International search engine optimization (SEO) is about optimizing websites for searchers in multiple countries and languages. Most marketers or business owners that want to expand to foreign markets will consider international SEO strategies for their websites at some point. In this article, we will discuss what international SEO exactly is, why it can be important, what benefits it provides, whether it’s right for your company, some best practices, technical requirements, and how to build an internal business case for it. Table of contents:
- What is international SEO?
- Why can international SEO be important?
- Benefits of international SEO
- Is international SEO right for you?
- Key things to consider while doing international SEO
- How to get started with International SEO – best practices
- Technical factors influencing international SEO
- Building a business case internally for international SEO
- Summing it all up
With the help of SEO, companies optimize their websites so that they are more likely to be ranked by search engines and discovered by searchers. Typically, the higher your content ranks in search engines, the more visitors you can attract to your website. International SEO involves making technical and content adjustments to ensure that a website is easily understood and accessible by users in different regions and languages. By implementing international SEO best practices, businesses can expand their reach and attract more international website visitors. As a result, there is an increased likelihood that a few visitors in other markets might eventually turn into customers.
Suppose you are a company with international ambitions; you will likely have considered international SEO at some point in time because it can be an essential marketing strategy to help increase the exposure of products and services to search audiences in other markets. For example, suppose you’re a marketing agency that wants to increase its revenue in Germany. German companies searching for the keywords “marketing agency” are a good potential match with your business. When searching for an agency, they are likely to use terms such as “Marketingagentur” (“marketing agency” in German). As you can see in the image below, this term is mostly used in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, where the population speaks German. In Germany alone, this keyword has around 2900 monthly searches. An English website’s content would not rank for those keywords organically. In this case, it can be worth exploring the international SEO options that are designed to make your website rank for that search query in German. Many companies rely on international revenue and leverage international SEO to attract potential customers to their websites. You don’t need to be a large enterprise with deep pockets to do so. No matter how much money you pour into SEO, if it’s done without proper research or consistency, it won’t drive results. In fact, international SEO is also an excellent channel for smaller organizations to attract website visitors in their niches. It can often give your company an edge in international markets when your competitors aren’t focusing on it. Just do proper keyword research to find the relevant keywords for your business. Various available keyword research services can also provide help with this.
Is international beneficial? The short answer is: it depends on your business and whether it’s right for you (which we’ll discuss soon). Nonetheless, four key benefits of international SEO are worth considering. However, before diving into them, remember that it is absolutely normal with SEO that it can take some time before you start experiencing an increase in traffic. Experts will tell you it can take between 4 to 6 months (depending on your website). In my last in-house role, we experienced a considerable increase in international organic search traffic two months after publishing this article on chatbot use cases. Generating traffic quickly is possible when you really know what keywords to target globally.
1. Increases organic traffic and website visibility
The most common reason companies pursue international SEO is to increase their website visibility in certain areas or languages. Doing so can increase the organic traffic to your website and potentially get more qualified leads and customers.
2. Increases brand awareness
International SEO can help drive brand awareness, especially when you aim to become more established in specific markets. If search audiences in new markets start having positive experiences with your brand and content, they are more likely to recognize your brand as a trusted vendor and select you when they are ready to buy something.
3. Market spillover
The earlier example showed that the German search query “marketing agencies” is used not only in Germany but also by searchers in Austria and Switzerland because the population’s primary language is German. With the proper technical setup, you can target Germany as a primary market while experiencing traffic increase spill-over effects from Austria and Switzerland. Even if these weren’t your original target markets, you could possibly start attracting customers from them anyway. Most businesses consider this to be a positive effect.
4. Potentially increase sales in the relevant areas
The ultimate goal for most marketers is to boost revenue through international SEO in their target markets. Over time, digital marketers do so by working on turning organic website visitors into paying customers with the help of various strategies.
Before investing in different international SEO strategies, it is worth researching whether it’s the right SEO approach for you to pursue in the first place. This also means looking at your company-wide objectives. For example, if the objectives are to increase revenue in Germany, it is good to start looking at whether it can support those objectives. If you decide to start with international SEO, you don’t want to do it half-heartedly because that could mean you waste a lot of resources and find no results. These are some of the critical considerations you need to think of to see whether it’s worth it for your company to start doing international SEO:
1. Business objectives and target markets
First, aligning your SEO strategy with your company’s objectives is essential. If your business objectives are to expand to other markets where international SEO makes sense, you can consider whether it’s the right approach. The most common goals that are good reasons to use international SEO are some of the following:
- Target specific languages in certain areas: you would like to attract website visitors from specific locations in certain languages. For example, suppose you are a Canadian company aiming to serve the French-speaking population besides English. In that case, you should optimize your website by including French content and relevant URL structures, which we’ll discuss later.
- Location-specific product or service offerings: for some multinationals, product, and service offerings can vary depending on the country or location. As a result, companies often use international SEO to ensure that the relevant offerings are shown to their corresponding locations or languages.
- Business expansion: companies often start looking into international SEO when considering expanding abroad. You may find, for example, that your potential buyers in Germany are googling for solutions or other information in German. However, your English website content won’t usually reach these audiences. For this reason, it might make sense to start producing content in German and creating URL structures adapted to local search queries.
2. Internal or external resources
The availability of internal resources is one thing to consider before jumping into international SEO. Even if international SEO could help you theoretically, many companies lack the resources to pursue it. Creating a part of your website in a different language and tailored to local keywords requires work. It often isn’t as simple as translating a website; it needs to be nuanced enough to fit a different culture and match what people seek in a specific language or area. If you have a larger budget to work with but lack internal expertise, you can also explore working with an external party.
