You have the website, the knowledge, the resources, and the experience it takes to make your business stand out. You also have an international presence, perhaps in more than one foreign market. All you’re missing is website traffic that converts — the Holy Grail for any business. But how do you achieve that when your website is designed for a specific locale, and Google returns different search results depending on the user’s country and language?
Say hello to international SEO: the process of optimizing your website content to drive organic traffic from multiple countries and/or languages. It’s not easy, but with the right tools and strategies in place, it can be a huge boon to your international business.
Take this article as a crash course in international SEO. I’ll cover the basics of how it works, what you need to do to get started, and some common pitfalls to avoid. So whether you’re just getting started or you’re looking for ways to improve your current strategy, read on and get ready to conquer the world (or at least a few more countries)!
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the process of optimizing a website’s content and structure to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) for users in foreign markets.
The goal is to attract visitors from specific countries and/or languages, with the intent of converting them into customers.
How is international SEO different from “regular” SEO?
If we were to divide SEO according to its target audience, a possible breakdown would look something like this:
- Domestic SEO: This is “regular” SEO, or SEO as you know it — targeting users in your home country.
- International SEO: This is SEO targeting users in foreign countries.
An important consideration: International SEO may target people from other parts of the world but doesn’t necessarily involve multilingual content — think of English-speaking users in Australia, Canada, Ireland, or the US. Several countries, one language. If the division was by language, then SEO would include:
- Monolingual SEO: This is SEO targeting users in just one language.
- Multilingual SEO: This is SEO targeting users in two or more languages.
Just like international SEO can just involve one language, multilingual SEO could well be constrained by geographical boundaries to only one country — there are countries with more than one official language, after all. Drawing from the above, we can speak of:
- Domestic monolingual SEO
- Domestic multilingual SEO
- International monolingual SEO
- International multilingual SEO
For the purpose of this article, when I speak of international SEO, I’m referring to the fourth category: international multilingual SEO.
Why do businesses need international SEO?
The short answer is this: because the world has gone global. Thanks to the internet, businesses can now reach customers all over the world from the comfort of their own homes.
But simply having a website isn’t enough. You need to make sure that your website is visible to the right people, in the right places, and that you combine cultural knowledge of those places with SEO expertise — both back-end tactics and on-page optimization — to achieve the best results in every target region. That’s where international SEO comes in.
Is international SEO for everyone?
No, international SEO is not for everyone. Your potential to reach and convert foreign customers will determine whether developing a new presence or optimizing an existing one for international SEO is the right move for your business. If you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions:
- What’s my site’s current traffic (organic and total) from foreign countries?
- What’s my site’s current conversion rate from foreign traffic?
- What’s my site’s current organic search visibility in foreign countries?
- Can I afford to invest in developing a new presence overseas, or expanding and optimizing my current one?
- Do I have the time and resources to learn about different cultures and how they interact with search engines?
- Do the potential traffic and conversions from foreign countries justify the investment?
If your answers to most of these questions are negative, then international SEO may not be for you. However, that doesn’t mean you should give up on global expansion — it may be more feasible to focus on domestic SEO first and then branch out into foreign markets as your business grows.
Main international SEO terms
Before we delve into the actual tactics of international SEO take a quick look to page 61 on your right, listing some of the main terms you’ll encounter.
Main international SEO terms
Before we delve into the actual tactics of international SEO take a quick look to page 61 on your right, listing some of the main terms you’ll encounter.
How does international SEO work?
Now that we’ve covered the basic terminology, let’s examine how international SEO actually works.
The first step is to identify your target countries and determine which of those countries you want to rank in. Once you’ve decided on your targets, the next step is to carry out some good ol’ market research to identify things like:
- The language(s) spoken in those countries
- Local consumer behavior, including search engine usage, preferred payment methods, and preferred shipping and delivery methods
- Any cultural differences that could affect your website’s content or design, like colors with negative connotations or taboo subjects
- Any cultural differences that might affect search behavior (e.g., preference for local brands, etc.)
- The competitive landscape
- What type of content tends to perform best in those countries (e.g., video tutorials, infographics, blog posts, etc.)
- Popular social media platforms in those countries that could help you drive traffic and engagement to your website
- Any other factors that could affect your success in those countries
Once you have this information, there are three main factors that you need consider when optimizing a website for foreign markets: website structure, on-page optimization (content), and back-end optimization.
