but I base my observations on experience rather than theory. I know you understand.

  • glenngould

    I just want to make sure which point of view is true; do .edu and .gov domains really get a boost or not (in the SERPs).

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @ Glenn: it really depends. If properly optimized I think all sites have a good chance, regardless of TLD. As I said, there are SEOs who think gov and edu get boosted, others disagree. Remember that the TLD is just one of the factors influencing search results. There are hundreds more to add to this. I think an interesting discussion would be: which are the most important factors in 2009?

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @sta – character encoding is very important if you have a let’s say… Chinese site, Russian, etc. Also, even European languages have special characters (German, Danish, etc)

    The character set you use also depends on your market – European, US, etc. Here is a big list http://developer.apple.com/documentation/macos8/TextIntlSvcs/TextEncodingConversionManager/TEC1.5/TEC.b0.html with character encodings ant their languages. Note that the document I linked at is very old – if someone has something newer, please post.

  • alexborsody

    another brilliant article. broken down so even the slow seo’s can understand it. i really like the organization in Mihaela’s writing. my sites pagerank went down but traffic went up..wtf?

    So much of SEO is speculation so its important to gather all your information/facts together, then make up your own mind from intuition and perception as well as controlled tests.

  • ciaomarco

    Thanks for this great article. I agree that location is another key in improving SEO

  • sta

    If i have a german site and a russian site, it means that i should use different character encodings for both. righ ? From
    character encoding,does the browser or the search engine determine the language of the site ?

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @Alexborsody – you are right, PageRank and search engine rankings are two different things. :) That’s why the traffic went up. The PR drop did not influence the SERPs. It happened to one of my personal blogs too: it had PR5 and now it is only 3. I know why it happened and I don’t sweat over it. It will take me some time to fix it now – I should probably write an article about what not to do if you don’t want your PR to drop.

    But you are right: SEO is a great deal speculation, although I more often say that it is a trial and error process.

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @sta – yes, you should use different character encodings.

    When you determine the character encoding you send a signal to both Web browser and search bots regarding the language of the site. For more in depth information check these out:
    http://www.w3.org/International/tutorials/tutorial-char-enc/
    http://niwo.mnsys.org/saved/~flavell/charset/checklist.html (this one is somehow clearer than the W3 link)

  • George Susini

    Thanks for the great article :-)

  • http://www.howrank.com mkoenig

    This was a decent article, bit i was really looking for more.

    There is more to relevance than the few things mentioned above. Incoming Links, Page Titles…etc

    This just seems to describe geo-relevance.

    You guys could write a small book about this subject if you really wanted.

  • Jignesh Gohel

    Thanks for the useful article, i go through whole discussion and i am totally agree with the details given in this article. These are very essential points which affect the rankings in local Google search rankings.

    here i would like to share one point related to same topic, i have also heard that, the ip from which you are submitting your website in Google webmaster too is also affect the rankings in local search engine. I am not sure whether it is true or not, i would like to know your inputs.

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @mkoenig: great idea about the book. ;) – and you are right, this article was only about geo-relevance.

  • http://www.ewriting.pamil-visions.com/ Mihaela Lica

    @Jignesh – I doubt the IP of the submitter has anything to do with the ranking – considering that many people hire SEOs from different geo locations to take care of their sites. :)

  • sitehatchery

    google has lowered the weight of the top-level domain keywords. I have several sites on different different servers that used to come up number one and number 2 because of the keywords in the domain name. Now they don’t show up on the first 10 pages. The domain name itself has lost its fire.

  • vikramrsingh

    Of course this information was very helpful, Can you please advise if a .co.uk domain is hosted on a server in Germany what preference Google will give it?

  • http://www.cafewebmaster.com/blogs/web2crawler web2crawler

    Location of website visitors with Google-Toolbar or Chrome could be another factor.

  • ganked

    I find this article very relevant and interesting. I agree with the comments on frustration from Google persisting to server links from Australia, even though I’m searching google.com :(

  • http://www.alaress.com.au ganked

    I find this article very relevant and interesting. I agree with the comments on frustration from Google persisting to serve links from Australia, even though I’m searching google.com :( This is not good for web designers like us.

  • NotAlame

    Thanks for these valuable informations!

  • brown

    What a chance; lovely. cool stuff in a wonderful article.

  • neoplasmsix

    Erm..

    I don’t recall seeing anything regarding paid for rankings….