The website you own or manage targets multiple languages and geographical locations. You are in charge of establishing a strategy for International SEO.
As part of this task, you are set with the task of designing a global SEO strategy set for success.
Some of the questions you may ask yourself at this point are:
- How do I promote my website internationally
- What is International targetting?
- How do I apply my SEO strategy to multiple countries?
It would be bad advice to lay out here a kind of template for strategy definition since every business is different, and the right strategy will be based on the precise characteristics, requirements, and capabilities of the company.
The right strategy will also depend on
- the business’s ability to be agile (or accommodating to reqs)
- available resources
- business ambition
- Overall budget for the project
- Dependencies and stakeholders
- Technical infrastructure (feasibility/flexibility)
- and multiple other factors and requirements, both technical and operational.
The above factors will be critical to help you formulate the right type of international SEO strategy.
Oftentimes, such strategy may be far from being the one you would ideally have. You have to fit in with the constraints of the environment you work in. Things like company business goals, resources and existing technology may determine how ambitious you can get.
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to give a framework of fundamental areas that should not be missed or left out of consideration when designing an SEO strategy for multi-language or multiregional expansion.
Let us examine some of these areas that will play a critical role to the success of your international SEO strategy.
Table of Contents
Global Strategic Business Plan
What does the business truly want to achieve?
How fast do they want to do it
…and how ambitious they really are?
Your international SEO efforts should begin with a clear assessment of your business goals for expansion. Your primary goal here is to evaluate your organization’s plans, project ambition, and existing resources.
Based on your assessment, identify your strengths, weaknesses, and find areas where your opportunities are most substantial then direct your attention and resources in that direction.
Assess how your online business model works and define your online goals. How do you deliver services/products to your clients, and what do you want to achieve with global SEO? Do you have the capacity to deliver the same goods/services globally? What are your current business constraints, and how do you plan to deal with them?
Keep in mind that it is how you lay your global strategic business plan that will guide your international SEO strategy. It will serve as a roadmap going forward. Assess the skills and competencies of your staff members to establish what they can and cannot do.
Offer training if need be to make sure that everyone is on the same page before you move into the next step that involves market research. Trying to understand the implications of going international with your SEO right from the beginning may save you a lot of time and resources in the long run.
2. The Research Phase
Once you have defined your global strategic business plan, the next thing you need to do is conduct thorough market research to establish the magnitude of the task ahead of you.
In this step, you are expected to conduct international keyword research, competitor research, and establish a clear approach to how you will handle language and cultural differences in different regions.
International Keyword Research
It is paramount to get your keyword research right while performing multilingual SEO. Aiming for the wrong keywords could easily affect your rankings, visibility, and authority hence derailing your effort. This is where linguistic understanding and prowess becomes crucial.
Keep in mind that effective keyword research isn’t just about translating your English keywords into other languages. The most important thing to remember here is that localisation is critical. Find a way of reflecting and understanding how native people perform their web searches and the exact terms they use.
The same thing applies even in markets that speak the same language. For instance, while British consumers may search for the phrase “football boots,” an American looking for the same product may search for “soccer cleats.” Therefore, you need to do everything possible to ensure that your target keywords reflect the local market.
To accomplish this, find native speakers for each market you are targeting to guide you. Apart from understanding the local language, native speakers will also appreciate the regional nuances of that particular language and the local consumer behaviour that may help you accomplish your goals.
Do not be tempted to just translate your keywords!
The primary purpose of competitor research is to know who you are fighting against in the new digital market that you are targeting. Competition research helps you to gauge your potential competitor’s performance when it comes to paid advertising, SEO, and content marketing.
Take time to know your competitors well and what makes them stand out. Consider this as a way of benchmarking to spot opportunities.
What are their main sources of traffic? Which keywords are providing them with the bulk of their traffic? What edge do you have over them? Can you offer some products/services that they don’t?
You should also take time to analyze their backlinks and websites for strengths and weaknesses. Gather as much information about your competitors as possible because you will need it to outrank them. Analyse their overall online strategy to unearth the approaches they are following to obtain successful ranking in your target country.
While doing your competitor research, don’t focus only on Google. Try to find out the most popular search engine in the country you are targeting and focus on that search engine. For instance, Baidu has a 75% market share in China, while Yandex commands a significant market share in Russia.
3. Language Considerations
You need to understand the nuances of your target audience to succeed. You must strive to understand the countries they are from and the languages they speak.
A detailed market and keyword research is essential to identify the unique vocabulary that users from a specific location use while searching for products/services online.