The structure of your website — its URL architecture and navigation — is key to getting it ranked in foreign markets. Some best practices include:
- Using localized URLs, whether with a ccTLD or gTLD. For example, if you had a skincare company and you were trying to penetrate the German market, you could use www.skincare.de or www.skincare.com/de. Do consider that using ccTLDs will create separates websites rather than just localized versions of your existing website, and those new websites will start with zero SEO authority. You will have to work to get them ranked, and it could take months or even years.
- Using the geo-targeting settings in Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, or equivalent to indicate to the search engines which countries you’re targeting.
- Creating individual profiles for each country on Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, or equivalent to track each country’s search engine rankings and organic traffic.
- Using the correct hreflang tags in each page’s code. For Germany, the hreflang tag for www.skincare.com/de would look something like <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://skincare.com/de” hreflang=”de-de”/>
- If possible, hosting each country’s website with a local IP address.
- Minding URL length, as it affects both SEO and UX. The appropriate page URL is 75 characters long. However, up to 120 characters will also be indexed quite well. Your URL length doesn’t need to be deliberately short, but by excluding words like ‘of’, ‘the’, etc. and, instead, using dashes between content words, crawlers and search engines will pick up your URL much more easily.
The on-page elements of your website — headings, copy, images, etc. — play a major role in how well you rank in foreign markets. If you localize your website’s content using the correct keywords and phrases, you’re more likely to be found by searchers in those countries and to appeal to their cultural sensibilities.
The more local users feel your website is designed for them, the more likely they are to trust it, click through to it, and convert, which in turn will help to improve your website’s ranking. Some general tips for on-page optimization include:
- Adapting keywords and phrases to local languages. This doesn’t mean a direct translation of your keywords, but rather finding the right local terms that will resonate with your target audience. For example, German consumers tend to be very environmentally aware. Therefore, to rank well in Germany, your skincare company website would need to target keywords that emphasize its green credentials and environmental friendliness.
- Optimizing for different currencies. If you’re targeting a country that uses a different currency than your home country, make sure to use localized currency symbols in your content and on your website. You’ll also need to decide whether the price adaptation will go beyond a purely “cosmetic” change (e.g. €10 instead of $10), whether you’ll use the foreign currency’s exchange rate to calculate your prices (e.g. 1€ = 1.25$), or whether you’ll apply a completely different pricing model based on the target market’s economic conditions.
- Using localized images and videos. If you’re targeting a foreign market, it’s a good idea to use localized images and videos on your website. It will feel more authentic and trustworthy to potential customers.
- Including localized contact information. If you want your website to rank in a foreign country, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for people to contact you. Make sure to include local phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts on your website.
- Localizing website content. This is perhaps the most important on-page element of international SEO — you need to make sure that all of your website’s content is localized for each target market. This includes not just translating your text, but also adapting it to what’s locally popular, culturally relevant, and legally acceptable. Ensuring that internal and external links point to local-language content is also part of content localization.
- Localizing the user interface (design, layout, and navigation). Adapting the UI includes anything from accounting for different text lengths and widths across languages and supporting right-to-left scripts for languages like Arabic and Hebrew to changing the color scheme and layout to account for cultural preferences. For example, Asian cultures prefer website designs that are cluttered and include a lot of text.
- Localizing the user experience. This involves considerations such as providing local customer support, supporting local payment methods, or even adapting contact forms to localized formats. For example, in Spain, contact forms need to include two fields for surnames because Spanish surnames are typically double-barreled.
Back-end optimization (off-page and technical SEO tactics)
The final piece of the puzzle is back-end optimization. This includes all the actions and tactics that you deploy either away from your own website or behind-the-scenes on your website.
Here are a few of the most important back-end optimization tactics for international SEO:
- Link building. A strong backlink profile is essential for any website looking to rank in foreign markets. You’ll need to focus on getting links from high-quality websites that are relevant to your target market.
- Social media profiles. While Google has stated its rankings aren’t directly affected by social media shares, social media can still be a powerful tool for driving traffic to your website. Set up social media profiles for your business in all of the key markets you’re targeting, and share high-quality content regularly.
- Local business listings. Get your website listed in as many local business directories as possible. This will help to improve your website’s local visibility and organic search traffic.
- Local reviews. Encourage your customers in each target market to leave reviews of your business on popular review websites and on your Google My Business profile if you have one. This will help to build trust and authority for your website in those markets.
- Optimizing each page’s metadata (i.e., the title tag, meta description, alt text, etc.). For each target market, make sure the metadata includes the relevant keywords and phrases that you want the page to rank for.
