There has been some discussion lately on Twitter and elsewhere, about Google’s UK SERPS being ‘broken’, with some anomalous results appearing, and non-UK sites ranking higher than they perhaps ought to for some search terms. 

I’ve been asking the opinions of a few SEO agencies on the issue, and the consensus is that there are some issues here that Google needs to look at…

Are the UK SERPS broken?

Kevin Gibbons of SEOptimise thinks the quality of results has dropped:

As a searcher, when performing a query in Google UK I would expect to find the large majority of listings from UK websites. This was previously the case, but now I feel the quality of results has been compromised. Rather than displaying results from UK sites and authoritative/highly relevant global sites, the quality of results in general has been poor – with too many average non-UK sites listed.

Bigmouthmedia’s Head of Search Andrew Girdwood has noticed the number of non-UK sites popping up in SERPS:

The Google UK search results are odd. They do seem to be suffering from a higher than usual number of “international English” sites although .au, .nz and other sites have ranked in Google.co.uk before the recent changes.

A hardline stance is to stay that they’re only broken if Google’s user data suggests regular searchers dislike them. I think Google might take that on this one.

According to Shane Quigley from Epiphany Solutions:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Google UK SERPs are broken, it is more that they are corrupt as we are seeing random anomalies with several areas within the Google.co.uk listings and have been since the latest update was rolled out to the UK towards the end of June.

Latitude’s Head of SEO Andrew Heaps hesistates to say the SERPs are broken:

While there are still a few glitches that need addressing (as there always are) the SERPs aren’t necessarily broken – that is often the reaction of SEOs and webmasters when they wake up in the morning to find heir site is no longer ranking well.

Some examples:

In this results page for ‘top online auctions‘, you will find a number of sites from outside the UK, and which don’t cater for the UK market. Even a more geographically specific search such as ‘family homes Kent‘ offers a number of completely irrelevant results for users in this country.

If you search for ‘rent tennis courts‘ on Google UK, you get a pretty useless set of results, unless you are looking for tennis courts in California that is.

Another example that Shane pointed out (from SEOShark) is the constant appearance of www.dining-out.co.za, as well as the Australian version, in searches for the term ‘dining out‘, not something UK users would find especially useful when looking for somewhere to eat.

According to Andrew Heaps:

There have been major fluctuations on key finance search terms, such as “car insurance”. We have seen a rollercoaster ride for a lot of clients on that term over the last month or so. In line with the Vince update, the major climbers have been well known brands such as Direct Line and Churchill whilst lesser known affiliates and small online insurers have struggled.

So what has caused this?

Andrew Girdwood thinks geotargeting may be the reason:

Google’s offering brands better ways to set the appropriate geographic target for the website (although you still can’t do multiple country targets). As Google gets more of this data they can be more aggressive with their geographic targeting. This opens up more room for noticeable space.

There’s also an increasing shift in Google’s algorithm to authority. In some cases the UK sites might find themselves up against fierce competition from international sites with a lot of authority.

Kevin Gibbons suggests that the search engine may be experimenting:

Due to the amount of talk about the UK SERPs online recently Google should certainly be aware of the scale of this issue, if they weren’t already. But whether Google actually agrees that the SERPs are broken is a completely different matter.

It’s clearly a big change away from the UK focused results we have been used to, but so far Google’s silence on this suggests that they may be experimenting at least with looking to make these results more global. I have noticed fluctuations in the past, but this is usually over a 24-48 hour period where UK focused results are quickly restored.

Shane Quigley suggests other possible reasons:

The most likely reasons for this are a bad data push into the UK datacentres or a flaw in the latest algorithm update. Either way Google is certainly serving inferior results to UK users (it’s second largest user group). Matt Cutts has a Google Moderator session open and currently the most anticipated question to be answered is “Why are the UK SERPS still really poor with irrelevant non UK sites (US/Aus/NZ) ranking very high Google.co.uk since early June?”

Andrew Heaps blames the Vince update from the beginning of March, pointing out that there have been major fluctuations in UK SERPS since then. The result seems to be a greater emphasis on well-known brands, thanks to the authoritative sites that come with such brands: 

One anomaly has also been foreign results appearing in the UK results for a wide range of search terms. It has all settled down now, mostly, with less foreign results in major SERPs and bigger brands with more online coverage being ranked higher up, whilst ‘thin’ affiliates and those not well known in their niche seem to have taken a hit.

This will change how SEO needs to be approached – the question of ‘how do we become an authority brand’? is a more important SEO consideration than ever, making online PR increasingly vital.