Cross-border Selling

Geolocation Helpful to Merchants, Tricky for SEO

Identifying where an online consumer lives can be helpful to ecommerce merchants. Among visitors to an ecommerce site, there’s differences in language, currency, and climate. A clothing merchant, for example, would presumably offer different items to a visitor from Alaska than from, say, Florida. Likewise, the merchant may want to alter the language and currency for a visitor from France.

There’s a way for merchants to determine where a site visitor lives, and it’s called geolocation, which is the process of determining a user’s physical location based on his or her IP address. Many companies provide geolocation services to merchants, and many merchants report increased conversions by being able to tailor a web page to the physical location of a consumer.

But geolocation can affect a merchant’s search engine optimization efforts. The challenge comes from the fact that search engine crawlers originate from a specific set of IP addresses. For example, Googlebot crawls from a range of IP addresses located in San Jose, Calif. Imagine the SEO consequences of a site developed to geolocate visitors on every page: Googlebot would be restricted to content suited for visitors in San Jose, excluding all other countries, states or other locations from the crawl.

Identify the Pages to Geolocate

To overcome these SEO challenges, a merchant could restrict the use of geolocation to specific pages of the site where it makes sense for the user experience. Use that geolocation information to set a cookie, and use the cookie to determine the geographically relevant content that each individual visitor is served. And lastly, include a crawlable and usable feature to manually switch the location.

For example, a hypothetical ecommerce site called EcommerceCompany that does business in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. would naturally want to customize visitors’ experiences based on country. Elements such as price, currency, product availability, and variations in grammar and imagery have a big impact on a customer’s experience and likelihood to purchase. It’s not a question of should this company use geolocation. Instead, it’s a question of how to ensure that the architecture supports SEO needs as well as customers.

EcommerceCompany would want to geolocate its users on the page the user enters on. That entry page might be the home page, but it might not. So in this case the entry page would trigger geolocation to determine which country’s content to serve. A cookie is set, and the user either navigates happily on or chooses to manually switch that location.

Allow Users to Switch Locations

Would users actually switch locations? Perhaps visitors on vacation in the U.K. would want to shop on the U.S. version. Perhaps a visitor in Buffalo, NY, would like to recommend a product to a friend in Toronto and wants to check the price in Canadian dollars. Maybe the visitor is concealing his or her location somehow. Regardless of the usability reasons for offering the location switcher, it is critical for search engine crawlers. A crawlable location selector may be the only way that bots can traverse between the American, British and Canadian versions of the site.

The location selector itself can be as simple as static HTML links to the other locations, or as complex as a heavily styled fly-out menu, as long as it’s developed so that it degrades to crawlable HTML links when CSS, JavaScript and cookies are disabled. The links in the location selector should appear in the navigational section of every page, as opposed to a single link that points to a different page containing the links to the locations. The difference here is the amount of link popularity that will be passed. Linking to each location from every page of the site passes a fraction of every page’s link popularity back up to the primary landing page for each location. That’s good. Linking to each location only from what is essentially a single sitemap page dramatically decreases the amount of the site’s own link popularity that can flow between its locations.

If the geolocation handling or the location selector are creating crawl barriers or bottlenecks to passing link popularity, a whole new round of work must be done to estimate the impact, the time and resources required to fix it, and the potential return on that investment when compared with the company’s other priorities.

Other more technical factors come into play with geolocation as well, including use of cookies and JavaScript.


Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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