If you’re selling products or services online internationally, you’re going to need a localized website to engage with your customers in their own language. But your go-to-market strategy doesn’t stop at website localization – you’ll also need to implement an international SEO strategy to rank well on search engines in local markets in order to drive traffic to your site and increase sales.
International SEO adds an additional level of complexity to your localized website which takes into account the unique cultural, linguistic and technical requirements needed for local search engines to serve the right pages on your website in search results for the relevant market. Without an effective international strategy for SEO, you’ll most likely fail to reach your target audience, and jeopardize your ambitions for global expansion.
In this article, we put together a list of the main things to consider to increase the likelihood that your website will rank well in your chosen market:
- Identify your market approach
- Choose the right domain and URL structure
- Localize and research your keywords
- Create content that’s relevant to audiences in local markets
- Include the relevant tags on your multilingual web pages
- Monitor, measure, and optimize
Identify your market approach
A good international SEO strategy should be scalable but still allow for local market adaptation since an approach that’s successful in one market is not necessarily the best approach for another.
It really depends on your business and target customers. If, for example, you offer the same products or services worldwide to different language audiences, then a language-based segmentation approach is probably sufficient. Microsoft takes this approach as its product offering is essentially the same across all markets. As a result, content on its website is the same in each language and hosted in subfolders on a single domain.
But if you’re taking a very different brand proposition into each national market, offering a customized product range (for an eCommerce brand for example), or operating in unique regulatory environments in each market, then you’ll most probably need to approach each country separately and might need to have dedicated country websites.
Choose the right domain and URL structure
Before selecting a domain for your brand, make sure to work with an agency with experience in the local market and in-country, native-speaking experts to ensure that your chosen brand name and domain will elicit the desired brand associations and response from local consumers.
If you’re using more than one word in your chosen domain name, make sure they work well together and can’t be misread to form new words that could cause embarrassment and derail your brand marketing efforts.
For example, UK visitors to the electronics recycling service IT Scrap were amused by their chosen domain name (itscrap.com) and Les Bocages’ chosen domain (lesbocages.com) also raised a few eyebrows. And it’s not just small businesses that get this wrong. Powergen, the energy company owned by E.on in the UK, chose the hilarious domain name (powergenitalia.com) for their Italian expansion which was also met with ridicule.
All of these domains have since been retired or redirected but the examples in English serve as reminders to the complexity of brand and domain name selection when dealing with multiple languages and territories – particularly when you take into account local slang and idioms.
Once you’ve selected an appropriate name, it’s important to think about your domain and URL structures and get the setup that best suits your local market approach. Your chosen URL structure can have a huge impact on local search engine rankings
If you’re taking the market-targeted approach, then having a Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) may work best for your business. For instance, domains like yourbrand.es and yourbrand.fr send signals to search engines that these sites should be served to users located in Spain and France.
However, as ccTLDs are separate domains, this strategy is typically the most resource expensive and time-consuming to set up and manage; and commonly used by established brands that have the time and resources to develop and maintain separate websites.
You’ll need to create a separate digital PR and link building strategy for each domain, and develop a content marketing approach for each market as you won’t be able to carry over any link acquisition efforts or domain authority acquired from off-site activity on other web properties.
For sites operating on a single domain, subdirectories (or subfolders) can be used when the location of your audience won’t have a direct impact on the product, service or website goals. This is typically for businesses who might want to target users in the same market where multiple languages are spoken or in a geographical region where two or more countries speak the same language – for instance, Spanish-speaking Latin America.
If you have a website in the US, for instance, you’ll benefit by displaying content for English-speaking audiences on yourbrand.com and put content for Spanish-speaking audiences in the US on yourbrand.com/es-us/.
It’s always best to take a prudent approach when dealing with subdirectories to avoid any ambiguity when it comes to language vs. target location. Using Google Search Console to associate each language site or subdirectory with a specific geo-location, provides a clear signal to Google as to where your content should be served.
By creating subdirectories under one domain, marketers have the benefit of focusing all their SEO resources on the root domain allowing subdirectories to benefit from the root domain’s authority.
Subdirectories are typically more cost-effective in terms of hosting and domain costs, but you should err on the side of caution when site speed is concerned. If your site is hosted in the UK but you’re receiving a lot of traffic from Korea, your Korean users may experience slower page load times than users who are closer to where your site is hosted.
Finally, there are subdomains (or third-level domains), for example, fr.yourbrand.com. Localized content is placed on a separate subdomain which can be hosted on servers physically located in the target market. Although you’ll be able to use Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools for location targeting, you won’t be able to reap all of the benefits of domain authority acquired by your root domain. This means implementing separate link building strategies for each subdomain.
If targeting customers outside Western markets is part of your long-term strategy, it would be wise to consider which type of domain and URL structure works best for the most popular search engines in these markets. Baidu, China’s preferred search engine, is reluctant to serve content in its SERPs that isn’t on a Chinese country code top level domain (ccTLD). In this instance, a .cn ccTLD would be the most appropriate way to go in this market.
To decide your local-level strategy, the first thing to do is to assess current performance based on your current audience’s language and location. It’s unlikely you’ll be entering the market from the basis of zero local search traffic.
Start by looking at existing organic traffic from that territory and that language set to see how keywords are performing currently. Then, check what language is currently being used to view your content. Google Analytics allows you to segment your visitors by location and helps you understand the language your users set in their browsers. This could provide a clue as to which language you need to focus on.
But use your judgment. It may be the case that English-speaking locals or expats are accessing your content, but the wider local language population doesn’t have the same level of brand awareness or source-language fluency.
