If you thought SEO was confusing, well then you might need to strap yourself in because international SEO takes things to a whole new level.
It’s not that international SEO itself is confusing – no more than regular SEO is – it’s because of the amount of misunderstanding and misinformation doing the rounds on it.
What Is International SEO?
Simply put, it’s the process of optimising your website for an international audience, allowing Google to figure out what countries and/or languages you’re targeting.
It includes the process of translating all your web content and UX elements into at least one other language.
The first question you need to ask yourself is: Does your website have the potential to be optimised for international SEO?
The easiest way to check this is Google Analytics for how much organic traffic you currently receive from foreign countries. You’ll probably find yourself pleasantly surprised at just how many visits you’re getting from foreign markets, and without any optimisation on your part. Why this happens will make sense shortly.
You haven’t already checked Analytics for this data? Here’s how you do that:
- Open up your Google Analytics account
- Click on the Audience menu
- Click on the Geo sub-menu
- Click on Location
- You can now see exactly where your visitors are from
Who Can Benefit From International SEO
But…why bother with any kind of global SEO effort if you’re already getting traffic from foreign countries without even trying?
It’s because – depending on your business model – you could miss out on dramatically increasing your organic traffic/leads without doing anything shady. In fact, for the investment involved in pursuing an SEO campaign with an international slant it can be a no-brainer.
An added bonus is that you might just receive that little bit of extra “love” from Google for expanding your online presence to serve their international audience. Google themselves have only seriously started to look at international SEO as part of their business model since 2010, and now have different iterations of their search engine serving dozens of different countries, and in 123 different languages.
You might be wondering: Where do I start?
Targeting Countries vs. Targeting Languages
This is the area that most business owners find themselves bogged down in: Should you target an entire country, or just a specific language?
While, at first glance, this might seem like an easy decision to make, but you need to stop and think about this. It’s not as easy as just registering a domain name with a county-specific extension, and then copying and pasting your current content over to your new site.
Planning is the key to successfully expanding your SEO on an international basis. In fact, without planning I can guarantee that you’ll make mistakes you’ll have a long time to regret.
The first mistake to avoid is that you not confusing expanding into a different country and expanding to accommodate a different language as being the same thing.
You might, for example, be tempted to translate your website into French on the assumption that it’s spoken by so many people.
You’d be wrong based on the fact that the top five most spoken languages in the world are:
And even more interesting are the top five languages spoken by Internet users are:
You can see there’s some overlap here, but Portuguese sneaks in under the radar. Let me guess – you hadn’t even considered Portuguese as an option, right? That would mean missing out on 132 million potential visitors.
It’s also worth remembering that if you were to choose targeting a specific country that it might have more than one dominant language. A Canadian site would need to support both English and French speakers, and a very specific version of French to serve the Quebecois. Switzerland is another example, where your site would need to be translated into English, French and German to serve the country’s entire Internet user base.
It basically comes down to this:
- Targeting specific languages makes more sense for content or digital services, such as apps or other digital products.
- Targeting countries makes more sense for physical products or services, or if your business will have a physical presence in the country.
When business owners experience that first spark of inspiration about going global with their business they rush out and register a domain with the correct extension for the country they’re targeting. They do this in the assumption that Google will understand their plans because Google knows all and sees all.
What they’re missing out on is that registering a new domain name is not always the best choice, is often completely unnecessary, and it won’t deliver results as quickly as you’ve been told. You might get lucky, but lucky isn’t really a business model I would personally depend on.
You see, Google is quite happy to rank generic .com domains in versions of their search engines which serve “foreign markets”. The reason for this is they’ll choose the website with the most authority, even over a website specifically targeting users in that country.
So, let’s say your business website is Lovelyshirts.com, and you want to expand into the UK market. You go out and register Lovelyshirts.co.uk, and modify your content and pricing for the UK market.
After several weeks of waiting you check your rankings, only to notice that Lovelyshirts.com is actually outranking Lovelyshirts.co.uk.
This is because the .com version of your site is several years older, has way more links pointing to it, and from Google’s perspective, it’s the best choice for their visitors.
ccTLD vs. gTLD
Don’t try to pronounce the terms in that subheading – they’re technical acronyms.
- A ccTLD is a Country-coded Top Level Domain. In the above example, Lovelyshirts.co.uk is a ccTLD.
- A gTLD is a Generic Top Level Domain. In the above example, Lovelyshirts.com is a gTLD.
Although registering a ccTLD seems like the obvious choice when it comes to international SEO, there are some factors you need to take into account before doing that:
- You’re starting from scratch with zero domain authority
- You’ll have to get backlinks in that country/region, doubling your SEO workload
- You’re also doubling your web hosting and site costs
- You might need to hire a dedicated “native” support team for that country
- Your country of choice might have several “native” languages
Some countries have weird requirements for using their ccTLDs, like having a registered business in that country, for example
You then have to face up against the peculiarity of human nature, and how different audiences react to different types of gTLDs and ccTLDs. Internet users in the United States prefer .com sites, for example. British, Scottish and Welsh users will have a preference for a website ending in .co.uk.
These same regional preferences are evident all over the world, so it’s yet another factor to consider when targeting a specific country, and whether or not that’s your best model for your international expansion initiative.
If you have a content-driven business, and simply want to expand your reach to a foreign language audience, then it makes more sense to simply modify your website to support multiple languages.
A perfect example of this is an American company that has yet to tap into the massive potential of the Spanish-speaking market in the country.
There are a number of ways for an US-based company to “localise” their content, and these include:
- A subdomain
- A subfolder
- URL parameters
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:
In this situation you simply create a subdomain for Spanish speakers that would look something like this: espanol.example.com, or even just: es.example.com
This is often viewed by business owners as a quick solution to the problem of targeting foreign language speakers, but in Google’s eyes you’re effectively creating a brand new website. This is because they view subdomains as being a separate entity to your existing site.
You can pass on some domain authority to your new subdomain, but it’s not as effective as people think. It can also take as long for the content in the subdomain to rank as it does with setting up a brand new website with a ccTLD.
Your web dev or SEO team can modify your site’s structure to include a new sub folder that looks like this:
Doing this is as easy as creating a sub-domain but you have the additional benefit of passing on some of your domain authority to the subfolder, unlike what happens with a subdomain.
You’re also keeping all your content “under one roof”, so that makes it easier to manage over time.
You also get to avoid the headaches and costs that come with hosting and supporting a brand new site, as you would with newsite.fr, for example.
Your internal linking structure will also be far easier to put together, and this also has the benefit of helping Google crawl your new foreign language content quickly and easily.
Another benefit of using a subfolder is that you can use Google Search Console’s geo-targeting feature to let Google know what language it’s tailored for.
While it is possible to use URL parameters to tell Google what language a specific page supports, it’s rarely a good idea. An example of a URL parameter is:
Setting URL parameters does work, but it can get messy, and cause Google problems when they’re trying to index and rank your content.
This should be your last choice when targeting languages, and only used as a last resort.
Translation, Translation, Translation
Businesses are often tempted to use machine-based language translation tools to help them in their international expansion effort. Now, while these tools have come a long, long way, they are not nearly accurate enough to correctly translate one language to another.
What you’ll wind up with are pages which are laughably illegible to a native reader, so you’ve already lost credibility with them before they’ve even considered doing business with you.
Here’s what machine-generated translations looks like, and this isn’t the worst example I’ve come across:
The only way to have content that is acceptable to a native Spanish speaker, for example, is to hire somebody who speaks the language fluently. Somebody who has studied it as second language is an acceptable option, but they’ll often miss out on the tiny nuances that can make such a huge difference for your visitors.
A perfect example of this is having an online business that’s based in Canada.
You decide that you want to expand your online presence to target French speakers in Quebec. From experience, the only way to do this without insulting a Quebecois is to have a Quebec native translate your content for you.
Simply because the version of French spoken in Quebec has completely different intonations and phrasing to the French you’d learn to speak in Paris, for example.
Need some other examples? Here you go:
The word “trainer” means two completely different things in US and UK English. For example, if you’re looking for a pair of trainers in the US, you’d be referring to a pair of sneakers.
And these are just examples of the subtleties that exist in the English language, never mind translating your web content from one language to another.
In addition to translating the content of each page, you also need to localise other elements of your website, such as:
- Navigation menus
- Image names and alt tags
- Internal anchor text
- Boilerplate text anywhere on your site
You can hire freelance translation experts on sites like Upwork.com and Freelancer.com to do this work for you. It’s an additional expense, but if you want your foreign language site to be accessible then the minimal costs involved are more than worth it.
Think of hiring a translator as an investment in your business, not an expense.
Oh, and don’t use flags to indicate that you support multiple languages – they might look neat, but like Google’s bots would much prefer to see a hyperlink in the language of the country or audience you’re trying to target. That’s a real foreign language ranking signal to show them.
Some businesses rely on the user to let them know what language they should be presented with when viewing the site.
They do this by analysing the incoming traffic, looking at the IP address and browser settings, and automatically redirecting the user to the language-appropriate page.
Here’s the deal on this:
Never, ever automatically redirect a user to a language-specific page based on nothing more than their IP address.
For all you know they could be on vacation, or working overseas. IP detection is often wildly inaccurate. There’s very a good chance that if I check IP right now that it would show I’m based in Scotland or Wales, even though I’m sitting here in my office in Kent, England.
Not only are redirects bad from a UX (user experience) point of view, but Google isn’t a big fan of redirects.
In fact, Google is cracking down big time on news sites that mask their country of origin, so the last thing you want is for your website to accidentally trigger this filter:
Redirects are not only bad for the user experience, and they’re also bad for your SEO. The SEO risk of using redirects is that you could redirect search engine bots too, and usually to the wrong pages.
Google’s ‘Rank Brain’ software can slap a penalty on websites that provide a poor user experience, and sloppy redirects are a sure sign of poor UX design.
A far better “automated” solution is to simply display a pop-up bar or window on your site, asking the user to select their language/regional preferences. This is most commonly used in retail or e-commerce sites, and it works really well in those situations.
Analyse Your Competitors
The appeal of tapping into millions of overseas visitors can have most business owners fumbling with their credit cards to sign up to whoever can make that happen for them.
Sure, there are tens of millions of people you could try to attract, but have you analyzed the market itself?
Is there a demand for your product or service?
How well is that market served by local companies?
The fact that you get some organic search traffic from Spain, doesn’t necessarily mean you have an audience in that country. Remember that Google ranks gTLDs in countries where ccTLDs should rank higher, but they can’t outrank because of the domain authority involved.
Adapt Your Images
Businesses that want to expand to target a global audience focus on their SEO content strategy with something close to tunnel vision. When this is done well their web copy is translated by a professional translation team, their UX is absolutely perfect, and they’ve taken every local linguistic nuance and subtlety into account.
But they completely ignore the images they’re using, and sometimes with extremely embarrassing results:
- Something as simple as an image of a couple kissing could be deemed wildly offensive in certain countries in Asia.
- An image of a person’s feet could land you in hot water in another country.
- Or the “thumbs up” hand gesture that we all associate with positive reinforcement…well it doesn’t mean that in all cultures.
Appealing to multiple cultures requires a lot of due diligence on your part. Or you run the risk of “trial by social media”.
International Hosting Requirements
Here’s the deal: This used to be something Google paid attention to, but not anymore.
You’ll still find some web hosting companies offering “international” hosting, but it’s completely unnecessary unless you’re targeting an actual country in your marketing efforts.
Now, Google doesn’t pay a lot of attention to where your site is hosted, but that doesn’t mean you should relegate hosting to the “I’ll deal with it later…maybe” folder.
Optimising your site for an international audience will hopefully lead to an influx of new traffic – that’s the end goal, right?
How prepared is your hosting company for you to receive 2x as much traffic to your website?
Hint: They’re not.
So, you need to have web technologies in place that not only support your existing audience but are also capable of supporting users from multiple countries. And lots of them!
Using a CDN (Content Delivery Network) will make the process of distributing your content internationally much faster.
A CDN is basically a network of dedicated web servers dotted around the world, capable of routing your content to the end-user in the shortest possible time, but without you needing to have a web host in that country.
