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The How-To Guide for Geotargeting and SEM: Using Less & Getting More


Geotargeting & SEM: A How-To Guide on Spending Less & Getting More


As a Digital Marketing and SEM specialist, I work with location-based marketing daily, but I know that is not the case for everyone. In this article, I will break down the fundamentals regarding geotargeting and search engine marketing and answer the age-old question of “How does it impact my vacation rental company?” I hope that the information I provide you with will give you the tools & terms to discuss using geotargeting within your pay-per-click (PPC) strategy with ease and confidence.

First things first, what is the difference between SEO and SEM?

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SEM stands for search engine marketing, which is the process of using paid advertisements in Microsoft Ads and Google Ads to market your website and show up higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs) by paying money for ads and bidding on keywords related to your brand. However, SEM is also often used to describe “anything” in regard to getting seen on search engines, including SEO.

SEO stands for search engine optimization, which focuses on optimizing a website’s landing pages with keywords and other ranking factors to increase its chances of showing up higher in the SERPs. If a website is new or in an extremely 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.

Now, what is geotargeting?

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Geotargeting, not to be confused with its cooler sister geofencing, is not as complicated as it sounds. Geotargeting is used to strengthen your campaigns by targeting people that have been in a specific location in conjunction with other targetable variables, such as demographics, behaviors, and interests. Geofencing is merely targeting everyone in a certain area. For example, you would use geotargeting to be more granular with your vacation rental ads, but you might use geofencing to push property management advertisements at a local competitor’s homeowners’ weekend event. (None of you would do that, right?) Geofencing is also synonymous with using a Bluetooth beacon; when someone shows up in a certain area, such as your business, they get a notification of sorts on their phone.

Whether you call it a potato or potatoe, the bottom line is that location-based targeting should always be used in any PPC campaign in the vacation rental industry, especially if you are in a popular area. Put your money on cities and states that have high conversion rates and are known to come to your market. This is the best way to maximize your budget, especially if you have a limited one! If you’re running ads in Google and you aren’t utilizing geotargeting, you’re likely wasting money. Be sure to look at which cities and states convert the best, rather than just those who are looking. Lookers are curious. Bookers are committed.

Regional Dialects & Why Geographical Data Matters

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A geotargeted pay-per-click campaign is a powerful weapon in your digital marketing arsenal. Not only are you utilizing your PPC budget more effectively by geotargeting areas that have a history of converting lookers into bookers, but depending on your product, you can adjust your ad copy to match the terminology of the geographical location you are targeting.

Throughout our years of PPC work in the VR industry, we’ve noticed that different regions of the United States use different words to describe what they are after (and Google knows that too). For example, when looking for a mountain destination, the most popular search term is “lodging.” For a beach destination, it’s “vacation rentals.” To utilize geotargeting effectively, you need to make sure you create ads for all variations of what people search for so you can cover all bases.

Whether it’s “beachfront” vs “oceanfront,” “cabin” vs “cottage,” or the international conundrum of “holiday” vs “vacation,” when you update your ad copy to match the terminology of the region you are targeting, you increase your chances of conversion.

By understanding which geographical areas bring you the highest revenue, curating your ad copy to match their dialect, and investing more in those locations, you’ll add enormous value to your SEM strategy.

With All These Privacy Updates, Can We Still Trust the Data?

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In June 2022, we noticed an increasing amount of site visits for almost all of our clients coming from New York City. Not a little but a whole slew of people.

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

Nothing came up.

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

The only people fleeing these cities were iPhone users. More specifically, it was those users who recently upgraded to the new 15.5 iOS update. So unless we’re living in an early 2000’s movie about cell phones attacking, the data wasn’t adding up!

A bit of tracking history

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

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

Why does this segway matter?

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Well, this article outlines how Google tracks your information by using third-party location providers. The mystery of Coffeyville is likely due to inaccurate source data that isn’t necessarily a blocked IP address that would show up as (not set) but actually a miscommunication between Google and its third-party location provider.

After confirming that Godzilla was not terrorizing the citizens of New York City, we confirmed that by turning your location services off completely and turning on your iCloud public relay (which is a requirement for iCloud+) before visiting a website, you too will have your geographical location and IP address pinging from New York or Chicago in Google Analytics, no matter where you’re located!

What does it all mean?

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Well, as most digital marketers know, the answer I give today will likely be old news by tomorrow. The latest news regarding geotargeting and search engine marketing is bittersweet. Apple rolled out a brand new update for iPhone users which has had an undeniable impact on geolocation in Google Analytics. With roughly 53% of all website visitors using mobile devices according to a study conducted by Oberlo, this new privacy update will have a huge impact on how we review geographical 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 New York mass exodus. Apple released a new privacy update 15.5 which impacts all iOS users that engage with Safari. In one corner, the newest update from Apple regarding privacy tracking on apps is wonderful because it gives the consumer more control over their tracked online activity, but as a digital marketer, it presents huge problems within the data. The new privacy update from Apple makes geotargeting much more difficult due to a lack of accuracy within the data.

Why is this important?

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The average vacation rental website gets 65% of all its traffic from a mobile device. The most popular mobile device used is the Apple iPhone. After we ran the numbers across our clients, this equates to about 20-25% of website traffic being “geomasked” which is going to skew your data.

A possible solution to the location inaccuracy in Analytics could be as simple as creating a filter to remove major cities from certain views. However, those cities account for multiple travelers each year, which is why you shouldn’t remove targeting this area from your Google Ads strategy altogether.

The solution? Although you shouldn’t jump to increase your bid strategy for these locations, you should use past data to reinforce your geotargeting strategy. Focus on locations 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 are receiving through Google Analytics may not be accurate.

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

Final Thoughts

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

Launching an online store is easy, but gaining authority in Google is hard. It requires trust, loyalty, and transparency of your brand. Although, I believe that Apple’s latest update is a positive thing for iOS users and allows them the ability to take more control over the use of their data.

I also think that many brands that spend money on SEM to market their products likely have a stake in the game and are providing a product that they value enough to invest in, and I want to see those ads. So, with the exception of Godzilla tracking my location, I plan to share my data with certain apps to enhance my shopping experience.

However, as a true crimes podcast lover, I am glad to know that I have more control over the data that is being shared from my phone. As a Digital Marketer, though, I implore Google to work with their third-party location providers to find a solution for these peculiarities. Even displaying these untrackable locations as (not set) would help SEM specialists and business owners properly utilize a geotargeting strategy and accurately target viable locations as opposed to a popular metropolitan region or a sweet farm in Kansas.


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