People outside the United States may try to reach Google.com for a variety of reasons rather than use their own country-specific version. But Google has made reaching Google.com more difficult than in the past, a change that may help the company with both advertising and legal issues.
For many years, those outside the United States who tried to reach Google.com were usually redirected to their own country-specific version of Google. For example, if you were in the United Kingdom and tried to reach Google.com, you’d be rerouted to Google.co.uk. I know this well firsthand from having lived in the UK for over a decade and from regular trips back.
Generally, this redirection has been a benefit to searchers. Country-specific versions are designed to rank content better for people in those particular countries. Someone in the UK searching for “football,” for example, is going to find Google UK provides more relevant results for what they want (soccer) than going to Google.com and getting matches for American football.
The redirection has also been a benefit to Google, making it easier for the company to ensure that ads targeted to particular countries are showing up more accurately in front of people from those countries. Google can still do country-specific targeting even if people outside the U.S. go to Google.com, but it’s generally better if the particular country-specific versions are used.
Of course, some people still want to get to Google.com from outside the U.S. for their own good reasons. For example, when I was an expat living in the UK, I really did want Google.com over Google.co.uk for many of my searches. To accommodate this, Google long provided a link at the bottom of the home page of country-specific versions that said “Google.com.” Selecting this link would override the automatic redirection from that point forward.
Last fall, things were quietly changed. Instead of that Google.com link always being at the bottom of country-specific versions, it was altered to appear only the very first time someone tried to reach Google.com and got redirected to their country-specific version. On subsequent attempts, it would not be shown.
To be clear, in the past, someone in the UK trying to go to Google.com would be redirected to Google UK — and there would be a link at the bottom saying Google.com for each and every visit. But after the change, someone redirected to Google UK would see the Google.com link only the first time redirection happened. After that, it wouldn’t appear at all. The same was true for other countries.
We learned of this after looking into a few recent reports of people who couldn’t figure out how to reach Google.com from outside the U.S. Google confirmed the change to us and when it happened. It also confirmed that its help instructions on this topic were incorrect and would be updated. This was about two weeks ago, and the instructions haven’t yet been changed. They still advise:
If you’ve been redirected by google.com to another google site (like google.fr), click the google.com link in the bottom right corner of any other Google page
The instructions also suggest that people can change their preferences to permanently select a different country. In our testing from within the U.S., this doesn’t seem to be the case. While the location preference page invites people to enter a preferred country, entering one generates an error saying to provide a “valid U.S. city or zip code.” Presumably, those trying to pick a different country other than their own when outside the U.S. would see a similar error.
Google’s help page is correct on the remaining option that people have, which Google reaffirmed as working, to go to http://www.google.com/ncr. That “NCR” address (which seems to stand for “No Country Redirection” is supposed to allow people to go to Google.com from outside the U.S. It might also be that using this once will prevent Google from doing redirection away from Google.com in the future. But as I’m in the U.S. now, I can’t test this (if others are outside the U.S, comments on how this works would be welcomed).
Why did Google make the change? The company told us that many people from outside the U.S. were ending up remaining with Google.com and missing what Google considers to be the better local experience for them.
I suspect there’s another reason behind the change. Google’s come under increasing pressure from both Canada and the EU to censor its results on Google.com in addition to censorship demands on country-specific versions. The Canadian ruling is under appeal; the EU situation involving the Right To Be Forgotten remains in legal limbo, for the moment.
In both cases, it’s probably helpful if Google can show that few people in those places actually go to Google.com. One excellent way of doing this is by dropping the Google.com link from always showing. It makes it even harder for those few who try to go to Google.com to dig through and find the means to get there when the home page link to Google.com disappears.
That’s my pure speculation, of course. I did ask Google if this was also a reason. The company responded by reiterating about the change having been done to ensure people in specific countries were not mistakenly ending up at Google.com rather than their local versions.
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