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7 May 2019 / Opinion

Geo-targeting for SEO: What is it, how does it go wrong, and how to get it right

Lizzie Lewington / Head of SEO Operations

Multi-country and multi-language sites often cause confusion for search engines over which version to serve in the correct country location from where the search query was entered.

This seems particularly prevalent for sites using sub-folders, especially when there are multiple country versions all using the same language, or worse, if the same language content is duplicated across different country versions of the site.

Many global brands suffer from this in a big way and it’s understandable considering the number of countries and languages global sites need to service.

However, there are things that can be done to improve geo-targeting issues.

First, let’s take-a-look at a global brand that is getting things wrong:


So, you may think that a super brand like McDonald’s would ace geo-targeting but, sadly not. A quick search in Google UK using the keyword “mcdonalds” and the U.S site appears at position 1:

This is a pretty big fail when you consider the menus vary massively from country to country. Cue angry customers arriving at the drive-thru expecting a Mushroom & Swiss only to be told they’re not on the menu.

Even more frustratingly, there are no easy ways to switch countries. I decided to embark on a game of “let’s try to find the UK site”. My first step was to click on the “locate me” button:

Ok, great! I can find my nearest McDonald’s location, but I still can’t access the UK site. Notably, most people would have given up trying by now, but I chose to press on.

Next, I noticed there is an “Español” link in the top right of the header. I clicked on this in the hope that there may be some additional country options.

There weren’t any, it simply took me to the Spanish language version of the U.S site.

I navigated my way back to the EN-US site and scrolled to the bottom of the page – sometimes a country selector is hidden away down there. Still no luck.

I resorted to checking the code in case there was a link somewhere I’d managed to miss, but nothing there either.

So, ultimately, McDonald’s are serving UK customers with the U.S site with no way to access the UK version. If you type “mcdonalds uk” into Google the problem is solved:

Except, most people don’t search like that:

That’s 1.5 million searchers being served with the wrong site.

So, what’s going wrong?

A quick check shows that McDonald’s are not using hreflang tags.

How can they fix it?

A very simple fix for McDonald’s would be to add hreflang tags on all pages, ensuring all countries are referenced, including a self-referencing one.

They should add the hreflang tags to the top of the <head> section of the HTML code, ensuring no scripts appear above it. Scripts can prevent Google from properly reading the hreflang rendering them useless.

They should probably also ensure they include a country selector should people still inadvertently end up on the wrong site.

Geo-targeting for SEO can be a complex issue depending on the site, and often, a cookie cutter approach doesn’t work for all brands.

Stay tuned for our geo-targeting white paper coming soon, for a much more detailed deep dive and analysis into this key area of website internationalisation.