Your client has customers in other countries and/or does business overseas. They’re looking to capture this international traffic and have asked you, the SEO expert, how to do it. What do you tell them?
Like many SEO Consultants, you’re probably thinking, “time to do some International SEO!”
Though it may seem like a “foreign” concept to many SEOs, and certainly most business owners, international SEO doesn’t have to be complicated. When it comes to reaching audiences in cities and countries around the world, there are three basic areas that need to be addressed:
1. Develop an international SEO strategy
2. Optimizing the technical parts of your website for international SEO
3. Optimizing your international content to communicate clearly with each target audience
If you can handle these steps, then you’re well on your way to worldwide SERP domination.
First things first
As a content marketer, you might freeze up when anyone so much as mentions “HTML.” Between managing clients, designers, content audits and calendars, your plate is full enough as it is without to worry about coding.
As the resident technical SEO here at Digital Third Coast, it’s my job to help demystify important technical SEO concepts for our content managers. Breaking down SEO processes into simple, actionable to-do steps brings clarity to tech-speak.
So, that’s exactly what this article will cover: the exact steps we use at DTC to optimize our own client websites for international success!
Step 1: Develop your international SEO strategy
When looking to develop a client’s web presence in other countries, the first thing many SEOs and content marketers do is start thinking about the what and how of website optimization. WHAT content do I need and HOW do I optimize my website in a way that is search-engine friendly? While these are important questions, they’re looking at international SEO from the wrong perspective. Instead of starting with the what of international content, your strategy needs to target the why.
Establish client goals
Targeting the why means asking tough questions up front about a client’s goals with an international website. Before even thinking about design, you need to know who’s visiting and what keywords they’re already using to find your clients’ web content. By taking into consideration that each of the languages or countries targeted have a specific audience, competition, and industry behavior, you will remove redundant work when it comes to site structure and optimization.
Here are some questions to ask your clients:
- How do their products or services for other languages or countries differ from the ones of their main language or country versions?
- How do the keywords that describe their products or services differ in other languages or countries? (don’t make the mistake of assuming that a simple translation of your client’s keywords is sufficient!)
- How does their sector or industry seasonality differ from country and language? (think about specific cultural or geographic influenced festivities)
- What does the competitive landscape landscape look like for each country and language?
- On a more granular level, what is the search volume for target keywords in each country and language?
Whatever questions you ask, you need to go beyond merely translating your client’s existing content.
Find keyword opportunities
When thinking about potential keywords that would solidify your international web presence, consider the following: is the client’s website already getting visitors from other countries and languages?
Start with the Google Analytics “Demographics” report, which shows the locations and languages of current site visitors. This report will answer a lot of questions about international site visitors, such as:
- Do visitors from different countries and/or languages tend to buy different products and services?
- How do user engagement metrics differ between country and language?
- What types of content perform the best for each demographic?
By digging into the Demographics report, you’ll get an idea of which keywords are worth targeting in different languages and locations around the world.
The next step is to start the research for potential organic traffic volume, its behavior, keywords, and competitors in these international markets. If you don’t speak the language, it’s important to have a local native on hand to support you with this activity.
Most great keyword tools have an option to filter for keywords by location. Here are a few of my favorites for doing international keyword research:
- Google Adwords Keyword Planner. Once awesome, still awesome. The Google Keyword Tool is easy to use and filters by location at the city, county, state, province, and national levels.
- Ubersuggest. Great for finding uber-longtail keyword opportunities, Ubersuggest has an option to target by language and country.
- SEMrush is awesome for international SEO. With it, you can search for keywords by any country or language. It also helps with competitive research, revealing any keyword insights from your competition.
