The Curious Case Of Google’s Bizarre UK Search Results

In Europe, SEOs are wracking their brains over what Google is up to in the UK. The Twitterverse has been buzzing over the last three months about Google’s strange search results, and many bloggers have addressed the problem since early June.

What’s happening? Last June several UK SEOs started to notice changes in the UK SERPS. At first it seemed as if the Vince Update, which hit the US last February, caused the change in rankings. But in the UK there seemed to be more than just Vince affecting results.

The Vince update, for a short period, caused a change in rankings for brand-related searches. In the last couple of months, however, it was not just big brands that dominated search results—.com sites were taking over the results in the UK, gaining prominence over .co.uk sites based in Great Britain.

Something like this happened before in 2008, when UK searches were mixed with US searches. But this time it was different. Not just American results started popping up. Australian, South African and even Dutch results started ‘beating’ the local UK results. Some results were pretty surprising. Where you would expect UK results for local searches now (in many cases irrelevant) US-results appeared.

Kevin Gibbons of SEOptimise, also a Search Engine Land writer, was one of the people who noticed the US results first. After that more and more started to notice bizarre search results.

In the next couple of weeks the results changed slightly but didn’t completely go back to normal. If anything, things got worse. SEOHome noticed US Maps showing up in UK Maps and Google itself decided to add some more confusion by doing some testing. In some Chrome searches they took away the local buttons “the web” and “pages from the UK.”

Google leaving out local buttons

Let’s first look at some examples. Remember the searches are at Google.co.uk, so you can presume its a UK resident who is performing the searches. Keep that in mind while looking at the examples.

US Maps showing up

In this example the UK Maps started showing results for Hull Place in St. Louis Missouri while searching for a driving school in Hull, which is also a town in the UK.

First example of US results in UK SERPS

When looking for a family home in Kent, two different Kents, both in the US, show up.

UK search for 'dining out'

When searching for “dining out,” does Google really expect English residents to go and dine in South Africa?

Last week Matt Cutts finally decided to answer questions on this topic. His answers, however, made several UK-search marketers believe he was “avoiding the topic.”

YouTube Preview Image

Matt Cutts replied to these issues by explaining in his video that “there was nothing wrong.” He stated that Google is making changes to the SERPS so that the results will be more relevant. If .com results are better than UK results, they should appear higher in the results than the co.uk results. Cutts is right on that point, of course, weren’t it for the fact that the results are in many cases not more relevant—in fact, many are less relevant. Yes, some examples illustrated Cutts’ points, but not all of them.

So what is going on here? There were many theories going around in Europe, one more serious than the other. Let’s take a look at a few.

A US-conspiracy

The most interesting one was the conspiracy-theory of Freshegg, which suggested that “a conversion took place at some point between the US government and Google to alter the search results in favor of US sites, thus increasing traffic and also sales for the US.” This theory is of course ridiculous but is being fed by the fact that for a long time Google didn’t react to any questions regarding the subject.

It’s Vince after all

The Vince update came by around the same time as the Google results got mixed up. The brands are favored more and that would cause US results to be favored above others.

A bad data push

It could have been something really simple. Maybe the data centers in the UK had bad data mixed up with the latest algorithm update. That would explain the confusion. However, if that was the case, wouldn’t Google have fixed the problem by now?

Google is up to something… but what?

You can’t discount the possibility that Google might really be up to something, and just isn’t revealing its plans. Something big, maybe? Is Google changing the way they handle local search? Are they playing around with language-issues? Is Google getting rid of the UK SERPS all together?

Matt Cutts’ answer seemed to point a little to the last theory. Google is changing the way it looks at local SERPS, saying it wants more relevancy to the results. Therefore a .com result which is more relevant to the search than a UK result should come on top.

Case Closed?

Not really. When Cutts posted the video several UK search marketers responded and “were giving me a bit of a hard time” said Cutts on his blog. With that he meant the responses of UK marketers who either didn’t believe his words or felt they were being fooled.

Why? Because the search results are to say the least still a bit strange. A quick look through the comments on Matt Cutts’ post gives a more examples of results which are, to say the least, strange.

When searching for “southbank restaurants” on Google.co.uk you would expect restaurants from the South bank in London instead of a Melbourne Australia result at the number two spot. A Google Map for when searching without the quote marks to get an exact phrase match even shows six Australian, two .com and only 1 .co.uk result. Another one which is pretty funny actually is the search for ‘motor forum‘ where the very first result is a Dutch web forum. Why would UK searchers want to visit a site written in a language they can’t even read? In the comments of Cutts’ post there are more bizarre examples.

So is it a case of UK marketers feeling they might be losing ground and gaining competition and therefore complaining? It looks not. The explanation Matt Cutts gave is a valid one, but then the results should really be more relevant, and the examples show they aren’t. So this curious case doesn’t seem to be closed yet.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Features: Analysis | Google: Outside US

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About The Author: is a Web/search strategist, international search specialist, trainer, and well-respected blogger. Bas is well informed about what's going on in the world of Internet and search marketing worldwide and especially Europe. Bas is the owner of Stateofsearch.com and also posts regularly on his personal blog.

