The A-Z of International SEO to Expand Local Business
The start of international expansion is an incredible milestone for any business, and gearing up to take your venture around the world will be one of the most exciting moments of your career.
But just because your business is thriving at home doesn’t mean that it will be a success abroad. To achieve that, you’ll need to pay attention to your international SEO strategy.
Achieving online visibility on an international scale can be tricky, particularly when you factor in differences in language, culture, and search habits.
It’s not a cookie-cutter approach where one size fits all across all regions.
Sometimes small business leaders don’t know whether they should expand to international markets or just stay content with their local popularity.
Some of them who decide to go international usually end up using the same SEO strategies they were using before.
These people should read this article to understand international SEO is a whole different ballgame.
- 1. Jimmy’s Story
- 2. International SEO vs. Local
- 3. Strategies to Follow
- 3.1 Country/Language or Both?
- 3.2 Pitfall to Avoid:
- 3.3 New Domains
- 3.4 Web Hosting
- 4. Must-Know International SEO Tips to Expand Your Local Business
- 4.1 Pick an Effective Domain Strategy
- 4.2 Conduct Localized Keyword Research
- 4.3 Don’t Assume One Language Means One Culture
- 4.4 Think Beyond Google
- 4.5 Implement Hreflang Tags
- 4.6 Start Localized Link Building
- 5. International SEO Myths
- 5.1 International SEO is confusing
- 5.2 I need so many websites to rank globally
- 5.3 Let’s use the same content on all of my websites. That will do for their Google
- 5.4 Why should I put in so much work on SEO when big global brands didn’t?
- 5.5 Language URL parameters will do the trick for me
- 5.6 That hreflang tag I put in will make me get the top rank. You just watch
- 5.7 Let’s use the flag on the site. That should tell everybody what language we’re using
- 6. Conclusion
A local business gets the best ROI for its SEO when it uses local SEO strategies. And keywords. Oh, yes. Keywords.
Here’s the story of Jimmy’s bakery to show you why keywords are central to understanding international SEO vs. local SEO.
Jimmy opened a bakery in Queens, New York. Being a millennial, he knew how important presentations were.
So, he went the whole way. He made a great website, put up amazing social profiles, and his donuts were just so irresistible.
People in the neighborhood loved Jimmy’s bakery, and Jimmy was so proud of himself, he was targeting “bakery” for his website SEO – an uber-competitive, and uber-generic, the keyword for a local business.
It’s possible that he thought he was the only bakery worth visiting.
A few months passed, and Jimmy realized his SEO budget was drying out without showing any results.
In fact, he wasn’t sure why he was getting so many clicks from other parts of the world, and people would just leave the page after a couple of seconds.
Jimmy didn’t realize the problem was his keyword selection.
‘Bakery’ is a very general keyword that tens of thousands of businesses around the world would associate with.
Jimmy didn’t realize he needed local SEO. Don’t be like Jimmy.
International SEO vs. Local
Apart from keywords, though, a number of other factors determine the choice of an international optimization strategy over a local one.
The most important factor is the necessity of it. With something as broad and big as international SEO, you don’t want to go for it until you’re sure it’s a need for you now.
Recognizing this need isn’t rocket science either. You need to analyze your website traffic closely.
If a big chunk of your traffic is coming on from abroad and a variety of cultural communities, speaking various languages, and taking an interest in your offerings and content, you’d be wise to take that as a sign.
But before you start confusing international SEO, let’s draw a circle around what it is so we can tell what it’s not.
International SEO is simply your strategic reaction to international, multilingual consumers taking an interest in your website from foreign regions.
You see, international consumers want your business. You bring it to them by making websites that are optimized for their country or language (or both).
But what if you only want to sell locally? Well, it’s up to you, of course, but turning a blind eye on a market that’s showing interest in your business isn’t the smartest business strategy either.
It’s a matter of understanding your potential and fulfilling it. If you have an opportunity to grow, do exactly that.
Jimmy made a mistake in understanding his business potential. He went overboard. He didn’t see optimizing his web content for a generic keyword was beyond his capacity.
Even if he somehow managed to get to the first SERP for the keyword, most of the traffic would be absolutely useless. He ran a bakery in Queens. Why would anybody from Ukraine want to visit his website?
When we ignore our business potential, we make wrong decisions. Jimmy did that. Don’t be like Jimmy.
Strategies to Follow
Once you know you need international SEO, you need to focus on the strategy with careful steps, but don’t think of it as something you can’t handle.
If you’ve been working on your website’s optimization, you already know more about it than you realize.
Between the two factors, the more important one is language. Here’s why: A language may itself target more than one geographic communities.
Let’s say you offer a product that connects with Spanish, and so when you decide to target Spanish speaking countries, you won’t have to make separate websites for all of them.
So, make separate websites for the same language only when the communities involved are too far apart or that location matters for your marketing efforts.
