Geo-targeting: the regional optimization of web content and how it works

In today’s globalized society, businesses are operating internationally on an ever-increasing scale. Online merchants now often have customer bases in many countries across the world – each with their own language and cultural conventions. One single website for every customer base is therefore often unprofitable. Instead, it pays to address customers directly with tailored web content. But online marketing doesn’t solely seek to expand businesses globally; addressing customers in specific regions with the targeted distribution of advertising and product offers can also be a strong tactic to increase sales. In both cases online businesses use geo-targeting. But what do you stand to gain from using this technique and how should you go about implementing it?

What is geo-targeting?

As an area of targeted advertising, geo-targeting involves a variety of technologies used in online marketing to locate customer groups. The goal is to create perfectly tailored advertising content for internet users, based on their region. This may involve adapting the website’s language or adjusting the advertisements to have a regional reference. Geo-targeting plays a central role in e-commerce, although its uses are not exclusively limited to commercial websites. Read on for an overview of the most common types of localization methods, the different fields of application for geo-targeting, and the limits and risks of this kind of technology.

Areas of application

The main motive for targeting measures is the assumption that internet users consider web content tailored to match their online behavior to be more relevant and useful. One central factor in creating relevant content is the user’s location. This data provides online retailers with references to the preferred language, sociocultural characteristics, and the legal framework for advertising in the respective region. But geo-targeting isn’t just used for addressing target groups; as well as being used for adapting web content and preparing online advertisements, app developers also determine their customers’ locations in order to implement cross-media strategies and link online channels with offline touchpoints. Geo-targeting techniques are used across various other industries, such as in the market economy, copyright protection, and securing online transactions.

  • Multilingual web content: many websites are geared towards users all around the world and thus need to provide content in several different languages. Header information gives an indication of the preferred language, which is submitted automatically by the web browser following a server request. If a browser detects a page with several language options, the content management system plays the required version. So for example, while a website visitor based in the United States will see a page in English, a visitor looking at the same page in Brazil may see the same content in Portuguese. But not every website relies exclusively on the header information; geo-targeting also enables the browser to determine the website based on technical localization methods.
  • Geo-targeting in e-commerce: web stores also use multilingual sites to address an international customer base. Geo-targeting can here offer the possibility to provide many different versions of the same store under one global URL. Depending on the target region, this may offer customers a different product range, region-specific currencies, prices, and terms of delivery as well as information on the nearest offline branch.
  • Regional advertising: the advertising industry often makes use of geo-targeting in order to increase the relevance of online advertising for their chosen target group. Ad networks like Google AdWords and Microsofts Bing Ads provide functions that enable businesses to focus on individual users and target groups using adverts for relevant products or settings. This can benefit businesses of all sizes; for example, small businesses can use this type of online advertising to attract new customers from their surrounding area. The aim of regional targeting is ultimately to minimize advertising expenditure and place the advertising material where it will be most effective.
  • Location-based services: with the ever-increasing use of smartphones and tablets, geo-targeting also plays an important role in location-based services, (LBS). Many apps automatically record users’ locations with their consent. This gives developers the opportunity to coordinate software functions with the user’s location. It’s possible then to create services that are available online within a company or in selected shops and restaurants. An example of LBS being put into practice is with coupon apps; if a customer enters a participating retailer, a discount notification will automatically pop up on the smartphone display.
  • Market research: market research also relies heavily on geodata, particularly in the areas of defining target groups and narrowing down requests for products and services to specific geographical locations.
  • Copyright protection: in copyright protection, a form of user localization known as geoblocking is used. This allows multimedia platforms such as YouTube to use geo-targeting options in order to limit content to specific countries or regions and in so doing, protecting the copyright. License fee-financed web content of public-law broadcasting corporations can only be called up in their countries of origin.
  • Payment security: another area of application for user localization is online payment transactions. Transaction services use geo-targeting techniques to coordinate a user’s location with their account data and thus detect any inconsistencies.

How does geo-targeting work?

Geo-targeting techniques vary depending on the data used to determine the user location. These methods vary from using information provided voluntarily by the users, or using the location shared in the user’s browser, which relies on an automated evaluation of IP addresses or GPS data.

Geo-targeting with user input

One simple way to implement geo-targeting is with manually entered user information. Some websites, especially older ones, request users to select the country or language of the website they want to view or the region from which they’re accessing the website. To record a user’s location this way, website owners simply need to create an online form that requires a postal code or the desired language, which will then forward the user to the appropriate content.

Another option for determining a user‘s location is to ask for them to enter it manually during a registration process – for example in order to create an account with a website, a forum, or a web app. In this case, you only collect the location information from registered users, who have entered their location manually. With this type of geo-location, the user’s current location is very rarely recorded. Determining the user‘s location based on voluntary information is therefore a very imprecise method and depends on the user’s accuracy and honesty.

