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Google Doesn’t Actually Know Where You Are

If the information age has a favorite conspiracy theory, it’s that Google is watching you wherever you go. Whether it’s via your smart phone, your desktop, or all the personal information you’ve ceded over the years, the search giant knows where you are.

Except it turns out that isn’t true. If you check where Google thinks you are while you browse, you’ll find it may be off by as much as 300 miles—or even think you’re in a different country.

Those are the results of a recent study in which nearly 150 people checked how Google located them as they visited a website. It turns out that the search engine is not quite a Big Brother after all. And that has an impact on search marketing.

Why Google Can’t Find You

Here is a highlight of the results, which might surprise many search marketing professionals:

  1. Huge error rate. Google’s exact error rate depends on how generous you’re feeling. If you insist on perfect accuracy, Google located only 55 percent of users correctly. If you allow a 25 mile radius, it got 67. That means one third to nearly half of all users are mislocated.
  2. The average error distance is massive. When Google is off, it’s way off. In the US alone, the average margin of error is 145 miles on a desktop and 334 miles on a mobile device. Small developed nations like the UK fared better, while developing nations fared worse.
  3. Mobile fails hard. In general, Google’s accuracy for mobile users was two to three times worse than for desktop users.

Of course, this would be solved if every device had GPS and told Google its location automatically (like when you use Google Maps). But that’s not how browsing works. Most phones don’t share your GPS location without permission, and desktop devices don’t even have GPS. Websites, including Google, have to guess your location.

Lessons for Marketers

Google’s tracking problems may bring a sigh of relief from privacy advocates. But for marketers, they’re concerning. Businesses spend a lot of money to make sure their message gets in front of the right local audiences, and these results mean some of that money is misspent.

But marketers can draw a few lessons from the numbers:

  • Don’t sink all your local marketing budget on mobile. Remember that mobile users are more likely to check things like hours or contact info, and will find you quickly using their map app. Mobile marketing is important, but desktop users are more likely to be correctly located.
  • Targeting. If you’re running a search marketing campaign, Google suggests you target user who are both located in and showing interest in your local area. But you may want to consider targeting only the second group. After all, people actively searching for local results are your prime market, and it takes Google’s accuracy out of the equation.
  • Go international with care. If you plan to market in developing countries, be aware of two converging problems: consumers in developing nations are mostly on mobile (less accurate than desktop), and these nations themselves will have lower accuracy than the US. Proceed with caution.

Of course, the ultimate lesson here is: accept it. There isn’t much you can do about Google’s accuracy, and a function of how our current technology works. While 33+ percent is a big error rate, there’s no immediate way to fix it (and it may be some comfort that your competitors face the same glitch). If your local targeted campaigns are giving good results, then stay the course.

Want to take your search marketing campaign to the next level? Contact EverSpark Interactive for a FREE consultation today.