International SEO Guide
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If your business sells products internationally, it’s likely that you have a website – and it’s likely that you want that website to work in all of your target markets. Unfortunately, this is where some businesses fall short: international SEO can be seen as quite complex and can be a source of much frustration for many companies.
My aim is to demystify the topic and help to clarify what needs to be done in order to open up your site to new markets and nail international SEO the first time around, without making some fatal and potentially very expensive mistakes. That means that this is a relatively long read, so please grab a coffee and get comfy.
Here's an overview of what you'll learn today:
Important considerations before you start optimizing for international markets
Options for structuring international websites for SEO
How to do keyword research for international SEO
Technical signals for international SEO
Geo-targeting for international SEO
Local listings optimization
International link building
NB: It’s not always necessary to have an entire new website or subdirectory per country, but the decision needs to be carefully thought through. If you create a specific landing page for a Spanish market and the rest of the site is in English, you might disillusion the audience you were trying to target. It is necessary to consider the extent of the demand and the requirement for a potential new site/subfolder for specific territories and/or languages.
Is Your Business Ready to Expand to New Markets?
Before diving into the technicalities, there are a couple of infrastructural considerations that I’d like to address, as I have seen businesses unfortunately forget to acknowledge these, which has led to some teething problems that international SEO alone could not address.
Is there definitely a market for your products or services in the countries you are looking to target? I realise that this may seem like a pretty condescending question; however, I’ve worked with some businesses that thought their target country was in dire need of their offering, and it turns out they didn't, or simply weren’t buying those products or services online. Cue a very expensive failure – so it’s definitely a question that needs to be asked and researched thoroughly. Google’s got a tool that can help you do this, but i’d definitely recommend doing some thorough research in this arena.
You’ll also want to scope out the competition abroad: What is their offering and how do they market themselves? Why is your product better than theirs? Crucially, if it’s not, make it so. Look at what they’re doing, and do it better: your website, USPs, strategy etc. all of these need to exceed theirs as they potentially have the advantage of being local.
Are You Ready Logistically?
If you’re trying to sell products or services in foreign markets, you need to be ready for trading and have that process really nailed down: you need to be able to handle enquiries, calls, business prospects, complaints and all. This means you’ll need appropriate local distributors, phone numbers, native speakers to handle calls and emails, international delivery times and costs etc. It all needs to be seamless and efficient, as local reviews will be key.
Language plays a significant factor in the development of an individual’s personality, outlook on the world and perception of themselves. Don’t believe me? I dare you to call a Basque person French or Spanish, I guarantee you’ll witness some of that Mediterranean passion.
In terms of setting up your website for foreign markets, I’d highly recommend that your website actually be in that language (unless of course you’re trying to target English speakers in that country… but that’s another story). Again, this seems self explanatory, but I’ve seen websites meant to target French or German markets either written exclusively in English or, even worse, a jumbled up mess of both, with homepages in the native tongue but product pages in English. Be thorough and be consistent: speak their language.
Additionally, avoid Google Translate as much as possible. It’s great when you need to order a beer in pidgin Portuguese, but to effectively communicate with people about your IT software, it just doesn’t cut the mustard. Imagine translating that last sentence, it just wouldn’t make sense: idioms cannot be translated literally. Not only does content need to be translated, it needs to be localised.
Finally, individuals and businesses in this new market will likely have different issues and needs than your current one, so make sure you address these in your copy to make the content on your site as engaging, relevant and compelling as possible to the market you’re trying to attract. This basically means that you need to communicate your business’s value in their own terms.
There are, of course, more infrastructural considerations, but I think these are key to begin with. Now for the techy stuff.
The International SEO Guide
Although a pretty technical topic in some senses, international SEO doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just needs to be done right. Here’s my attempt at simplifying it for you, and making sure that if you’re building a website to target a certain country, it can be found in the relevant search engines. Without telling a search engine that you’d like to target a specific country, it cannot know, even if you’ve written your content in that specific language. You need to explicitly guide search engine bots to crawl and index your content in the right territory. This is what international SEO is.
Firstly, searches and search volumes are not universal: by this I mean that although your main target keywords get a certain amount of searches at home, they may not do so abroad. Hence why keyword research and competitor research are necessary in the relevant language and location. SEMRush is particularly good for this – here’s their guide on researching your core terms for new markets.
Secondly, you will want to assess if you’re already getting traffic from certain territories or not. To find out, use Google Analytics to check your current traffic from other countries and languages using the Geo > Location tab, within the “Audience” section.