- Google Trends reveals seasonality and behavior over time for the most important keywords per country
- Google Global Market Finderis a bit older but still useful tool. It can help discover keywords and translate those keywords into other international markets. Further, it helps with the following:
- Automatically translates keywords into your clients’ language
- See where customers are searching for your product or service
- Compare keyword CPC estimates across languages and locations
- Honorary mention: Scrapebox. I love using Scrapebox for, among many things, finding a treasure trove of keywords. Scrapebox’s keyword scraper can target a handful of other countries:
Using these tools and others, together with your current visitors’ behavior, you should have a big list of keywords with tremendous international market potential.
Step 2: Optimize your website
With a developed strategy in place, you can confidently begin working on the technical SEO and structure of your client’s website.
Here’s a simple international SEO checklist for any website:
- Should you target countries or languages?
- Choosing a domain and URL: country code top level domains (ccTLDs) vs. subdomains vs. directories
- Set international targeting
i. Should you target countries or languages?
The correct answer is, it depends. For most clients, targeting countries is going to be the best approach.
How do they differ? Neil Patel addressed the differences in this recent Kiss Metrics post, How To Start Using International SEO.
Language targeting, though less common that country targeting, is a good approach to international SEO if the location of your client’s audience is not relevant to their content, product, or service offering.
This approach makes sense if your client is already getting visitors from around the world, all of whom speak the same language. This typically occurs in one of three scenarios:
- A particular product is purchased almost exclusively by speakers of a particular language, such as Germans who love to order Apfelschorle or Danes stocking up on Aquavit for Frokost
- Content and/or news that is of interest only to a certain demographic
- A service targets a specific language-speaking audience, such as a translation services business specializing in Russian translation
There are other cases where a language-targeted approach works, but those three are the most common.
Most international SEO clients will use country targeting for the simple fact that they will have physical locations in those countries, and that most countries have one or two dominant languages. Unless your client is selling unique products or services, it’s safe to assume that you should be targeting international visitors by country. For more a closer look at language and country targeting, check out Aleyda Solis’ in-depth guide at SEER.
ii. Choosing a domain and URL: country code top level domains (ccTLDs)> subdomains > directories
There is a lot of confusion in the SEO world when it comes to choosing a domain and URL to target international audiences. The short answer is this: ccTLDs (domain endings such as .CO.UK, .CA, .MX, etc) are better than subdomains which are better than directories.
Using Amazon as an example, let’s say Amazon wants to target users in Canada. Amazon.ca will get more Canadian visitors than ca.amazon.com, which will get more visitors than www.amazon.com/ca/. The reason for this is that Google prefers to display SERPs ending in .ca to people who conduct a search in Canada.
Further, ccTLDs still allow for the possibility of unique subdomains. Say, for example, that you have a US-based client who wishes to target the 40 million or so Spanish speakers in the United States. How would you go about doing this? First, the domain will be targeting US-based searchers, so it should end in .COM (or .NET or .ORG); using a .ES or .MX ccTLD is out of the question. However, since you’re using ccTLD country targeting, you are free to use subdomains!
The best URL to target Spanish speakers in the US would be: es.yourdomain.com (the “es” subdomain could be anything).
A great example of this is Essentra Specialty Tapes. Here you can see how they’ve set up different domains and subdomains:
Using this URL as an example: http://es.essentraspecialtytapes.com The Red Arrow points to the TLD, which corresponds to the location of the website visitors (in this case, visitors are in the United States), where as the Blue Arrow corresponds to the language (in this case, Spanish).
Essentra is properly targeting users in different countries by using different ccTLDs (.COM for the US, .CO.UK for Great Britain, .CN for China, .IN for India, and .PL for Poland).
If we go to Google.com and search for “Remo Two Transparente” (aka Remo Tape, a type of adhesive used for industrial manufacturing), here’s what shows up:
Notice how Google.com serves Spanish results to visitors searching from within the United States using a Spanish keyword. In other words, SEO success!
Using country targeting, subdomains for language, and properly tagging with hreflang, a relatively low authority site like Essentra can compete against big e-commerce stores like 3M and Amazon.
iii. Set international targeting with hreflang
If you look closely at Essentra’s source code in the example above, you’ll see a short HTML annotation called hreflang.