Learning the vocabulary of your target audience will help you speak to them in a way they expect to be spoken to.
For instance, targetting the entire region of LATAM with Castilian Spanish (from Spain) may not be effective as you initially thought. You should consider that people in Mexico, Argentina, or Chile speak Spanish with quite distinct vocabulary depending on the niche market.
For a sizable international project, you must resist the temptation of generically targeting languages. Whereas for a humble startup project with an initial incursion into targeting non-English speakers, language targeting vs country language may suffice. It all depends on the complexity of the product, amongst other things!
For certain projects involving diverse demographics as the target audience, in-depth research is needed in order to ascertain if a single language to target a specific country is enough.
As an example, simply targeting Belgium with a site done in French does not reflect the multilanguage reality of the country as they . For example, the main foreign languages spoken in France are English, German, Italian, and Portuguese.
To complicate things each of those three official languages boasts several dialects being ‘Flemish’ a popular Dutch one and ‘Walloon’ a French main.
Furthermore, a piece of market research for Belgium wouldn’t be complete without addressing the English speaking segment of the population which is a 38%
Every nation will always have its own unique language/vocabulary considerations and variations to be aware of. There will always be variations to the language structure as well as a few words to consider.
Strive to understand how your target audience in a particular country read and digest content in their language. Keep in mind that if the language that you are serving to a target user isn’t truly talking to them, then you lose their trust and potential conversion opportunities.
4. Cultural Considerations
There are also lots of search implications usually driven by a culture which might affect the balance of search intent of people across different countries. For instance, seasonality plays a critical role in user behaviour, especially when thinking about holiday months and the overall buying behaviour over the year.
A summer promotion for Australia may not apply to the United States who will be experiencing winter. There are lots of other cultural complexities that you need to take into consideration given the different languages spoken across the globe.
For example if your company decides to target France and the UK with a single product format, eg: men’s grooming, it will be essential to take time and try to establish the number of people in those countries from a variety of cultural backgrounds and ethnicities in order to guide your strategy.
Always remember the fact that an individual’s physical location may not reflect their culture and identity. Therefore, blanket regional targeting may not yield desirable results.
5. Assess existing International Traffic and sales
Before you dive deep into implementing your SEO strategy, you need to establish your current visibility in the country that you are targeting. This will guide your next steps.
If you don’t have any current visitors from that particular country, then it means that your highest priority should be conducting brand awareness. Focus on creating top of the funnel content that will educate your target audience about your products /services.
On the other hand, if you have been receiving a significant number of visitors from the country, then it means you may be looking at people waiting to be converted. In such a case, your focus should be getting your site live, encouraging conversions, and focusing on other bottom-funnel actions.
Each one of these situations presents its own unique set of opportunities and challenges that you will have to deal with. However, beginning the journey with a crystal clear understanding of what is expected of you will set your business up for long-term success.
6. Domain and URL Geo-targeting
There are different URL structures that you can employ to target specific countries with your site. You can use country code top-level domain (ccTLD), a subdirectory, subdomain, or a generic top-level domain (gTLD) with language parameters. Each URL structure has its own pros and cons.
The options are:
- cctlds : local country domains. For example: yourgreatsite.jp for Singapore
- TLD (top level domain) subdirectories to target regions, languages or both! For example:
- yourgreatsite.com/jp or yourgreatsite.com/ja
- TLD (top level domain) Subdomains. For example: jp.yourgreatsite.com
- URL parameters. For example: yourgreatsite.com/pagetop1240?country=japan
Every model is endorsed by Google except the last one (url parameters). Very rarely an SEO professional recommends that one these days.
We will not look at domain geo-targetting here in detail, but it is certainly one of the aspects of International SEO that you don’t want to get wrong. It is also one of the most complex as it involves UX, technical input, marketing, content, development. For very large companies an exercise like this can get very very political.
As an SEO your role will be to do as much research as you can inside and outside the boundaries of the company’s online presence before you put forward a compelling domain geo-targeting plan, ideally clearly flagging advantages and disadvantages for every option.
Additional geo-targeting methods
You can use different geo-targeting methods to strengthen your content’s local signals seen by search engines. There are several ways to geo-target your sites and pages apart from just the domain name itself. Some of them are not even mentioned by Google because we all know they are used in determining your content’s suitability for a specific region. The most popular ones include:
- Geo-location assignment in Google Search Console: Access your GSC dashboard and click on “legacy tools and reports.” You should see the international targeting option that takes you to the language and country targeting page. From here, you can set the specific country that you are targeting.
