International SEO Tips to Conquer the SERPs and Emerge Victorious
Scroll below for international SEO strategies from 22 of the top consultants in the digital marketing industry
The earth is no longer round. After marinating for twenty-odd years in a technological chrysalis, the world as we perceive it has emerged with four corners, a screen, and fits comfortably in most pockets/purses. With the swipe of a finger, a person can now score a date, watch a movie, and impulse-buy whatever products their heart desires (hello, pristine Harry Potter box set, shirts, Deathly Hallows ring…OK, I fell down the proverbial rabbit-hole, but look how magical my finger looks!).
With the world quite literally at our fingertips, we can search for, find, and purchase exactly what we’re looking for, no matter where in the world it is located. Purchasing power lays completely in the hands of the consumer…and the search engine. To assist you in winning over the hearts of both, we have rounded up some pretty incredible experts to guide you in your quest for
world domination making your international expansion search engine (and user) friendly.
International SEO Part 1
Doing Your Homework: A Necessary Evil
Katrina Reger, Digital Marketing Strategist, Blue Compass Interactive
Plan ahead!! From choosing your URL structure (ccTLD, gTLD, subdomains, subdirectories – there are lots of decisions to be made on URL structure alone,) to hreflang tags which help with local search on a global scale, and canonical tags to help with duplicate content; there are countless factors to consider. When scaling your site internationally the worst thing you can do is expand blind. Google will rank your site higher if you do the legwork upfront rather than attempting to fix errors after Google has come “crawling.”
Sam Binks, Digital Marketing Manager, TeamSnap,
Time differences are important- don’t set up meetings when it’s too early/late for the client. Respect cultures and customs. For instance if international clients are coming to your office, is it appropriate to eat certain foods at certain times of the year? Show you’re invested in making them happy and you have some idea about where they’re from.
Damon Burton, President, SEO National
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging a variety of international demographics. Businesses should start by writing unique value propositions, blogs, and press specific to the target country or location. It is crucial that whatever info is generated is specific to the target dialect. Something interesting in one country may not be as equally interesting in another. There may also be different uses of jargon. Sounding natural in your engagement is key.
Stephanie Mahnken, Organic Search Marketing, Direct Online Marketing
It’s very important to really dive in and learn how your customers in foreign markets are using and/or looking for your product or services. To do this effectively, you need to dedicate hours of time to keyword and competitive research. We also recommend having your website translated into other relevant languages using country specific domains along with country and language meta tags.
Marcus Miller, Owner and Head of Search Marketing, Bowler Hat
Success with international SEO is not easy. There is much to consider before we even think about the SEO elements. We must consider the regionalization of content, content being provided in a locations primary language, currencies, locations that need content in multiple languages and local time zones (for starters). If your business is in the UK and you are selling into the US you could be going home just as the US traffic starts so you will need to consider how you handle customer service from an international perspective. And of course, international shipping can impact your ability to be competitive and various taxes all come into effect.
Ultimately the best tip is to be sure that this is something you want to do and that the returns will be worthy of the effort. With international SEO this is no easy win and a careful hand is needed from a human and technical perspective. Do it right and you can open up a much larger marketplace.
The Takeaway: CYA: Cover Your Ass(ets). Research the people, the culture, see if there’s a demand for what you’re supplying, before diving headfirst into international waters. Overlooking the fine details could cost you dearly.
International SEO Part 2
To ccTLD or not to ccTLD: A Query of Shakespearean Proportions
Aleyda Solis, International SEO Consultant & Founder at Orainti
Make sure the ccTLD, hreflang, and flag choice are cohesive. If someone connects to a site from Spain, but the flag on the site is Mexican, that user will feel like the site is not relevant to them, and they will likely leave…If your site has a Spanish version “.es”, and want to target the British, they enable an English version in their .es ccLTD. But because this site is already geo-located to Spain, it will most likely never rank in the UK or another country.