Localised Keyword Research
You shouldn’t rely on machine-generated translations of keywords that are specific to your industry or niche. Again, those tiny nuances that you don’t understand could leave you with egg on your face.
Keyword research should be conducted using whatever localisation features your keyword tool of choice has. Or, even better just hire an SEO in that country to do your keyword research for you. At least that way you don’t have to explain why you need them to do this, and they’ll understand the types of keywords you need.
Also never assume that the keyword search volumes you deal with in the UK, US, Canada or Australia will be the same for other countries. In most cases, they’re completely different, and not in a way that benefits you.
Now to tackle the age-old question of duplicate content, but framed by doing your SEO on a global basis.
The first thing to note here is that Google (via Matt Cutts)don’t have a duplicate content penalty in the way you’ve been led to believe they have.
In fact, Google doesn’t care if you have 100 pages of identical content on your site – they just won’t rank any of it. You won’t get a “manual action” penalty from them, but they won’t send you any free organic traffic either.
So, you can copy and paste the exact same content from your UK-focused website to a folder/subdomain targeting a French audience, but without making a single change. Google just won’t rank it anywhere, including in Google.fr
It’s simply not that easy.
Your approach should be that you translate your content to take regional preferences into account, you update the currency used on your pages, your URLs take language differences into account, and your navigation menus are also updated to cater for regional differences in language, etc.
Doing that should be enough to indicate to Google that the content in this subfolder is expressly intended for users who speak a specific language.
You can also use the hrefLang tag to help make this happen.
Although they’re one of the most discussed aspects of international SEO, hrefLang tags are only useful if you’re translating your content from one language to another.
They serve no purpose if you’re targeting a specific country because you already have a ccTLD and content translated specifically for your target audience.
The other thing to know about Hreflang tags are they’re only used by Google – Bing, Yandex, etc., all have separate methods for providing “language signals”.
Now here’s the deal: Hreflang tags can be confusing, but they don’t need to be.
All they say is: “This page has been translated into X language, and here’s the link to the source page.”
Keep it simple, and make sure that you get your ISO language and region codes set up properly, and you won’t have any issues.
How do you include them?
You can place them in the <Head> section of your HTML pages if you only support one or two additional languages. The other option is to create an XML sitemap for these tags, but only if you’re support several languages.
What do they look like?
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://LovelyShirts.com/es/” hreflang=”es”>
The above snippet of code tells Google that your Canada-based website has a Spanish language version of this page available at this URL
Want to go down the rabbit hole of Hreflang tags? Here’s a Google software engineer explaining them in as much detail as you’ll ever need.
So, you’ve selected an international SEO structure that makes sense for your business (country vs. language), you’re getting traffic, but then you bump into an unexpected problem.
Your product or service cannot be sold in the country you’re targeting, for any of a number of reasons, including religious and cultural ones.
Did you know, for example, that iPhones sold into the Middle Eastern market don’t include the FaceTime feature?
This isn’t just a software restriction on the device – it’s hard-coded into it. Everything else on the device is the exact same, except that you can’t ever use it for Facetime.
Apple had the choice of either disabling FaceTime on their iPhone, or not be able to sell the iPhone in certain very wealthy countries.
So, this is something else for you to consider before you go leaping into a foreign market with physical products.
So, you’re now targeting people from all over the world, and in multiple languages.
You did factor this into your shipping costs, right? Or that you might need a local presence in the country if all your plans work out?
- Is your business ready to handle a wave of additional business, moving from shipping nationally to internationally?
- How are you going to manage customer service support queries when none of your staff is bi-lingual?
If you’re operating a content publishing business then the effect on you will be negligible. For those of you selling a physical product, you need to start planning now.
So there you have it, my definitive guide to international SEO. Once you understand and unpack the basics of targeting countries versus targeting languages, you’ll know exactly what path you should take with your marketing efforts.
Internationalising your web presence or e-commerce business could quite easily lead to a 2x – 3x multiplier in the number of orders or visitors you receive. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but without trying to tap into the potential for an international audience you can never know what is possible.