For the vast majority of enterprise-level companies, international SEO is far from optional.
In most cases, many large corporations have offices in multiple countries. Even if they operate from a single location, more than likely they ship products internationally.
Boosting search engine visibility in various international markets is a critical factor for achieving faster growth - something that anyone who works in digital marketing wants!
For that reason, many enterprise SEOs find themselves tasked with positioning their brands in different countries, which, as I have heard many express concern, they find to be problematic.
Why? Because positioning a website for international search queries requires a completely different approach.
This approach must blend technical SEO and content with customer preferences specific to the target market (and their local language).
Global SEO requires certain care and accuracy however, so that your efforts do not go to waste.
In this guide, you will learn that approach in full detail.
- The Characteristics of International SEO: What decisions to make before launching an international SEO campaign.
- Strategies for Assessing the Search Potential in a Specific Country: How to identify which locations to target first.
- All Techniques to Optimize an International Site: How to ensure that your new site is ready to rock the foreign market.
Part I. The Characteristics of International SEO
International SEO is so different from what you’ve been doing so far.
Google ranking factors don’t change from country to country; however, how you set up, optimize and grow your site to rank it in a specific country is different.
Your current site, most likely, won’t be good enough for international SEO.
Just cloning it and changing geo-targeting in the Search Console will hardly deliver any results.
There are several reasons for this, including, but not limited to the following:
- Unless you target locations that speak your language, the target audience will not understand your site.
- Even if you translated it, the structure, architecture or even the flow of information might not match the target market.
- Your keywords might not match, particularly if you’ve run them by Google Translate only.
To do international SEO well, you need to launch a new version of your site and then optimize it for the international market. Before you do that, you need to choose the right way to launching an international site.
Two Targeting Strategies for International SEO
You can target foreign markets in two ways (or use a combination of them both):
- Country targeting, or
- Language targeting.
Each allows you to achieve the same objective: You can launch a search presence in a foreign market.
When to use them and how they work differs greatly. What’s more is that the one you choose will affect your decisions even further. So, let’s go through each to ground your understanding.
In this approach, also known as geo-targeting, your international site or sites target users in a specific location.
Unlike what many SEOs think, country targeting isn’t just about translating the site for the language your target user speaks.
For one, you might be targeting users who speak your language already, but the information that would engage them would differ.
For example, a clothing shop in the US wishing to expand to the UK wouldn’t have to worry much about the language. Sure, there are some differences between American and British English. For the most part, however, I doubt these differences would prevent a British buyer from understanding the copy.
It's the sizing conventions and other factors that tend to differ between both regions. Therefore, the company could technically replicate their site for the UK market. To take full advantage of the opportunity however, they would have to amend the copy, product descriptions, their checkout, and many other elements to suit new target buyers - and to make sure their customers receive the best-fit product.
Country-specific targeting is ideal if:
- Your business depends on the location of the user.
- Your content or offer must change for the new location (i.e., different sizing options, as per the example above.)
- You have the resources to create country-specific content. Otherwise, you risk having duplicate content across your main and international sites.
In this approach, you target people speaking the same language but not necessarily living in the same location. A good example is Spanish, a language spoken in 20 countries, or French, the official language of 30 countries, and so on.
A business may wish to launch a website in a foreign language to position themselves for its native speakers. This company, for example, operates sites in three different languages: their native German, English, and French.
Why use language targeting in the first place? Well, by focusing on foreign languages, a business could potentially target enormous audiences speaking them.
Further in our guide I’ll show you how to use language tagging to launch language-targeted international SEO strategy.
My final note on targeting: Often, businesses merge the country and language approach. That’s particularly true if customers in the target location speak a different language than where the company is from.
The targeting approach will also inform other elements of the strategy. Here are other considerations you’ll have to be mindful of in international SEO (but never have to think about otherwise).
#1. The URL Structure
This is the second most critical decision in international SEO, after the targeting option, because the URL structure of your international website will affect its search visibility like nothing else.
You can structure the URL in a number of ways:
- Use country-specific top-level domains (ccTLDs). For example, yourdomain.fr for France.
- Host the site on a subdomain, like this: fr.yourdomain.com
- Or use a subfolder, like yourdomain.com/fr/
Here are pros and cons for each, which affect how likely your new site is to rank well in SERPs.
ccTLD, for example, is a separate, third-level domain.
As a result, it lacks the link equity of your root domain. It might take time for it to acquire enough authority to start ranking significantly well.
Similarly, since ccTLD is a separate website, it might require additional resources to maintain.
Historically, SEOs preferred the ccTLD approach as Google used it to determine the site’s target location. This simplified the need to specify geo-targeting separately. However, according to last year’s observations by Eli Schwartz, this may no longer be the case.