Determining location via a web browser

With HTML5‘s geolocation API option, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides a programming interface that enable websites and applications to instruct the browser to compile location data from the operating system. This is transferred to the browser‘s geolocation provider, which then responds with concrete coordinates and an address. This is read by the geolocation API and provided to the website. The quality of the data depends on the technical facilities of the device in use and the available data. The possible options for gathering information include GPS data, network signals such as IP addresses, WLAN, RFID, and Bluetooth MAC addresses as well as data from tracking devices (i.e. GSM or CDMA). These mostly vary with regard to the accuracy of the localization. Depending on the localization technique, it’s possible to have fluctuations from a few meters up to several kilometers. HTML5 geolocation API therefore issues both geo-coordinates as well as a value in order to judge the accuracy of the results. The user's consent is required in order to share their location and varies according to the web browser. For example, since the 50th edition of Google Chrome, the release of location data has been allowed with HTTPS connections only. Users are asked whether they want to share their current position separately for each website and web application.

IP targeting

IP addresses are a central network signal used for determining a user location. When transferring data via HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), every internet user sends a return internet address. This is either the router’s IPv4 address or an IPv6 address unique to the device. IP addresses are used in order to give each device a distinct address, making them reachable. When accessing a web page, a user sends an HTTP request to the IP address of the responsible web server. A sender address is then automatically provided. The responding web server can then identify the sender of the request and subsequently return the requested data package.

Due to the shortage of IPv4 addresses, routers and client devices are usually not available as static addresses, unlike web servers. Instead, the IPs of internet service providers (ISP) are assigned dynamically. Generally, IP addresses with private internet connections change roughly every 24 hours. It’s then possibly to ascertain a rough estimation of the user’s location based on their IP. This is due to the procedure of awarding IP addresses under the auspices of the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which is a department of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). IANA is responsible for allocating IP address ranges to so-called RIRs (regional internet registries). Globally, there are currently five RIRs with different regional responsibilities:

  • Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC): responsible for Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
  • American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN): responsible for the USA, Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and parts of the Caribbean.
  • Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC): responsible for Asia and the Pacific region.
  • Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC): responsible for Latin America and parts of the Caribbean.
  • African Network Information Centre (AfriNIC): Responsible for Africa.

The five RIRs divide the address areas provided to them into smaller regions and pass them on to local internet authorities (LIR). These are usually internet service providers (ISP), which deal with end-user business. Every ISP has a fixed pool of addresses assigned dynamically or statically to customer routers or terminals. Based on the IP, topological information about the hierarchal structure of the address system and the assignment of subnetworks can thus be read out. This allows website owners to identify the ISP from which the IP was assigned. Its location and area of influence can then be used to draw conclusions about the user’s approximate location. However, the precise address of a customer connection can’t be used in the context of geotracking, as it is subject to data protection and is only known to the ISP.

But especially in the case of large internet service providers, establishing a location based on information provided by the IP is insufficient for geotargeting measures.  That’s why many service providers have specialized in the area of determining additional information in order to define an IP address more precisely. Website owners can then pay to access this information, which is generally available in continually updated databases.

In order to define the geolocation of an IP address as precisely as possible, website operators use localization strategies that are based on network measurements and are synchronized with latency periods. Other approaches rely on BGP routing tables, address prefixes, and the Whois database in order to organize IP addresses into clusters. There are also IP databases built by user information given voluntarily for online games. Despite these efforts, IP-based geolocation can only deliver approximate results at the very best. Website operators who require more reliable data should, therefore, use the location sharing option in the web browser.

GPS targeting

GPS targeting uses a satellite-based tracking system. This makes it possible for the position of a device to be identified to within a few meters. For this purpose, the runtimes of 6 to 12 satellite signals are evaluated. Today, GPS navigation devices are in almost all modern mobile devices, although stationary computers are generally not able to be localized via GPS. GPS targeting is therefore primarily used by mobile websites to locate their target groups, by implementing location-related app and mobile advertising services.

A GPS localization is only possible where satellite signals are received. For example, it’s not always possible to locate mobile devices in locked rooms. Additionally, the user must activate the locating service for their respective device and agree to share their location information with a website or app provider via an opt-in agreement.

Radio cell tracking services

Radio cell tracking is a method of geolocalizing mobile devices. This can be implemented via a telecommunication service provider, a GSM modem, or a programming interface like the geolocation API in browsers. Devices integrated into digital mobile radio networks can be located via their relative position to nearby radio mast. Special localization technology like GPS is then not required. 

The accuracy of the smartphone or tablet’s position depends on the number of radio masts in the surrounding area. Radio cell tracking therefore delivers more precise results in busy towns and cities than in rural areas. Mobile network operators use geolocation over the mobile network to provide location-specific services to their customers. Areas of application include fleet management in the context of logistics or determining the geolocation during emergency calls. This is also helpful in locating stolen or lost devices. In some cases, the police can also access location data in order to determine the whereabouts of a suspected criminal.

Geotargeting in search engine optimization

Geotargeting is also a useful tool in search engine optimization, with intersections being found in international SEO as well as websites that focus on regional search queries (local SEO).

