You have a booming business in your local or national market. You have a website for the business and thanks to your astute local and domestic SEO tactics, the website ranks above most, if not all, of your competition. Your use of localized keywords is impeccable, you’ve created a diverse backlink profile, and your domain authority is up there with industry leaders. You have everything figured out.
Now that you’ve aced the domestic SEO game, you want to move out of your comfort zone. You want to expand your business to international markets. You now need to learn how to do SEO for international clients. But then, you’ve realized that this is the point where SEO becomes technical, confusing, and difficult. This article will help you with that.
The basics of international SEO are similar to domestic SEO, except that instead of targeting a local audience that probably speaks the same language and shares almost the same shopping behaviors, international SEO targets clients from multiple countries; people with diverse cultures and who speak different languages.
• In international SEO, you have to optimize your website for multiple search engines (not just Google) in order to create the best experience for all of your international visitors. Not everyone in the world uses Google, after all.
• International SEO should be as invisible to users as possible. It should just help search engines to know how relevant your content is to the right people, in their language, so that the engines can rank it highly within the intended region. If it is visible to users, that means you are overdoing it and it can work against you.
Blurb is a self-publishing platform that provides content developers with book-making tools to publish their content, especially e-books, and then digitally promote, share, and sell whatever they publish. For the longest time, Blurb relied on paid search to dominate search engine results in the United States. That worked until the company needed to tighten their grip of international clients; a world where organic search market is dominant. They had to review their international SEO strategy.
In strategic consultation with SEO experts, Blurb started by analyzing the SEO strategies for different international competitors as well as country-specific SEO needs. That data helped the company to design workable user interface and content marketing strategies, and consequently improve user experience, site performance, and conversion.
One notable change that Blurb made to their international SEO plan was transitioning from subdomains to Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs). We shall look into how ccTDLs impact international SEO later in this article. Another change was thorough research for and increased optimization of top keywords for all international domains. This transition helped Blurb increase country-specific domain and SEO authority, achieve more organic search visibility, rank in the top searches across their target base, get more organic traffic, and ultimately generate more sales. According to Blast Analytics, Blurb’s SEO partner, Blurb registered a 174% growth in international traffic as a result.
How to Improve Your International SEO Strategy
Just like Blurb, you want your website to not only rise to the top of search results in your target countries but also have optimal conversion rates. With the diversity that comes with an international client base, especially in terms of cultural norms and languages, creating and implementing a foolproof international SEO program will require all of your domestic SEO knowledge, plus these 4 additional tactics:
1. Research about international clients’ behavior
Your international SEO strategy must include your company’s priorities and goals for as many clients in each targeted region, country, and/or language. Your research, therefore, has to be more thorough and better structured than in domestic SEO. Among other things, you need to research about:
i) The current status of your international organic search
If you already have a few international visitors coming to your website, start by analyzing their behavioral trends, where they are from, and which languages they speak. That will give you a clear idea of your international search engine potential as of now, and which countries and language markets you should prioritize when designing your international SEO strategy.
ii) Keyword research
There are tons of free online tools that will help you evaluate the most appropriate keywords to target in your chosen language/country markets. The Google Keyword Planner tool is one such tool. Note that searchers in different regions will not necessarily use the same keywords to find your website even if they speak the same language(s). Potential clients in Australia, for example, will not use the same keywords as clients in the US or England despite the fact that they all speak English.
iii) Conduct competitor research
Of the most appropriate localized keywords you discovered in (ii) above, use a rank tracking tool to research which businesses have optimized the same keywords. Search for each keyword one-by-one on different search engines and note the websites that keep appearing in the top 10 results. Those are your competitors.
After earmarking your competitors, research which other keywords are helping them to rank; any keyword that doesn’t overlap with your target keywords but is worth your consideration. Research how the competitors do their SEO, including what kind of domain URL structure they use, what works for them and what needs improvement, how they develop their content (both visual and static content), their on-page optimization tactics, and their overall site structure. That will give you an idea of what needs to be done to rise above the competition.
2. Localize your content
Translating your webpages into multiple languages is not enough to attract international traffic– you have to provide your target audiences with content that suits their needs perfectly. That means using the currency, phone numbers, slangs, references, and images/videos that each target audience can relate with.
Your web design must also reflect the cultural norms of the target market. It matters a lot how you apply color, layout, and style of humor in your layout and content.
3. Decide your site structure for language/region-specific webpages
Your international SEO plan will achieve optimal success if and only if you use the right URL structure. A wrong structure will make it hard for searchers to discover your website.