It’s very important that you think about what other countries [you want to target], how you are going to expand in the future, and if it makes sense to start with a ccTLD in the beginning. You will likely need the ccTLD’s in these countries, or you can enable a generic domain where you can play country subdirectories, that way your site will be scalable, and won’t suffer from issues so that you are able to profit from what you have built.
(Aleyda gave us this tip via a conversation on Snapchat, go ahead and follow her for more awesome SEO tips).
Jonathan Bentz, Organic Strategist, Direct Online Marketing
Help Google understand your ccTLD belongs to your main .com by verifying both sites with the same Google Search Console account. When I managed SEO for “Company X” (name withheld), they had 4 different country websites, in addition to their main .com. I registered every single on in webmaster tools under Company X’s account.
When I did that and set country-specific locations for each domain, the international domains started ranking for the same power keywords that the main .com site ranked for, and I did no additional link building.
The secret to this strategy is that by going through and properly verifying each site in Webmaster tools, country locate each one of them under the same account, and Google will know to trust your ccTLD’s as much as your main .com.
Steffen Ploeger, SEO specialist, 9thco
It’s not good practice to have duplicate websites on different country code top-level domains (ccTLD).Geo-targeting will be outweighed by the domain authority of the .com and as a result, the .com will outrank other ccTLDs even in their geographic target country. Instead of using duplicate websites on different ccTLDs you should use subfolders to indicate country or language. Don’t use proxy localized content. Google and Bing have clearly said to keep one language on one URL. Proxied content, content served by a cookie and side-by-side translations all make it very hard for search engines to index a page in one language. 1 URL = 1Language
The Takeaway: There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. ccTLD definitely helps with geo-targeting and SERP rankings, but if you have multiple countries contributing to profitability, having a ccTLD in each can confuse search engines and ‘cannibalize’ results (eek!). Strategize what country you’ll benefit most from, ccTLD that bad boy, and subdomain the rest.
International SEO Part 3
Hreflang: Talk the Talk
Brett Bastello, SEO manager, Inseev Interactive
If you’re headed into international SEO is to make sure you’re properly using the hreflang= tag.
What this tag does is serves a version of your web page in their local language, based on the visitor’s IP address.
This tag can be placed in either the sitemap, within the on-page markup, or in the HTTP header, but it’s important to only choose one. By having this markup listed in multiple locations you leave yourself open to inconsistencies and/or input errors, which will confuse the crawlers.
As your website expands into additional/moves out of certain countries, it is much easier and faster to update one set of hreflang inputs, as opposed to three, especially when there is a team of multiple people spearheading these on-site changes.
Andrew Akesson, Head of Digital, Venn Digital
Another aspect we often see that is wrong is when a company wants to expand into foreign language websites. They do this without giving the user any thought sometimes, so we may get a job/recruitment website that has translated all of their landing pages, but because all of their staff/recruiters are English, all the job descriptions on that page are English.
So for example, the hreflang sitemap states that the page is targeting German users in Germany (de-de), then Google will look to serve that page to German users in Germany. However, when those German users get to the page, they see that all the job descriptions are in English, which is a language they don’t speak and they bounce back to Google. This sends the wrong signals to Google and they demote the page in the rankings. So the recruiter has not only annoyed the user through bad UX, they have also annoyed Google because the user is having to try a different result from the SERP.
There are a couple of things that should be done. The first is to ensure that the language on the page is the same as that of the hreflang. If your hreflang is de-de, then your page needs to be in German as this is the target language/users you are specifically targeting. Having half the page in one language and the other half in another language means the target user can only understand half the page, meaning they will be less likely to connect with your brand.
Another option to prove how your users are behaving is to use heat mapping software on site. Any good heat mapping service will give you some information on what country your user is accessing your site from. In this instance, if your main messaging on page (the first thing they are like to see) is in English and the target users are from Germany, then you don’t have to do too much calculating to see that it’s the language you are using that is making people bounce back off the page, as they won’t be scrolling any further down the page to get to the German.
The Takeaway:This tool is a beaut. When used properly, it can really take your international SEO to the next level. But always err on the side of caution, and see if you can find a native speaker to look over the content for any nuances particular to the region.
