Geo-Targeting and SEM: A Practical Guide to Spend Less and Get More


Geo-Targeting and SEM: A Practical Guide to Spend Less and Get More


As a digital marketer and SEM specialist, I work with location-based marketing on a daily basis, but I know not everyone does. In this article, I’ll break down the fundamentals of location targeting and search engine marketing and answer the age-old question of “How does this impact my vacation rental business?” I hope the information I provide will give you the tools and terms to discuss using geo-targeting in your pay-per-click (PPC) strategy with ease and confidence.

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing, which is the use of paid advertisements in Microsoft Ads and Google Ads to market your website and appear higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) by paying money for ads and by bidding on keywords related to your brand. However, SEM is also often used to describe “anything” with regards to being seen on search engines, including SEO.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which focuses on optimizing the landing of a website pages with keywords and other ranking factors for increase your chances of appearing higher in the SERPs. If a website is new or in a fiercely competitive market, SEM coupled with SEO is a smart strategy to get your brand in front of the right audience.

Here is an example of what a SERP looks like with paid ads and organic results.

Geotargeting, not to be confused with its cooler sibling, geofencing, isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Location targeting is used to strengthen your campaigns by targeting people who have been in a specific location in conjunction with other targetable variables, such as demographics, behaviors and interests. Geofencing simply targets everyone in a certain area. For example, you would use geo-targeting to be more specific with your vacation rental ads, but you could use geofencing to run property management ads during a local competitor’s weekend homeowners event. (None of you would do that, would you?) Geofencing is also synonymous with using a Bluetooth beacon; When someone shows up in a certain area, such as your business, they get some sort of notification on their phone.

Whether you call it a potato or a potato, the bottom line is that location-based targeting should always be used in any PPC campaign in the vacation rental industry, especially if you’re in an area popular. Put your money on cities and states that have high conversion rates and are known to come into your market. This is the best way to maximize your budget, especially if you have a limited one! If you’re running ads on Google and not using location targeting, you’re probably wasting money. Be sure to watch which cities and states are converting the best, rather than just which ones are watching. Spectators are curious. The bookers are engaged.

A geo-targeted pay-per-click campaign is a powerful weapon in your digital marketing arsenal. Not only are you using your PPC budget more effectively by geographically targeting areas that have a history of converting visitors into customers, but depending on your product, you can adjust your ad text to match the terminology of the geographic location you are targeting.

Throughout our years of working PPC in the VR industry, we’ve noticed that different parts of the US use different words to describe what they’re looking for (and Google knows this too). For example, when searching for a mountain destination, the most popular search term is “accommodation”. For a seaside destination, these are “vacation rentals”. To use location targeting effectively, you need to make sure you create ads for all variations of what people are looking for so you can cover all the bases.

Whether it’s ‘beachfront’ versus ‘beachfront’, ‘cabin’ versus ‘cottage’, or the international ‘vacation’ versus ‘vacation’ conundrum, when you update your ad copy to that it matches the terminology of the region you are targeting, you increase your chances of conversion.

By understanding which geographies are bringing you the highest revenue, curating your ad copy to match their dialect, and investing more in those locations, you’ll add tremendous value to your SEM strategy.

In June 2022, we noticed an increase in site visits for almost all of our customers from New York. Not a few but a whole bunch of people.

As our team began discussing theories of a giant lizard uprising forcing all New Yorkers to seek refuge in a 5-star luxury vacation rental, we realized that something fishier than Godzilla was going on in the data and started scouring the web for answers on what was so special about New York all of a sudden?

Nothing came.

It wasn’t just New York though. These were Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver – all major cities in all major time zones – depending on which time zone the customer’s food markets were in. It was like a mass exodus! Doing what we do best, making movie references, while analyzing and cross-referencing data – then the plot thickened.

The only people fleeing these cities were iPhone users. Specifically, these are the users who recently upgraded to the new iOS 15.5 update. So unless we were living in an early 2000s movie about cellphone attacks, the data didn’t add up!

Thanks to our research, an interesting and relevant article from February 22, 2006, titled All Google Roads Lead to Kansas surfaced. Although this article was not the answer to our current problem, it did provide some very valuable information that is relevant to our discussion today.

All Google’s Roads Lead to Kansas, or Coffeyville to be exact, reviews the geographical phenomenon that when Google Analytics cannot identify your IP address, they place you in the center of the country, which is Coffeyville, Kansas.

Well, this article explains how Google tracks your information using third-party location providers. The Coffeyville mystery is likely due to inaccurate source data which is not necessarily a blocked IP address that would appear as (undefined) but actually a miscommunication between Google and its third-party location provider.

After confirming that Godzilla does not terrorize the citizens of New York, we have confirmed that by completely disabling your Location Services and enabling your iCloud Public Relay (which is a requirement for iCloud+) before visiting any website, you will also have your geolocation location and ping IP address of New York or Chicago in Google Analytics, no matter where you are!

Well, as most digital marketers know, the answer I give today will probably be old news by tomorrow. The latest news about geo-targeting and search engine marketing is bittersweet. Apple has rolled out a brand new update for iPhone users that has had a definite impact on geolocation in Google Analytics. According to a study conducted by Oberlothis new privacy update will have a huge impact on how we look at location data in Google Analytics.

In June 2020, Apple introduced iOS 14 which required apps to request permission to track user activity. Fast forward to May 2022, we have the mass exodus from New York. Apple has released a new 15.5 privacy update that affects all iOS users who interact with Safari. In one corner, Apple’s latest update to in-app privacy tracking is wonderful because it gives the consumer more control over their tracked online activity, but as a digital marketer, it presents new challenges. huge problems in the data. Apple’s new privacy update makes geo-targeting much more difficult due to a lack of precision in the data.

On average, a vacation rental website receives 65% of all its traffic from a mobile device. The most widely used mobile device is the Apple iPhone. After analyzing our customer numbers, this equates to around 20-25% of website traffic being ‘geomasked’, which will skew your data.

A possible solution to location inaccuracy in Analytics could be as simple as creating a filter to remove major cities from certain views. However, these cities have many travelers each year, so you shouldn’t completely remove targeting this area from your Google Ads strategy.

The solution? While you shouldn’t rush to increase your bid strategy for these placements, you should use past data to strengthen your geo-targeting strategy. Focus on placements that have shown a large conversion-focused audience in the past.

The consequences of this inaccurate geolocation data are unfortunate for business owners and their digital marketing teams, as the data they receive through Google Analytics may not be accurate.

If you’ve recently noticed a strange spike in traffic, it’s important to dig a little deeper! Add parameters, isolate variables and run an experiment. Always remember that no matter how accurate the source of your data is, it should never be taken at face value and requires proper analysis with a trained eye for anomalies.

I could discuss the politics behind Apple’s latest update regarding its relationship with Google and Facebook, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Launching an online store is easy, but gaining authority on Google is hard. It requires trust, loyalty and transparency in your brand. However, I think Apple’s latest update is a positive thing for iOS users and gives them more control over their data usage.

I also think that many brands that spend money on SEM to market their products probably have a stake in the game and provide a product that they like enough to invest in, and I want to see those ads. So, except for Godzilla which tracks my location, I plan to share my data with some apps to improve my shopping experience.

However, as a true crime podcast lover, I’m glad to know that I have more control over the data shared from my phone. As a digital marketer, however, I implore Google to work with its third-party location providers to find a solution to these quirks. Even displaying these untrackable locations as (undefined) would help SEM specialists and business owners correctly use a geo-targeting strategy and accurately target viable locations as opposed to a popular metro area or a sweet farm in Kansas.


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