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Your International SEO Strategy Success Story: It Starts Here

Adam Brown 5 years ago

Moving or expanding your business into multiple territories comes with many challenges and complexities. However, setting up your site should not be one of them. With one thousand different things to think about, your website could be left behind, so making sure your site is set up correctly for international use is a must. Get this wrong and you could have some big problems on your hands.

Often businesses see international SEO as a complex process primarily because of the number of variables at play. By the time you've finished reading this, we hope to change your view. It comes down to a few basic steps and decisions. There is a different solution for each business due to many different aspects such as languages used, locations and development resource, and in any case you will need development resources to be able to implement many of these strategies.

Setting up your website for international SEO will allow you to:

  1. Target specific countries and languages with different domains, subdomains or URL structures
  2. Specify what languages or location the new URL’s will be targeting with code or sitemaps
  3. Optimise pages for different countries including content, pricing and language

What to Expect

Do you need to do it?

Research
Location Research
Keyword Research and Opportunity

URL Structure
ccTLDs
Subdomains
Subdirectories
Parameters
New Domains

Picking a setup
How Each Setup Works

Hreflang
Implementation

Other Optimisations
Indexability
Navigation
Other Optimisation Considerations
Language or country detection
Search Console
Sitemaps
IP Addresses / Page Speed

Do you need to do it?

International SEO optimisation is a big step and can lead to many problems if not carried out correctly. The first step is to make sure you need to move your site onto an international setup. There are many different reasons you may need to move:

  • There is traffic coming from other countries already
  • You’re moving into the location now
  • You are looking to expand into new locations in the future

These are completely viable reasons for an international strategy, so the only time we would not suggest doing it is ‘for the sake of it’. In this scenario, we would suggest concentrating on your current locations and markets to expand them.

Research

The start of any large project should include good research - that’s hopefully why you are reading this. As mentioned above, it’s good to know where your traffic is originating. The easiest way to do this is by using Google Analytics as well as carrying out keyword research for the countries into which you are looking to expand.

Location Research

When picking locations to target, it can be as simple as selecting ones you feel are best for your business, or perhaps those where you wish to expand. However we would suggest researching this in much more detail.

The easiest way to do this is by using Google Analytics as this will allow you to see how much traffic you are getting from different countries, as well as behaviour such as bounce and conversion rate.

It’s simple to obtain: Go to Analytics and navigate to Audience>Geo>Location.

This is an easy method for figuring out which countries you should be targeting. You can then also look into languages in the same way; however, this time, use the language tab under Geo. This initial data will allow you to make informed decisions on the targeting going forward on both location and language.

Keyword Research and Opportunity

This will play a big part in optimising the site as well as working out the potential of the new international versions of the site. We have recently put together a keyword research & content audit resource to help with this research.

This is going to take some time to do it for each location, especially if you are working with multiple locations; however, it is worth it. This process will help you work out where the most opportunity exists for each location.

There are also other options, such as building out a keyword set that for which you already rank; running each of these keyword sets through URL profiler or something similar; and pulling out the SEMrush data to get volumes in each separate country.

It’s important to make sure that you do this in the specific languages you will be targeting to obtain true traffic opportunity. It will benefit you to work with somebody who is fluent in the language to make sure you translate content correctly, as tools that automatically translate content tend to make errors.

URL Structure

ccTLDs

This type of hreflang structure uses country-specific domains such as domain.us, 9domain.fr or similar. A full list of these can be found here. These allow you to easily show users and search engines which country the domain is targeting. It is, however, important to note that some country specific TLD’s are used for other purposes such as .io which is used by many tech companies or IO games but is officially used for British Indian Ocean Territory. Each of these domains will also need to be registered and renewed which will cost extra money, although not much, especially if you are moving over to a hreflang setup.

One of the biggest benefits to running this setup is that local ccTLD’s are easier to rank in their target country. They also never get into a situation where two international ccTLD’s compete in the same market: for example, the .fr ranking in Google UK. It is also far easier to control the anchor text profile for country-by-country basis.

There is also the added problem that your domain name isn’t available in your targeted country. This could prove expensive to buy, or result in a lengthy legal process in order to obtain the domain.

Subdomains

As with the ccTLD’s a two-letter country code is used. However, it is added before the domain, creating unique subdomains which will be used to target different countries. This is a very common practice as it does not mean the registration of new domains and allows sites to be set up separately on individual subdomains.

Subdomains are best-suited to target different languages because local ccTLDs target countries and not languages.

Subdirectories

Very similar to subdomains, in that subdirectories mean no extra registration is needed. It is the easiest option in most cases, as it means a new directory is added onto the current website. For example www.domain.com would become www.domain.com/us/, www.domain.com/us-fr/ or www.domain.com/us/fr/.

One of the main benefits of running a site on a single domain is that link equity is spread throughout the domain. This means you could set up a new section of the site to target a new country and benefit from the links going into the root domain. It will also bring the entire link juice from all the other sites back onto the single domain.

Costs would also be reduced, as you would only need a single domain alongside being able to develop the site centrally and single items such as SSL certificates and plugins would need to only be purchased once.

Parameters

This type of implementation is rare as it is very unfriendly in terms of appearance as well as being difficult for search engines to understand fully. An example of this would be www.domain.com/?lang=gb-gb or /?lang=en-us.

New Domains

The new domain implementation is very rarely used, as it requires buying new domains for each version of the site. This could be something such as domainuk.com, domainamerica.com or similar, which can be difficult for users to understand.