One more challenge with ccTLDs that’s worth mentioning is that some country codes are used for other purposes. Startup companies commonly use the .io ccTLD (British Indian Ocean Territory). Many companies use .co in their URL too. As a result, the search engine has begun considering them as generic TLDs.
The subdomain places the content on the root domain.
This approach requires no additional domain name. It’s also easier to maintain from a technical point of view.
However, the subdomain may or may not inherit the root domain authority. Similarly to ccTLD, this might struggle in SERPs initially.
With the subdirectory, however, you place the content on the root domain. As a result, you don’t have to create separate website instances to manage it. The sub-directory inherits its link equity, helping the international site in SERPs right away.
So, which URL structure to choose?
I suggest you consider the following when making the decision:
If you opt for the country targeting, use ccTLD. Although it requires more work to maintain and build link equity, it sends the clearest signal to Google and users about the site.
For language targeting, use the sub-directory. When making the decision of what names to choose for the subdirectories, be sure to use common ISO language or country codes like uk for the UK, or es for Spanish, so Google can easily recognize the targeting.
Strong signal to Google
Inherits no link equity
More effort to maintain
Easier to maintain
Inherits the link equity
#2. Cultural and Legal Considerations
We’ve touched on how your offering might differ between countries, as well as how to target the new location. You might have to rework some elements of your content – product descriptions, currency, units of measurement, etc.
There are other factors to consider, too.
Cultural differences might require you to adjust your offering further. Some brands had to go as far as changing their product names to suit the new market.
Even if you won’t have to make such drastic changes, local regulations might prevent you from displaying specific information (or demand you reveal more to customers!).
What’s important is that such factors might affect the SEO as well - from preventing you from displaying some information to forcing you to include disclaimers affecting on-page optimization.
For country targeting, the server location might affect the site’s visibility.
Ideally, your international website should reside as close to the target location as possible. For example, the server location for sites targeting the UK is London.
Also, the host location has a large impact on the page speed. The further away from the host from the user, the longer it will take for the site to load.
To overcome some of those issues, we recommend a CDN for content to utilize server locations near the audience.
#4. International Link Building
Regardless of which targeting option you use, you will have to build links to the international site. Ideally, they should be links from domains in the same location.
Unfortunately, getting links from foreign countries is often the most difficult international SEO activity. Many factors you might not know of could affect the international link building project. That could be anything from a different language, market, or audience, to the competitive landscape.
- Your competitors in the new location might be far stronger.
- You might not know of any specific link sources to utilize quickly.
- Similarly, you might not know what strategies would work in the target country better.
Here are some ideas to help you kick start an international link building campaign:
Leverage existing links from that location. Audit your current backlink profile, to identify potential links from your target market.
The simplest way is to look at the top-level domain ratio. Although I admit, it’s not the most precise method. Many domains might use .com or other top-level domains, masking their country of origin.
(Top level domain breakdown in seoClarity.)
Another way is to assess the country code in the backlink profile. Like this:
(Referring domains report in seoClarity.)
If you find any, consider either pointing them to the international site or recreating that backlink for it.
Evaluate your competitors' backlinks. Identify your top international competitors. Then, analyze where they get their links from, looking for opportunities to re-create backlinks.
(Backlinks report in seoClarity.)
#5. Ranking in Local Search Engines
Google might be the most popular search engine, but it’s not the only one. Depending on your target market, you might have to optimize your site for additional search engines.
If you target customers in Russia, for example, then, you’d also have to optimize the site for Yandex. The search engine has a staggering 52% market share in that country, after all. Your potential customers in Japan might search for you in Yahoo! Japan (24% market share). Chinese, in Baidu, and so on.
Each of those search engines ranks content differently; and so, you might have to consider their ranking factors when creating a localized version of the site.
The Challenges of Global SEO
You've seen how international SEO is far different from the strategy formation and execution that you're doing today. It's these specific nuances that make global SEO a challenge.
Your mission with global SEO isn't about making surface-level changes to your site - it's about serving your audience the right content and information based on what they're familiar with in their respective country.
Beyond content and copy is the setup of the website itself. As you saw above, the URL structure, cultural and legal considerations, server location, link building, and various search engines all play a role in international SEO.
Despite these challenges, international SEO offers great opportunity for expanding into other markets around the world. Let's take a look at how to find those worthwhile opportunities.
Part II. Assessing the International Search Opportunity
Not all foreign markets offer the same opportunity. Here’s how to evaluate them.
Although the decision on which foreign markets to enter might not be up to you, you still have to validate the opportunity of each. For one, it might help you prioritize the work and decide which locations you’ll target first.
Here’s how to do it.
First, look at your current traffic levels from target locations. Depending on your preferred targeting method, check traffic by either location or language in Google Analytics.
Alternatively, if you’re using an enterprise SEO platform like seoClarity, assess your traffic by country.
(Search analytics report in seoClarity.)
The platform also allows you to correlate the data with other information, gaining a much deeper understanding of your market.
