If you’ve worked in online content, including e-commerce, you’ve probably encountered search engine optimization (SEO) and the term ‘international SEO.’
SEO is a process that helps websites rank on search engines like Google and Yandex to get organic traffic. That’s traffic that doesn’t involve creating paid ads.
Using SEO translation services, you can get your website to rank in both your country and internationally. But what if you want to expand to specific countries and have your products and services rank in those countries?
Then you need international SEO, which comes with its own criteria for keyword research, optimization, and in some cases content.
Using standard SEO best practices may not guarantee the results you’re looking for. In fact, in some cases, according to HubSpot, using standard SEO practices may “hurt your brand in other countries.”
That’s why, if you’re looking to expand and rank in other countries, you’ll need to have an international SEO strategy.
Find out how you can create an international SEO strategy, use best practices, create SEO-friendly URL structures, understand hreflang tags, and more.
But…What is international SEO?
International SEO is a subset of SEO practices that businesses and individuals use to rank on search engines. However, with international SEO, websites can rank in different countries and across different languages.
There are roughly 99,424 Google searches per second, according to Internet Live Stats. So, having an international SEO strategy within your larger growth strategy would definitely come in handy.
But if before you launch your international SEO strategy, you need to be sure that your target audience is interested in and looking for your product.
For example, if you’re looking to sell snow jackets, targeting a country like the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait will be a bad choice. Because even in winter, these countries are fairly warm.
So no matter how great your international SEO strategy is, the best practices you follow, and even if you rank at #1 in those countries, you still won’t see any traction.
On the other hand, if you’re a US company that’s considering expanding to Canada, your snow jackets will see strong traction.
Using international SEO best practices will help you rank on Google when people look for products that are similar to yours.
Using international SEO, you’ll be able to direct your Canadian customers to pages that offer Canadian price tags and shipping information.
“You’ll need a website structure that includes both U.S. and Canadian pages and leverages enough metadata that search requests from users will direct them to the right page for their current location,” explains HubSpot.
It’s worth noting that when different languages are involved international SEO is called multilingual SEO.
Best practices for international SEO
what is the Difference Between Local SEO & International SEO
Before we dive into when you’d need to use international SEO and what international SEO best practices are, let’s first differentiate between local SEO and international SEO.
Let’s look at this definition of local SEO from SEMRush:
“Local SEO is the process of optimizing a business, product, or service for a search query that is location-specific.”
Search engines like Google use a user’s location such as IP address for desktop or geo-location for mobile searches to decide which results from this user will see when they search for a particular query.
This means that when a user searches for a local dentist, coffee shop, or car wash, the search engine will show the local businesses in their location.
For example, if you’re in Italy and you’re looking for a nearby dentist, writing “dentist in Milan” or “dentist in Venice” will show you dentists that are local to that area.
When do you need international SEO?
Another way to ask this question is whether your business needs international SEO, to begin with. And the answer, like most things SEO-related, is “it depends.”
Put simply, international SEO is for businesses or companies that are looking to expand globally. If you’re not planning to do so, at least for a few years, then it’s best not to invest in international SEO just yet.
Why? Because if you do invest in international SEO and international audiences discover that your products won’t be delivered to them or aren’t intended for them, they’ll leave your site. Doing so, you’d have hurt any chances of future expansions.
Meanwhile, if you’re planning to sell your products in non-local markets, using international SEO best practices will help you rank among competitors in those markets.
The Best 4 tips for international SEO
Despite the varied requirements for international and multilingual SEO, when it comes to international SEO best practices, the tips are – luckily – the same.
And whether you choose to conduct your international SEO strategy internally, through an agency, or by hiring a consultant, these best practices don’t change either.
Tip 1: Create content in your target market’s native language
Speaking the language of your target audience is part and parcel of any marketing effort. International SEO is no exception.
This means you’ll need to research how they speak and answer their questions in the same way.
Tip 2: Localize your content and keywords
If your target audience speaks a different language than yours, you’ll not only need to translate your online content but also use localization and transcreation.
Localization is a sub-category of translation that turns the content from a mere translation to a more country or dialect-focused version.
If you’re a US-based business and you’re planning to target the UK, you’ll need to research the terms they use when looking up businesses like yours.
For example, in the UK a lawyer is called a barrister, and cookies are called biscuits.
There are also spelling differences like ‘favorite’ and ‘humor’ in US English become ‘favourite’ and ‘humour’ in UK English. But that’s just localizing in the same language.
