If you are an ambitious online entrepreneur, then you must look beyond Native English-speaking countries, and consider the enormous market that awaits you internationally. However, this is where matters become problematic. Most see international SEO as complicated and frustrating.
And not without excellent reason, because setting up your site for unfamiliar countries and languages is not something done hastily or haphazardly. International SEO applied incorrectly can be expensive and even fatal for your site.
In this article, we intend to help you steer clear of the pitfalls and help you get your international SEO expansion off to an unmitigated success.
What are the unique aspects of international SEO compared to normal SEO?
SEO is optimising your website so search engines can easily find you in the country where you operate your business. International SEO, or if you like geo-targeting, put simply, is optimising your site for other languages and countries.
1. Is Your Business Ready To Branch Out Into New Markets?
Before we head into the more technical aspects of expanding into fresh markets, you must address a fundamental step and that revolves around market research.
We realise this might seem obvious, but without in-depth and reliable research you’re setting your business up for spectacular failure. You might “feel” your product or service is highly sought after, but the reality could be entirely different. Google has a useful tool for this called Market Finder but we recommend doing in-depth research yourself.
The first place to research is your website. Are you already receiving organic international visitors to your site?
Look in your Google Analytics account, go to ‘Geo’ reports, and the ‘Audience’ section. Google Webmaster Tools data can also help with this. Go to Search Queries Reports and filter the results for location.
Armed with this information will help you focus on where your international SEO efforts should begin.
Your competition is local and you are not. So more local research will help you. How does your product compare to your competition? Is your product of higher quality? If not, do what you can to make it better? All aspects of your business should be a cut above your competition. Your strategy, website, product or service, etc. should outshine theirs.
Before entering your fresh markets, are you prepared for this logistically? Let’s look at what this means. Even if you’re not a local firm, you must appear to be. Inquiries, calls, local distribution, local phone numbers manned by native speakers, emails, if you are not distributing locally have you factored in international deliveries and costs.
To garner quality reviews and goodwill locally, all this must be flawless and competent.
2. Your Messaging Needs To Be On Point
Unless you’re trying to target English language speakers in the foreign markets you enter, then we would suggest you have your website content translated into the language of each market.
We would advise against any machine language translations for this. They are never 100% accurate, and it’s obvious where such translations have come from. Use a native speaker for each language, preferably one that understands the products or services your company offers, and knows their way around SEO, website structure, and how to write interesting and valuable content.
3. International SEO Technical Steps
International SEO is complicated and technical. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be methodical and logical, to get it right, the first time.
Once you’ve built your site and followed the steps above you need to get the site found by search engines. You must unequivocally direct the search engines to crawl and index your site in the country you are marketing in. You should conduct keyword and competitor research in the local language.
Bear this in mind, while Google may be the king of search engines in most western countries that is not necessarily the case around the world. Pay particular attention to the major search engines in other areas.
For instance, Google has a small footprint in China. The primary search engine there is Baidu, where 80% of mobile searches go to them. How you optimise for search may be different.
Let’s turn our attention to the structure of your website.
4. Making The Choice Of Website Structure For International SEO
For each country that your business will target, you would purchase country coded top-level domains. For example, www.website.de (Germany).
Doing it this way means the location of your hosting servers is not relevant and gives search engines the strongest geo-targeting signals. Possibly, this also gives customers in those countries a greater measure of trust.
Having said that if you plan on targeting many countries, it might not be the best way forward. There are cons whichever structure you opt for. Here are two for the ccTLD route.
- It’s costly. You must buy a domain for each country. You might make things more complicated because to keep your brand consistent you need the same domain name across all territories. Plus, unless you have the resources, the SEO necessary for many domains is highly intensive work.
- Going back to the resources, you would need a team to build an immense amount of links and we know link building is an important aspect of SEO. Each site would need to build its domain authority.
Undoubtedly you will have seen this yourself. A top-level generic domain (gTLD) using a country or language-specific sub-domain. Using the German example again: https://de.website.com.
