December 21, 2012Hyper-localisation: The winners and the losers

Dear Google,

Thank you for making me #1 for “copywriter”. Actually, that’s a lie, you haven’t made me #1. You’ve made me #2, behind Wikipedia. But I doubt their conversion rate is as high as mine is. And last time I checked, Jimmy Wales wasn’t a freelance copywriter. I am.

But this is a lie, too.

I’m not #2 for “copywriter”, despite what the image above displays.

Well, at least, I’m not for all of you. If you live in London, the South East, or a few places beyond (I have an independent confirmation of my FP status as far away as Portsmouth), I am now “the most important” copywriting site in town.

If, however, you live somewhere like Leicester or Newcastle, I’m not front page. I’m not even second page. I’m languishing at the top of the third. Which is, incidentally, exactly where I was for the term “copywriter” 3 days ago – even in London.

I have been front page for the following terms for some time, nationally:

  • “Freelance copywriter” (6 months on and off),
  • “Copywriting rates” (1st and second for 3 years),
  • “Copywriter London” (first for 18 months),
  • “Digital copywriter” (1st or 2nd for 1 year).

I don’t know where I’m charting for those up north, but I’d guess I’ve gone down a peg or two.

For whatever reason, Google has decided to go hyper-localised overnight.

As I say, I was on page 3 in London on Monday – I’m now second only behind Wikipedia, independently confirmed by 5 people in and around the city using an anonymised search – and that’s pretty mad.

Nor is it a good thing.

A couple of years ago I guest blogged for Image Mechanics, as we share a similarly techie / Apple fanboy / Dieter Rams loving vibe. I told Jason about Bitcoin. And in return, Jason pointed out to me the dangers of the “personalised internet”, which I turned into a blog post with his ideas. Today those dangers hit home.

What is the personalised internet? And why is it a bad thing?

The personalised internet occurs when Google, Facebook, etc collect personal data to deliver search results tailored to your past activity (as well as your location). As I put it in my guest article, if you read a lot of “leftie” newspapers, you would have got a lot of confirmation bias articles about how evil BP were during the oil spill. If however Google felt you had libertarian leanings, you’d be far more likely to see economic analyses and stock reports.

But the personalised internet gets much, much worse. Again, to borrow from the article I wrote two years ago, imagine you searched for holidays in Miami (the example I gave at the time, and particularly pertinent now, as a certain girl who broke my heart is moving there next month). Google will start bombarding you with adverts for sunglasses and sun tan lotion and cheap flights to America. But because of this, you may never discover you prefer holidaying in the South of France.

For the reasons described above, I doubt I’ll ever be going to Miami. And to be bombarded with ads suggesting I fly there every day would be, well, a kick in the spuds.

But that’s the trouble with the personalised internet. Once it thinks you want a certain thing, it continually provides you with more and more feedback about that thing.

Eli Pariser, who coined the phrase “information bubble” said that “a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there is nothing left to learn”.

I also mentioned that there would be implications for local businesses. Google would continually recommend you order takeaway from that pizza joint down the street – you know, the one that always delivers the wrong order, with the edges slightly burnt – rather than suggesting the much better takeaway half a mile down the street.

I never thought that this would apply to copywriting, but it does.

If you live in London (or a 100 mile radius thereof) I am now the man, according to Google. And that’s great. But if I was living in Inverness and Google suddenly decided to go hyper-local, I might be a bit pissed off.

Why can’t a copywriter in Inverness write for a business based in London? Come to think of it, why can’t they Skype with someone on Madison Avenue in New York, or stay up late for a videoconference to Sydney? Copywriting is not a location based thing.

Yes, to an extent, London based agencies and businesses are looking for London based copywriters. But that’s why I was #1 for the term “Copywriter London”. This extra personalisation means nothing – and while I’ll pick up a lot more business, I don’t feel good about it, because it means I will lose clients elsewhere (I do some great work with friends in Birmingham, Manchester, and beyond – for whom I’m still on page 3).