For example, analyze search impressions in the target market. Assuming that your global site doesn’t rank well there, you might receive a low CTR, for example. Analyzing impressions might give a much better insight into the traffic potential and interest in the target location.
(Search volume report in seoClarity.)
The above will help you the top target markets that already drive traffic and results.
Plus, seoClarity clients can benefit from the support of our Client Success Team, whose members strategize and implement various ways to operationalize our global clients' SEO strategies.
Next, assess their search opportunity with keyword research. I won’t deny it: this is where things get a little tricky, especially, if you plan to target international SEO by language.
If that’s the case, you might have to enlist the help of a translator to convert your most popular phrases to the target language.
There is an easier way to do it, but, it does not always deliver satisfactory results. That method is analyzing Google Search Console data for Countries and then, Queries. Unfortunately, oftentimes GSC returns English-speaking results for foreign searches anyway.
For the best results, I recommend you work with a translator to understand how people search for content like yours in the target location.
That said, if you target by country with the same language like yours, then the above method will work just fine.
Once you have target keywords in the foreign language, research their search potential to confirm:
- Whether the audience uses those terms, specifically,
- What their search volume is, and
- Who is your competitor in the foreign market.
For example, here are the search results for a Polish phrase “klawiatura do iPada” (‘iPad keyboard.”)
(Keyword research report in seoClarity.)
Judging by the search volume, customers in that country do use it when looking for the iPad accessory. And if I analyze the online competition, I can evaluate whom I’d be battling against for this traffic.
(Keyword research report showing top ranking domains for a specific phrase.)
Existing traffic plus keyword research should give you a good indication of each target market’s potential. With such data, you can prioritize locations, starting with the most promising ones.
Once you’ve selected the target market and decided on how you’re going to target it, it’s time to optimize your international site.
Part III. Optimizing the International Site
Give your international site the best chance to rank in international SERPs. Here’s how.
Traditional on-page elements aside – I assume you would include the keyword in the title tag and do all the other things required to optimize a page – the two most critical elements to focus on in international SEO are:
- Translation (if needed, of course), and
- Tagging, which includes having the hreflang tag properly set up on each page.
Translation is where I often see things going wrong. Not terribly wrong, but I have seen websites where it was obvious that a company simply turned on Google Translate and took the copy from there.
Why won’t Google Translate work? For one, it wouldn’t consider cultural or regional factors in the translation. However, unless the copy is consistent with local customs or culture, its effect on a user might be minimal.
To do that, I always recommend brands use a professional translator - ideally someone who either lives in the target location or originates from there.
Similarly, don’t translate just part of the content. I often see companies converting only the most important text while keeping other areas in a single language. A good example of this are pages which feature user-generated content. The individual content on the page gets translated, however, all user-generated content stays in its original form.
The result? A bad user experience. Not to mention, duplicate content issues (if the same user-generated content appears on many international versions of your site).
Finally, when commissioning the translation, don’t forget to include SEO assets like keywords, meta tags, image alt tags, and so on.
Tagging: Adding Hreflang Tags
Hreflang tags help ensure that Google displays the right version of the site to users in its target location or language. In fact, the hreflang is essential to global SEO.
But, many common issues with hreflang can bring trouble. In fact, I often hear SEOs discuss how the majority of tags on sites they got to work with were wrong.
(Which, when you take a typical enterprise-level website, isn’t actually that surprising. With thousands of pages, and potentially, tens of languages or regions to target, even a single mistake can compromise the entire setup.)
Because of the above, you must put a significant effort into ensuring your hreflang tags are correct.
The most important thing to remember is this:
Always start the tag by defining the language first, then the region. For example: <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-es” href=”https://www.mydomain.com/es/” />
Pay attention to the hreflang attribute. Although it includes what seems like two identical language and region references, it is more complex than this.
The first part defines the language (Spanish), the other, the region (Spain). If I wanted to target only Spanish (the language), I could leave the other bit out. My hreflang tag would look like this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=”https://www.mydomain.com/es/” />
Another example. Let’s assume that I want to target an English language site for the UK. My hreflang structure would include “en” (language) and “gb” (for Great Britain, the location). Like this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”https://www.mydomain.com/gb/” />
You can add hreflang tags via the XML sitemap. This is a useful method when you work with thousands of pages. However, you can also do it manually by specifying it directly in the <head> section of each page.
There is one more final action to take after implementing hreflang tags: auditing your tags to identify any potential issues.
Of course, doing so manually would be an arduous process. That’s why seoClarity offers a Clarity Audit capability that can also review your hreflang tags specifically.
International SEO is hardly optional for the majority of large enterprises. In fact, boosting search engine visibility an international audience is a critical factor for achieving faster growth.
Hopefully, after reading this guide, you know how to launch an international SEO campaign for your organization and implement the applicable best practices.