On the other hand, if you’re targeting customers in Switzerland or Austria, you’re better off localizing your German language to those specific regions. Roughly 60% of Swiss people speak German but Swiss German differs from the German spoken in Germany.
This makes localization an integral aspect and one of the top multilingual SEO best practices.
Tip 3: Localize the user experience as well.
User experience plays a key role in any form of content strategy, including your international and multilingual SEO strategy.
How a user interacts with a product, service, or system can make or break that product. This experience varies from filling out forms on your website to viewing prices in the customer’s local currency to many other ‘experiences.’
You should ensure that your product or service is efficient and easy to use with clear guidelines.
Tip 4: Avoid automatic IP address redirects
We’ve mentioned that it’s best to show your ‘new’ target audience content in their native language. However, a best practice for international SEO is to give users the decision to choose how they view your website.
If you’ve ever landed on a website and saw a pop-up asking if you’d like to switch to your country, region, or language, then you’ve been given a choice based on your IP address.
You’ll often find this with international brands like H&M, Ikea, Nike, and others who have multilingual websites.
Having Hreflang Tags Is Important!
A critical element in any international SEO strategy is Hreflang tags.
Whether you choose to conduct your own international SEO strategy or outsource it to an agency, you need to understand what hreflang tags are and how they work.
What is a hreflang tag?
A hreflang tag is an HTML attribute that helps a search engine understand the geographic location and language of a webpage or website.
Used as a language tagging tool, hreflang tags indicate the differences between “similar webpages aimed at different audiences so that search engines don’t count them as duplicate content,” explains HubSpot.
If you’re targeting a specific country, it’s best to use the hreflang tag to not only specify the language of your webpages but also “geotarget each one of your international Web versions,” notes SEO expert Neil Patel.
Hreflang tags are a great way to improve your website’s user experience. If a user in France lands searches for your business, you want them to see the French page, not the English one. And that’s where hreflang tags come in.
By using hreflang tags correctly, you can see other improved website metrics like a lower bounce rate and higher conversions.
Ahrefs blog gives a great example of what a hreflang tag looks like.
Hreflang tags use the simple and consistent syntax:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x" href="https://example.com/alternate-page" />
Here’s what each part of that code means in plain English:
- link rel=“alternate”: The link in this tag is an alternate version of this page.
- hreflang=“x”: It’s alternate because it’s in a different language, and that language is x.
- href=“https://example.com/alternate-page”: The alternate page can be found at this URL.
international SEO keyword research
As a website or e-commerce store that’s used SEO, you’re likely familiar with keyword research.
However, when it comes to conducting international keyword research, you should be aware that what works for your local SEO strategy won’t work for your global one.
The main differences can range from how potential customers look up businesses and products like yours.
Re-using the lawyer example, if you’re targeting a UK audience, you’ll need to use their term for a lawyer, which is a barrister. Ranking for lawyers in the UK is unlikely to support your traffic or conversion efforts.
International SEO URL structure
Another key aspect of your international SEO strategy is the URL structure.
“A URL is an address on the internet. It’s made up of a protocol, domain name, and a path.” (Design Powers)
The protocol is the http:// or https:// where the ‘s’ stands for ‘secure.’
Your URL structure plays a role in enhancing your user experience and improving your page rank. It’s critical in giving your multilingual SEO efforts a boost.
There are three main elements that affect URL structure for international or multilingual SEO. These factors are:
Region and language
Cost and effort
Your corporate structure
Let’s look at each of these factors in more detail.
When you embark on international SEO and website translation, you should consider whether you’re targeting a region, a single country, or a single language.
International SEO is harder to do than standard SEO and involves many technical SEO requirements that will be carried out by your developer, including hreflang tags.
That’s why it’s important to estimate early on the effort and cost required to create a multilingual website and conduct your global SEO strategy to get that site to rank.
How your company operates can play a role in your URL structure and overall SEO strategy.
Before we look at how you can set up an international SEO-friendly URL structure, let’s look at the five options to consider before launching your international website.
You can use one of the below options:
Both options are considered best practices for international SEO.
Some businesses may opt to have both a ccTLD or gTLD and a subdomain to get the benefit of both the country code and the gTLD. The URL structure would look like this ca.mybusiness.com.
Parameters for English look like this: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/189077?hl=en, whereas the same parameters for German look like this: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/189077?hl=de
Once you’ve decided, which of these options you’re going to use for your website’s international audiences, you’ll then need to make your URL structure user-friendly.
