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Geotargeting Based on IP Address is Broken

21 July 2011 BY

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When websites try to determine a user’s geographic location, this is usually done via the user’s IP address. In theory an IP address can be related to a physical location. This is how Google determines a user’s location in Analytics and Adwords – and even search – and Facebook in Insights.

It seems the accepted wisdom is that while IP address geolocation is not perfect, it’s mostly accurate. Estimates reach from 60% accuracy all the way up to 95% accurate. The problem is that the actual accuracy of IP geotargeting is nowhere near that.

On a country level, yes, IP addresses can usually be attributed to a specific nation. A Belgian IP address nearly always indicates a Belgian user. On a country level, the accuracy percentage of IP address geolocation does indeed tend to be upwards of 90%.

This map overlay is 75% bullshit.

However, it’s when you get to regional IP targeting that all semblance of accuracy goes straight out the window, and it becomes nothing less than a total crapshoot. In fact, firing buckshot at a big national map will probably yield more accurate results than the geographical data you’ll get from any web analytics package.

I will give you a specific real world example that demonstrates the problem perfectly.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (the other countries in the UK being England, Scotland, and Wales). For companies active in Northern Ireland, geographical targeting is very important. After all there is a small sea separating NI from the rest of the UK, so a business operating in NI cannot easily deliver services to consumers on the mainland UK.

We recently launched a Facebook page for a Northern Ireland business. This business is active exclusively in NI, and we sent out an emailer to their existing customers – all of which live and work in Northern Ireland, without exception. That emailer resulted in nearly 300 likes for the Facebook page.

However, when looking at the Facebook Insights for that page, specifically the list of cities the page’s fans are supposedly from, strange things ensue.

Yeah, right.

According to Facebook, the majority of the page’s fans come from London, followed by Manchester. Apparently only 34 of the page’s fans are actually from Northern Ireland, with the rest coming from either England or Scotland.

This is, of course, total bullshit. The problem is that it’s not presented as a ‘best guess’ – and a dreadfully inaccurate best guess at that – but as simple fact. The help text under the question mark reads: “Aggregated Facebook location data, sorted by city, about the people who like your Page.” Presenting such wildly inaccurate guesses as facts can lead to all kinds of confusion and misinformed decisions on the client’s side.

In Google Analytics things are a little bit better. The visitor location report for the client’s website at least shows that the most popular city is Belfast, and Londonderry is in the top 10. However I find it hard to believe that so many of the site’s visitors are from Glasgow and Edinburgh. The company doesn’t operate in Scotland at all, and its brand name would only draw blank stares over there.

A fictional Scottish fanbase

Internet Service Providers

The root of the problem is, of course, that these cities are where major UK ISPs have their hubs. So when users go online via these ISPs, their IP addresses will be associated with the geographic location of those hubs, which in the UK means primarily London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and a host of other cities – depending on where the ISP has capacity at any given moment.

This makes accurate regional geotargeting – or drawing any kind of conclusion at all from the regional geographic data provided by these tools – entirely impossible.

Alternatives

It’s not all doom & gloom. Geotargeting for mobile phones, for example, is exceptionally accurate. That is because it doesn’t rely on the phone’s IP address, but on the locational data derived from its GPS receiver or the nearest mobile signal antennas.

As laptops are increasingly supplied with built-in GPS chips, this type of nearly flawless geographical reporting can be done much more accurately than is currently the case. And on Facebook nearly all users fill in their profiles with the locations of their home and work.

But Facebook doesn’t use this data, instead choosing IP addresses to provide geographical information for its Insights reports. And as long as analytics tools like Insights and Google Analytics rely on IP addresses first for their locations reports, and fail to emphasise the inherent lack of accuracy of these reports, things will remain very murky indeed.

AUTHORED BY:
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Barry Adams is one of the editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.

17 Responses to “Geotargeting Based on IP Address is Broken”

  1. Alex says:

    Yeah I have noticed that Google Analytics determines my location as alternately being Harrogate or Nottingham – though I actually live in West Sussex and my web company is based in Wales.

  2. Couldn’t agree more.

    Though I didn’t know that Facebook used IP addresses for their reporting rather than user profiles…

    I was at a presentation a good while back by Google, and this questions was raised and they said accuracy was 90-95%, and there was only a small problem, and the ISPs would be sorting it out soon, and it was not up to Google to interfere (or words to that effect).