In the example above, the website in question is getting traffic from multiple regions, despite not being explicitly set up to target those countries, which is encouraging if they were to target some of those regions specifically – at which point the levels of traffic would increase substantially as the site would be developed to target them deliberately.
Thirdly, although Google may be king at home, it may not be abroad:
There are more exceptions, but this graph already highlights that Google is not the dominant search engine in China (dominated by Baidu, as are other countries in South East Asia), Russia (Yandex – as are some Eastern European countries) and Japan (where Baidu, Bing and Naver are pretty big). To see what search engines are used in countries around the world, use this handy website to do some research, it’ll help you focus your efforts, as optimising for Google is not necessarily the same as optimising for Baidu (although there is a lot of crossover).
Now that you’ve done the research, we can actually crack on to doing it, so without further ado, here is how to technically structure a website to win the international SEO game.
Website Structure Choices for International SEO
When you’re building websites for international markets, there are three main website structure options to choose from: country-coded top-level domains (ccTLDs), subdomains and subdirectories.
Option 1: CCTLDs
This option gives out the strongest geo-targeting signals to search engines and means that your server location becomes less of an issue. With zero doubt left as to which country you’re trying to target, it establishes trust in both search engines and people (when they see a domain contains their country code, they are pretty certain that your services are available to them).
This strategy is absolutely perfect for any businesses that are only considering targeting 2 or 3 countries – remember that I said countries rather than languages – if you’re aiming to target a language, subdirectories or subfolders are better.
If you’re trying to target more countries, I wouldn’t recommend it as it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare and you’ll end up incurring some pretty hefty (and unnecessary) costs, what with buying domains, hosting each one, making sure server locations are appropriate etc.
Here are the cons to this route:
As I’ve just said, it can be a very costly option if you’re trying to target a lot of countries, and a struggle in terms of resources (imagine doing SEO work on 15 websites). You might even run into some issues regarding some unavailable domain names and have to look for alternatives.
In terms of link building – which we all know to be a vital SEO factor – it means that you now have to build links to multiple sites as your domain authority will be split between each domain. Link building is hard enough with one site, imagine with ten! If you don't have a digital marketing team who is hot on this topic, I'd avoid this option.
Option 2: Subdomains
You may have seen this before, for example: http://fr.example.com. So essentially, it uses a generic Top Level Domain Name (gTLD), with a country (or language) specific subdomain.
The benefits of doing this:
They are easy to set up
This option offers hosting flexibility
It sends the right geo-targeting signals to search engines
However, I’m personally not that keen on this option as subdomains are less trustworthy (to customers), not super user-friendly and also split your domain authority in the same way that CCTLDs do.
Option 3: Subdirectories
If you’re aiming to target territories where more than one language is spoken (think Switzerland for instance), you will need a structure that includes both country and language subdirectories (so with the Switzerland example, https://www.example.com/fr-ch/, https://www.example.com/it-ch/, https://www.example.com/de-ch/ and https://www.example.com/rm-ch/ if you were to target all languages spoken there).
This is a great option, as it allows you to consolidate all of your link building efforts (the domain authority of the main site is built alongside that of the subdirectories) and it's easy to set up and allows you to have a platform to build on, should you need to add more subdirectories in time when/if you grow to other markets. It also means that if you update your sites, all of the redirects are in one ht.access file on one site rather than needing to do them for multiple sites. Remember that subdirectories do not necessarily need to include all of the pages on your main site, they could include homepage, product/service pages, a blog section for that country and contact forms etc. without necessarily requiring everything else that is on your main site – this entirely depends on you though.
Compared to CCTLDs, subfolders don’t send such strong international signals, but many companies do this as it does work – and you can send signals in other places (Google Search Console, schema markup, Bing Webmaster Tools, citation building etc.) that more than make up for it, as long as you’re diligent and consistent.
Another slight con: there is only one single server location (then again, a lot of sites that use CCTLDs don’t always host their sites on relevant servers anyway). A site with subfolders also opens up the question of what should or should not be included in the homepage, and how to send strong signals to show that your business and website is international – personally, I see this as more of a design challenge.
If it were me, I'd go for the following options:
CCTLDs if I were only trying to target two or three countries and knew with absolute certainty that that’s all I’d ever need/want to target, and had a strong marketing team that could tackle all the challenges that come with having multiple sites.
Subdomains if I were trying to target more global markets: I just think that it’s much easier/cheaper and less confusing to set up than having a ton of websites – as well as not requiring you to have to build links to a multitude of sites. Huge international businesses do this, such as Apple, Zara, and Microsoft.
Once you've decided on the best website structure for your business, specified what you want to achieve to your web developers (who will also need to consider what kind of design to go for depending on the market you’re trying to target) and translated your content effectively, you'll need to start doing keyword research.