Don’t use Google Translate to “refresh” your website’s copy and serve it on the new website.
That’s something Jimmy would do. You’re smarter, so you’ll hire a professional copywriter of your target language instead.
Oh, and don’t forget to use the hreflang attribute in your code (and stating the country if you’re going for targeting countries separately).
This is also an important problem to figure out before you go on building your website.
This is so important because it’s more than just about the domain name.
This is about your URL structure and, hence, your website architecture.
You can’t expect the structure you have on your local website to work just as well on a different website targeting a different market.
In this infographic created by Moz, you can see there are three main decisions to make when it comes to your new website’s domain.
Thankfully, the pros and cons are stated pretty clearly, so we don’t have to give this discussion more room (If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask us in the comments below).
Everybody knows website loading time can be a determining factor in whether a user stays on your website or goes back to the SERPs to look for other options.
This is one of the most important reasons why you should always host your websites locally.
Make sure your new website for an international market is hosted by a good (even if expensive) hosting service.
Must-Know International SEO Tips to Expand Your Local Business
Creating sites or sub-domains for different regions focused on the needs of potential consumers and planning your resources consistent with the required scope & time is critical for a successful global SEO process.
Below outlined are some of the best approaches and practices businesses should employ to start an international SEO strategy and achieve productive results.
A .com TLD is usually considered the cream of the crop when it comes to domains and the authority afforded to them by search engines.
But this can be far too generic to attract international customers.
Instead, your domain should clearly target your country of choice and show users around the world that your website is catered specifically to them.
A ccTLD, for example, cocacola.fr, is often popular because the country code immediately shows users and search engines what the target country is.
However, if you have multiple localized versions of the website across a number of ccTLDs, search engines will treat these as separate entities, meaning each domain will need to build up backlinks and authority from scratch.
A subdirectory, like, nike.com/fr maintains all your pre-existing SEO efforts as you’re simply adding a localized folder to your current domain.
However, this risks causing internal cannibalization if different international landing pages are optimized for the same keywords, such as a US subfolder and an Australian subfolder where the language is largely the same.
A subdomain (such as fr.airbnb.com) is often the default for CMS tools, but users are less likely to associate your site with their country as the country code comes first rather than last, meaning click-through-rates could take a hit.
Look at the domain structures of competitors in your new target countries to see what Google favors. You might decide to use a combination of all three strategies to target different markets.
You may feel like you have a good understanding of your current audience’s search habits, but these keywords may not be popular across the board.
Conducting localized keyword research will help you judge the online queries likely to serve you best in each country.
This isn’t so difficult when you’re targeting other English speakers, though you still have to take slang and regional variations into account.
For example, if you’re a shoe business going after an Australian audience, you would probably be better off targeting “thong” rather than “flip flop” keywords. This is especially relevant to voice search.
Of course, things become more complicated when dealing with entirely different languages.
You may not understand the words themselves and also need to consider how cultural context can impact intent.
Findings from Webcertain showed significant differences between the search habits of US and Chinese users.
Roughly 60% of US searches about chairs related to style and shape, yet only 20% of Chinese searches had the same intent. In fact, 5% more Chinese searches were action-based – what to do with the chair.
Culture can hugely influence how people formulate their online queries, and you can’t ignore this factor when choosing location-specific keywords.
One size does not fit all when it comes to international expansion, especially considering the diversity of languages.
There are many differences in Standard Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, while there are plenty of Spanish variations spoken across North America, South America, and the Caribbean, let alone the many regional dialects in Spain itself.
You may think that translating your website into a “standard” language will enable you to connect with all relevant markets, but you risk alienating millions of potential customers if you don’t tailor your content to each target location.
First of all, remember that idioms or colloquialisms may make sense in one place but not in another, even if the same language is spoken.
If an Ireland-based furniture business used the word “press”, it’s highly unlikely any English-speakers outside the country would realize this referred to a kitchen cupboard.
Similarly, some words, images, and practices are accepted in one place but offensive in another.
Though Arabic is the official language of both Morocco and Saudi Arabia, references to alcohol would only be permissible when targeting the former as drinking is forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
You also need to use the correct measurements, currencies, and other details, which may vary from country to country regardless of language.
French-speaking Canadians would be puzzled to see prices in euros rather than Canadian Dollars.
Errors like this could deter users and damage a business’s trust, authority, and click-through-rate.
Therefore, it would be a huge mistake to focus on accurate translations without considering the unique historical and cultural factors making every place unique.
Consulting people familiar with the nuances of each target location will ensure your content is suitable for all the potential customers living there.
Google is normally the holy grail when it comes to all SEO efforts, but there may be other search engines to prioritize during international expansion.
The majority of users in China and Russia, two of the largest markets in the world, direct the majority of their online queries to entirely different platforms, so focusing on Google alone could be detrimental to your visibility and profits.