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  • http://www.highrankings.com/newsletter/ Jill Whalen

    We have a Hull, MA where my oldest daughter is in the midst of moving to. So I just tried your “Hull Driving School” search and I’m getting UK SERPS! (On Google.com from Framingham, MA)

    A search for Hull, MA driving school, however does pull up the correct local results.

    So maybe it’s not just the UK serps messed up, but many others too?

  • http://www.searchcowboys.com Bas van den Beld

    Hi Jill, it looks like it. Also in Holland we are getting some strange results, but these were found in the caffeine data. If you look at what Matt says it would make sense that other countries than the UK should be seeing things like this.

    If its a good thing can be discussed though…

  • http://www.bluelightseo.co.uk bluelightseo

    The Hull Driving School example was from a while back I believe. It’s on Dave Naylor’s Blog at the end of June

  • http://www.creativecog.com creativecog

    I can see all the different view points here – and they are all valid… but what happens if someone using google.co.uk is moving to Kent, Seattle, USA ? They would want the Kent (US) family homes… or a child going to Hull, St. Louis to study and the parents want to help them find a driving school ? I’m not sure the results are a problem, more the way Google presents them… rather than focus on the domain suffix (.co.uk / .com) it would be better if Google allowed users to choose which countries they want to see results from… or as we have see the natural progression in which users adapt technology to filter their results – from single keyword ‘house’ to phrases ‘family home’ to location specific phrases ‘family home kent’… surely the next stage is ‘family home kent uk’ and voila the search results and PPC are all very relevant.

  • http://www.vertical-leap.co.uk/ KerryDye

    @creativecog – if I as a UK user want to search for things in Kent, Seattle, I would put that qualification into my search term. The same would apply to you if you were interested in the opposite case. Appending UK to the end of a search term is something that UK users have been glad to ditch since they switched from AltaVista to Google! It was a major reason that users over here were quick to switch and the reason why Google has a 85%+ search share in the UK.

  • http://www.searchcowboys.com Bas van den Beld

    @bluelightseo, yes it’s an older example. I’m just trying to show the picture of what I’m talking about and what kind of results seem strange.

    @creativelog isn’t that the entire meaning of the google.co.uk site? If you are in the UK and want to search for US Kent you would probably go to the google.com site I presume?

  • elchenuk

    I don’t think this issue is unique to Google, I have tried similar searches on Bing and Yahoo!
    In Bing I did a search for ‘dining out’ and in the top five results I got a result from Australia, one from the US and one from South Africa. The SERPs improved when I ticked the box for ‘only results from the UK’.
    For Yahoo! the second result was from South Africa, again when I ticked the ‘Uk’ radio button SERPs did improve but there were still a few results from US.

  • http://www.Match.ccom simons1321

    maybe search “the web” now means search the world… and “pages from the UK” means….. pages from the UK?

  • http://www.searchcowboys.com Bas van den Beld

    @simons1321 that is what Matt Cutts seems to be saying, but isn’t it all about relevancy when you search? And why then a .co.uk site different from the .com?

  • http://twitter.com/GavinSmithLeeds Gavin Smith Leeds

    I think this issue has become hugely confused by what Matt Cutt’s said in his video.

    The issue around the UK SERPs has and never will be about the TLD, afterall .com is a neutral TLD that has been used by British Companies for a very long time.

    I have no issue with .com domains ranking in the UK as they always have done, as long as they are relevant to this country.

    The issues we are now facing is that since June, 8 foreign language sites started showing up in the top 150 results for casino related terms, and if I search for ‘Discount Mens Aftershave’ I get 5 results in the first 2 pages from countries half way around the world(.co.za/.com.au).

    How is a site relevant to me if they won’t offer their services/products to me or I can’t understand the language the site is written in?

    I could sit here all day reeling off examples of how the UK SERPs have broken over the last few months.

    The point is that the UK is Googles 2nd largest market and their search results are hideously below the standard we were seeing only a few months ago.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    This is very interesting, I have not experienced any issues (for US local clients) but I will be sure to keep an eye on this if any of the SERPs get mixed up…

  • mcdermc

    We’re UK based with a long established dot com address that’s always managed to feature well in SERPs from the UK et al. With reference to the current shenanigans, haven’t noticed and ‘foreign language’ sites appearing in the keyphrase-lounge where we hang out.

    By contrast some of you may recall a couple of years back when us UK based dot com sites were complaining to Google about NOT being listed at all for several months.

  • http://www.searchcowboys.com Bas van den Beld

    Just to make clear: the problem is NOT that .com sites appear in the UK SERPS. As long as they are relevant.

    What you see now is that results from other countries rank high on terms which are not relevant to searches, keeping in mind where the searcher is located.

    If Cutts says it’s ok that .com results will show up in UK SERPS he is therefore right, but he keeps out the local aspect of relevancy.

    When located in London and searching for a restaurant to go out to dinner, nobody will want results which tell you to go and eat on the other side of the world. And that is what is happening here.

  • http://twitter.com/GavinSmithLeeds Gavin Smith Leeds

    @Bas You hit the nail on the head.

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