International Keyword Research
As I previously mentioned, remember not to use literal translations as they won’t always be accurate or relevant and they may not even be what your target audience are looking for – hence the importance of ensuring that a native speaker with some experience in the industry you work in has checked them out. Also look at what terms your competitors are using in those countries – this can help fine-tune your own research.
As noted above, SEMRush is a great tool for this, as it can help you find approximate keyword search volumes, but also show you what terms your competitors are ranking or advertising in AdWords for in the target country:
With a preliminary list you could also use tools such as:
Regardless of the tool you use, pick the best keywords for your landing pages and optimise them – here’s a great guide on on-page SEO to do this.
Depending on the resources available to you, you could also use tools such as STAT or Authority Labs to track your international rankings in each specific country for specific keywords, as well as monitoring traffic increases and fluctuations to your landing pages in Google Analytics.
Technical Signals for International SEO
The following is a list of strong signals that you can send to search engines to make sure they know what country and language you’re aiming to target: the more signals you send, the better search engines can understand what you’re trying to do and serve your site to the most relevant audience.
1. HrefLang Tags
These tags allow you to cross-reference pages with similar content for different audiences. As an example, hreflang tags will tell search engines that although the content is almost identical (although I’d encourage you to make sure it isn’t), one page or set of pages are for German speakers in Germany, while others are for German speakers in Switzerland and other ones are to be served to Portuguese speakers in Brazil.
So think of it like this: A URL with a correctly structured and implemented hreflang tag acts in this way:
“¡Hola! Google, I speak Spanish to people in Spain and would like to be indexed – by the way, here are my cousins, they're from other countries and would like to be indexed by you in their own countries, if that’s OK?”
Hreflang tags are added to the <head> of a website (as well as the self referencing ones).
This is what they should look like, as an example taken from Apple:
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/" hreflang="en-US" /><link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/ae-ar/" hreflang="ar-AE" /><link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/ae/" hreflang="en-AE" /><link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/am/" hreflang="en-AM" /><link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/at/" hreflang="de-AT" />
Break it down and you get this:
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/" hreflang="en-US" /> (I’m the American version, please index me in the US)
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/ae-ar/" hreflang="ar-AE" /> (I’m the Arabic version and would like to be indexed and served in the UAE).
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/ae/" hreflang="en-AE" /> (I’m an English version and would like to be indexed and served in the UAE for English speakers there).
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/am/" hreflang="en-AM" /> I’m not going to lie to you - this is trying to target English speakers but I’m not sure what AM is meant to be and cannot find it in any hreflang generators, it may just simply be a mistake, they’re very common.
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.apple.com/at/" hreflang="de-AT" /> (I‘m a German version that wants to be indexed and served to German speakers in Austria).
Don’t worry, you won’t need to remember them all. Here are the tools to help you create them:
the hreflang Tags Generator Tool or, if you’re going down the sitemap route, here’s the hreflang XML sitemap tool.
Once you’ve set these up, use Google Search Console to see whether it’s picking up any errors. If there are any, it’ll tell you what they are, and you’ll be able to find a myriad of resources online that’ll help you fix them.
NB: Most websites also use canonical tags to point search engines to a preferred version of a page (sometimes multiple versions of pages are created with trailing / etc, so as to safeguard against any potential duplicate content issues, canonicals are used). This is how they work:
If a URL has a canonical tag pointing to another URL, this translates as “Oh hi Google, I don’t want to be indexed, just ignore me - but here’s my twin, he’s pretty cool, index him.”
If a URL has a canonical tag pointing to itself, this means: “Hello, please index me and not those weird guys, I don’t know what they’re doing here.”
I’m telling you this because it’s likely that a page will have both an hreflang tag and a canonical – if done correctly, they’ll point to the same page, which sends a message like: “Hola Google, I’m Spanish and way better than my twin so index me por favor, oh and here are my cousins from other countries, please index them too.”
If you have an hreflang tag and canonical link pointing to different pages however, it sends the search engines a bizarre message of “Hola, I’m Spanish, please index my twin. But I do speak Spanish so please index me and my cousins from other countries.” Confusing, right?
Search engines think so too – and at this point they’ll index the pages they think are relevant, or none of them – either way this is bad news, so make sure there aren’t any inconsistencies.
2. The X Default Tag
The xdefault tag is basically a default version of the site that you can choose to be served to people when the language or location tag doesn’t match any of the available ones and no other page is better suited. So say you have a UK and US version of the site, but someone from Australia searches for related terms – you’d xdefault them to a preferred version.
