What if Google told you that your nearest dentist was in another country?
Recently we had a question about why a certain dental practice wasn’t showing up in the search results when the person Googled the word “dentist” along with the specific town. Showing up in the map results is a top goal of a practice’s digital marketing strategy, so the clearly the situation warranted investigation.
Here is an image of our initial results of a “dentist Chatham” search:
This was interesting, since the phone numbers of the results all had the country code of +44: the United Kingdom. We are located in the US.
How could someone located in the US get local map results from the UK? The answer: we were searching in privacy mode, also know as private browsing or incognito mode. The same result can happen if the searcher’s device has Location Services turned off.
In our case, since Google didn’t have access to our geolocation, it did its best to give the most likely results. So it found the location where the most searches for “dentist Chatham” were occurring. And since the population of Chatham in the UK is higher than the various Chathams in the US, we can understand why Google responded as it did.
The solution, apart from turning on Location Services or exiting privacy mode, is to qualify the search. So once we helped Google out with more information by adding the state to the search terms, we found that the desired practice showed up in the local 3-pack.
We’ll talk about why we were using incognito mode in a minute, but why do some people turn Location Services off?
- Battery life – using Location Services drains your battery faster.
- Safety – certain apps pass along your location to others, which could be a safety risk.
- Reduce ads – geo-aware advertising sends mobile ads to possible customers when they are close to a particular location.
- Privacy – some are concerned about privacy violations by companies who use and sell the location data collected without the users’ knowledge.
According to Emarketer.com, 9 out of 10 people use Location Services on their phones, so this scenario won’t happen to most mobile phone users.
But the search results Google produces can vary substantially even with traditional browser searching and with Location Services turned on. As an example, I searched for “dentist near me” on 4 different devices while sitting in the exact same spot at my desk. Here’s what came up on each device:
I got the same list of results on my laptop and my Tab (Android tablet); the phone results had one of the same practices (but it was an ad, not an organic result), and my iPad gave completely different results from the others. So why didn’t they all deliver identical search results?
Google doesn’t disclose its 200+ search ranking factors, but industry experts agree on what many of the factors are likely to be. Here are a few items that can influence your results even while searching from the same spot.
- The device being used for the search. As shown above, different devices often return different results. One reason: Google has made it known that mobile-friendliness of websites affects rankings. So if your practice’s site doesn’t provide a good experience for various mobile users, it could drop in search results.
- Repeated searches on the same device. Unless you clear your browser cache and cookies, Google will remember your past searches and the links you clicked on using that device. If you repeatedly search for the keywords you hope to rank your site for, it may look to you like your site is moving up in the search results. In actuality, Google may be returning results based on your previous searches. You can check this by searching in a different browser, on a different device, or by clearing your cache and cookies. Searching in privacy mode can also help give a more authentic result, since it starts a new browsing session without factoring in the search history you have from your normal browsing. As long as you don’t sign in to any accounts you may have (including retailer accounts such as Amazon), you will get less biased search results.
- Using a Google account. Google has a variety of services like Gmail, Google Docs, and others that require you to log in to a Google account in order to use them. If you search while you are logged in to a Google account, your usage history from these services is available to Google to use in refining the search results. If you search after logging out, you may see a different set of results.
- Google AdWords campaigns. Businesses paying for ads influence what results are returned to various searchers. Advertisers can segment their target audience not only by device, but can further refine ads by device operating system, mobile carrier and/or Wi-Fi traffic. So you could have two people sitting next to each other who get different search results simply because one uses Verizon and the other uses Sprint.
So how can you know for sure where your practice is ranking in Google’s search results? You can get a rough idea by taking the steps mentioned above (clearing cache and cookies, using a different browser, searching in privacy mode, checking on multiple devices, signing out of all Google accounts, and even turning off Location Services before searching). Or you may choose to sign up for an online service that tracks rankings for your selected keywords. The cost varies based on number of keywords tracked and other factors. And if you have an SEO provider, rank tracking is often included in your campaign package.
While we can’t be sure of all the reasons why one business moves up and another moves down in rank, we know that Google will continue to refine their algorithm to help searchers find what they are looking for. Even if it turns out to be in another country.