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Localize and research your keywords
Once you’ve decided the language orientation in your target market, it’s time to think about your keywords for each market. If you’re not optimizing your content (including service pages, product descriptions or blog content) with the right localized keywords for your target market, it’s much less likely that users will find your product or services in the local SERPs.
If you already have a wide selection of English keywords, it would be wise not to use machine translation services such as Google Translate. Your goal is to ensure your localized keywords are as culturally relevant as possible; machine translation quality doesn’t meet the standard in this context. Machine translation also fairs poorly contextually when the same word means different things or local search behavior shows users using hybrid language such as local language combined with English search terms.
Furthermore, it will likely have a negative impact on your SEO efforts and compromise the credibility of your website as Google considers machine-translated content as automatically generated content. And even if you managed to avoid being penalized, as your machine-translated keywords aren’t guaranteed to be relevant in your target market, there’s a high chance it won’t rank very well in the first place.
You’re better off partnering with an in-country linguist or language service provider with the relevant linguistic and cultural expertise to ensure your keywords are localized to match the most relevant search queries for your product or service in your target market. You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to translate your metadata. Elements such as page titles and meta descriptions are important to get right as these influence rankings and click-through rates.
If you plan to localize your keywords in-house, Google’s Keyword Planner allows you to identify search query volumes in over 100 countries, with the ability to choose from over 40 languages.
As previously mentioned, not all territories outside the West use Google as their preferred search engine. So be sure to identify which search engines are the most popular in non-Western markets to ascertain how you will conduct keyword research and measure your performance against local competitors and their relative positions for target keywords in the relevant search engine.
Yandex, for example, dominates in Russia and Baidu in China. Both search engines have their own keyword planner tools which can be used to understand search query volumes for their respective markets.
Create content that’s relevant to audiences in local markets
Transcreating content is a common practice used by brands to ensure their content is culturally relevant. Keyword research can also be used to determine the level of interest in your products or services to identify opportunities to create unique content for each market. Google Trends is also a useful tool in determining break-out search queries in your niche that’ll help you decide on topics for locally relevant and timely content.
Take Tui for example. As the world’s largest leisure, travel, and tourism company in the world, the company operates in 11 countries with 12 local language websites. As a result, the Anglo-German travel company produces unique content on its homepages for each market. The UK site leads with content featuring destinations for couples, Croatia, and Cyprus; its German website leads with destinations for couples, Egypt, and Turkey; and its Spanish website focuses on content closer to home with destinations including Tenerife, Lisbon, and Fuerteventura.
While you may identify local trends within your original keyword research, local competitor sites and industry publications that focus on international markets can hold further clues to identifying other local search behaviors that could be worth including in your keyword research.
If you’re launching a beauty brand in China, for example, conducting keyword research that taps into growing trends such as niche beauty products or male beauty products could provide further opportunities to create bespoke local content.
Furthermore, China is a tremendously fragmented market for consumer products, especially when you consider its city-tier structure. What might be popular in one city may not be in another. Understanding consumer behavior at this level could provide a plethora of additional opportunities for content micro-targeting. Even if you are talking about a small percentage of consumers, due to the sheer size of the country, it is likely to be significant.
It’s these subtle caveats that you should be looking out for to better inform your marketing teams for new opportunities to position your brand’s content effectively in local markets.
Tag your multilingual web pages
Search engine algorithms may seem sophisticated enough to identify localized sites but they don’t always get it right and sometimes need a helping hand. This is where additional metadata for your HTML pages might be required.
For example, if you have UK and US versions of your site, you’ll also want to be cautious about how you’re tagging content to make it clear to search engines that they are not copies of one another. You certainly don’t want to be penalized for duplicate content!
Using the hreflang HTML annotation on each page lets search engines know the exact language and country for each page and identifies the unique relationship between content that has been localized in different languages and the territories they’re intended for.
If you’ve created content that’s localized from English to German, implementing on-page markup in the following way signals to search engines to serve the German-language version of your sire to users with a German IP address or German set as their browser language:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.de/” hreflang=”de”/>
If you want to differentiate between language and location, for example, you want search engines to serve the French-language version of your site to Canadian users with a Canadian IP address but their browser language set up as Canadian French, you would use the following on-page markup:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.fr/” hreflang=”fr-ca”/>
Along with hreflang tags, you should also extend your efforts to make it clear that specific pages are meant for a particular audience. Other SEO factors have the potential to override hreflang attributes which have known to cause different versions of pages to rank higher.
Ensure that you’re including local addresses, phone numbers, currencies, time zones as well as hreflang lags and search-friendly URL structures to avoid this.
Monitor, measure, and optimize
The last step in your international SEO strategy is to find a way to measure and monitor your performance in order to effectively report back to stakeholders within your business and adjust your approach to improve long-term performance.
Google and Bing both provide free tools to measure performance and identify any errors on your site in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools which are useful to see how these search engines are crawling and indexing your sites. You’ll most likely also need to use other SEO tools to monitor your keyword rankings in different search engines so make sure to select one that supports all of the territories and language versions you’re targeting.
It’s important to separate out each language or country from the data stream and report on their individual performance. Then see how each KPI is performing for each audience and suggest strategic changes based on that information. For sanity’s sake, tie it all into your business goals and wider marketing communications strategy.
Remember to use the information you gain to improve what you do in future to get better results for each audience and better bang for your buck in all the markets you’re in.
Although there are hundreds of tools to analyze your international SEO efforts, we advise contacting an SEO professional with experience in multiple markets before developing your SEO strategy and allocating resources to paid SEO software.
If you’re embarking on a website localization project or need an international SEO service for your website, our in-house SEO experts can help you increase website traffic and conversion rates from global audiences. Contact us to find out more.