This is what this looks like:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-gb" hreflang="en-GB" /> (For English speakers in the UK)
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-us" hreflang="en-US" /> (For English speakers in the US)
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/" hreflang="x-default" /> (For English speakers in other countries that may be looking for relevant terms or services and for which there is no specific site set up)
3. Meta Content Language Tags
The meta content language tag indicates what language the html content is written in (and can include country too), and therefore signals to search engines the target audience for the page. For instance:
<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-us">
This is a much weaker signal than hreflang tags – to the extent that I usually forget to tell people to add these on an international SEO project.
4. Schema Markup
Adding schema markup is a very simple and effective method for indicating to search engines what your website is about, and what your company does. It’s a collaboratively created, universal language that all top search engines in the world use to understand websites easily – you may have heard of it referred to as structured data, a hot topic in SEO at the minute.
You can add schema markup with Google Tag Manager (this is how you do just that), markup each specific subdomain, subfolder or ccTLD with Organization and LocalBusiness markup to tell them where that part of the business operates (the organization schema should contain all locations as you’re indicating that the business operates in all of these places), while the local schema should be applied to each specific place.
Bonus: Schema happens to be ranking factor – so not only does it make sure search engines understand your business and where it operates, it can help bulk out your knowledge panel appearance to be displayed in local search results for your business.
So, you’ve now implemented all the relevant signals on the actual website: from the structure to language-specific content that is optimised following specific keyword research and competitor analysis in the local language and that takes into account cultural business practice and requirements, all the necessary tags, localised content, tone of voice, imagery and call to actions etc. Great stuff.
Unfortunately, you’re not done yet. You now need to tell search engines what to do with your site. As you know, for you to measure your SEO successes (or indeed failures), you need Google Analytics to be installed for each property. You also need to add them all to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools – both tools that can help identify any potential technical or indexing issues (as well as the ability to geo-target your site).
You can track all domains, (or sub-domains and subdirectories) separately in both Analytics and Search Console like so:
Geo-target your site using the website structure you chose – so if you chose a subdomain or CCTLD structure, just add each one separately. If you chose to go down the subfolder route, set specific properties in both Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools as such:
Then ensure that your hrefLang tags are working (if there are errors, see what it says):
And finally, check that your country targeting is correct:
(If you've used ccTLDs this will automatically be detected.)
Look for this option in Bing Webmaster Tools here:
And set the location to target here:
Now you’ll need to work on off-page signals. In particular: Google My Business, Bing Places and domain authority.
Google My Business and Bing Places
Google My Business and Bing Places are great tools that allow you to add your business and all of its locations, in order for search engines to know where you operate and also for people to be able to see your business on a map when they search for it. It’s also pretty handy as when someone searches for your company, they’ll be shown a map with your business on it (they’ll be served the one closest to them when you have multiple locations).
International Link Building
Link building is an essential part of SEO, and should not be ignored, in particular for websites structured with ccTLDs and sub-domains as there’s way more work to be done now that there are multiple websites that you need to get links to.
Link building will build your website’s domain authority as well as helping to promote your international websites and drive relevant local referral traffic – which in turn helps with the visibility of your international website in search engines (as well as building up word of mouth and brand visibility locally). With this in mind, here are some things to consider:
Local citation building
General and competitor research: Will help you to find websites relevant to your market, that can show you interesting types of content that you can also create. You’ll see where your competitors are listed (so useful directories that exist in this country) and what type of content people are writing about them and what content they’re writing for outreach - all in all, all of these methods can help you find potential placements.
It can also help you to understand cultural factors within your target market (do they even use directories? What are they saying about businesses such as yours? What type of press do you want to attract? Which to avoid? It’ll also help you create lists of influencers and local media that you may want to build relationships with.
Use tools such as BuzzSumo to discover what topics and types of content work best in your target market (also helpful for competitor research).
Avoid copying what others have done (unless they’ve done it terribly – make it better) but rather, use this research to help build up your own content strategy and for inspiration. Create attractive and optimised content for your new audience (about your products, services, how you can help them, long-tail search queries such as FAQs and blog posts, thought leadership pieces, industry-related topics that may be of interest to them etc.), which will then earn you links.
SEO is very much a long game (with some short-term quick win goals, it’s true) that requires a long-term bespoke strategy, and will only work if you dedicate time to it. For international SEO, make sure that each country has its own unique strategy, as a one-size-fits-all approach will not be suitable and if you have multiple CCTLDs, it could lead to issues.
And that’s it for now – good luck!
About the author
Eleanor Reynolds is a digital marketing consultant at Hallam, delivering SEO, paid search, content, and social marketing work to a broad range of clients.