Technical SEO for Websites Using Geolocation

Location-based redirection, also known as geo-based redirection or geolocation, is a commonly used solution for websites serving an international audience. Websites employing this tactic send users from various regions or languages to a local version of the page they’re trying to access, based on their IP address. Many international brands (including Google itself) rely on geolocation to speak to international audiences in their native tongues. Geolocation can even be used domestically on a state or city level to speak more directly to your users.

While location-based redirects provide the advantage of reaching users in other locales, failure to implement technical SEO best practices can result in some costly setbacks. Keep reading to learn more about how to use geolocation without wrecking your site’s SEO.

Benefits of Using Geolocation

When considering your business’ target audience, location can be a major factor. Cultural nuances and norms can differ subtly or greatly from one region to another, and content that doesn’t fit the audience’s expectations will have a very difficult time garnering trust and engagement. On an international level, these differences are magnified significantly. Geo-based redirects allow you to create multiple versions of the same page that are individually tailored to users in their current location, and automatically send visitors to the most relevant content.

Using location-based redirects, you can deliver a better user experience to a much larger and more diverse crowd. Particularly, users who speak other languages can benefit from being redirected automatically to a translated version of the page without having to try to navigate the site (not to mention that this allows you to provide custom-translated versions of your content, which will be more readable and compelling than what an in-browser translation tool like Google Translate could provide). Product availability, contact info, and shipping policies that are specific to that region can also be displayed only where they apply. 

All in all, geolocation is intended to optimize conversion rates for more users. That being said, there are  some technical SEO risks associated with this practice, if not implemented correctly.

Common Search Issues With Geolocation

Although geolocation can help you reach customers across the globe, it can also open your site up to technical SEO issues that will sink your website’s search performance. Since Google is indexing multiple versions of the same page, these are the most commonly-occuring problems with geolocation: 

  • Google incorrectly penalizing the site for “cloaking” (more on that below).
  • Google incorrectly viewing multiple versions of the same page (such as the en-us and en-uk versions) as duplicate content, and suppressing one of more versions in the search results.
  • Searchers not being shown the correct URL for their language or region.
  • Searchers being shown two similar URLs from your site in the search results.
  • Search engines not displaying new pages created for specific languages and regions.

At this point, you might be wondering if geolocation is even an acceptable practice to Google. Luckily, Google has made very clear that it acknowledges geolocation as an acceptable technique. However, that does come with one very important rule: 

Treat Googlebot the same way you would treat a visitor.

It is well known that Google does not take kindly to deception, especially when it’s the one being deceived. “Cloaking” is a term used to describe when a site shows different content to Googlebot than what is being shown to actual users. If you’re not intentionally showing different content to Google (i.e. creating a version of your site and redirecting Googlebot’s IP address to it), then you probably won’t get penalized for cloaking.

SEO Best Practices for Geolocation

ccTLDs vs Subdomains vs Subdirectories

The three primary ways to set up an international website are: 

ccTLDs (example.com.fr)

Country-coded top-level-domains have historically been the top choice for international websites. Each ccTLD functions as its own site that is targeted to a specific language and region. While this method offers more flexibility in terms of diversifying content across different domains, it requires purchasing and managing many individual domains, which can be a cumbersome task. Additionally, Google will view these domains as completely separate sites, so link equity is not shared between them. 

Subdomains (fr.example.com)

Creating subdomains to target users by language and region can reduce costs and make it easier to manage international content. However, subdomains are also treated as separate websites by Google, so again, link equity and other ranking signals have to be individually earned on each subdomain. 

Subdirectories (example.com/fr-fr)

Subdirectories have become the preferred method for structuring a site for geolocation. All alternate language and region pages are housed under one domain, and can easily be edited on one CMS. You can create separate subdirectories for each country/language combination you’re targeting to facilitate Google’s understanding. Since the language- and region-specific pages are essentially just additional pages on your website, they can all work together to build domain authority from link equity and other ranking signals.

Use Server-Side 302 Redirects

SEOs usually recommend avoiding 302 redirects as these are often viewed as “temporary” redirects. However, Google has said that 302 redirection is actually the preferred type of redirect for geolocation. 

Include a Manual Location Picker

While automatic redirects are generally helpful to most users in other regions, not everyone is going to match perfectly with the language and region that they’re taken to. We recommend that you include a manual location/language picker so users can easily access the content they’re looking for when geolocation doesn’t do the trick.

Implement Hreflang Tags

Many of the search issues mentioned earlier related to Google displaying multiple versions of a page, displaying the wrong version to the target user, or not displaying the page at all to the target user come from missing or erroneous hreflang tags. Using hreflang tags, you can explicitly tell Google which region and language the page is intended for. 

Hreflang tags identify the language in ISO 639-1 format and, if necessary, can also identify the target region in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format. Note that in order to specify a region, you will need to include the language markup needs to be included as well. 

For example: 

  • fr: alone represents the french language (not France as a region). 
  • fr-fr: represents the french language in France.
  • fr-ca: represents the french language in Canada. 

It’s also vital to include a return link on all pages that use hreflang markup. Google puts it this way: 

“If page X links to page Y, page Y must link back to page X. If this is not the case for all pages that use hreflang annotations, those annotations may be ignored or not interpreted correctly.”

Create a Fallback Version of the Page For Unmatched Languages

Use the x-default tag to cover any users whose IP addresses do not match any language/region variations in your database. It’s a good idea to use this tag to target the homepage, where you’ll want to include a manual country or language selector so users can easily navigate to their preferred language.

Use The Canonical Attribute to Handle Duplicate Content

The rel=canonical attribute tells search engines that a page should be treated as a copy of a specified URL. Using this tag will ensure that Google doesn’t view your alternate language pages as duplicate content, and will credit all link equity and other ranking signals to the original page.

Time To Go Global!

It looks like you’re ready to extend your digital empire to far away lands! Be sure to keep these best practices handy as you’re building out your website for geolocation. If you’re already using geolocation, let us know what SEO issues you’re seeing and how you resolved them in the comments!

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With his diverse background in digital marketing, Nick provides creative and technical solutions to optimize web traffic. Nick works closely with senior team members to help clients see fantastic results.

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