Driving international rank with SEO

Mere years ago, many marketers and search engine optimization (SEO) practitioners – in an effort to win in web search – embraced questionable methods to artificially boost their companies’ search results.

They might have won in the short-term, but users lost, big time. They suffered through lousy user experiences, wading through link farms, page cloaking, sneaky redirects and relentlessly repeated keyword phrases to find good content.

Google got wise to these shifty tactics, and has modified its algorithm again and again to reward ethical content creators — especially those who make great, authoritative content.

But what does “making great, authoritative content” really mean? As a July 16, 2015, Entrepreneur article pointed out, we non-Googlers don’t actually know. “Google’s search algorithm is completely undisclosed,” writes author Jayson Demers. “No search marketer, now or ever, has ever had access to the actual lines of code that determine which businesses rank where.”

What we do know hails from information provided by Google itself, or through trial and error. On-page best practices such as punchy and pithy writing, clearly valuable headlines, human-readable URLs and metadata have always been the “starting line” for effective SEO.

But to win this race, you must also build relationships through traditional public relations, media outreach and a vast network of inbound links from equally ethical sites and social media users. The more others consider you an authority (and link to your content as proof), the better your PageRank becomes.

Indeed, we’ve returned to an era where companies must be transparent and forthcoming with thought leadership. Your company must not only have rave-worthy products, killer customer service and a great on-site user experience, but also relevant online (and offline) publications that validate your subject matter expertise.

In other words, you simply can’t game the system anymore.

For organizations expanding into international markets online, embracing these best practices of authenticity isn’t just important, it’s absolutely critical. To reach new global customers in their languages of choice, you must dedicate as much care to your international content marketing and SEO efforts as you would for your primary-market website — if not more.

Through years of translating, optimizing and operating international sites for the world’s biggest brands, I’ve become experienced in understanding, and adapting to, the unique challenges of international SEO. Here are a few tips we’ve learned that your company should consider when expanding into new online markets.


Site quality

It’s not enough to have great translatable content for your new customers; the on-site experience must also meet (or exceed) user expectations. Best practices on website navigation and design are quite easy to find online, so we won’t dive into that here. However, recent changes in Google’s algorithm left many companies’ international sites reeling. I think it’s important to share those findings instead.

You might recall Google’s “mobile friendly” algorithm update in April, which boosted the ranking of mobile-friendly webpages on mobile search results. What you might not know is that the update affected searches from mobile devices across all languages and locations.

This “mobilegeddon” update wasn’t world-ending for most companies’ English-language sites. Many companies had taken the necessary steps to prepare by converting their websites to a mobile-friendly format. However, it did hurt their international efforts where they may not have been as diligent. Post-update, we analyzed 40 of our clients’ international sites and discovered that the algorithmic changes had a greater impact on international mobile website traffic than on US English sites.

Organizations that implemented our mobile-friendly recommendations saw increases in mobile traffic — some by more than 40%.

Companies that didn’t saw much different results. After the mobile friendly update was deployed, the quantity of webpages that had mobile usability problems actually increased by an average of 35%. This resulted in a decline in mobile impressions of 20%, and a drop in overall impressions of 17%.

The lesson: take Google’s algorithm updates very seriously for every site your company operates — in every language and in every market.

Be where your customers are

Another trend to take seriously is the radical shift in how and where customers consume content. Making great content won’t move the needle if your audience can’t experience it in their channel of choice. Increasingly, this is mobile and tablet screens, and few sectors are reaching folks better there than the travel industry.

Thanks to the built-in international customer base, “the travel segment has done a more aggressive job of removing friction” between customers, content and transactional experiences, said Rick Barbari of Digital River.

This jibes well with our company’s own experience localizing and optimizing international sites for travel brands. In the case of one of our travel clients — an international airline that serves US Hispanic and Latin American markets — we created a Spanish-language mobile site for booking, updates and more. It was a smart play indeed, considering these users use the mobile web more often than the US average.

The results of this progressive cross-border business tactic were immediate and sustained.  Weeks after the Spanish mobile site was launched, this airline’s total Spanish site traffic (across desktop and mobile) grew 80%. Revenue from Spanish mobile users rose 363%. Now the airline generates more revenue in one day than it costs to operate the Spanish mobile site for an entire year.


Translation quality

Companies shouldn’t skimp on translation, either. Having your primary-market’s website translated excellently is critical to its success. Content that is translated with the utmost attention to quality and detail, taking into consideration local dialects, cultural nuances and other key variables, will resonate with your target market, increase their engagement with your site and boost your SEO efforts.

If you are outsourcing your translation, look for a vendor that can also put its figurative finger on the pulse of your new customers’ browsing and buying habits, and adapt its translations and persuasive messaging accordingly.

Translation is an art, but we’re also talking about science here. Things you should look for in a vendor include data-driven analysis — A/B testing results, traffic and engagement metrics — all things that identify key shopping behaviors and create ways to optimize the localized site’s translations, user experience (UX), conversion funnel and more.

Translation quality is imperative, and Google’s translation algorithms have improved so much in recent years that its technology can now “sniff” translated content and understand when it is high value (meaning well-crafted for humans), and when it is low value. High-value content naturally ranks higher.


Don’t just globalize, localize

On the web, how a company presents itself often plays a key role in whether customers will transact on its site. This is especially true for the quality of the site’s content, and in the instance of international sites, the quality of their localizations.

Indeed, even when expanding into other English-speaking markets, companies must take dialects and cultural nuances into consideration. Anyone who’s compared the spelling of words such as color and colour … or signed bank checks or cheques … or discussed fashion slacks or trousers (not to mention sneakers and trainers) … know that there are many local differences, both in spelling and vocabulary, between American English and the Queen’s English.

Our research clearly indicates that websites that don’t embrace these local differences fail to generate as much traffic or engagement and don’t rank as highly as those that do. Online shoppers pay attention to spelling and verbiage, and as the Nielsen Norman Group reported years ago, will quickly abandon sites when such cues make the site feel “foreign.”



social-based marketing

Finally, be sure to examine the best practices powering your primary-market website and online marketing efforts, and replicate them in your new international markets. This includes great content, a robust and fleet-footed social media presence, and timely holiday-specific sales and promotions.

For instance, we help many brands and retailers launch websites for the Chinese market. The influence of social networks, and their ability to drive traffic and revenue to Chinese sites, is growing dramatically.

Take one client that entered the Chinese online market about a year ago. It integrated functionality with social networks such as WeChat, Weibo and QQ. In the last several months:

30% of all referral traffic to the Chinese site hailed from social media sites.

Chinese social media drives 10% of all traffic (not just referral traffic) to the client’s Chinese site, and that number is growing.

Social media also contributes nearly 10% to all Chinese site revenue, and that number is growing.

Clients entering international markets should strongly consider integrating social network functionality — particularly networks that are most popular in those markets. It’s important to note that these may be very different networks than Westerners are accustomed to.

This move ensures maximum pen-
etration — and opportunities for traffic, revenue and conversion — into these increasingly connected markets. Additionally, these efforts boost critical international SEO signals.


Summing it up

Again, any good vendor can help you translate your international eCommerce sites, but it’s critical to work with one that understands the latest trends in international SEO.

They must be fluent in other nuances, too, such as the unique regional UX expectations from international shoppers, the many global social media platforms (and the best methods to connect with their users), and opportunities for resonant localizations (from country-specific holidays to product lines that accommodate local climates).

So is SEO really dead? Not quite. We like to say it’s evolved. Make sure your organization is prepared, primed and equipped to adapt to the changes and win, both at home and in international markets.