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If you care about ranking high in local searches, or showing up in the local pack that is so prominent in mobile search, then getting a grasp of how others see you and your local business competitors in your town’s local search results is pretty important. In these times of unsettled business outlooks, optimising your website to raise you up the local rankings becomes ever more crucial to selling your products or services.

Small business is a tough environment in which to survive for many people. Maintaining your business’ online presence, can seem like a real chore especially when you realise that the results you see on your mobile device or laptop are likely very different to what a potential new client might be seeing. So anything that helps to gain an understanding of your real prominence in Google searches can ensure that you optimise for the right customers.

Personalisation and location tracking are the two factors that can flatter you into thinking your local rankings are better than they are for the stranger to your local market!

How and Why Search Engines Track Your Location

From driving to your granny’s new retirement retreat to getting Malaysian takeaway delivered, we all probably use Google and Bing, not to mention Facebook’s location services daily, even if we aren’t particularly aware of it. For business owners who depend on people coming to them from their local area, those services are usually a blessing. Opticians and optometrists are one service business who mostly need customers to come to them. But, there is a poorly understood caveat to that.

Location tracking is one aspect of search engines’ efforts to personalise the results they serve up to users, in order to give them relevant results and advertising. When we search, for the services and products we need, we are usually logged into an account belonging to the search engine or platform. For this article the focus is mainly on Google, as it is where most search activity happens. Whether it’s your Gmail, Analytics, Business Profile or whatever, very few of us actually bother to log out. If you usually use Google Chrome as well, then Google begins to get a pretty good picture of where your tastes and expectations lay. If your mobile has location services enabled and you often search for things in different places in your town, or further afield, then the Big G can have quite a granular understanding of your habits and what you are likely to engage with.

There are a number of ways that search engines like Google do this. We’ve already mentioned mobile location services, which can narrow down your physical location to within a few metres. If you’ve disabled location services, Google can get pretty strong clues from the wifi networks that your phone latches on to. On your laptop at home, your wifi/router and your IP address can narrow down your location pretty accurately. Even relying on just your IP address, Google can get a reasonable sniff of where you are.

Search results for diesel injector testing served up when I'm logged in to Google in Carlisle

Why Location Services Can Mask Your Actual Visibility in Search

All this is great when you need someone else’s services or products from a source near you. But what happens when you want to see how you show up, for people hunting out the services you provide, in Carlisle, or Worcester or Nitshill in Glasgow?

At that point Google still serves up what you want to see, which not surprisingly is often your own website. 😉 Lots of business owners will frequently quiz Google to see how visible they are in or around a particular locality. The many business owners I’ve worked with who do check their results are completely unaware that Google serves up “what they want to see” and are under the impression that what they see is the same as what a new potential customer will see. This is sometimes true, but not often.

If you occasionally click through to your own site… that data is tracked. If you mooch around on your own site for any length of time, before going back to the results – that’s a stronger signal that you like it! It’s for this reason that you need to shield yourself from that personalisation to get an insight into how new people and people in other locations see you in relation to the competition in search results. The difference can be unsettling.

Local SEO Tactic: Getting Clean(er) Search Results Without Personalisation

There are a couple of relatively straight forward ways you can get results that are closer to what a stranger will see. The first is to log out of any Google (or platform of your choice) accounts and search. This will take away some of the personalisation. Secondly – do that in a different browser and you will remove a little more of the personalisation that’s possible. These are quick simple ways to get closer to the clean results that a new searcher might see.

Better is to use that alternative browser’s incognito or private facility. Modern browsers like Chrome, Edge, Firefox and the rest have a setting that lets the browser and its default search engine search without using cookies and browser history to influence the results you get.

It works reasonably well, but it will still be using your normal or current location. Ideally you want to be able to use that anonymous browsing facility and to be able to search from different locations… or to persuade the search engine that you are searching from somewhere other than your usual office.

Search results for diesel injection testing with location altereded to Lanark in a private window

A Useful Tool to Get More Granular results

Supposing there was a way to pretend to search from somewhere other than your office chair? Well, there are a few ways. You could invest in a VPN (virtual private network) to spoof your IP address. These can run expensive but are good for spoofing your location to a different country or region.

Great for those brave souls in Russia or Iran who desperately need to cover their privacy to pick up useful information without their security services being aware of their activities. Or… for people who feel the weird need to stream programmes from another country illegally, a VPN can be a useful piece of technology. But they are a bit of a sledgehammer for cracking the small nut of seeing how you shape up locally in ordinary searches: without any liberty seeking, nefarious or dangerous intent.

It’s possible to manually adjust the config file for your browser to set its location to a particular set of latitude and longitude coordinates. This is tedious and slow when you want to check results for a few locations at a time. Something that I have found myself doing for clients and prospects repeatedly over the past few months. Surely there’s something you can plug into your browser to do this?

Luckily there is/was! Pardon? Well, the “was” refers to the demise of my favourite tool GSLocation Changer. A tool I have used daily for the past 9 months. The dawning realisation that this tool was no longer working cost me nearly a week of searching for alternatives. Fortunately, there is a practical alternative.

Meet the Location Guard add-on. This is a browser add on that I have so far tested out on Firefox in real life; and which seems to work reasonably well in Chrome and Edge.

It allows you to spoof your location so that you can see what search results look like all around your location. It took a bit of getting used to after the almost effortless experience of GS Location Changer and it seems to be compatible with working in an incognito browser.

The following video explains how I use it to look at visibility as a “stranger” to your business.

Achilles Heel of Location Spoofing

As always online there is never a permanent answer when you are trying to untangle the inner workings of search engines. No doubt Google will find a way to interfere with the efficacy of using a spoofed location to examine search results from multiple different locations. However, I didn’t expect my favourite little local SEO tool to get gazumped the day I put up a video about it 😉

The previously posted video is below,… to just demonstrate how quickly and unexpectedly things can change!