Geotargeting is an important part of international SEO and can benefit your search engines rankings, if done correctly. But the concept behind geotargeting is not the easiest to understand, which is why I would like to provide you with some guidance in this article.
I've also included detailed step-by-step instructions on how to set up geotargeting in your Google Search Console (former Google Webmaster Tools) and Bing Webmaster Tools.
So without further ado...
What Is Geotargeting And When Is It Useful?
First of all, I would like to define what geotargeting is and explain why it's needed to make sure that we are all on the same level.
With the help of geotargeting you can tell search engines which of your domains, subdomains, and subfolders is the most relevant for users in a specific country. An example:
Let's imagine that you run an eCommerce store for outdoor gear targeted at all the people but only the people living in the United States and your website's name is awesomeoutdoorgear.com.
Now awesomeoutdoorgear.com is what's called a 'generic top-level domain', or short gTLD, which means that it's not specific to any country. If you think about it, it would also make sense to run an eCommerce store for outdoor gear targeted at Canadian residents or people living in the UK and still name it awesomeoutdoorgear.com.
You could even deliver your goods worldwide and keep the same generic top-level domain name.
So how do search engines - first and foremost Google and Bing as they hold the biggest market share - know that your store is only relevant for users from the U.S.?
Because after all, if you don't ship your sleeping bags to Canada, why should your website show up in google.ca each time a Canadian user searches for 'buy sleeping bag online'? For this search query your store is almost 100% irrelevant, so it shouldn't be listed in the search results.
At the same time it's all the more important that your store is correctly indexed in the U.S. version of Google (google.com).
This is one situation where you can use geotargeting to your advantage.
Please note: I've presented only one example for when geotargeting is useful. Of course there are many more!
ccTLDs, Regional Targeting & Duplicate Content Issues
I'm going to explain how to implement geotargeting for your website(s) in a minute, but before I would like to mention three other important aspects:
'Country code top-level domains' (ccTLDs) such as awesomeoutdoorgear.us and awesomeoutdoorgear.ca are country-specific domains, which means that they are automatically geotargeted to the associated country. This also means that you cannot geotarget them to another country.
So if you think about expanding your business and going international further down the road, either start with a gTLD in combination with subdomains or subfolders from the beginning (more on that soon), or otherwise you'll have to manage two or more separate country-specific sites.
Right now it's not possible to geotarget whole regions like the European Union or North America.
If identical or very similar content can be accessed via two or more different URLs, then chances are that you will face a duplicate content issue. Google has stated that it usually doesn't penalize duplicate content, however, it's definitely something that you want to avoid in order to not cause any indexation problems.
I mention this because let's say we have an eCommerce store targeting users in the United States and we want to expand into Canada, you shouldn't just copy all of the already existing content onto a new site and the only modifications you make is changing the currency and the shipping country. That would be considered content duplication.
In order for geotargeting to work properly you have to change the content itself, for example by creating new product titles and descriptions, or by offering entirely different products.
How To Geotarget Your Website
Okay, so how can you geotarget a website and make it country-specific?
This is a pretty straightforward process, as there's a geotargeting feature included in your Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools dashboard.
Your first option is to geotarget a whole domain to a single country, let's say the United States, if that's want you want.
But what if you also sell products to users residing in Canada?
The solution here is to either create different subdomains, like us.awesomeoutdoorgear.com and ca.awesomeoutdoorgear.com, and geotarget the first subdomain to the United States and the second to Canada. Or you could create subfolders, such as awesomeoutdoorgear.com/us and awesomeoutdoorgear.com/ca, and set geotargeting for these.
Geotargeting In Google Search Console
The first step for setting geotargeting in your Google Search Console is to claim ownership of the domain that you want to configure, if you haven't done so yet.
To do that, visit https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/home and log into your Google account. Then click on 'ADD A PROPERTY' in the top right corner and complete the verification process.
If you want to geotarget multiple subdomains or subfolders, then you have to claim each one of them separately.
The next step is to choose the property that you want to configure in your dashboard and click 'Search Traffic' in the sidebar on the left hand side. Then click on 'International Targeting'.
The page that comes up contains a tab at the top named 'Country'. Switch to the tab and check the box below to be able to choose a country from the dropdown menu.
After you've hit 'Save', rinse and repeat the process for all your different properties.
Geotargeting With Bing Webmaster Tools
Bing Webmaster Tools makes it a lot more convenient for us to geotarget all our different subdomains and subfolders, because you don't have to claim and verify each of them separately.
You just need to claim your top-level domain once and you are good to go.
On the homepage of your dashboard click on the property that you would like to configure.
Next click on 'Configure My Site' in the left sidebar and choose 'Geotargeting' from the dropdown menu.
The new page lets you choose between domain, subdomain, and subfolder at the top. You also need to enter your URL and choose a country accordingly.
To save your settings, click 'SUBMIT' and, again, repeat the process for your different subdomains and directories, if need be.