Search engine optimization (SEO) is critical to help your brand reach the first page of search results and ideally climb into the top 5 positions for your primary keyword.
But what happens when you want to expand outside of local markets? With Google now seeing more than 3.5 billion searches per day, there's a massive opportunity for brands to capture new customers. The caveat is that existing SEO practices may not translate — and in some cases, may actually hurt your brand in other countries.
To avoid this potential pitfall, a robust international SEO strategy is critical. Here’s what you need to know about what it is, how it works, how it’ll benefit you, and what steps you can take to create an effective plan.
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Effective strategies leverage a combination of geographic and language data to develop SEO plans that drive reliable ROI. A strong international SEO strategy will help your company reach new markets and multiply revenue.
What does international SEO do for company websites?
An international SEO strategy for websites focuses on creating content that’s applicable to local markets, as well as developing a website structure that makes it easy for search engines to find and serve the right webpages to the right users at the right time.
Consider a company that sells window shades in the United States and is making a move into Canada. First, you’ll want to ensure Canadian customers are sent to the right pages on your website — pages that contain information about Canadian locations, Canadian shipping times, and fees and costs in CAD.
You’ll need a website structure that includes both U.S. and Canadian pages and leverages enough metadata that search requests from users will direct them to the right page for their current location.
Does my business need an international SEO strategy?
If you have no plans to expand beyond local markets — such as your current city or state — international SEO probably isn’t worth the time and resources required. In fact, international SEO can backfire if your business is entirely local. Customers who land on international pages won’t be happy when they discover you serve a very small geographic area.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to expand beyond country borders, it’s worth spending on international SEO. Given the sheer number of companies competing on the global stage and the increased challenge in ranking highly for relevant keywords, a comprehensive strategy is critical.
Still not sure whether you should go for a local SEO strategy or international SEO strategy?
There are four primary differentiators between local SEO and international SEO:
- Cost: Owing to their scale and scope, international SEO efforts come with significant costs.
- Content: To ensure international reach, you’ll need to create significantly more content than you would for a local SEO strategy.
- Capture: International SEO expands the target market you’re trying to capture, which necessitates in-depth research to ensure your brand aligns with customer expectations.
- Competition: Competition for keywords and customers is much greater for international SEO efforts. Instead of simply competing with other businesses in the same local sphere of influence, you could be up against multinational corporations.
Questions to Ask About International SEO
Not sure how to get your international SEO efforts off the ground? Start with these questions.
- Where are you headed?
- Should you target language or country?
- What localization factors matter most?
- How can you build local links?
- Does social media matter?
- Are current keywords good enough?
- Do you have the right tools and talent?
1. Where are you headed?
Depending on the part of the world you’re targeting, your international SEO approach will change. For example, if you’re headed to China, the most popular search engine is Baidu, while Yandex is the preferred choice in Russia. Each of these engines have their own approach to SEO, meaning it’s worth doing your research to find out what matters most for rankings.
2. Should you target language or country?
This is a common international SEO question: Are you better-served targeting a specific language or a country? The answer depends on your goals. If you’re looking to appeal to a broad audience regardless of where they live, language optimization may be the answer. If you’re looking to grow brand awareness in a specific part of the world, opt for country-based SEO.
3. What localization factors matter most?
Localization is the process of optimizing your website and content to reflect the local language and culture. Two of the most important factors here are accuracy and common use: First, it’s critical to make sure that translations of any keywords or slogans are accurate — direct translations can open your brand and services to misinterpretations, such as the always-classic “Come alive with Pepsi” slogan translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” in Chinese markets.
Common use is the other concern. The words and phrases used to describe your business and what it does may not be the same in other languages, even if the literal translation of words gives that impression. Find out what words locals use to describe your products and services and use those instead.
4. How can you build local links?
Building local links back to your site also helps with international SEO. Here, it’s a good idea to write articles for local blogs, get a sponsored mention on websites that offer advice or useful information, connect with local social media influencers, and sponsor local events.
5. Does social media matter?
While Google has expressly stated that social media doesn’t factor into international SEO rankings, you can increase brand awareness and local influencer connections with a strong social media presence.
6. Are current keywords good enough?
While your current keywords may help you rank in the top 5 locally, the sheer number of companies competing for these keywords in global markets means you need to take a look at who’s using these keywords, where they rank, and whether other similar keywords might drive better results.
7. Do you have the right tools and talent?
Finally, consider if this is something you can take on yourself or if you’re better off hiring an experienced international SEO company.
Factors That Affect International SEO
Multiple factors affect international SEO, including:
Customer reviews on your website or on local review sites can positively or negatively impact your SEO efforts. Better reviews mean better connection with your primary keyword, in turn boosting your visibility.
The responsiveness of your website on mobile also matters to overall search rankings. As a result, it’s worth finding a content delivery network (CDN) capable of providing a top-tier website experience no matter where users are in the world.