Of course, my SEO is working – I’ve gone up across the board (my phone doesn’t have a “geographical” location and an anonymised search put me 10th, up from 23rd last week) but my job just got a lot harder. I want to be #1 for copywriter – but I don’t just want to be #1 in London.

What happens if I decide to move?

Many of you may have heard of John O’Nolan, a web designer who, a couple of years ago, decided to sell everything he owns and travel the world while designing. Like myself, John is a devotee of Tim Ferriss – who asks why we feel we should be tied to a desk 8 hours a day, or a city and country 24/7, when we could be out having fun. So he packed his bags and travelled the world, working as he went, blogging about it from country to country.

How does his lifestyle fit in with Google’s hyper-localisation plans? Come to think of it, how do mine?

I’ve been thinking about leaving London for a while now. Now I can’t. Because Google wants to introduce London businesses to copywriters who are based in London.

The web was supposed to free us. Instead, the personalised web is imprisoning us.

I used to suggest a variety of means to reduce personalisation, such as making anonymised searches, remaining logged out of Google and Facebook, installing plugins such as Disrupted, etc. But the latest changes seem entirely IP based. If you use a proxy, you are going to get results tailored to that proxy. So if you search for “copywriter” through a proxy you’ll probably get copywriters who are nearest to whatever survivalist enclave in the Rocky Mountains your proxy search is coming from. Assuming there are any writers there at all.

I’m not going to lie to you, despite it tying me firmly to London, I have benefited massively from this change. But many more – who might have stood a chance of competing with me for the same clients, but who lived further away – have lost out.

And that’s not cool, Google. That’s not cool.

In any algorithm change or tweak there are winners and losers – but this feels like some of us have won the lottery while others have been issued a death sentence. If I was on the receiving end – not the winning end – of these changes, I’d be pretty bloody annoyed.


Edit: 1 week later.

I’m still FP for “copywriter” London and most of the south east – a term that results in about 20k searches a month. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a burden. I got in touch with John O’Nolan, who wrote back to say that, while his ideas are in keeping with the recommendations set out in the 4 hour work week (non-localisation, not being tied to a desk, etc), he isn’t a a devotee of Ferriss (I had heard otherwise – and to be honest I don’t agree with everything Ferriss says either!), but that his primary weapon was to reduce dependence on search traffic for his business to 0%. Interesting. More on how you might do that next week…

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This entry was posted on Friday, December 21st, 2012 at 3:28 pm and is filed under Blog, SEO. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. You couldn’t be more right, Alastaire! I’ve been fuming about this very phenomenon for years. In fact, I even wrote about my frustration in my blog almost exactly two years ago: (hope you don’t mind the link).

    Sure, if you’re casting a wider search net than your immediate vicinity, you can always set Google up to provide you with results from the area you’re interested in, or worldwide, come to that, but how many of us or our clients know how to do that—or care?

    Search engines in their infinite wisdom, instead of opening up the world, are now confining us to continuously smaller spaces. It might be an idea to let people think for themselves.

  2. al says:

    I don’t mind the link at all – in fact, I’m tweeting it out, it’s a good post.

    I’ve actually dropped a couple of places this evening – though I’m still FP and the second actual result for “copywriter” that isn’t Wiki or a jobs page. So I suspect Google is still tweaking its new algorithm – I may go back up tomorrow, or I may fall back into the murky and terrible depths of only being FP for my other 4 chosen keywords…

    But changes like this make it bloody hard to run a business. With this update, I’m a winner. With the next update… who knows?

  3. Alex says:

    Basing one’s lead flow on the whim of Google’s ever-changing algorithm is a recipe for disaster. You never know when your site… for whatever reason… will fall out of favor.

    Develop several paid sources of traffic. You’ll sleep better at night.

  4. al says:

    Only 20% of my business is via organic search, most is either inbound links to my blog, referals, word of mouth and – the big one – repeat business. But taking “London” for copywriting would be huge – so it’s important.


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