Here are five tips for an international SEO-friendly URL structure
What is SEO translation?
Often businesses will need translation or more specifically a combination of localization and transcreation to translate their websites into languages for their new target audiences.
In many cases, especially online retailers, the translation process is a tedious one. E-commerce translation comes with a set of best practices that are different from traditional translation.
Moreover, e-commerce translation projects tend to be quite large covering dozens and hundreds of web pages with SEO requirements, and in this case international SEO needs.
In other words, these websites need SEO translation.
“SEO translation means optimizing the translation of your website content to help it rank well in local searches when potential customers search online for the products and services of your company inside their countries.” – Translation Partner.
However, the process of optimizing your website translation to be in line with SEO best practices is no easy feat. It requires translators who are both capable of conducting SEO keyword research and who are skilled in localization, translation, and transcreation.
7 international SEO questions to ask before creating your strategy
Every strategy needs to have a basis. For a successful global SEO strategy, the following 7 questions will act as both your guide and the basis of that strategy.
These international SEO questions will get you from the starting line to the finish line.
Let’s explore these 7 questions:
Question 1: Which country are you targeting?
Your first question and task are to decide which country you’ll be targeting. The answer to this question will affect your approach.
For example, while most countries use Google as their search engine, some countries don’t. China uses Baidu and Sogou, while South Korea uses Naver and Russia uses Yandex.
If you’re looking to target one or more of these countries – even if Russia is in a hot seat now and it’s best to avoid it – you’ll need to look at each search engine’s SEO requirements.
Question 2: What to target: The language or the country?
A common international SEO question is which is better for your business: Targeting a country or targeting a specific language? The answer to this question is: It depends on your goals and what you want to achieve. For example, if your target is to attract a wide audience regardless of where they live, then your answer would be to target a language.
On the other hand, if you’re limited by shipping routes, don’t want high fees or taxes, or something else, you may want to target by country. This is known as country-based SEO.
Question 3: What are the top localization factors that can affect your business?
Localization is a subset of translation where the translated text becomes country or locale-specific.
For example, if you’re doing international SEO and targeting German-speaking audiences, you’ll need to consider whether you’ll localize your site to Germany’s German or Swiss German.
However, if your answer to question 2 was language not region, then your target will be standard German without much localization.
Another example is the African e-commerce website Jumia, which is available in several French-speaking countries on the continent. However, Jumia doesn’t use a single website to target all those countries.
Instead, they have multiple versions of the same language to fit each country. Jumia is a great example of a multilingual website because it has different French websites for Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, and Ivory Coast.
Another important aspect of international SEO that requires some transcreation or creative translation is localizing slogans and mottos.
Word-for-word or rigid translation can hurt a brand badly. A widely-referred-to example is Pepsi’s failure to translate its “Come alive with Pepsi” slogan in Chinese. Their slogan was – unfortunately – translated into what meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!” (Ouch!)
That’s why answering questions about whether you’re targeting a market or a language and bearing in mind the importance of localization and transcreation can make or break your international SEO efforts.
Question 4: Can you build local links?
An important element in any SEO strategy is backlinks. When you’re conducting a global SEO strategy, however, you’ll need to look at how easy or difficult it is to build backlinks in that market.
To build local backlinks, you may go for one or more of the following:
– Write for local blogs
– Sponsor posts in local blogs or magazines
– Sponsor local events (for brand awareness)
– Collaborate with local social media influencers
Which of these options you go for depends on the product or service you provide and your industry.
Question 5: How does social media fit in with your international SEO strategy?
A common question among SEO people is whether or not social media is important for SEO. While social media does not impact rankings, according to Google, it does indicate that people are sharing your posts.
Question 6: Can you keep up with keywords?
Keywords are essential in any SEO effort. But with international SEO, you’ll need to look at keywords differently.
While you may be able to rank for some keywords, it’ll be a competitive market with more local, and already-known, businesses ranking for the same keywords.
That’s why it’s important to look at how keywords are used, where they are used, and how they are helping others rank. You’ll then need to decide if targeting similar or related keywords may yield better results.
Question 7: Do you have the right talent for your international SEO journey?
This may seem like an odd international SEO question but it’s quite relevant. Because without the right team, talent, and tools, your international SEO strategy will suffer.
That’s why you should have at least one person who’s familiar with how SEO, and specifically how international SEO works.
