You or your clients want to sell products online to customers overseas. Perhaps you’re already exporting online but want to get better at it. International SEO is a digital marketing tactic that can help you reach customers overseas by getting your site ranking on different international search engines.
Before delving into the topic, it’s important to note that SEO is only one tactic within a digital marketing strategy and works best when it’s run alongside content marketing, social media marketing and online PR. Without a clear digital export strategy, you’re unlikely to achieve desired results on international search engine results pages.
Building solid foundations for international SEO can help you gain a better understanding of your target online export market. This blog post focuses on 7 steps of international SEO, and more specifically, the on-page SEO elements that you need to get right together with the initial research required to develop a holistic approach to online export.
1 – Initial research
Before getting into the technical aspects of international SEO, we need to collect data to inform our international online strategy. You need to decide which markets to target, what languages these target markets speak and how their consumers search. You may need a specialist multilingual digital marketing agency to help you conduct through market research, but during the early stages of exploration, you can conduct the research yourself. Here are some useful tools to get you started:
Use your Google analytics package to find out if you are currently getting international traffic coming to your site. Which countries do your international visitors come from? You might find that you have a large volume of traffic coming from certain countries. If you were considering which markets to target first, you may already have your answer!
Next, if you’ve found that your site already has an international audience, you can also find out what content your international audience consumes and what product pages they view. If you’re considering a microlaunch, this is great information to help you select the right products and content to launch first in your target market. Also, check out the search queries data in your webmaster tools package and filter by country to see which keywords international visitors are using to find your site on search engines.
If you haven’t found the volume of international traffic coming to your site that you were hoping for, don’t throw in the towel just yet. If you haven’t yet localised your site or launched an international search strategy, perhaps you’re not reaching international audiences yet. I’d recommend that you keep researching the overseas online market opportunities. However, if you’ve decided that you’d like to hold off on actively pursuing online export until you see a growth in international numbers visiting your site, you can set-up Google alerts to inform you when international traffic reaches a set volume.
Getting the geo settings right in your webmaster tools is simple but critical. Search engines use this setting as a key indicator to determine which country search engines your site should be ranking in. This article from Google explains it’s importance and also highlights that, if you’re targeting several countries with the same site (targeting by language), it’s better to leave site settings as ‘unlisted’.
Also, check out the search queries data and filter by country to see which keywords international visitors are using to find your site on search engines.
Google Global market finder
The Google global market finder is a useful tool for discovering opportunities, provided you understand its drawbacks. The way the tool works, is you insert your current location and user language, then write one of your core target keywords. Select the target group of countries that you’re considering for export (i.e. G20) and then search. Google will return results of the countries it believes to hold the greatest opportunity for your keyword. The rankings take into account the average number of monthly visits for the term as well as the CPC of the term in that country.
This tool provides interesting information to add to the rest of your market research. However, don’t make your decision on which countries to target solely based on the results from the global market finder. The fundamental flaw to the tool is that it translates your search term into the local language using Google Translate. Google Translate can translate terms a little too literally and will not necessarily provide the tool with the optimal search term used in the target language for your selected keyphrase.
The consumer barometer is a tool run by Google that allows you to find information on consumer online research and purchase behaviour. You can create graphs and data maps to find out the consumer purchase and research figures for your target countries and markets. For example, you may be an online retailer of DIY tools and are researching your export opportunities. You can select a country (say Spain) and compare Spanish consumers and their purchase and research behaviour of DIY tools with neighbouring countries to inform your decision.
2 – Segmenting by Language or Location
A big decision that you need to make early on during the international SEO process is whether you’re going to target markets by language or location. This strategy can change in time, but it’s important to determine your short term plan before launch.
Targeting by Location
This is the best option where you feel that the market potential deserves exclusive attention. When you target by country, it means that context and messages on each localised site can be targeted at a specific audience, leading to improved conversion rates.
For example, targeting the US market means:
- Using US English rather than UK English
- Using $ instead of £
- Creating content that focuses on US specific trends and attitudes
- Promoting products that are most likely to be popular with a US audience
- Developing and delivering policy focused on the US market
Targeting by Language
If you want to launch in several markets simultaneously, it may be better to target by language rather than location. This option is particularly valid on a tight budget. For example, South America may be the ideal export market for your business. However, at launch, the potential benefits of a localised site targeted at each national market may not justify the initial cost. In this example, you could target by language with localised pages in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. Later on in the process, as online export grows, you may find that a high proportion of customers in Latin America come from Chile. At this stage, you may decide that a localised site targeting Chile is a good move.
If you are targeting by language, it’s better not to use flags as language selectors. For example, if you’re actively targeting webs users across Latin America, it’s not wise to use the Spanish flag. Instead, use the localised name for the language (i.e. español).
3 – IP Address
There is confilicting opinion on the web regarding whether the location of the hosting IP address for a website is used as a geolocational factor on Google and other search engines. In other words, if you want your localised site to rank well on Google.de, is it beneficial to host the site on a German IP address? Although Matt Cutts from Google is somewhat vague in his response to this question, he does give us a definitive answer in this video blog. Matt Cutts informs us that although the location of an IP address used to be an important factor to determine a site’s location. The more important factors are the ccTLD (discussed later) and webmaster tool location signals.