International SEO Part 4
Content and Context: A Love Story
Siobhan O’Rorke, Marketing and Communications Manager at Lookeen
Make sure the keywords you’re optimizing your site for make sense in the context of the languages you’re translating to – find a native speaker to perform detailed keyword analysis in each language, and to test them (preferably in the target country).
Jitesh Keswani, Co-Founder, E-Intelligence
Get closer to your target native search audience. As the culture and language of your visitors vary from country to country, the basic online search pattern also differs. You want to ensure, as a marketer, that your website speaks to them in the tone that they are comfortable with. And this is not just limited to text – also consider the media and colors used on your web properties.
For example, if your website is full of images that relate more to the western world, then you may not get much out of your presence in the online search space in Japan. Accuracy and professionalism are the key to pleasing your local search audience. For your international SEO to be a successful venture, it’s important for you to win their trust.
Colt Foutz, Director of Digital Content Optimization, TransPerfect
Localized content – preferably written by a native speaker familiar with your industry vertical – is, by its nature, unique content. It won’t count against you as duplicate, and you don’t need to flag the original language page as canonical – which could work against you in getting the new language page to rank. But for every unique market with different cultural norms, consider experimenting with different design. The right graphics and spatial organization of your site can make a difference in user experience and getting customers to convert.
Oh- and don’t forget to translate image ALT-tags.
The Takeaway: Content and context may just be the new peanut butter and jelly. You can have one without the other, but damn they really are better together.
International SEO Part 5
Link Building: Making Friends in High Places
Nenad Cuk, Marketing Manager, Thoughtlab
Start building links from websites that are optimized for the target country. If all of the links are coming in from a .ru website, and you are trying to rank for .ag, you won’t get as much of a push as if you got other .ag sites or even sites from Latin America that have the same language in their content. Just as one wouldn’t expect to get a rank boost to US sites by pulling in links from irrelevant sites outside of the market, a company shouldn’t expect to get a rank boost by using irrelevant countries in their citation building.
Matthew Mercuri, Digital Marketing Manager, Dupray
Interact with people who you have already done business with. When your clients and customers get a follow on Twitter, they’re significantly more likely to follow you back. Moreover, you need to narrow down and eliminate the people most likely to ignore you on Social Media. Ashton Kutcher will not be your friend online, nor will Kim Kardashian. BUT, the local bakery owner will. Your sister, best friend and family will. So will your German clients. You need to do whatever it takes to get a base. This base will allow you to successfully publish content while tapping into the networks of that base.
Haley Steed, Organic Outreach Specialist, Direct Online Marketing
Link building is so much more than a way to boost your ranking on SERPs. It is a way to create trust, and value, within the community your brand is attempting to join. Make a big deal out of the fact your expanding your brand internationally. Find an angle (ex: “Self-heating socks available for the first time in the Siberian market! Number of toes lost to frostbite plummets!”), write up a press release (archaic, I know, but I’m a sucker for nostalgia) and reach out to local news reporters, bloggers, anyone big in the local social media scene.
If they have the potential to impact the purchasing decisions of your target audience, reach out to them. Let them know what you’re selling, why it’s important, and how it will help/affect the community. Create buzz, build relationships, get links, rank high on SERPs, and blow the roof off success.
The Takeaway: Ah links, the social butterfly of SEO. And like a butterfly, they are delicate, finicky creatures that will beautify your site (for rankings that is). Handle with care.
International SEO Part 6
Search Engine Showdown
Val Kaplan, Marketing Director, Sampi Marketing
China is one of a handful of countries where Google is completely irrelevant. Its market share is currently less than 1% and the access is also blocked from the Mainland. The largest search engine in China is Baidu (about 60% market share) and SEO must focus on optimizing for that service rather than Google. Also, websites that are hosted outside of China load considerably slower than those hosted on servers within the country.
The difference is mainly due to China’s Great Firewall that filters and slows down the traffic coming from the outside. The slow loading, in turn, hurts Baidu ranking. Unfortunately, in order to host in China, a website must first apply for ICP (internet content provider) license issued by the government which can only be obtained by locally registered businesses. Solution: if a company is serious about getting in Chinese market they should open a company here first.
Dimitri Semenikhin, Founder, Yacht Harbour
An important factor in international SEO is to remember that Google is not the only game you need to play. Russia, for example, is predominantly dominated by Yandex. Its rules and metrics are different and optimization strategies can actually differ or even cancel out in terms of SEO for Google or Yandex. Make sure you weigh the potential benefits of branching out to different regions before investing in SEO as you could cannibalize existing traffic.
Steven Macdonald, Digital Marketing Manager, SuperOffice
I believe the key to any successful international SEO campaign is to start by looking at the visits by country report in Google Analytics (found under Audience > Geo > Location). It’s much easier to succeed with international SEO if an audience in that country already exists.
To reach 50,000 visits, we first looked at visitor data in Google Analytics and found at least 11% of visits came from Russia. We then set up a small, but basic 4 page website in Russian that covered product and contact information. We implemented hreflang to make sure Google displayed the Russian website in google.ru, and added the website to Yandex’s Webmaster Tools. Finally, we sent out an email to partners and asked that they link to our new Russian website, which led to a handful of high quality links.
Within 12 months, this activity, which cost us $0 led to $54,000 in online sales.
The Takeaway: Sadly, in some countries our beloved Google is the red-headed stepchild (my apologies to any red-headed step children reading this post, no offense is meant). While researching what your target market is searching for, make note of what they’re searching on.
International SEO Part 7
Maxim Shomov, Digital Marketing Leader, Fair Point GmbH
From my experience, B2B SEO doesn‘t differ than regular search engine optimisation. You still have to deal with the Google algorithm to rank high. However, other marketers often tend to forget that even in B2B marketing, you interact with real people, be it business owners or other decision makers. The key of a successful campaign is to tap into their emotions. This is what makes B2B marketing harder than B2C – these people are used to marketers trying to sell them products and services.
Jignesh Gohel, Founder and Marketing Head, Olbuz
The best tip to acquire international clients is decide what industry or brand you are planning to pitch and start studying their competitors, business opportunities and missing dots on their website / brand / or in marketing strategies. Pitch with useful information: what they are missing and how you can improve with all your research and data. Here the key part is to reach at right person of the brand you are pitching and you won half battle. I have seen most of the agencies used to sends thousands of emails with same format has no personalized touch and will hardly attract the other party.
Chad Remp, Operations Manager, Wheeling Truck
I would state the most important thing is for international visitors to your website to know that you accept international orders. Many ( I mean a lot) of websites/companies will not sell internationally, and they even state this on their website. We want to make sure our international customers understand we want their business. We have “International Orders” listed at the top of our page so foreign visitors know we want their business.
The Takeaway: Businesses are people, too! Well, not really, but they sure do have people working there, and it’s important to remember that. Treating people like, well, people, can have an astounding effect on your B2B efforts.
What Have We Learned Today?
Search engine optimization is constantly evolving; what works today may not be as effective tomorrow. This is especially true in international SEO: what works in one country may not work in another. So please:
• Do your homework on the country, culture, and dialects
• Contemplate if a ccTLD would be most beneficial or if going the subdomain route would be best for your company and campaign.
• Use your hreflang tags, but still have a native speaker make sure that the content (and your context!) is appealing and accurate- not jumbled or offensive.
• Build links! This leads to building relationships with trusted members of your international target market
• Make sure to comply with local search engine protocol- Google does not reign supreme in all countries, and failing to recognize that could come back to bite you
• Just because you’re in B2B does not mean that customer service has left the building- adding a personal touch to communications with another business can be what seals the deal. Read up on the customs of business dealings in new territories, and comply to the best of your ability
That is all for now, my digital darlings. Let me know what tips have worked for you, or that should have been on this list, in the comments!