A couple of weeks ago, a colleague unearthed some interesting discussion about the “unlisted” geographic target setting in Google Webmaster Tools (now Search Console). I use the word “interesting” in a very specific sense here, of course; I don’t recommend relying on this as an icebreaker at parties.

Anyway, it seems there’s a difference between not setting a geographic target for your website at all and setting it as “unlisted”. That’s not too surprising on first glance, until you consider that explicitly targeting something at nothing seems like a peculiar thing to do. So what’s “unlisted” for?

It turns out this is an old chestnut that Barry Schwartz and others have covered before, but since both the existence of this setting and its effects aren’t well documented, and effective geotargeting can be a tough nut to crack, it seemed like something worthy of a little more investigation.

Geotargeting, or un-geotargeting?

According to John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, “unlisted” has a very specific purpose:

There’s actually a subtle difference between not activating Webmaster Tools owner-specified geotargeting and selecting ‘Unlisted’. Not selecting to do geotargeting through Webmaster Tools results in Google doing geotargeting automatically (generally based on the server location), activating geotargeting and selecting “Unlisted” in Webmaster Tools results in Google not doing geotargeting.

John Mueller, Google

So it’s the difference between an explicit “nowhere” and an assumed “nowhere”, which when you think about it is quite a critical difference indeed. But of course most site owners, website managers and SEO consultants spend their time worrying about targeting content to a specific place, not the reverse, and as Webmaster Tools will set geographic targeting only for gTLDs (and the handful of ccTLDs that Google treat like gTLDs), this tool won’t help anyone who wants to completely strip a ccTLD of its inherent geographic associations.

However, if you’re already using a gTLD, haven’t targeted it anywhere and gladly welcome visitors from anywhere and everywhere, the possibility of addressing an even wider global audience by taking unintended or unavoidable location signals out of the equation is likely of interest.

Testing “unlisted” geographic target

As luck would have it, I run a few sites which are not targeted anywhere in particular, so it couldn’t hurt to target them to “unlisted” and see what happens. I began with my own site, just in case the something went awry and the sky fell on my digital world, but precautions aside this was literally a “click it and see what happens” deal.

In Google Webmaster Tools, under Configuration > Settings, I set “Geographic target” to “Target users in: Unlisted (this having not previously been set at all).

My server is in the United States, but only about 25% of my traffic comes from there. Only a day later impressions had risen sharply, then over the next few days plateaued before falling slightly,  finally settling at a level well above the preceding average.

The Search Queries report showed some movement in ranks, both up and down, and a few (generally quite odd) phrases rocketing from nowhere (albeit not to significant positions).

Search impressions in response to "unlisted" geographic target in Google Webmaster Tools
Search impressions in response to setting geographic target in Google Webmaster Tools to “unlisted”

Intrigued, I did the same on another site. This one receives a lot more traffic than my own site and has more content, but is somewhat less well optimised technically. It’s also served from the United States and around half it’s traffic originates there, with the rest being distributed around western Europe, South America and Australasia.

In this case, there was no noticeable change in impressions. Even now, over a week later, I struggle to see any difference. However the Search Queries report does show similar signs of disruption, and a few new terms streaking in from out of the blue. Perhaps this is due to its predominantly US audience: it’s not targeted there, but that’s naturally where most of the interest is, so there’s no reason for much to change.

Should you use “unlisted”?

I can certainly say that setting Google’s tool to “unlisted” can have discernible effects, and it appears to do so more or less immediately. More importantly, there do not appear to be any undesirable side effects.

Whether to use it or not comes down to how sure you are that you really don’t want to target anywhere in particular. Though indiscriminate global coverage sounds tempting at first, most single sites (i.e., not ones that have specific content for different regions) probably don’t have an evenly distributed global audience. In such cases, there may actually be more to gain from optimising for wherever the majority of the audience is.