So the answer is, the IP address does have an impact, but it’s minimal. This impact could be the difference between ranking #1 or #2 for a target term, and therefore a lower click through rate. I’d say that the answer to the IP address conundrum is that, if you’re looking to target two or even three countries with a localised ccTLD, it might be worth hosting each ccTLD on a local IP address. However, if you’re targeting more markets and countries, it’s probably not worth the additional costs and maintenance resources.
It’s important to also mention the potential impact that an IP address location can have on site speed. This probably isn’t a factor if your host a British site targeting French traffic. However, if you’re targeting Brazil from Britain, you will probably improve site speed for Brazilian visitors to your localised site if it’s hosted in Brazil rather than Britain. This would have a positive impact on site performance and conversion rates.
4 – Site Structure
You have three options when it comes to site structure for your localised content. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks:
A ccTLD is a country coded top level domain. Depending on your target markets, you could have example.com, example.co.uk and example.fr. A ccTLD provides search engines with a strong geolocation signal. It also enhances your branding in your target market and provides a trust signal to the local user.
- Strong geolocation signals
- Easy to manage and make alterations
- Good branding potential
- Opportunity to build a link profile which includes local links (i.e. the Italian ccTLD with inbound links from Italian sites)
- You can host sites on a local IP address
- Carries none of the authority signals from your domestic site.
- Additional maintenance costs and resources are required
This option means that you host your new, localised content in a folder within your existing site (i.e. example.com/fr).
- You only have the maintenance costs and resource requirements for one site
- Localised content receives authority signals from your existing site
- Not as effective from a branding perspective as a ccTLD
- Gets complicated when you deal with more than one language
- You don’t get the geolocation signals that you get with a ccTLD
A bit like a lower tier domain, a subdomain is a division of an existing domain and would look something like this fr.example.com.
- Unlike a subfolder, you can set-up a subdomain on a local IP address
- Doesn’t consolidate authority signals from your existing site
- Requires additional maintenance similar to ccTLD
- Not great for branding
- More complicated than setting up a ccTLD
- Geolocation signals aren’t as strong as a ccTLD
A ccTLD is undoubtedly the best choice when it comes down to international SEO. With a ccTLD, you give your site the best possible chance of ranking highly in target market search engines. However, if you want to target 10 different markets, this option may not be practical. In this case, if resources are tight, you’d be better off with a subfolder.
5 – Hreflang Tag
The Hreflang tag is used by Google to correctly determine the identity of the language and location of your web page. This can help solve issues where you have a multilingual site targeting different locations but Google isn’t correctly identifying and ranking each correctly. For example, your Spanish site is ranking above your Mexican site on Google.com.mx. The tag simply goes in the <head> section of your web page. Aleyda Solis has created a very useful tool which will generate your hreflang tag for you. Check out her tool to find the tag format for your target country and language
6 – Translation & Keyword Research
Point #1 – Many sites use the Google Translate widget on their web site to allow users to read the site in their own language. This may seem like a good, cost effective idea which allows you to present your site in dozens of languages. Don’t do it! Google Translate is a good tool that has its uses, but it’s not right for your website. Your content will never be translated perfectly into a new language. It’s great a translating content literally, but it can’t pick up nuance and style. Your page will be littered with mistakes and will look extremely unprofessional. Try copying and pasting a paragraph from your site now into Google Translate, selecting any target language. Now put that translated version back through the translator into English. Happy with the quality? I’m guessing the answer is no.
Point #2 – Work with a professional translator that will translate into their native tongue. If your site has technical or specialist content (i.e. pharmaceutical), make sure you work with a translator that specialises in your area (or check that the agency you are working with is doing so). Maybe you have a member of your team that’s French, or you have a friend that speaks fluent French? Think carefully before asking them to translate the content for you. Just because your next door neighbour speaks English, would you let them write the content for your website? Same goes for your content in any other language. Use a professional writer.
Point #3 – You need to make sure that keyword research is conducted in the target language. Simply translating the keywords for your domestic site is not a great way to go. For example, you may sell running shoes in the UK and the keyphrase ‘running shoes’ is the optimal keyphrase for your product. However, in Germany, the best keyphrase may be a translation of ‘running trainers’. Unless you’ve had fresh keyword research conducted in German, you wouldn’t know that. Not only do you need your external partner to conduct keyword research, but you also need them to know how to implement this through on-page SEO best practice. If you’re working with an agency for your website translation, work with a specialist in digital or search marketing rather than a standard translation agency.
7 – Localising
With localising, golden rule #1 is never to leave sections of the page un-localised. I’ve seen it so many times, a site has been localised and translated, the blog hasn’t, yet the localised site still contain a link to the blog (in the original language). This creates a really unprofessional experience for the user and will affect their trust in the site. You don’t have to localise everything on a site if you don’t feel it’s relevant to the audience or you don’t have the budget. However, if you’re not going to localise sections such as the blog, remove all links to the blog in the localised version of the site.
Some tips on what needs to be translated/localised:
- Meta description
- Navigation and menu
- Body text
- Currency and prices
- Contact details
- Delivery instructions
- Product description (ma need more or less information depending on the audiences’ knowledge of the product)