Though it may look and sound silly, the hreflang tag is a very simple and useful concept for international SEO. Both Google and the World Wide Web Consortium have resources explaining the hreflang tag and how to use it, but in a nutshell, the hreflang tag lets webmasters specify the language of a particular page.
Ultimately, it’s up to SEOs to test these implementations to make sure Google is serving the correct URLs to users. I recommend checking out David Sottimano’s hreflang guide for more examples of hreflang implementation in the wild.
Step 3: Localize your international content
By now you should have an international SEO strategy laid out, and your client’s website should be optimized in a way that will serve relevant content to visitors in your target language or country. Last but not least, the content itself needs to communicate directly with each target audience.
Content localization for international SEO
SEO can often feel like you’re spinning a thousand plates trying to keep Google happy. Even when you’ve checked everything off your SEO list, developing content that resonates with your target audience can be the most time-consuming element of international content marketing.
Culture comes in many forms and shapes on our thinking on many levels: our country, our community, or the organizations we join. We are not born with culture — it’s a learned attribute, and it encompasses everything from our customs, beliefs, values, and religion.
To sidestep cultural mishaps in your international content marketing, it’s important to create a plan that takes into consideration the unique culture of your target countries and languages. A cultural framework will distill these abstract concepts into a few categories. The following are some important areas to bear in mind when developing content:
When it comes to language, there are two forms of culture which marketers should be aware of: low- and high-context. In low-context cultures, the meaning of words is conveyed mostly-verbally (such as in the USA and Australia). This form of communication differs from high-context cultures, such as Japan, where non-verbal cues have greater significance.
Cultural context should influence the language and structure of your content. Further, it may change the tone and manner of dialogue between men and women.
Religion has a big impact on what’s considered passé in marketing. If your content offends a religious group, you or your client’s brand may come under attack. By learning about the religions of your target country and language, you can avoid a major PR debacle.
A great example of taking religion into consideration is China. On the Chinese calendar, 2007 was the Year of the Pig. To keep the country’s large Muslim population happy, the Chinese government banned all ads which depicted pigs.
These may differ considerably in otherwise related markets. Take, for example, sex. To protect the apparent “purity” of Japanese women, advertisers in Japan frequently employ light-skinned models for their marketing.
A big hurdle for international marketing and SEO is the shortage of software localization. For the purposes of keyword research, the tools listed above are more than enough. But for essential tools in your marketer’s toolbox, it may be worth it to hire a software localization company to translate the software for you. That said, just because your content is not in English doesn’t give you carte blanche to manipulate search engine algorithms.
It’s also important to consider where and how your audience conducts searches on the web. Chinese searchers tend to snub Google for Baidu, which uses a variety of different ranking factors.
So, where should you get started?
- First, talk to your clients and learn the behavior of their current visitors, so you know what content is doing well and what keywords to target in other countries and languages.
- Second, optimize your website for international SEO success. Use country code top level domains (ccTLDs) and the hreflang tag so Google knows to whom they should serve your content.
- Lastly, gain a deep understanding of your target audience’s culture. If a language is particularly complex, consider enlisting the help of a native speaker who knows the culture and customs, and who can, where necessary, make references to the local culture and popular culture of the country.
Make sure you have identified the core message and the most important aspects of the image you want to create of the company, and that these are translated and adapted in the right manner. If the image you want to create is clear both to you and to your team, the rest will come much easier.
Why Do All This?
Every language and country is unique, so your website and web content should reflect that. To establish a global web presence, develop awesome content in the languages spoken for your respective target audiences. To succeed with international SEO, brands will need to create a true content resources that speak to visitors across the globe.
Must-read international SEO content:
- A Guide to International SEO
- International SEO Checklist
- 7 Must-Check Factors when doing Technical SEO for International Sites
- International SEO and Culture
Danny Fries is a former SEO Analyst at Digital Third Coast, an SEO firm based in Chicago. Connect with Digital Third Coast on Google+.