Google My Business Account
Your Google My Business Account can help boost your SEO efforts — so long as you ensure to update where your company is operating. This acts as a starting point for Google to seek out geographic and language metadata on your site.
The more links heading back to your site from international sources, the better. As mentioned above, it’s a good idea to write for local blogs or connect with influencers to point links back to your website.
How to Develop an International SEO Strategy
Ready to develop your international SEO strategy? Start here.
1. Decide where and who you’ll target.
First, pick your target market and target audience. For example, you might decide to target the larger market of Brazil, then hone in on a subset of that market that has the means and motive to buy your product. The more focused your decisions around “where” and “who,” the better your results.
2. Determine whether you’ll hire an international SEO agency.
Do you want to do the heavy lifting of international SEO yourself or outsource this effort? There are advantages to both — you know your brand better than anyone else, but SEO experts are skilled at understanding local customs and preferences and creating a strategy to match.
3. Conduct international keyword research.
Keywords that work for you at home may not work abroad. This may simply be down to keyword volume, or it may be linked to how customers in your target market refer to your business. For example, trial lawyers in the United States are known as barristers in the United Kingdom — if you’re a legal firm looking to expand operations, this is a critical keyword difference.
4. Choose the right international domain structure.
The domain structure of your website makes it easier (or harder) for visitors and search engines to find your content. Different options include:
Country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) are two-letter domains assigned to specific countries. For example, .us is for the United States, .ca is for Canada, and .uk is for the United Kingdom. To improve international SEO, you may choose to create a unique ccTLD site for each country where your products or services are available.
Example: mybusiness.ca, mybusiness.uk
A generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD), meanwhile, refers to domain extensions with three or more characters; these TLDs are maintained by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Common examples include .com, .gov and .org.
Using a gTLD means that search engines won’t restrict results based on region, but it may reduce total traffic since many users prefer sites that include their country code TLD.
ccTLD or gTLD with subdomains
You can also choose to create subdomains for your site which combine aspects of both ccTLDs and gTLDs.
This offers the benefit of a country code and the advantages of a gTLD.
ccTLD or gTLD with subdirectories
Subdirectories, meanwhile, change the location of the country code:
5. Optimize content for the region and language
Finally, make sure all your content is optimized for both your target region and its local language. This includes double-checking all TLDs, translations, and content assets to ensure they’re aligned with local expectations.
Oh, and don’t forget the hreflang tag. This HTML attribute specifies the geographic area and language of a webpage. It’s used to differentiate similar webpages aimed at different audiences so that search engines don’t count them as duplicate content, and it looks like this:
Tools for International SEO
The right tools can also help you maximize the impact of international SEO by providing actionable data around traffic, click-throughs, and time spent on your site. Some of the most popular tools include:
HubSpot’s SEO software allows you to create an international content strategy, gives you live tips to improve your on-page SEO, and lets you organize your website in a way that’s easy for both search engines and users to understand.
Google Search Console lets you see what queries are driving traffic to your site, determine your position on Google Search, and analyze global site impressions.
Ahrefs is an all-in-one SEO toolset that lets you optimize your site, analyze your competitors’ rankings, and find the best keywords for your brand.
Moz offers site audits to determine potential issues, tracks keyword rankings across more than 170 search engines, analyzes backlink profiles to evaluate performance, and offers keyword research tools to find out how you stack up against the competition.
Semrush lets you identify high-value local and national keywords, analyze the backlink profile of any domain, and track your site’s SERP positions daily.
Google Analytics is an interconnected suite of tools that helps you analyze the impact of your website content worldwide.
International SEO Best Practices
No matter what approach you take to international SEO — language-focused or country-based, outsourced or in-house — the same best practices apply. Let’s take a look at them below.
1. Answer questions in the region’s native language and in the right context.
If there’s one thing to get right for international SEO, it’s making sure you’re speaking the same language as your customers. This means doing your research to ensure you’re always answering questions in their native language and in the appropriate context.
2. Translate existing content carefully.
While translation tools provide a literal conversion of words and phrases, they’re often not used this way by locals, meaning customers will quickly recognize that something isn’t quite right. Instead of translation, what you’re really looking for is “transcreation” — you want to recreate the same content but using the culture and language of your target market as a guide.
3. Consider the entire user experience in your strategy.
International SEO isn’t just about keywords and content. It’s also about making sure the entire user experience — from filling out forms to viewing prices in local currency or accessing multimedia assets that include native speakers — is seamlessly aligned across your site.
4. Avoid automatically redirecting users based on their IP address.
While it’s critical to serve content that matches local user expectations, don’t make the decision for them. Instead of automatically redirecting where they land based on their IP address, give them the option to choose their preferred region.
SEO: Improving Your International Impact
The right SEO strategy sets your brand apart from the crowd. And while this is important in home markets, it’s even more critical if you decide to go international, because it will ensure your website is optimized to support high-value content and keywords across regions and countries. By considering local customs, language, and context, you can boost consumer engagement, improve search engine results, and maximize your international impact.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.