The bad news is that Google has announced that the legacy tools in Search Console will be going away before the end of the year. It is unclear if there will be a replacement for International Targeting in the Search Console.
Bing Webmaster tools also let you define your region preferences. You can do this on a domain, subdomain, subdirectory, or even page level. However, you should only set your region preferences if the search engine is having problems trying to rank the right page for the right audience.
- Use of Hreflang tag: The Hreflang HTML attribute, also known to as rel= “alternate” hreflang= “x” is used to tell Google which language is being used on a specific page of your site so that it can serve the page to web users searching in that language. This tag is extremely helpful when you have created content that is specific to a local audience.
- Local hosting: Having the regional version of the website hosted in the territory the website targets can help enhance the geo-targeting signals. It is not the end of the world if this cannot be done as it is not always possible to source local hosting for every version of the website, especially in enterprise environments. But if you can, it helps a bit, not just for SEO but for things like page speed.
If local web hosting is however not possible, then using a CDN with a hub in the target country or near will also help you deliver a better user experience for your users as your website will download faster.
- Link building : This method can be as effective as no other… if you launch a product in a foreign market, and it fails to get traction in those markets then link building is the solution. Once local mentions of the brand start pouring in, in the form of links, your localised content will start to get visibility.
Whether you need this or not as soon as you move into a region is dependent on factors such as market saturation, competition, and the uniqueness of the product itself.
- Content localisation: this section deserves a heading in its own right as it’s far too important, see keep reading onto section number 6.
- Local currency: Adapting to local market and mention the local currency when it applies
- Payment methods: Display the local payment methods.
- Address: Display each local office address on the website footer.
If possible, the overall design and experience of your site should also be developed to address the specific behaviour of your target audience better.
Things that you should not do
Some webmasters attempt to improve geo-targeting by redirecting users based on IP address. This is bad advice and can cause your website to underperform.
Auto-redirecting is annoying, confusing, and can even cause visitors to never find certain content.
Luckily Google has added information about this (finally!) on their guidelines:
Do not use IP analysis to adapt your content. IP location analysis is difficult and generally not reliable. Furthermore, Google may not be able to crawl variations of your site properly. Most, but not all, Google crawls originate from the US, and we do not attempt to vary the location to detect site variations. Use one of the explicit methods shown here (hreflang, alternate URLs, and explicit links).Google Support – Managing multi-regional and multilingual sites
Avoid using cloaking, which refers to serving different versions of the same content to search engines and users. Some International SEO experts are tempted into cloaking as a solution to auto-redirection, but since we have said auto-redirecting users is a bad idea, cloaking only makes things worse.
7. Translation and Localisation go hand in hand
Going international means that you will have to produce the same content in one or several other languages. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to translate a page into a local language accurately.
Translating your content into different languages is a challenge you have to deal with. How do you verify and check a translation to make sure that it’s going to be spot ? You need to make sure the translated content is useful to build trust with your target audience. Consider creating a team of native speakers to help you with the translation.
It also means, especially for large corporations, that some content in a given language may be shared across several regions, often lacking the resources to localize it. For example content in English from the US or from the UK may be reused by their operations in Singapore, Australia, or Southafrica.
In those scenarios SEO can suffer a lot as some regions stronger in displaying some signals will cannibalize other weaker ones. So it is important to try and localize the content in every way possible.
Don’t be tempted to put your site’s content into Google Translate and then proceed to post the translated text on your international site.
The results will not be good for your visitors who understand the language better and can cause a major blow to your multilingual SEO efforts.The truth is that most translation tools are inaccurate and confusing.
Furthermore, you are looking for something much more than just translation. You want to add elements of localization to your translated content to serve your target audience properly.
It is advised to always go beyond translating:
- Consider working with a local professional translator who is a master of words and understands your target region’s local culture and language nuances.
- Have your local staff read the translated content and adapt it, if needed, taking into account local language nuances.
- Have the copy check by one additional third party to ensure it is spot on and aligned with the nuances of the local language.
For example, English copy quoting ‘beautiful city’ may be translated to Spanish as ‘esta linda ciudad’ by a translator from Colombia. Problem here is that ‘linda ciudad o ‘ciudad linda’ does not quite sound like Spanish from Spain. It should rather be: ‘bonita ciudad’ for example. It is paramount to properly localize translated content.
- Localization of URLs, navigation, content, meta descriptions, title, headings
Lastly, having your international keyword research done professionally can help you avoid many issues in future and even lose money.
