The job of a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) professional is certainly a varied and challenging one, with many factors to consider when optimising a website. These range from on-site SEO practices such as site architecture and URL structure all the way through to off-site SEO, more commonly referred to as link building.
So when you throw different countries and languages into the mix, it can be daunting to know where to begin. The good news is traditional SEO factors are still very much relevant for international SEO; there’s just a few other things to take into consideration to really make a website successful.
Like with any SEO campaign, the most important place to start is the research stage. To determine which keywords to optimise for in a particular territory, take a look at the major competitors to identify the keywords they are focusing on. Gather search volume data for those keywords to identify how much demand there is, but also think outside of the box, and identify additional keywords that have search volume but may not be being used by your competitors.
A key point to consider is that just because a website is successful in one country, it doesn’t mean it will be in another. You don’t want to spend time and money launching a website in a new country if there simply isn’t the demand for what you’re offering, so be thorough in your research. It’s also important to remember that every market is different, so what’s popular in one country may be unpopular in another. Identify what your target audience like to see in each country so that you can plan your content strategy.
International Domain Strategy
One of the most important decisions SEOs are faced with when launching a website in a new territory is what to do with the domain. There are a few paths you can take which all have their own pros and cons:
- Use local TLDs (top level domains) e.g. www.example.de
- Use subfolders e.g. www.example.com/de
- Use subdomains e.g. de.example.com
Using a local TLD is first and foremost good for users, as a local domain is generally more recognisable to native searchers and so could lead to increased conversion from the SERPs. Using a TLD also means you can be very targeted and send clear signals to a search engine that a website is intended for a specific geographical target. However, using TLDs means you need a separate link building strategy for each domain, which means you need plenty of resource, time and money. Amazon has gone down the TLD route for their websites, meaning they have a separate website for each territory they operate in.
The major benefit of going down the sub-folders approach is you don’t need a separate link building strategy for each territory, as they are all housed on the same domain. By having each territory in its own sub-folder on one domain, any authority built from high-quality links will be shared across the whole domain, meaning all territories benefit. Apple use sub-folders (e.g. www.apple.com/uk) but typically this approach is taken by smaller brands that don’t have the resource or money to launch TLDs. One important thing to note if you want to go down the sub-folders route – ensure you have a globally recognised domain like a .com, as this will be your domain for all countries.
Probably the least beneficial domain strategy for international SEO is sub-domains. Using sub-domains for international SEO can have its advantages – most notably with geo-targeting, as you can host sub-domains on different servers to your root domain, so a search engine will identify that a sub-domain is hosted in a specific country. Sub-domains are no longer perceived as separate websites by the likes of Google, so I’d personally go down the sub-folders route if you want to have all territories on one domain.
So you’ve identified there’s a market, researched your keywords and chosen your domain. A good start, but there’s still plenty to do. Your content strategy should come next. If you work in SEO, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase 'content is king', so don’t make the fundamental mistake of translating existing content word-for-word and thinking that will do. Content needs to be unique and produced by a native speaker so that it connects with the target audience. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
Geographic targeting is another factor you need to consider with international SEO. Both Google Webmaster Tools and Bing’s equivalent have a very handy geographic target setting, meaning you can easily tell the search engines which territory your site is for.
For Google, you can also implement hreflang annotations, which I’d highly recommend. This helps Google serve the correct language or regional URL to searchers. Hreflang can either be implemented on a page-by-page basis in your website’s code, or via an XML sitemap. If you need some help with finding the correct language and region code for a country, this tool will do just the trick.
One thing to avoid with geo-targeting is IP redirection. For example, just because a user from the US comes to your UK site, don’t automatically redirect them to your US site. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, Google typically crawls from a US IP, so if you’re redirecting users, you’re also redirecting Google. That means you risk your UK site not being crawled and therefore indexed. Secondly, redirecting a user is very obtrusive. You’re much better using IP detection to make a user aware that there might be a better site for them. Amazon does a great job of this via a simple banner, which doesn’t get in the way of the user’s experience:
Tracking your performance is another vital stage to the international SEO process, just like with traditional SEO campaigns. Ensure you set-up independent Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics profiles (or on other software if you prefer), so that you can analyse data for each site individually. This is vital to understand what might be working for your site and what isn’t.
I’d also recommend setting up separate keyword ranking reports for each country you operate in. With (not provided) approaching 100% for some websites, this will allow you to see how you’re doing in the SERPs. Don’t fret if you experience ranking fluctuations with a new website – if you’ve got a new domain it can take some time before rankings stabilise, so plan for the long-term.
So with the on-site work in place, you now need to turn your attention to link building. A good place to start is analysing the back-link profiles of your competitors, and Open Site Explorer is a great tool for doing this. Not only will this help you to find current link opportunities, but it should also help you to identify the type of websites that you can target.
Tools like Google Alerts, Fresh Web Explorer and Talkwalker Alerts are also invaluable, as you can receive alerts for any keyword directly into your inbox. You might want to set this up for brand mentions so that you can chase a site that has mentioned your brand but not linked, and also mentions of your competitors to see if there are opportunities you can jump on in real-time. Setting up alerts for content ideas also will allow you to identify opportunities and how much noise is being made about a subject.
When it comes to producing your own content, consider if you could localise it for other regions and languages. This may be time-consuming but potentially means you can have one piece of content that is suitable for many territories. Use tools like Followerwonk to identify key players in your industry, as they are the people you want to get your content in front of.
Like with any SEO campaign, you want a varied link profile so don’t just focus on one tactic. For example, don’t just do guest posting. Produce content for users first and foremost, and the link benefit should then follow.