Does Your Web Site Know Geography?

Considering geography and how it relates to a website solidifies the way that a web site will be presented, marketed and picked up by search engines. With a thorough examination of geographic details, web site productions can find it much simpler to define content, design and marketing approaches.

The Internet proves itself valuable in that it allows a person at home to connect with businesses and people regardless of geographic location. Many people forget their geography when embarking on a web site production because of this ability to transcend space and office hours. It’s easy to believe that a website can go up without considering anything spatial at all because after all, we are talking about the Internet. Unfortunately, without considering geography, an important element of human existence lies buried under abstraction. Considering geography and how it relates to a website solidifies the way that a web site will be presented, marketed and picked up by search engines. With a thorough examination of geographic details, web site productions can find it much simpler to define content, design and marketing approaches.

The physical location of a website’s audience compels the production team to make specific decisions about how the production plan will be executed. Even if a web site’s audience lives in every state and country in the world, that doesn’t excuse a web site from not incorporating geography in the production plan. It just means even more work must be put into breaking up the site geographically. Not many business plans will be targeting every person in the world, so a certain geographic region will regularly be the target. Once this target is defined, a plan can be formulated to gear the production toward catering to this group.

On my web site, UnitedBands.com, I’m targeting primarily bands across the country, but also English speaking bands in other countries. There is one main page of band profiles where geography dominates the page layout and interface, pictured below.

Websites and Geography

(This is live at http://unitedbands.com/viewProfiles.php.)

Helping Users Find Information by Geography

Since networking between bands happens geographically, it’s essential that people can find each other by state. The way I chose to aid the bands in finding each other involves a map of the country that has been sectioned off with an image map to allow a user to click on their state or the state they are seeking to network within and to find bands. This is a very simple, straightforward approach.

As the site grows, I’ll add more detail, categorizing the bands even further to include major cities. In addition, I’ll include maps of other countries to allow the international acts to better find each other instead of lumping them all into an international category.

Search Engine Benefits

Not only will a layout that involves geography help with the user experience, but it will also aid with search engine optimization. States, countries and cities can be embedded into the URLs so that search engine spiders will find geographically rich keywords that are common in searches.

For example, a term such as “California punk band” might not yield a hit on a site that hasn’t been designed with physical location as a consideration. However, by creating directories that categorize bands by location and genre, the search term “California punk band” could easily be found within the URL. By combining geographic terms with other terms relating to the website’s content and purpose, keyword rich URLs can be created.

Geography doesn’t only play a part in determining navigation and categorization of a website. It also plays a vital part in determining the location of an audience for a specific product type. If a website’s product relates to investments, many more potential users will be in New York City as opposed to Kansas City. Likewise, if a website’s product relates to fashion, many more potential users will be in Paris or Los Angeles than Oklahoma. Each production team must determine the demographics of their customer base and then design a plan to suit that geographic area.

Other factors to consider include: age, income level and cultural components. A dating site will be used by college students a lot more than retired people will use it. Therefore, a geographic-minded move could be to have the site categorized by different colleges around the country. The colleges could be embedded in the keywords, so users searching for a keyword like “West Virginia University singles” could likely hit on the well-optimized site.

Another key task to complete once the geographic target exists, involves creating content that contains keywords relating to that locale. The content shouldn’t just include the name of the place that is being targeted, but should also include keywords related to that area. If the target is Philadelphia, mention the Liberty Bell or The Grape Street Pub. Any concrete details associated with a geographic location will increase the chances of the content being picked up by a search engine query.

Having content that relates to a geographic location not only helps visitors find a site, but it makes them feel at home. Since the Internet can be a vast unknown for most people, when they find a site that relates to their common, everyday experience, it can be a breath of fresh air. Having an experience on a website that makes the user recollect experiences from their personal life will make the user feel a much higher level of rapport and will likely induce a return visit.

One particular type of website definitely requires attention to geographic detail. Small businesses absolutely must pay extra attention to creating a site that is tied to the business’ physical location. If the website’s purpose amounts to an online advertisement for the physical store, as much effort as possible should be used to make the site geographically-centered. A store that doesn’t create content that includes all of the details of where the store is located, will be buried in search engines.

Here is a scenario that illustrates how small businesses can profit from having a geographic website plan. If someone in San Diego is looking for a birthday present for their niece during their lunch break because they need a Beanie Baby by 7:30PM that same day, they may type in “San Diego toy stores” as a search query. There isn’t time to order something online because they procrastinated until the last minute. They need to find a store fast. More than likely, the first store that comes up in the search results that is clearly in the area will be the store that gets the sale.

Reverse IP Lookup

Besides creating geographic centered navigation, URLs and content, a sophisticated technique used by some web professionals to tailor content to users involves reverse-lookup of a user’s IP address. Some companies have created tools to give webmasters the location of a user based upon the visitor’s IP address. The technology is not completely reliable, but if a website production requires such an elaborate setup, the technology does exist for a cost. One company that provides this technology is Quova, and they center their business model around translating IP addresses into a physical location. A news release from the company describes several uses of their service.

One example is from the online gaming industry. It is illegal for casino owners to provide gambling on the Internet in the U.S., as well as in Germany and China. Failure to comply with these regulations could cost the owners their gambling license. The GeoPoint solution from Quova identifies the geographic location of the potential online gaming customer to ensure that he or she is not within a jurisdiction where online gaming is prohibited.

Another example includes customers such as Major League Baseball (MLB), which must grant broadcast rights to local franchises. MLB was looking into streaming broadcasts of baseball games over the Internet but needed to adhere to local blackout restrictions. MLB uses Quova to monitor the location of online “fans” to make certain they are not within the blackout area. See Quova’s site:

http://www.quova.com/company/comp_news_article.php?ID=119

NOTE: The process of interpreting the IP address varies depending upon the company. To learn more about how an IP address can be used to determine the physical location of a user, read about one process in detail at http://oak.cs.ucla.edu/~cho/papers/cho-geog.pdf.

Simply asking visitors where they are from is a less expensive and intrusive means of determining where surfers live. Asking for a ZIP code when signing up for a service on the site allows the production team to make better-informed decisions about who is actually browsing the site. Some people will input fake ZIP codes so the data shouldn’t be used as gospel, but in general, the data can be helpful and certainly more helpful than no data at all.

Concluding Notes

Implementing a geographic strategy should be weighed against the purpose of a website. Some types of sites will require a thorough geographic plan while others may need hardly any refinement in that respect. Don’t force geographic categorization, content and navigation into a site for the sake of doing it. Only incorporate as much as is necessary. By using the proper amount of geographic consideration, a website may just find itself on the map of Internet success.

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