You can also consider hiring an international SEO agency or collaborating with a translation agency, like TranslationPartner, that specializes in SEO translation for websites and e-commerce sites.
How to save money on international SEO
International SEO involves creating multiple websites each localized in a different language or dialect which makes it a costly endeavor. At least compared to standard or local SEO practices.
So how can you reach audiences in other countries and languages without breaking the bank?
Here are 5 tips to help you cut international SEO costs:
Tip 1: Use ccTLDs with website design
Part of your global SEO strategy will be creating multilingual websites, which can easily result in tons of development work.
A good way to save money and time is to use different country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). These are domains for each site that are linked to your own.
ccTLDs help you save money because you’ll be reusing the same website design, structure, content management system (CMS), and webpage templates. In other words, your website will look the same in multiple languages.
Tip 2: Cut website operation costs with current developers.
Website maintenance and operation are usually done in code, which means you don’t need multilingual developers. Your team can maintain all your multilingual websites from a single location.
If you decide to use the ccTLDs from idea #1, you’ll already be cutting on website operation costs because the site structure is the same across all languages.
“Creating and updating a robots.txt file and XML sitemap files are some of the simpler activities that you can centralize immediately,” notes Search Engine Journal.
Tip 3: Think about SEO localization
An essential part of your global SEO strategy is SEO translation.
A good option to help you cut costs is to provide the person or agency you’re working with, with the relevant keywords you’re targeting earlier on.
Working with an agency like TranslationPartner comes with the added benefit of having people familiar with international and multilingual SEO best practices working on your website translation.
Tip 4: Repurpose and localize your content
While localization often comes at a higher rate than translation, it gives a more local feel.
A good way to reduce costs before launching your international SEO strategy is to repurpose the same language for localization.
For example, if your strategy involves Spanish translation for Spain, Mexico, and Argentina, you may want to translate into one version of Spanish (Spain) and then have an agency or a freelancer localize that version for the other Spanish-speaking countries.
Tip 5: Create an international SEO success checklist
As you can see, global SEO has many facets. From questions, you need to answer for every language you target to considering cost-reduction options to doing the actual optimization and localization work. The best way to stay on top of things is to create and follow through with an international SEO success checklist.
International SEO Checklist: 15 Steps For Guaranteed Success
So how can you ensure a successful global SEO campaign or plan?
By using and ticking off items in your international SEO checklist.
Every time you want to add a new country or language to grow your business, you can refer to this checklist and tick off every item you complete.
Checkpoint 1: Do your market research
The first step in any strategy is to conduct your market research and decide on where you’ll expand your business to.
Not sure which country you should target for your expansion? Consider one of the following points:
- Look at incoming traffic using Google Analytics to see if there’s a country or more that you’re not selling to and consider creating a localized website with international SEO for your target audience there.
- Research which markets have the largest customer base on the potential demand for your product or service. Prioritize which country you’d like to start with.
- Another option is to review the Language Report available in Google Analytics and see what the top languages your customers speak.
Checkpoint 2: consider logistics for global trade
Although multilingual websites can be in any industry, this point relates to e-commerce and any business that sells physical products.
Having a local phone number, address, and localized website content contributes to your SEO performance because they’re considered SEO ranking factors.
If you’re considering establishing a branch in that country, you may leverage the benefits of Google My Business.
Checkpoint 3: Define your site URL structure
An important element on your international SEO checklist and your greater global SEO strategy is defining your website structure.
Your website structure helps increase your visibility and a good user experience (UX) will help customers buy from you.
Consider which of the following website structure options you’ll use for your multilingual site. It’s important that you convey what you want to do now and in the future to your developer.
Your website structure entails your domain structure and whether you prefer a country-code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD), a generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD), or a sub-directory.
What is a ccTLD?
A ccTLD is a two-letter domain that indicates a specific country in your website’s URL. If your website xyz.com is adding Canada as a new market, a ccTLD will look like this: xyz.ca, or for the UK, it’ll be xyz.uk.
What is a gTLD?
The second option is to use a gTLD, which indicates a general domain extension that can include three or more characters. Examples of gTLDs include .com, .org, and .gov.
However, using gTLDs won’t limit search engine results by region. This “may reduce total traffic since many users prefer sites that include their country-code TLD,” notes HubSpot.
This means that a ccTLD website structure is better for your international SEO strategy.
What is a sub-directory?