    Lets hope they start building GPS into all internet enabled devices soon! :-)

    I guess it is possible that once the majority of people get a Google Account, Google can start using profile data for geo-targeting as well. (They already give you the option to specify your location if you are logged in to your account, but I’m not sure a hell of a lot of people will currently be specifying this).

    • maurice says:

      re 90% are we sure Google did not mean in the USA where ip’s are handed out more geographicaly (how very socalist) than in the UK? Also with LLU ip adresses are not as easialy tied to a location as opposed to the local monopoly (duopoly if your lucky) suituation that prevails in most the USA

  3. Barry Adams says:

    What I failed to mention in the post is that this gaping hole in IP address geotargeting has a huge impact on Northern irish websites’ ability to do business.

    When I worked with the Belfast Telegraph, a big recurring issue was that the site struggled to attract local businesses for advertising. Because Google Analytics showed that most of the site’s traffic came from mainland UK, we couldn’t prove that nearly all of the traffic landing on the BelfastTelegraph.co.uk site was actually from Northern Ireland.

    And you can’t blame the advertisers because they’re being told by Google and its Doubleclick ad system that the site’s traffic is mainly from England and Scotland – which is of course total bullshit.

  4. Jonathon says:

    Barry I was very pleased to read your article, well at least it explained a lot. I had been puzzled by the Geotargeting or not as the case may be of Google Analytics. Maybe they will sort it out…

  5. We also have the Geolocation API that is supported by all major browsers now http://caniuse.com/#search=geolocation.

    It uses WIFI when GPS is not available or preferred, and is pretty accurate – certainly accurate enough for ad targetting.

    It only uses IP addresses as a last resort, typically on desktops with a wired connection.

  6. Andrew says:

    Indeed, though some ISP are much worse than others at this BT being particularly poor, it also seems the ISP are much worse at getting it right for NI while mainland UK is a bit better (though still not very good).

  7. [...] existing customers – all of which live and work in Northern Ireland, … Original post:  Geotargeting Based on IP Address is Broken – Analytics – State of … Share [...]

  8. [...] of Search: Geotargeting Based on IP Address is Broken It’s when you get to regional IP targeting that all semblance of accuracy goes straight out the [...]

  9. James says:

    I’ve been using geolocation and geotargeting for some time now.
    Granted, the more you “zoom in” the less accurate the IPs are, and it’s understandable how that can alter marketing campaigns and site content delivery. However – is there such a difference?
    How different would be the content you USUALLY deliver to one city as opposed to the other?
    If your business is so Local, sure, you should rely on technology other than IP to geotarget your visitors.
    However, most of my sites,clients and colleagues run websites that are very successful using IP geotargeting. The main segments of country, language, currency, climate, etc are 99% covered in IPs for us.
    We use a lot of tools and sneaky analytics tools to get the job done and actually see what our sites look like from other IPs (for example http://bit.ly/GeoEdge) and thus validate our analytics data. I can tell you that using US cities DMAs we get very accurate results.

  10. Hi, interesting post but does anyone have any idea if you can use a script or a meta tag to target more specific locations within a broader location? the results by default on google search appear to automatically chose a location for the user as such even with the same country or state you may not get your site listed even though you may be postion 1 for national or web results.

  11. A quick add on point – You can block your AdWords ads from appearing to certain IP addresses. Here’s how – http://support.google.com/adwords/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=61493

  12. [...] user is located (based on their IP address). To me this is a very bad long term strategy and often highly inaccurate. Again, big brands often use this method, why is completely beyond me. So Im not going to say any [...]

  13. [...] are varying reports of the accuracy of the use of IP addresses for determining location. Nonetheless, if your target audiences (prospective clients) look for you locally, you need to [...]

  14. [...] Nous ne sommes a priori pas les seuls à nous poser ce genre de question (un exemple en Anglais sur l’Irlande du Nord est visible en cliquant ici). [...]

  15. […] that, especially if you are targeting a very narrow location. Consider the results of this actual email-driven Facebook Like campaign targeting Northern Ireland businesses. While the e-mail campaign resulted in 300 likes for the […]

  16. Wiiiilsoooon says:

    Great article Barry. I didn’t realize this was written over three years ago. We still have the same problem here. I advertise in Alaska, but when I search for anything on Google I get results from Hawaii and Pennsylvania.

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