8. Technical considerations for International SEO
Technical infrastructure such as existing legacy CMS, dbases, APIs and over-engineered systems can play a big role for International SEO, to the point of constraining ambition plans.
They can also be an advantage at all times. It’s something to study carefully and bring into your plan early in the planning phase.
Content Delivery Networks
One of the thorniest aspects of global SEO is that of CDNs and load balancers. If they are public-facing and accessible that can be a problem as they can be crawled even if you have requested the bots not to. Somehow they will be found, so a plan is needed.
Duplicate content caused by technology
If there are duplicate versions of your site, be ready to deal with some cannibalization issues. Google bots are quite good about such issues. It is more about visibility.
So, make sure you verify every public-facing IP. Don’t rely on Google to try and do it for you. Make sure that you’re giving them the right thing; it’s just simple.
Server configuration or location
Working on multiple sites targeting different countries and/or different search engines is indeed a challenge so, finding ways to stay on top of it without taking too much of your time is key.
Targetting China effectively, for example, requires mirroring your website to be hosted in China, IF you truly want to stand a chance against competition and outrank them.
Another that stands a challenge is the whole paradigm about replicating code across different servers. There are various ways of doing it more or less effectively depending on resources. A slight mistake on this front can be catastrophic.
Rolling out code across servers
This is something that you won’t have to worry if you are just dealing with English copy. But the moment you get into the multilingual context and especially if the website picks up data from a database and encodes it in order to return accurate results on the listing page, you are starting to deal with URL encoding issues.
What is URL encoding?
URL encoding stands for encoding certain characters in a URL by replacing them with one or more character triplets that consist of the percent character “%” followed by two hexadecimal digits. The two hexadecimal digits of the triplet(s) represent the numeric value of the replaced character.
The term URL encoding is a bit inexact because the encoding procedure is not limited to URLs (Uniform Resource Locators), but can also be applied to any other URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) such as URNs (Uniform Resource Names). Therefore, the term percent-encoding should be preferred.
There will be implementation flaws and/or oversights and if these are not caught up on time, you will soon end up with two versions per url. Sometime the encoding flaw happens on the actual url and other times in the rel canonical.
Use this tool to perform some tests and learn how the encoding/decoding process takes place
Eg: a url containing the French region: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes would be written :
www.mytravelsite.com/regions/auvergne–rhone-alpes special characters stripped out
www.mytravelsite.com/regions/auvergne-rhône-alpes special characters left in
www.mytravelsite.com/regions/auvergne-rh%C3%B4ne-alpes special characters left in but url is encoded
Some other special characters like the “ç” is encoded in UTF-8 as two bytes C3 (hex) and A7 (hex), which are then written as the three characters “%c3” and “%a7” respectively.) making URI long (up to 9 ASCII characters for a single Unicode character).
Modern browsers however display the decoded form, and many protocols can send UTF-8 without the %HH escaping.
As an International SEO Consultant or Director of SEO inhouse, it is often up to you keep tabs on the different aspects of a websites, to ensure you can report things very quickly if your monitoring systems alert you or a fault, deficiency or issue
Make sure you verify everything in Google Search Console and communication promptly any issues you may identify. Being able to catch these things off before they cause you any real problems across the entire network, is essential to bullet-proofing your SEO.
In this step, you will be expected to come up with your standard operating procedures (SOPs) for SEO integration in all of your other functional units: UX, content, product, technical development…
You can think of this as the best practices that you need to share around with all the teams for implementation success of International SEO.
UX teams, and in particular information architects will welcome keyword research data that you may have, especially if it shows large demand for some products or services offered by the company that may have been missed through traditional UX processes such as card sorting, content inventory or user’s workgroups…
Similarly SEO best practice guidelines for technical development can be key in rolling out Multilanguage and multiregional SEO effectively. Things like avoiding auto-redirecting visitors and/or search engines based on their browser setting or IP addresses is something better brought up before it gets implemented.
When it comes to Product, it is also sensible to take part in the discussion around planning product development and when the right time pops up, bring up ideas, or proposals to implement things in a way to deliver better results globally, eg: appropriate schema markup.
Things like using a dedicated URL for each localised content variant.
10. Build the Case for International SEO
Once you have a blueprint of what you want to achieve with your international SEO efforts, it is essential to define how you will be managing your global SEO strategy. Think ahead and don’t try to limit yourself to a particular strategy. It is paramount to describe clearly the benefits for the business in the long term.
