Not getting SEO right is like driving your car and skipping crucial details in the navigation map for reaching the destination. Now International SEO is not very different except the fact that besides the navigation map you also need a passport and navigator to reach your destination. That’s probably the best analogy that one could use to describe the concept. It’s important that marketers understand International SEO fundamentals before they begin the journey to reach users outside their base country.
Understanding International SEO
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as most of you know involves techniques to improve your visibility on search engines for keywords and phrases associated with your brand. International SEO goes a step ahead by optimizing your website for countries other than the place of your brand’s origin.
International SEO Fundamentals – Starting Off
If you have an existing website then the decision to consider International SEO should be considered basis whether the traffic and conversions coming from additional countries compensate well for developing a web presence. The decision to optimize the website for other countries might also be a strategic decision for businesses.
Marketers can start off by measuring important metrics to understand which additional countries do they need to optimize their website for.
- Current total & organic traffic that your website gets from additional countries & languages
- Current organic search visibility from other countries
- Keyword research with countries and languages already identified
- Competitor analysis to understand country-wise traffic patterns
Metrics that one needs to complete the above exercise should be gathered from Google Analytics, Google Search Console, SimilarWeb, SEM Rush, Moz and other available tools.
International SEO Fundamentals – Country Based Targeting
Once you have identified which countries you would want to target you have multiple or more methods to target users in different countries. The currently available options included hosting content on root domain ccTLDs (Country Code Top Level Domain), using sub-domains and sub-directories to host content.
For example, if you want to target users in France then you would create a separate ccTLD for your domain. Example: yourwebsite.com would host content for France on yourwebsite.fr. The only disadvantage with using ccTLD is that it doesn’t have the domain authority of yourwebsite.com and it would take a considerable amount of effort before it builds traffic and domain authority of its own. Whether or not you choose ccTLDs, it makes sense to purchase all the ccTLDs with your brand names even one’s with misspellings.
Sub-domains also inherit the domain authority and value of the root domain.
Using sub-directories also enables you to host content on the same domain and indicate to crawlers that you have distinct content for different countries.
The challenge with sub-domains & sub-directories is that certain countries are biased towards ccTLDs and users in certain countries prefer searching for ccTLD. Research has shown this a common in countries like France where the users are more likely to open and view content on sites that end with .fr. Search engines mainly Google prefers to ranks ccTLDs links over sub-domains & sub-directories.
If you are a brand which operates in multiple markets with a global marketing budget then going with ccTLDs is a viable option. If you don’t have a huge marketing budget and have operations in limited geography, then it makes sense to target languages using sub-directories or sub-domains.
International SEO Fundamentals – Language (hreflang)
The hreflang tag shows search engines which language you are using on a specific page. Google launched hreflang attribute in 2011 and is now widely support by other search engines including Yandex. Both Bing & Baidu uses language meta tags instead of hreflang tag.
Hreflang tag used below indicates that the page is intended for English-speaking users in the United States.
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com" hreflang="en-us" />
Meta language tag used below indicates that the page is intended for Mandarin-speaking users in Mainland China.
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”zh
Hreflang tag is placed in the HTTP header or the sitemap. If you choose sitemap instead of HTTP header this tool will come in handy.
Your Hreflang attribute on each page has to indicate itself as well as pages which act as alternate to it. For example, a retailer in the US which also sell its products in Portugal & France will have the following hreflang attributes on its home page.
<link rel="alternate" href="yourwebsite.com" hreflang="en-us" />
<link rel="alternate" href="yourwebsite.com/fr/" hreflang="fr-fr" />
<link rel="alternate" href="yourwebsite.com/pt/" hreflang="pt-pt" />
Additionally, you can also use ISO and region codes to indicate your location. Google accepts ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format to indicate which region you are targeting. It’s essential to crosscheck the country codes for accuracy, for instance, the code for the UK is “GB” and not “UK”.
Bing also supports ISO 3166 format along with ISO 639-1 code for languages.
If your website targets many countries creating hreflang tags can be a frustrating experience. To make things easier you have tools like hreflang tag generator which can be used to create hreflang tags.
If you are a publisher with several versions of your website in local languages then use x-default hreflang tag. x-default tag identifies the language used by the user based on their IP address and shows the user content in their preferred language. Using x-default also helps publishers to reduce bounce rate on the site and improve conversions. If you plan to use x-default it’s important to understand the language market to plan ahead for reaching out to a large number of users.
International SEO Fundamentals – Basics
If you plan to localize content for different countries, do not use Google Translate or other tools available in the market instead develop tailor-made content for different languages. Google Translate and other tools don’t do an effective job at translating content.
Additionally, you also need to localize the below attributes based on the initial keyword research that you would have completed for different countries.
- Meta titles & descriptions
- Navigation labels
- Image file names, internal anchor text, & alt text
- Body content
- Prices, phone, and local address
Managing a website with multiple languages is tedious task hence it’s recommended that you a choose a web content management system that provides multi-lingual support. Most advanced content management systems like Adobe Experience Manager, Site Core, SDL etc provide multi-lingual support. Open source content management systems like Magento, WordPress and Joomla also have extensions which help provide multi-lingual support.
International SEO Fundamentals – Geo Location
You can detect the location via the IP address of the user and target relevant international version of the site to the user. Alternatively, you can also redirect the user to a relevant page based on the IP or browser language settings using a 302 redirect.
The hosting location is also one of the key factors that Google & other search engines use to rank the local version of your site for relevant search queries. Local hosting coupled with ccTLDs give you an added advantage however this come at a price hence has to be considered based on your strategy & budgets. If you are using a CDN (Content Delivery Network), then local hosting or a local IP address might not be necessary.
Developers have to configure the location under ‘International Targeting’ settings in Search Traffic Tab on Google Search Console (GSC). GSC usually detects the hreflang tag which makes things easier. Bing & Yandex also allow developers to enter the location in the webmaster settings.
We couldn’t have completed this article without reading and understanding the complexities of International SEO from the list of articles mentioned below: