Where are you? Google needs to know

The Associated Press has just revealed that Google services store your location data — even if you’ve paused “location history” on your iPhone or Android phone.  

Google has responded by updating its help pages to make it clear that if you don't want your location to be tracked, you’ll need to do more than simply turn “location history”  off.

The trick, if you have some reason to keep your location secret, is to make sure you also turn off your phone’s web & app activity settings. That way, your phone won’t tell anyone where you are (or where you’ve been).

We don’t get out too much, and don’t mind Google knowing our whereabouts. But the AP news story did get us thinking about why Google needs to know our location, and what value the data has for Google.

As for the why, if you’re looking for the nearest petrol station or coffee shop, Google obviously needs to know where you are. And, knowing your location, Google may serve targeted ads to persuade you to grab a coffee at one nearby place over another, or drive an extra block for lower fuel prices.

Google also knows that you searched for a touchscreen monitor this morning, clicked on an ad and now you’re entering the store. That’s an in-store visit that can be credited back to a Google Ads campaign which might not otherwise have seen a conversion.

Targeted advertising of this sort commands higher cost per click prices and gets better results.

But what about organic search and your location? For some searches, Google considers proximity as a gauge in deciding which organic search results are relevant.

Google may use your location in deciding which organic results you see, and where they appear on search results pages.

If you include a location term in your search query, it’s a certainty that you’ll get location-specific search results. But, even if you didn’t, Google calculates distance based on what it knows about your location.

While the best match to your query may be the business that’s closest, Google “might decide that a business that's farther away from your location is more likely to have what you're looking for than a business that’s closer, and therefore rank it higher in local results”.

Privacy has a price. Turn off all location tracking, and not only will Google Ads be less relevant for some searches, but (depending on your query) the organic search results you get may be less pertinent, too.

About the Author Jeremy Templer

Jeremy is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire. Jeremy has been working in search since 1996, when he joined the Australian search engine, LookSmart. After relocating to San Francisco, he was instrumental in the development of the company’s paid search ad platform. At analytics company Coremetrics (now owned by IBM) he established an in-house search agency managing campaigns for Coremetrics clients such as Macy’s, Bass Pro and Lands End. At Acxiom he managed members of the pioneering SEO firm Marketleap and worked with clients such as Capital One, American General Finance and Kaiser Health. Joining SureFire in 2009, he is the head of Paid Search Advertising and oversees the delivery of AdWords and other PPC campaigns. He also helps clients make sense of their website data.