International SEO

International SEO encompasses all practices that allow search engine crawlers to determine the country or language required with each query. International businesses usually offer web content in several languages, however, in some cases the correct language doesn’t appear in the search engine results pages. For example, if an internet user in the United States views the website of a business based in France, the page might initially appear in French, even if there is an English version. To prevent this, website owners use the long-established hreflang attribute, which enables search engines to choose the correct language version: <link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-us" /> The hreflang attribute gives website owners the option to store information about the various language versions of their website in the header of each page as well as in the XML sitemap. With hreflang, it’s possible to have single language versions for different countries and several languages for one country (i.e. Canada or India). Search engines read the information in the hreflang attribute and use the location data collected by the operator in order to deliver search results in the preferred language and country version. For tips on how to use the hreflang attribute, refer to the how-to guide in the Google Search Console Help. The hreflang attribute method is also useful in combination with content that has regional references. As well as the appropriate language, website owners should also give signals for content oriented towards a specific region via appropriately adapted contact information, currency information, and links to other web content from the same region. For the search engine optimization of international websites, the hreflang attribute is of even greater significance. From the user’s point of view, delivering the correct language and country version of a website increases both the relevance as well as the usability of a website. This ensures the page’s bounce rate remains low and the retention time stays high – two very important factors in achieving a high ranking on the search engine results pages.

Local SEO

Local SEO is the practice of optimizing a website with a cultural bias specifically for regional search queries. Local search queries might include search phrases that give a clear indication of the region the user is interested in, examples of this would include, for example, ‘best bars Manhattan’ or ‘dentists Denver’. The search engine then displays relevant results in the user’s immediate vicinity as well as results based on network signals such as the IP or the location information of a user profile (i.e. Google+).

Website owners whose products and services have a regional significance have different options to signal their product’s relevance to search engines. Local SEO strategies include onpage optimization to include regional keywords and being features in online directories and maps.

  • Onpage optimization: in order to signal a regional relevance, a website’s content and meta-information should be adjusted accordingly through the use of keywords. Title tags, headings, URLs, text content, and alternative texts for images should allude to or contain the name of the target region as well as a keyword relevant to the website. In addition, it’s worthwhile to embed a map service such as Google Maps, which allow you to mark offline branches, the company location or other contact points.
  • Google My Business listing: Google My Business is an indispensable for gaining a high ranking in a specific local region. The service is a vital management tool for Google Maps and Google Plus Local (formerly Google Places) as it bundles the branch services of the search engine market leader. Business owners can create a free profile and mark their location with a pin on a Google Maps map. Local businesses also have the prospect of being placed in the coveted Google Local Pack. In this, Google presents the three most relevant providers for a local search including the card entry in the organic search results. The Local Pack contains a business’s NAP data (i.e. name, address, and telephone number) and thus enables the user to find the contact details of their desired service quickly. If this data is also found in the same form on other websites, it’s known as a local citation.
  • Local citations: local citations on websites and branch portals are relevant for gaining a positive ranking in the search engine results pages. For this, website owners should ensure their data is represented consistently across their online platforms. To make it easier for search engines to match the correct data, it’s a good idea to use the same format for NAP data as on their website and Google My Business. The extent of information and level of detail also have an effect on the local ranking. You should therefore extend your local citation additional data such as categories, photographs of the business premises and opening hours.
  • Ratings: Google also uses customer recommendations on local websites as a ranking factor in local searches. To do this, the search engine focuses on Google+ Locations, a link between the Google Places predecessor service and the social network of the search engine provider.

Geotargeting and its limits

From a website owner’s point of view, the biggest challenge of Geotargeting is when a user does not wish to share their location. Technical methods such as GPS location and the sharing the location via the web browser require the user to explicitly give their permission. IP targeting is technically possible without the user’s consent, although in some cases this could lead to a violation of data protection laws. In addition, defining the user’s geolocation by their IP can be imprecise and unreliable. Many internet users have a proxy server installed in their browser, providing a further hindrance, as this could effectively conceal the sender address.

Geolocalization from a data protection perspective

If geotargeting methods make use of personally identifiable information (PII) or is implemented without the user’s explicit permission, it can stand in conflict with data protection laws. To avoid sending PII when collecting location-based information, Google Analytics advises users to avoid using GPS of fine-grained information about individual users’ locations (data that reveals any area less than 1 square mile around an individual user). Personally identifiable information also includes any information that can refer to a single individual or reveals details about a sufficiently small group. Website owners, advertisers, and app developers are thus encouraged to implement geolocalization methods in such a way that a larger region is displayed, so as not to identify single individuals.  Alternatively, it’s also possible to use survey procedures in order to collect anonymous or pseudonymized data. In this case, however, it’s important to ensure that it is not possible to relate the processed data to a single individual. In addition, website visitors or app users should always be presented with an opt-out function so that they can explicitly turn off any geolocalizing functions if they so wish. For detailed information about geolocation and data privacy in software applications, refer to the United States’ government’s handy guide to the Geolocation Privacy Legislation. To be certain that your web content as well as your offers do not violate any legal regulations you should always explicitly ask for the user’s permission to use their location data and inform yourself about the different kinds and the range of data use.

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