Localizing your SEO strategy is obviously very important, but for global businesses, getting it right across multiple countries with different languages is a more complex operation. Making sure you’re serving the right version of your website based on location can be tricky, but one somewhat controversial tool in the SEO arsenal is the geo IP redirect.
We’ve put together a list of frequently asked questions to help you figure out if the geo IP redirect is something your organization should be deploying.
What is a geo IP redirect?
A geo IP redirect, also known as geolocation redirect or location-based redirect, is a redirect based on the user’s IP address location. It most often refers to a website behavior where a user is automatically redirected to a version of the site that is meant to be served in that user’s region, regardless of which version of the site on which the user initially landed.
For example, when searching in English from Canada, US-based results are very common, even in google.ca. But when you click a link to the US-based website, you may be automatically redirected to the Canadian version of the site. The geo IP redirect determines that your IP is actually located in Canada and sends you to the version of the site that is customized for Canada.
Using a geo IP redirect has its pros and cons, and you’ll find smart marketers landing on either side of the issue. A geo IP redirect ensures that a brand is accessible to their consumer wherever they are. But it does come with a risk: improperly setting up a geo IP redirect can do more harm than good.
Let’s start with the benefits.
Why use a geo IP redirect?
The most common reason to use a geo IP redirect is to resolve a chronic website or messaging issue. Some of the most common issues are related to the ways branding, creative, product or service offerings, and messaging differ regionally. Other issues might be based on your organization’s need to construct a user- and search-engine-friendly international architecture and user experience. These might include:
- The branding for the website is distinct in different regions and may cause confusion.
- The brand is not able to provide the same products or services in all regions.
- The brand is not able to fulfill shipping orders across regions.
- There is a significant drop-off when transitioning from one version of the site to another.
- Google or another search engine is habitually serving the wrong version of a page in some or even all regions.
While all of the above issues may be rooted in deeper challenges, and may have a corresponding more comprehensive solution, a geo IP redirect quickly removes the threat of human (or search engine) error from the equation.
From the customer perspective, users unfamiliar with a brand should not be expected to know that there is a better place to interact with that brand than the portal they’re currently using. Google is also not infallible and is particularly prone to mistakes when a website is not constructed using all of the international SEO and UX best practices. Those issues might seem insurmountable for a brand with limited design and development resources or expertise or when a brand’s tiny regional site is consistently dominated by its behemoth principal site.
Geo IP redirects serve as a remedy if executed properly, but they are not without challenges.
What are common issues with a geo IP redirect?
The biggest drawback of geo IP redirects? It’s easy to make mistakes during implementation that will have serious consequences for both the user experience and both paid and earned marketing campaigns. Think of redirects as both extremely powerful and extremely dangerous tool that should be deployed carefully.
Clear directions for safe implementation of a geo IP redirect is not easy to find if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. The result? lots of brands mess it up and their campaigns (and potential customers) suffer.
Some common errors when implementing geo IP redirects:
- Using a 301 redirect: You should NOT use a 301 redirect for geo IP redirects. A 302 redirect is the correct redirect to use, as confirmed by Google.
- Redirecting all users to the home page: If a user lands on a deep page, it may cause confusion if the redirect lands them on the home page of their local site and contributes to high bounce rates.
- Not tracking the redirect traffic: Be sure to include relevant tracking data in your redirect URL, or you’ll risk losing attribution data.
- Redirecting ALL traffic based on IP, even internal site traffic: Some users are simply traveling and would like to use the version associated with their home country. Once on the site, they should be able to navigate freely.
- Not allowing Googlebot access: Googlebot uses a US-based IP most of the time. If Googlebot only encounters redirects for pages outside of the US and is not able to reach those pages another way, it will not crawl or index those pages, or approve ads using them.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
How can I avoid geo IP redirect errors?
We can start with the easy stuff: the final two errors on the above list, redirecting internal site traffic based on IP and blocking Googlebot access , are the most likely to be discovered and corrected quickly. If the site’s internal traffic is redirecting, you will definitely hear from users who are unable to access the version they prefer from their location.
Similarly, if your brand is running paid ads in Google and Googlebot is barred access from the US, every ad pointing to those non-US properties will be rejected You’ll also see plummeting organic traffic as your site’s organic rankings collapse. Chances are you will catch the error as soon as all of those alarm bells go off.
When it comes to mistakenly using 301 redirects, the negative effects will be more subtle but still serious. The issue stems from the intended purpose and practical application by search engines for 301 and 302 redirects. A 301 is intended to be a permanent redirect, whereas a 302 is intended to be a temporary redirect.
It’s understandable that people get confused, but the 302 is the only redirect to accurately describe geo IP redirects. Why? Because the source page does exist and will continue to exist and should be used by anyone visiting from the region for which it was intended. If a user attempts to access this page from outside that region, they should temporarily be redirected to their local version. However, if a user is certain they want to view the initially redirected version, they are permitted to do so using the site’s navigation.
It is critical that the source page retains its equity so that it’s able to rank for keywords in its intended geographic location. Sending Google mixed signals about whether the page exists or not can and will harm that page’s performance.
Beyond these common issues, there are inherent weaknesses in even the best implementation of geo IP redirects. Namely, a systemic site-wide redirect, even a temporary one, directly contradicts the established best practices surrounding hreflang implementation. Solving for this while retaining the redirects would require exempting Googlebot from the redirect behavior, which breaks one of the most established best practices of all: Googlebot should have the same site experience as a user. There is no path which follows all international SEO best practices while also maintaining geo IP redirects.
If I want to use them, how do you implement geo IP redirects?
As noted, a geo IP redirect can be a quick fix for some common international SEO issues, but is not a perfect solution.. If this is the only option available, or an existing implementation is currently an immovable object, here are key geo IP redirect guidelines to avoid the common mistakes:
- Use a 302 Redirect. This retains page equity where it belongs, on the source page!
- Include tracking data in your redirect URL so it retains any data the brand needs for reporting purposes. At minimum, you may want to retain the referring URL to track traffic coming in via that redirect.
- Wherever possible, connect users to the same landing page as the source page, on the geo IP redirect destination page.
- Allow both users and Googlebot access to the entire site once they are on the site.
- This requires easy-to-find navigation, typically in the head of the page, that provides access to other international versions of the site.
- Any traffic via these links should not be subject to a geo IP redirect.
- Ideally, these links will connect the user to the same page on the selected version, assuming such a page exists within that version.
Our recommendation? Follow international SEO best practices.
There is still some debate within the SEO community as to whether or not geo IP redirects are helpful or harmful in the long run, even when implemented as best as they can be. But the overall consensus is that geo IP redirects are best avoided. We have found that addressing the underlying causes of the issues that the redirects were meant to fix or avoid is the best, sustainable solution.