Your URL structure options are 2:
i) Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD)
A ccTLD tells search engines the exact country, territory, kingdom, or sovereign state that the content in a given website is intended; where people who need to see the content reside. You will recognize a ccTLD structure by the additional letters that are placed after the final period of a URL or domain name. Here are a few examples:
• http://www.internationalseo.fr (the letters “fr” are the country code for France)
• http://www.internationalseo.co.uk (the letters “uk” are country code for the United Kingdom)
When you use a ccTLD in some of your webpage URLs, you are basically telling search engines that all the content on the webpages is relevant to every searcher residing in the targeted geographic area.
There are few shortcomings of ccTLDs that you should be aware of:
• Search engine algorithms see two webpages of the same main website but with different ccTLDs as two entirely different websites. That means when one webpage get any link equity, the equity does not extend to the other webpage. Say, for example, your site is www.internationalseo.com and you have restructured it for both French and German audiences. That means one page will become www.internationalseo.fr (for France) and the other one www.internationalseo.de (for Germany). They will have the same content (different languages), you own them both, but you will need to build up the authority of each ccTLD separately.
• ccTLDs do not target languages. That is to mean that if you are targeting a country that has multiple official languages, ccTLDs might work against you. Take Canada, for example. If your page is http://www.internationalseo.ca, and the content therein is in English, Canadians who are more comfortable using French than English will hardly find value in your website even when it ranks at the top.
• Registering a ccTLD will sometimes require you to be a citizen of the target country (or at least be affiliated to the country in some way), which can make it expensive to purchase and maintain all of the ccTLDs that you need for your international SEO.
ii) Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD)
These are the generic domain extensions such as .com, .net, and .org. Each extension comes with its unique set of requirements, so you need to familiarize with them before choosing the right extension for your webpages.
As the term generic suggests, gTLDs do not single out a country or geographic designation. They target all searchers, both nationally and internationally, and that neutralizes the 3 shortcomings of ccTLDs. On the flip side, it is harder to target specific users while using gTLDs as compared to ccTLDs.
Subdomain or Subdirectory: What They Are & How They Affect International SEO?
If you opt for gTLDs, you need to choose either a subdomain or a subdirectory for your URL.
• A subdomain divides up your website into multiple sections so you can assign specific content to each subdomain (subdivision), content that is distinct from your root domain. If you have a blog section in your www.internationalseo.com website, for example, the “blog” subdomain will appear before the domain name so that its URL reads: blog.internationalseo.com.
• A subdirectory is a pathway that branches off from the site’s main domain. In the above example, the URL would read: www.internationalseo.com/blog. Being a pathway from the main domain means that the link authority your core website content commands will be transferred to each of the subdirectories you create.
Subdomains are great for international SEO because they offer the granularity needed to target users by language and region. If you are targeting a German and an English audience, for example, it would be more appealing to have an “en.internationalseo.com” subdomain for English searchers and a separate “de.internationalseo.com” subdomain for German searchers, rather than to list English and German as subdirectories. Subdomains will even allow you to target specific regions within a country, e.g. orangecounty.internationalseo.com when targeting searchers in Orange County, United States. What’s more, Google ranking algorithm can recognize subdomains as extensions of parent domains, so it is nearly impossible for them to confuse subdomains for entirely different sites from the root domain.
However, if you intend to optimize pages for the same keywords on your main site and subdomains, you may want to reconsider your choices. Sometimes subdomains can be considered by Google crawlers to be different sites from your root domain (not common but it happens), and that could mean that your two pages will be competing against one another for the same set of keywords. In such a case, opting for subdirectories would be the better option. But then, are you sure you want to optimize the same keywords for different subdomains that target different audiences? Maybe not!
4. Choose your technical signals for international SEO
Here are 2 key technical signals that will tell search engines what country and language your content is relevant to:
i) HrefLang Tags
As much as you should optimize different keywords for different audiences, sometimes you cannot avoid using almost identical content for audiences that speak the same language but reside in different regions. Think of French speakers in France and French speakers in West Africa, or Portuguese speakers in Portugal and Portuguese speakers in Brazil.
Hreflang tags help search engine algorithms to distinguish between two pages with almost identical content but that are intended for two different audiences. Note that without these tags, Google and other search engines may punish you for duplicating content (that can easily be mistaken for black hat SEO).
ii) Meta Content Language Tags
The Meta Content Language tags tell search engines which language your content is written in, so they display it for people in countries where the language is dominant. The tags aren’t as important as hreflang tags, but they can be a great addition to your international SEO plan.
International SEO matters because over 90% of the global e-commerce happens outside the United States. Also, English speakers account for less than 30% of the global population, a figure that would greatly reduce if you removed speakers who use English as a second or third language. International SEO is, therefore, your only route into the Americas, African, Non-English European, ASEAN, and the Middle Eastern markets. The tips above will help you optimize your prospects for international success.