The third option is to use a sub-directory, which looks like this: xyz.com/de for German, /es for Spanish, /uk for the UK, and so on.
Checkpoint 4: Decide on language vs country
Another important item on your international SEO checklist is deciding: Country or language?
Here you’ll have to decide if your intention is to reach a new market based on location or if you want to target people who speak a different language.
For example, if you want to target Arabic speakers, you’ll need to pick which of the 22 Arab countries you’ll add to your international SEO strategy.
On the other hand, you may choose to target Arabic speakers in general and therefore have a less-localized but broader Arabic site. In this case, whether your customers are coming from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, won’t really matter.
Checkpoint 5: set up Hreflang tags
Businesses looking to launch an international SEO strategy need to use hreflang tags. These are small pieces of code that multilingual websites use to help search engines understand the language the searcher is using and connect them with that language.
For example, an Italian speaker would see content in Italian, whereas a French speaker would see French content, and so on.
One of the top benefits of using hreflang tags is that they prevent the different versions and languages of your website from competing in search.
“Hreflang tags are not necessary when using separate domains (ccTLDs) because of the signal from the country code, although some people elect to use them with the reasoning that the hreflang tag can strengthen the location signal,” explains the Alexa Blog.
Checkpoint 6: Conduct international keyword research
If you know anything about SEO, then you know how important keyword research and long-tail keywords are.
In this part of your checklist, you’ll need to conduct keyword research for international markets and in languages other than yours.
You may opt to hire an agency or native-speaking freelance SEO consultant for this phase of your global SEO strategy.
TranslationPartner is a translation agency that provides SEO translation services, including international SEO. If you’d like to outsource this item along with the next one, get in touch with TranslationPartner team.
Checkpoint 7: Localize your website content
Now it’s time to move to create the content for your international website(s). An important aspect of website translation is that it involves either transcreation (or creative translation) and localization.
Both are subsets of the translation umbrella. However, they are more advanced and specific.
Localization means the difference between translating your website into Arabic for the United Arab Emirates or for Egypt. Both countries speak Arabic, but local dialects and language usage are significantly different.
It’s important that you avoid machine translation because there are nuances that software doesn’t pick up on and can result in hilarious results.
Checkpoint 8: Set a link-building strategy
Link-building is part of any SEO strategy, which is why it sits on your international SEO website checklist.
You’ll need to look at link-building opportunities and see how you’ll connect with others to generate links to your site.
You can collaborate with local influencers, write guest posts on local websites, and sponsor events for brand building, among other ideas.
Consider building relationships with high-domain authority sites. After all, having 2 or 3 backlinks from high-domain-authority websites (with a rating of 50 or higher) means more to search engines than getting 50 backlinks from low-domain-authority sites.
Checkpoint 8: Use social media marketing for a global audience
While social media does not impact your SEO ranking, it does serve other purposes such as connecting with your target audience and allowing you to share your connection.
Social media also helps you engage with your target market and helps drive them to your site.
Checkpoint 9: Don’t forget about page experience
Google has been focusing on-page experience for some time. But in May 2021, Google included Core Web Vitals among its ranking factors.
That’s why page experience – including how your website appears on multiple devices such as phones and tablets – is on the international SEO checklist.
Checkpoint 10: Keep up with search trends
Part of working in SEO and digital marketing, in general, is keeping up with the latest trends. Add in the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, which changed people’s behavior in the span of a few months.
There’s plenty of reason to keep up with online trends both in your local market and in markets where you’re conducting your international SEO strategy.
are you Getting Started With an International SEO project?
As you can see, your international SEO strategy is a long one with many aspects, variables, and requirements. Among those requirements, especially if you’re planning to expand to markets that speak different languages, is hiring expert translators.
But website translation often involves a large number of pages – which means a massive word count, SEO translation needs, which include keyword research, SEO optimization, and URL structuring, localization skills and expertise, a strong review process, and timely delivery.
It’s unlikely you’ll find this list of requirements in a single person. And it’s not a one-man job but rather a job for an entire team.
You can hire a group of freelance translators and reviewers, and coordinate the entire process among them.
Or you can work with a translation agency like TranslationParter, which will take all the headaches and hassle associated with the project.
Our team of native translators will help you with the SEO translation side of the project and ensure timely delivery. TranslationPartner currently provides website and SEO translation services in 33 languages.
Get in touch with TranslationParter today and our team will guide you through the international SEO process and translation and support your growth plans.
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