Over the past week I noticed that, as the result of an update to their servers, Google have started automatically sending users in the UK to Google.com.
Previously it was impossible to do this unless you added ‘/ncr’ to the end of the google.com domain or amended the location in the URL string (the only people that would be looking to do this are SEOs!)
I originally Tweeted about this on January 26, expecting that Google would have fixed the error by now, but three days later we are still seeing the same problem.
Businesses around the UK may be wondering why their website traffic levels have dropped slightly over the past few days and have no explanation for it. Rankings appear the same, organic visibility remains at a constant and there has been no obvious shift in SERPs across the niche. We also have no proof of a Penguin or Panda refresh. But this may be an update that is not only affecting Google users in the UK, but businesses in America too.
Due to using the .com domain, unknowing UK users will be landing on US pages, realising they are American and probably bouncing off pretty quickly. I would hazard a guess that ecommerce are going to experience this the most as UK users will quickly notice the $ sign. None localised news and weather websites will also be seeing pretty high bounce rates due to the nature of their content.
We know Google pays attention to bounce rates and dwell time, but whether four days of higher bounce rates will affect a company’s organic visibility is a little less clear. Google will also see the visitors that are bouncing are coming from UK IP addresses and may just ignore the data that is landing on US websites.
This miscommunication will be massively annoying to users in the UK who are performing transactional queries. Take a look at the first five results for ‘office desks’.
The above SERP shows that users will have to bounce off the first four organic results before they find one that is in pound sterling and targeted at UK users. That’s not good, Google. Let’s quote their Webmaster Guidelines – ‘Does this help my users?’
But it gets worse. The search engine prides itself on localised search and its ability to serve local users with local business results. Look at the following result for ‘builders in Manchester’ (Note: I picked this specific term because I know there is a Manchester located in the US).
The above screenshot is taken from the second page of the SERPs. Location based results appear to be above-board on the first page as a 7-pack is served, which will be dealt with by the IP of the searcher, but get to the second page and three of the top five results are showing US based companies.
Not only is Google messing the user about when they are performing transactional queries, they are also doing the same when performing location based queries as well as news and weather. The common Google user will have no idea why they are getting served such irrelevant results.
Even a rough estimation of the number of searches affected by this is a frightening figure. Google.co.uk gets 1 billion searches per month, which means we can estimate that users in the UK have made over 133 million searches in the past four days (the timeframe where we have noticed the change). Chrome and Firefox, two browsers that are pushing users to the .com domain, have a market share of around 40.5% according to Adobe (Safari and IE don’t seem to be sending the user to Google.com yet), which means that there could have been approximately 53.7 million instances of the error occurring in the last 96 hours.
We can only speculate on the number of web users experiencing this bug, but if we say that even 10% are seeing this issue with the results Google are serving, it makes for bad reading:
We estimate that there have been 5.39 million searches performed where the user has been shown irrelevant results from across the pond. This could have potentially cost the UK economy millions, as users bounce from these results and abandon the search.
Yahoo and Bing must be very, VERY happy about this.
Edit: Screenshot added to verify the issue. However due to formatting issues its hard to read, so here is the URL string -