Each of the structures has positives and negatives. However, we would suggest using either subdirectories or subdomains, as from testing this has provided the best results. The below table shows the pros and cons of each setup.

The subdirectory solution is the best option in our opinion, as it allows the new pages to easily obtain authority from the main website, as well as being easy to use and implement. There will be a number of redirects and technical changes needed for this solution; however, this is a given.

Picking a setup

With an international setup, you need to ascertain whether there is a need for you to target different languages with your website, and if it’s something that can be achieved with the resource you have, or could have in the future. It is possible to target only countries or only language - each will need to be set up in different ways.

How Each Setup Works

From looking at all the above pros, cons and ease of setup we would suggest going with a subdirectory implementation.

Hreflang

Whatever type of URL solution you pick, Hreflang will still need to be implemented across the site, pages or subdomains. This is the way in which your site communicates to search engines the version that should be indexed, and the country or language. Not having this code will mean duplicate versions of the site are indexed, ranking issues and users landing on the wrong language or country version of the website.

Implementation

The hreflang code needs to be present on every page when rolling out an international SEO strategy. The basic code looks as follows:

If we were to use this on our example homepage and wanted to target French speakers in France, English speakers in France, English speakers in England and French speakers in England it would look as follows when using our subdirectory solution:

<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.domain.com" hreflang="en-gb" />

<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.domain.com/en-fr/" hreflang="en-fr" />

<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.domain.com/fr-fr/" hreflang="fr-fr" />

<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.domain.com/fr" hreflang="fr-gb" />

<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.domain.com" hreflang="x-default" />

This explains to search engines that there are different versions of this URL for different locations and languages, removing any duplicate issues and making sure users find the correct page. You will also notice that at the bottom of the code there is a x-default tag; this is the default go-to if the country or language the user is coming from is not specified in the hreflang code. We have put together our hreflang generator to help overcome this issue: simply add in your URL’s alongside the country and location and it will generate the code for you.

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This part of the process is essential and needs to be 100% correct. If there are any issues with the hreflang code the international implementation will fail - and quickly.

Other Optimisations

Indexability

When launching a site for international targeting you may as well be launching a brand-new website. There will be many new pages, new links and various other changes. It’s important to treat this as a new site and follow best practice for launching a brand-new website.

It’s important to note that going from one website of 5,000 pages to an international version with 70 different locations and 5 languages will take your site from 5,000 pages to 1,750,000 which is going to cause many issues. We would suggest implementing hreflang for a small number of locations and languages to begin with, and then expand in the future once search engines have fully understood the site and the new hreflang code.

Navigation

When on a variation of the main site the navigation should be relative to the country or language the user is on. If they are browsing the /fr-fr/ version of the website, all links on the site should point to that version rather than passing through redirects or ending up back on the default version of the website.

Other Optimisation Considerations

As we have already discussed, language plays a big part in the international SEO strategy, it also important to recognise the impact it has on the purchase funnel. If you land on a Google translated version of a page there is a very small chance you will buy anything as it will make absolutely no sense. The same can be said for other factors such as:

  • URL’s
  • Meta titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • Heading Tags
  • Navigation
  • Reviews
  • Contact information
  • Pricing

These elements should be translated or amended depending on both location and language. There is nothing worse than landing on a product to be shown a different currency to the one you use.

It’s also important to remember that meta titles, URL’s and heading tags will impact rankings. Making sure these are using the language being targeted will increase the relevancy and in turn rankings for those pages.

Language or country detection

When trying to provide users with the correct language or location, it seems like a simple solution to automatically send them to the correct version based on their IP or browser. However, this can cause issues for search engines as they will also be redirected in the exact same manner.

The best way we have seen of doing this is to show the user a warning that they are on the wrong site/URL and suggest they visit their localised version. This removes the redirect and gives the user the option, as it’s not always correct.

ASOS do this very well. If you were to visit http://us.asos.com from the UK you will be shown a notification at the top of the screen suggesting you visit the UK version. Using this method, you can provide a good user experience while letting search engines crawl the site in their own way, rather than being redirected.

Search Console

It’s a classic: Search console should be used by everybody who owns a website. It’s free data after all, and while it doesn’t refresh very much the data it provides can be very useful, especially when launching a site for international use.

With Search Console it is possible to set a subdirectory or subdomain to target a specific location. Although there are hreflang tags to do this, there is no harm in setting this up in Search Console.

We would suggest setting up a profile for each of the locations, this will make it much easier to see any issues with individual sections of the website including indexing and hreflang issues.

As well as using Google Search Console we would suggest setting up Bing webmaster tools, as there is no harm in having more data!

Sitemaps

In this instance we speak about classic sitemaps rather than hreflang sitemaps. These are basic elements of SEO that needs to be correct, especially within an international SEO setup. With many pages being implemented on the website it’s important search engines know where to crawl.

The easiest way to set these up is to have an individual sitemap for each location, allowing them to be submitted separately to each Search Console profile. This will then provide data about which pages are and aren’t being indexed.

IP Addresses / Page Speed

When a site was hosted in the location you were targeting, you would be provided with a ranking boost. This is no longer the case as sites are hosted across the world. The location may indirectly lead to ranking increases or decreases though, due to server location impacting site speed.

Site speed is important with any website. The first step is to get the site up to speed by using tools such as GTmetrix and page insights. Secondly, set up a CDN to allow users to access the website from the best location for them. This isn’t something they will ever see as it will all run in the background.

Although site speed is not going to have the biggest impact on how well the website ranks, it will have an impact on conversions and overall performance.

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