Synopsis: If your website is suffering from some dropped rankings on Google consider checking the geographic targeting in your Google Webmaster Tools site settings and read up on how to make the right selection (or not at all).
Did you know that changing your geographic target in your GWT site settings can have an impact on your rankings? The impact can be positive in one regard and negative in the other:
Google explains the Geographic Target setting (more info here):
If your site targets users in a particular location, you can provide us with information that will help determine how your site appears in search results, and also improve our search results for geographic queries. You can only use this feature for sites with a neutral top-level domain, such as .com or .org. Country-specific domains, such as .ie or .fr, are already associated with a country or region. If you don’t want your site associated with any location, select Unlisted. (Note: If you do this, your site will probably receive less traffic from Google.)
Example #1: A USA-Based Site Catering to the USA and Canada
If the owner of this website were to set her site’s setting to target users in the United States there is a very real possibility she will be limiting her visibility on Google.ca’s “Pages from Canada” search; where part of her clientele is searching. On the flip side it is quite possible she would increase her foothold on USA-based searches; searches on Google.com. In this scenario it is best NOT to set her site’s Geographic Target (totally leave it alone) which will mean stiffer competition; a necessary sacrifice since she is targeting two geographic markets.
Example #2: A Canadian-Based Site Catering Exclusively to Canadians
In this scenario the Canadian site owner is targeting Canadians only. As a result, she should set “Canada” in her site’s Geographic Target setting in order to benefit from the possibility of higher rankings on Google for Canadian searches. She could end up having less top rankings on Google.com (vs. Google.ca) but that is not a concern for her so the decision is a simple one.
I do not use the Unlisted setting because, in my opinion, it provides unnecessary information to Google. After all, if you just leave the Geographic Target setting alone instead of choosing “Unlisted” the impact should be the same without introducing yet another variable to consider if your rankings falter; the more variables the harder it can be to determine the culprit that triggered a lower ranking.
If you would like more information on the Geographic Target setting here is a video from a Google engineer: