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Does Google Know Where You Are? Do You?

Posted on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 by Print This Post Print This Post

Categories - Featured, SEM

I left South County, RI this morning on my way to West Los Angeles, CA. I flew out of the Providence airport, through Washington, DC.

Of course, I did no such thing. South County is a figment of local imagination, whose boundaries are subject of much debate. West LA is somewhat better defined, having a page on Wikipedia even, but is still subject to interpretation. The airports are in Warwick and Virginia, despite their names. And you probably can think of a dozen more cases like this. Did the real estate agent tell you that lovely apartment in downtown San Francisco was in Nob Hill  rather than the Tenderloin, or even better, in “The Tendernob”?

So how does Google know where you are, if you aren’t even sure? If you are trying to target campaigns in AdWords, can you reach someone in The Tendernob or South County?

First, a little background. For Google to figure out where you are, there are a number of things they can do. The easiest is just to get the information from your phone or computer. You know this when your phone tells you that Google wants to access your location. You may even have enabled location services in the browser on your computer. You may be logged into your Google Account, so your phone informs on you as you search on your laptop at your desk.

Even if a high-resolution GPS receiver isn’t available, other information might be. Your Wireless Access Point at home, office or local coffee shop may have been cataloged by roving vehicles (think StreetView), making finding you as easy as looking up a record in a database. You may have found the coffee shop with free WiFi in an online directory or phone app, in fact.

You may be doing searches that tell Google where you are. Now we get back to the “South County” problem. If you are searching using a well-defined, well-known, unambiguous place, then you are likely to find very well-targeted information. However, searching for “comic book stores in springfield” may not give you helpful options, unless you happen to be using your smartphone and are in the same Springfield you are searching for.

There is one more method Google has to find out where you are, known as IP targeting. I won’t go into all the technical detail, but basically your ISP may report locations for some or all of the addresses it hands out to users. The problem with this approach is that the ISP may report the same location for all of its users, as AOL did for years, making it look like there were a huge number of Internet users all in Dulles, VA (hey, that’s where the airport is, too!). Even on a smaller scale, generally these addresses are put together in blocks that might be part of a pool used for homes, businesses and other locations over a wide geographical area. Although IP targeting is a crude method, it may be effective in some cases, and may be better than nothing.

OK, so if you are an AdWords advertiser, and want to target certain locations, what to do?

Google gives you some options. You can

  • Specify Countries, Regions (States in the US), Metros (US only) and Cities to target
  • Provide simple circles within which to target, say within 10km from my shop
  • Describe simple or complex polygons, maybe to represent populated areas of your town, or to divide down neighborhoods

It turns out that the Countries and generally the Regions are pretty well-defined, and large enough to overcome the vagaries of even IP targeting. However, when you get to the City level, things get interesting. There is no West LA, South County or Tendernob to be found, but in their places are a lot of overlapping and oddly-chosen locales that you may or may not recognize. Some have a bounding rectangle, but not all, and they don’t neatly stitch together. There are gaps. Take a look at this screen shot, which shows some areas around West LA:


Note that there are some gaps here. Perhaps filling in with some polygons or circles will make things work out.

But what is really going on here? Are the people in the blue really covered, and the people in the white really not? Another question is, if I build one campaign for Pacific Palisades, one for Marina Del Rey, and one for Santa Monica, can I be sure who will see which ads? Will the ISP of the person in Home Junction report that they are in Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, or just Los Angeles?

Like anything, there are no simple answers, but you can be fairly certain that Google is working to reach everyone. Think creatively about how to geotarget your campaigns, or work with an agency that knows how to bring in the customers you want, wherever they think they are.

About Carl Dunham

Carl founded The Search Agency in 2002 and serves as the company's Chief Technology Officer.

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