The reasons you might choose this are: ease of setup, flexible hosting, and the search engines can see the geo-targeting signals.
The negatives to this are:
- Not so trustworthy to customers.
- The domain authority is divided between each domain in the same way as ccTLDs.
- They look messy and will your customers remember the exact structure if they need to type your name into search engines.
This requires using a generic top-level domain (gTLD) with a language or country-specific subdirectory. For example https://website.com/de or if you specify the language as well https://website.com/de-de/.
If you target a country with more than one national language, for example, Belgium, where they speak German and French (and Flemish, but we’ll just use the two languages as the example) you might need a structure like these:
https://website.com/fr-be/ or https://website.com/de-be/ assuming you wanted to target both languages.
The upside to subdirectories is your efforts at link building can be concentrated on the main domain because they build the authority of the main site at the same time as that of the subdirectories. It also gives you flexibility if you want to expand into further countries and languages.
Should you need to update sites at a later date, it keeps all the redirects in one ht.access file. There might also be a reason for you to limit the number of pages you want on each country site, subdirectories give you the option of not showing pages you choose not to.
The negatives are:
- Subdirectories don’t send international signals as strongly as ccTLDs can. But you can overcome this using schema markup, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools.
- There can only be one server location for your site. But we don’t see that as being too big a negative, many site owners don’t bother with country-specific servers.
5. Keyword Research For International SEO
This gives you the potential of each country and language market you are determined to enter. The data you need to collect through your keyword research consists of:
There are keyword tools available to help you find this information. A good starting point for your research is the Google Adwords Keyword Planner.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, it’s important to use a native language speaker of the markets you are targeting. Preferably one that is experienced in digital marketing and SEO.
6. Using Technical Signals In International SEO
There’s nothing worse than serving up the wrong language page to a visitor, especially if you are expecting some kind of action like a lead or sale, etc.
So Google brought in the HrefLang tag back in 2011. It allows you to specify the relationship between web pages in different languages. Especially useful for content specific to a local visitor. The HrefLang attribute tells search engines that a visitor entering a search query in language ‘A’ will require this result and not a page with the same or similar content in language ‘B’.
Let’s break this down a little more. You create a German-language version of your English landing page and tag it ‘hreflang=’de’ this means any visitor coming to your site with an IP address from a German-speaking country would be served the German page, not the English one.
This can go even deeper if you need it to. Because you will most probably need to be in control of variations in shipping, culture, currency (from one German-speaking country to a different German-speaking country) you can target even more precisely by extending the hreflang attribute. Using my German example e.g. Germany hreflang=”de-de” as opposed to Belgium hreflang=”de-be”.
The XDefault Tag
This is used if the HrefLang tag doesn’t fit the situation. For instance, if the Spanish language versions of your site are either ES (Spain) or MX (Mexico) but someone from Argentina searches for related terms they would be xdefaulted to a preferred version. This would look like this in HTML:
(for Spanish speakers in other countries typing in relevant search terms where there is no specific site set up).
So you have implemented all the above. But you need to make sure the search engines know what to do with your site.
Google Analytics should be installed for each property and added to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Domains, sub-domains, and subdirectories can all be tracked separately in Analytics and Search Console.
It depends on which website structure you went with, if sub-domain or ccTLD you would add each separately. If your decision was subdirectories, set specific properties in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
In general we suggest going with subdirectories over the sub-domain or ccTLD. As previously talked about it’s a great option because it consolidates all your link building options and the technicalities are easier to overcome. Additionally we like the ability to add more subdirectories when we want to expand into new markets with ease.
Sometimes, a new market comes up and you need to react quickly before the competition gets in, subdirectories give you that speed option. It can be worth a lot of money to get to the market place first.
Check to see your Hreflang tags are working correctly. And make sure country targeting is correct. Now add your business and every location to Google My Business and Bing Places. This will signify to search engines exactly where you operate. Visitors will also be able to see your business on a map when they search for it.