Feel free to try different things to determine what is working and what isn’t working. Document every step you take and the outcome so that you have a strong foundation to make sound decisions in the future.
Executing an your plan successfully is all about building a case for your SEO strategy. With buy in and approval from top management; resources, team support and SEO integration will follow.
Although it will still take some effort to ensure your Global SEO strategy is actually executed. Things slip often in large companies, so you may end up delving into having to use up your corporate SEO skills. The good news is that once you get approval, chasing up parties to respect, follow and implement the plan makes it easier.
11. Plan the Global SEO Training Plan
International SEO is a complex set of methodologies, processes and techniques, and so, you need to find a way of ensuring that your team is competent enough. This is where training comes in.
Before you go further into implementing your strategies, get some training for your global team in how to respect different cultures and customs.
Some of the training areas you will need to think of for your team are:
- culture training
- conducting international keyword research
- content optimization
- Outsourcing content
- Performing outreach
12. Find Champions and allies that will Support SEO
To succeed with this type of SEO, you will need to talk to the right people who have the keys to the international version of your company website and can readily authorize your changes to the site.
You will need their support and trust moving forward to build the case for SEO internally. This is where you need to put your communication skills to use. Make sure you are sending the right message across the organization, and everybody understands what you are trying to do.
In doing so, you will ensure that your appeal for resources is backed up by voice of the community (internally).
You will sure encounter challenges in your quest to scale to international markets, but finding a way of bringing the people who matter onboard will help you make that road easier to navigate.
13. Benchmark and Monitor Success for International SEO
In simple terms, benchmarking can be defined as a standard by which something is measured. Benchmarking in international SEO is a critical aspect of the process.
Keep in mind that your global SEO effort does not begin and end with the creation of the country subfolder for each key market.
Always strive to keep everything in check even if your site has already attained the top position in the SERPs for most geographic locations.
Benchmark your performance over a three to six month, or six to twelve period to gain valuable before-and-after perspective and insights.
Advice: do not over complicate it by building the ultimate dashboard that aims to track EVERYTHING
Gather your benchmark metrics, key performance indicators, and data points that you will use to evaluate your overall performance. These can be very different from project to project but broadly they can include:
- percentage of traffic from organic search per country
- average page load speed by regions, by content types…
- business leads generated per region
- time spent on the page, bounce rate, click-through rate,
- No. of backlinks acquired by region
- overall business performance by region upon implementation
This is perhaps the hardest part of the plan: finding a way to execute and track your to-do list effectively.
As a team leader, you need to find a way of integrating your SEO plans into existing processes, communicating the strategy, deliverables, and how-tos to the whole team and making sure the overall strategy fits well into existing project management efforts and methodology.
It is assumed that you have full management buy-in for your plan, costs approved and resources allocated. If this is at all unclear in anyway, then you are risking that the plan may end up bein unsuccessful. It’s very very important that you address this matter in its entirety early in the process.
If the current project management methodology within the organization is Agile, so your SEO plan will be. SEO integrates and thrives into the Agile methodology.
Structure your deadlines and milestones to adapt to this way of working where maximum impact vs. minimal effort kind of criteria needs to be taken into consideration.
Even if the overall project management methodology is being managed in a conventional Waterfall fashion, you need to structure your plan for international success to fit in.
In most cases, it will not be SEO that determines how development, marketing, and product work together. Instead, it is the other way round. Therefore, adapting your SEO strategy to the current working environment and methods is critical to long-term success.
Congratulate and share glory upon the whole team whenever success is achieved for any milestone and encourage them when something is not implemented 100% correctly. Basically, execution is largely about good project management, communication, and good team working karma.
If you have read through this guide up to this point, then you can agree with me that international SEO is much more than just translating copy. It involves understanding different cultures and trying to figure out how to localize your site to appeal before the eyes of your target audience.
When done right, international SEO goes beyond the core SEO metrics we monitor since it can help your brand establish a global brand. Remember the fact that new markets equate to new opportunities, but only the best strategies will prevail.
In my next articles, I will be digging deeper into some of the mentioned items to help you understand the concept of international SEO better. That is it for now, and good luck in your global SEO effort!
>> Other Resources
- International Search Summit, the only industry conference focused on International Search
- Aleyda’s International SEO Process and Tools
- A simple Guide to International SEO, by SEO Powersuite
- Google’s Managing Multi-regional and Multi-lingual sites
- SEMrush’s How to develop your International SEO Strategy
- International SEO Best Practices , by Moz