- 301 redirects. When you want to move or delete a page on your website, setting up redirects ensures that any links to the old page are automatically redirected to the new page and that the SEO authority of the old page is passed on to the new one
- Crawlability. Ensuring that your website is crawlable by search engine bots is essential for getting your website ranked in foreign markets. Make sure to check your website’s robots.txt file and submit a sitemap to Google Search Console or equivalent for each different target market.
- URL encryption. This is becoming increasingly important as Google continues to give preference to websites that are encrypted with SSL (Secure Soccer Layer) and HTTPS (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure). These technologies prevent data theft by encrypting all communication between the user’s browser and the website.
- Mobile responsiveness. Your site should be mobile responsive in all markets, meaning that it looks good and functions well on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. If it doesn’t, you’ll likely experience a significant loss in traffic from mobile users.
- Page speed. Your website’s page speed is another important factor that Google factors when ranking websites. Make sure to optimize your images, scripts, and code in every language version of your site to ensure a fast loading time for all of your webpages.
- Domain authority. Building up the authority of your website’s domain is essential for ranking in foreign markets. There are several different strategies you can use, including link building, social media engagement, and publishing high-quality content. Remember that using ccTLDs that result in separate websites for each language version of your site is not as effective for building domain authority as using a single website with multiple language versions.
International SEO pitfalls to avoid
As with any SEO strategy, there are some potential pitfalls that you need to be aware of when undertaking an international SEO campaign.
When you’re targeting multiple countries and/or languages, it’s easy to inadvertently create duplicate content across your website. This can happen, for example, when you translate a page’s content into different languages but don’t use hreflang tags to tell Google and other search engines which language version is the primary version.
This happens when two or more pages on your website target the same keywords or phrases. This can be a problem because it can cause Google to rank one of the pages lower than the others, as it sees them as competing for the same traffic.
Cannibalization often occurs accidentally. For example, different people may be working on optimizing different pages within the same language version of your website, and they’re not aware of what the other is doing. Or perhaps you haven’t used the appropriate hreflang tags or geo-targeting settings, and different versions of your website are competing for the same traffic.
A big no-no in back-end international SEO is setting up automatic location redirects based on the user’s IP or browser language preference. While the intention may be to ensure that users are automatically redirected to the correct language version of your website, Google actually recommends against this practice, as it can frustrate users who don’t want to be redirected.
Moreover, multiple countries can have multiple official languages, so assuming one based purely on the user’s IP or browser settings can lead to inaccurate redirection.
Direct keyword translation
Another common international SEO mistake is to simply translate keywords from one language into another without taking local cultural nuances into account. For example, if you sell pest-control services, users from different parts of the world might search for your services with terms allusive to pests that are specific to their region (e.g., cockroaches in the US., bedbugs in the UsK.).
Using flags to indicate languages
Flags are not languages. Why would you use the UK flag to mean “English”, when there’s at least 100 countries where English is a common language? Why use the Spanish flag to mean “Spanish”, when there are about 20 countries in Latin America where Spanish is the official language?
Flags can be useful for indicating country, but avoid using it to indicate the website’s language if you don’t want to risk putting off users who don’t share that nationality. Instead, use the name of the language, written in the local language (e.g., “Español” for Spanish).
Not working with experts
Hiring local-market content writers and localizers who are experts in both the language and the local SEO landscape can be essential to the success of your international SEO campaign. Trying to do everything yourself can be a recipe for disaster, so it’s always best to collaborate with people who know what they’re doing.
This includes avoiding machine translation as much as possible, except in cases where you have a limited budget and the content is either not highly visible (e.g., footer text) or quickly perishable (e.g., user-generated content). in these cases, machine-translation-post-editing can be a viable option if approached with caution.
International SEO is a highly complex field, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. If you’re looking for more in-depth information, be sure to check out some of the following resources:
- The Google Search Central Blog: This official blog from Google covers a wide range of topics related to search, including international SEO.
- Moz’s International SEO resources: Moz is a comprehensive online resource for all things SEO, and its articles and guides on international SEO are particularly informative.
- Search Engine Land’s Ultimate Guide to Multilingual and Multiregional SEO: This guide from Search Engine Land is a great starting point for anyone looking to improve their website’s multilingual SEO.
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Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish translator specialised in Marketing and SEO for SaaS companies. She’s also the Operations
Manager of Crisol Translation Services, a boutique team of translators that’s a blend between a translation agency and a freelancer.