In Russia, the leading search engine is Yandex, which holds 56% of the market share.
This success has been put down to the search engine’s deeper understanding of Slavic languages. Meanwhile, Google has been blocked in China under the country’s Internet censorship policy.
Most Chinese users conduct their online searches through Baidu, which held between 60 to 77% of the search engine market share in China during 2019.
You can’t afford to ignore alternative search engines when targeting markets like these, and it’s also important to recognize each has its own unique algorithms.
There will be some similarities—for example, Google, Yandex and Baidu all reward quality content – but you’ll need to be aware of the differences.
Indexing can be very slow for both Yandex and Baidu, which means it will take longer to see the benefits of your efforts, so long-term results should be the priority.
Paid search is crucial to Baidu, as paid results are given much greater precedence than organic results. Meanwhile, Yandex still values meta keywords – a metric that Google removed from its ranking algorithm some time ago.
Hreflang tags signpost which languages and locations your pages are aimed at, helping Google to understand which version of a page is most appropriate for its users.
For example, if someone in Paris typed in a search term relevant to your product page, the hreflang tag signals to Google that the French version of the page should appear in search results.
To target users as accurately as possible, you should include hreflang tags for both language and region.
For instance, an ‘en’ tag shows Google that your page is for all English speakers, but you could also add tags to emphasize the specific geographic locations you’re targeting, en-ca for English speakers in Canada and en-us for English speakers in the US.
It’s crucial you use the correct codes—for instance, the UK is ‘gb’ rather than ‘uk’—and a hreflang tag generator like Aleda Solis’ SEO tools recommended by Moz that could help minimize mistakes.
Just as with any domestic SEO strategy, links are essential in building the authority of your website within a target locale.
To elevate your brand in local search, it’s vital to source links from local platforms within your industry.
The more hyperlocal, the better. For example, if you’re opening a new hotel in Berlin, links from travel platforms in the German capital will be more valuable than those in Munich or Hamburg.
Seek out journalistic opportunities and serve as a source of expertise, guest post on influential sites within a region, and use social channels to build connections with local influencers and businesses.
It’s also recommended that you use a translator or someone accustomed to the language and customs of a target region to handle the outreach.
The more you extend your brand in a target market, the more you will be rewarded with high authority backlinks.
International SEO Myths
Now that you know what international SEO is and what steps you need to take to build your basic web presence in the new market, it’s time to bust some myths about international SEO.
Naysayers make up a big chunk of the world’s population.
So, when people start pointing fingers at international SEO and ask questions, they only need a minute to figure out themselves; this doesn’t surprise us.
However, letting you know what’s what is part of our job. So, here you go.
Well, it’s a complex subject, just like any other major area of online marketing.
You need to spend time and understand the guidelines that Google has so generously (and responsibly) been publishing as the needs arise.
Read the Webmasters blog.
That would be a no. You don’t need a separate ccTLD for your international SEO to work.
The reason is, depending on your needs and niches, you might simply use subdirectories to tend to the needs of their multi-regional or multilingual content.
Use ccTLDs when it’s an absolute necessity.
No, it won’t. You can’t simply translate your website word-to-word into a new language, publish this content on the new website, and hope for it to optimize successfully on a country or language’s associated Google domain.
That’s poor geo-targeting. In fact, that’s missing the target altogether because your website will basically be cannibalizing your other websites.
That question would make sense if you were a big brand, too. You aren’t. So, stick to what’s good for you and don’t look at the big ones. They don’t even keep SEO as their priority, which leads them to make silly mistakes every now and then.
You’re not as big as they are, but you can definitely be smarter.
Again, no, they won’t! You might think it’s a technically sound idea to put your region or language of choice in the URL and let it be. But it’s a sound idea because a lot of times, these parameters don’t get indexed.
You won’t like that happening to your website, will you?
Yeah. We’re watching, but that’s not going to happen. Although the hreflang tag is a great and powerful tool, it isn’t used among ranking factors. It’s there to make sure your localized page gets displayed properly when it’s called.
Err… That’s a pretty silly thing to believe. Flag icons are just that. They don’t necessarily represent the language. Before we talk about other languages, consider the one you’re reading right now. England’s or USA’s flags do not represent all English speaking nations of the world.
This is something Jimmy would think. Don’t be like Jimmy.
Expanding a company internationally is a big step – but the rewards of doing it correctly can be huge.
Any international SEO strategy starts with your ambitions, budget, resources, logistical capability and viability of your offer in a given location. From this, you can then adapt and plan your strategy accordingly.
The key takeaway for a successful international SEO campaign is personalization – getting inside the minds of your target audience and cross-referencing cultural, geographical, political and linguistic factors to determine how they’ll locate you.
Crucially, a well-rounded international SEO campaign is simply just regular SEO – in a non-native context!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 05, 2017, and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.