SEO

International SEO: The Beginner’s Guide

Neil Sheth

3 May 2019

We were recently optimising the site of a clothing company for international SEO. Come the end of that 8-week project, I thought to myself, ’One day, I seriously have to write about the fascinating complexity underpinning international SEO on the blog.’

Well, here we are!

 

What is international SEO?

International SEO is the method of optimising a website in order that search engines can more effectively identify the countries and languages you wish to target.

 

When do you need to use international SEO?

If you are targeting people in countries other than your own, it may well be time to consider international SEO.

Let’s check out a quick example (nothing to send your brain into meltdown, I promise).

Apple sells iPhones the world over. They need to be able to sell their products in a plethora of currencies. Apple don’t want someone in the UK to land on the US version of their website.

 

Apple US Homepage

Apple UK Homepage

To help you get started, map out the countries and languages you wish to target.

This example highlights just how important it can be to serve an international audience in different regions and languages.

If you’re not sure what countries your customers are in, I recommend Google Analytics.

 

(Google Analytics > Benchmarking > Location)

What’s so cool about Google Analytics is that it helps you work out which aspects of your international SEO strategy to prioritise.

Look at the top 5 countries. We can immediately understand which languages are most important to our site.

United States: US English

United Kingdom: UK English

Canada: US English, French

Philippines: Philippine English, Filipino

China: Mandarin

By this point you should know whether you need to be doing international SEO. If you’re still unsure, you can always give me a shout.

 

How do you do international SEO?

Let’s take a look at some key aspects of international SEO you should be aware of when optimising your site.

 

International URL structure

On a sales call last week, a customer asked me whether I could explain to them — over the phone — how best to structure their website for SEO.

I sat back in my chair, had a sip of my coffee.  “No.”

It was a great question, as it highlighted the true complexity of SEO, something I have found many businesses underestimate. It can take weeks to define a structure — and that’s for a site that doesn’t even require international SEO optimisation.

Let’s focus on a few URL structures you can use to more effectively target a particular country.

 

Country code top-level domain (ccTLD): yourbrandfound.com

As described by Google, ccTLDs use 2-letter codes to indicate to users and search engines in which country, sovereign state or dependent territory a website is registered.

Pros

  • Clear signal to search engines of exactly where is being targeted
  • Relatively easy to set up

Cons

  • Requires more resources to manage SEO and maintain multiple websites
  • Reduces impact of SEO efforts across multiple websites
  • Limits speed of domain authority building

 

Subdomain: uk.yourbrandfound.com

A subdomain is a division of your domain in which you can organise specific countries.

Pros

  • Lower website maintenance compared to ccTLD

Cons

  • Requires more extensive international SEO setup
  • Dilutes domain authority

 

Subfolder: yourbrandfound.com/uk

A subfolder allows you to organise countries into particular secondary folders across the main domain.

Pros

  • Lower website maintenance compared to ccTLD
  • Keeps domain authority centralised to a single site

Cons

  • Requires more extensive international SEO setup

 

Different domain: yourbrandfound-us.com

This one is the easiest URL structure to explain. Simply set up a brand new domain name to target a particular country.

Pros

  • Relatively easy to set up
  • Makes it much easier to target a specific country

Cons

  • Requires more resources to manage SEO and maintain multiple websites
  • Reduces the impact of SEO efforts across multiple websites
  • Limits speed of domain authority building

 

Country and Language targeting

You can specify a mix of country and languages you wish to target using hreflang tags.

For instance, if a Germany-based user is searching for your products on Google in German, you would want to geo-target the German version of your site for this user.

In this example, the hreflang tag would look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/de” hreflang=”de-de”/>

Similarly, if a Germany-based user is searching for your products on Google in English, you would want them to find the version of your site that is written in English specifically for Germany-based users.

This time, the hreflang tag would look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-de” hreflang=”en-de”/>

Top tips

  • Target countries and languages that you have a significant chance of  thriving in before branching out across the globe
  • Completely localise the content across your website in the language of the region you are targeting, including the site navigation, contact form and phone number
  • Never translate your content using machine translations
  • Offer users the option of changing the language of the site — don’t force it upon them

 

Duplicate content

Creating multiple instances of webpages in different languages or for different regions can easily lead to duplicate content. This is bad.

To avoid it, pick the preferred master page and use canonical and hreflang tags to ensure that the correct language or regional URL is served to searchers.

When it comes to a website’s blog, avoid having to create a separate version for each region and language combination unless it is strongly justified by the specific location of that business unit.

 

Local link-building

If you want your site to rank in the UK, you need UK sites to link to the UK version of your site. This is referred to as multiregional or multilingual link acquisition.

Similarly, you should seek to ‘link out’ from your website to authoritative local resources.

 

Local search engines

If you’re targeting a country such as Russia or China, you will need to consider optimising the site for Yandex or Baidu respectively, as those are the most commonly used searches in those regions.

 

A whole world of SEO awaits…

In the realm of SEO, how to optimise for an international audience is one of the most hotly debated topics out there.

We’re working on an exciting international SEO project right now, where the existing site is not even fully optimised for national SEO. This, which needs to be corrected before even thinking about adding other regions. We thrive on this kind of stuff, as every client who comes to us presents a unique challenge based on a multitude of factors.

Whenever we help our clients with international SEO, we treat each country as a project unto itself. I recommend taking the same approach in order to avoid having specific regions or languages optimised ineffectively, or, worse still, not working at all.

International SEO can seem like a totally overwhelming concept, even to a seasoned digital strategist. I hope this guide has assuaged some of your worries by outlining the key aspects of international SEO. Remember, the solution to your international SEO strategy should be driven by your business’s businesses long-term needs. Don’t just prioritise what you think Google wants.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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