3. Current content available
Before starting any international SEO, it might be worth considering how your current SEO strategy works and how well your existing content ranks. If you haven’t succeeded yet, is it worth duplicating the same strategy elsewhere? Probably not. Even though SEO approaches vary per market, your current content performance often indicates whether the foundation is correct before working on additional SEO strategies.
4. Current website setups
Before you start strategizing, make sure that you can make the technical changes required for international SEO and understand them. We’re not saying it’s exceptionally technical, but it requires studying the technical modifications to URL structures, such as top-level domains, subdomains, subdirectories, or language parameters.
5. Consider testing your potential
If you have a budget for advertising, one way to verify whether international SEO is the right strategy for you is to set up Google Ads that target the keywords that you think will increase traffic to your website. If the traffic increases and turns out to be valuable, it can indicate whether pursuing that specific international SEO case pays off.
International SEO can differ from what you’re used to with traditional SEO methodologies. You are essentially adapting a whole SEO strategy to a specific language or market; hence it’s essential to take some of the following considerations into account:
1. Languages or countries
A critical consideration for your business is whether you want to target speakers of a specific language, e.g., Spanish speakers looking for a course to learn English, or a particular country, e.g., people from Canada looking for maple syrup. It is also possible to combine language and country, for example, to target Canadian-French-speaking people. Think this through while setting up a corresponding strategy.
2. Multiple websites
Suppose you’re following a strategy by which you target Spanish-speaking audiences, but you build separate designed pages for Mexico and Spain. In that case, you may start competing in outranking your website, or specific pages won’t rank because they are considered duplicate content. This is usually caused when you misuse canonical tags or hreflang tag settings. Make sure you’re using the proper URL settings to help search engines understand which web pages are meant for which markets or languages.
3. Local search engines
While strategizing for international SEO, remember that certain parts of the world use different search engines. According to Search Engine Journal, the most used search engine is Google, with a 92% market share. But other search engines are also used, such as Bing (30% market share in the US), Yahoo, Baidu, Yandex, Naver, and DuckDuckGo. In Russia, Yandex (62%) actually has a larger market share than Google (28%). The same goes for Baidu in China and South Korea’s Naver (70%). In Japan and Taiwan, most people use Yahoo for searching online. So make sure to research where your target audiences are searching and adapt your SEO strategy to different search engine algorithms in the relevant countries or regions.
4. Local keywords
If the current markets you target use specific keywords you are familiar with, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same keywords are used internationally. Countries, languages, and cultures can all impact which keywords people search online. The trick is to discover the differences per country or language with the help of keyword research and adapt your content accordingly.
5. Local competitors
In SEO, you always compete against other websites, trying to rank for the exact keywords. For some keywords, competition is more challenging, and for others easier. Once you go international, competition will differ, and you can encounter competition you’ve never seen before. Yet, understanding local competitors’ content helps you identify gaps in the market that you can fill and enables you to create unique and compelling content that will attract website visitors. On top of that, analyzing local competition can uncover keywords and phrases that are beneficial to them, which you can then use in your SEO content strategy.
When you have decided that international SEO aligns with your business objectives, you can begin planning and strategizing it. These are steps you should consider while developing a strategy.
The first thing to do is to research your target market. Ensure you understand the language, competitors, culture, and search habits of your target country or region. The next step is to find out which keywords people use and identify the ones you want to start ranking for. Once you have discovered the valuable keywords in the different regions or languages, you can begin developing a content strategy optimized for the relevant search engines.
Adapt to countries or languages
A question that many marketers ask themselves when doing international SEO is: I already have all this SEO content for my current markets; can’t I translate it into the relevant languages? The short answer to that is: it depends. You will likely find yourself creating entirely new content, translating some existing content, and tweaking it to local preferences. You also need to consider the nuances in search behavior for different cultures. Many keywords used in your current markets are most likely not directly translatable; even if they are, they might not have any search volume. In any case, you should always do keyword research to ensure you get all precious traffic in local markets.
One mistake marketers tend to make is that they think a copy of their website in another language will automatically perform well for that specific region. Though it is a good start, you need to create longer informative content customized to local languages or other markets to start ranking for specific keywords. Always keep in mind SEO best practices when you write content.
Build local backlinks
Building backlinks is integral to any SEO strategy and can help you expand internationally. Backlinks from trustworthy sources essentially give search engines the impression that you are a reliable source. Once your dedicated website or pages take shape, it can help boost SEO when pages receive links from locally known websites or directories with good domain and topic authority.
Analyze your traffic
Various tools, such as keyword research or analytical tools, can help you monitor how your international SEO efforts are paying off. This way, you can see whether you’re on track with your goals or whether you need to adjust your strategy as necessary to improve performance. While monitoring, keep in mind that it can take a while before SEO efforts start paying off (4 to 6 months), so pay close attention to more minor early signs of success, such as improved rankings for specific keywords.
Create plans per country/region
International SEO can be overwhelming if you decide to expand to several places simultaneously. Each language, country, or region requires its unique approach, and plans cannot be duplicated. Therefore it makes it easier to create country/regional-specific plans to keep a good overview of what needs to be done.
Good international SEO-friendly websites also include a technical setup that search engines can easily understand. Search engines need to identify who you are trying to target with your web pages while it crawls your website. If your setup isn’t correct, a search engine will quickly pick up on it and downgrade your website’s rankings. To achieve a good setup, consider some of the following technical requirements and ways to optimize URL structures for international SEO.
Country code top-level domain (ccTLD)
ccTLDs have two-letter codes at the end of a URL indicating the country where the website is registered. An example of this is balanced-growth.fi, where .fi indicates Finland. Search engines will understand that this website is actively trying to target searchers in Finland. Even though this provides a clear signal to search engines and improves ranking locally, ccTLDs are more expensive to maintain if you create more. Moreover, using several ccTLDs as a strategy (.fi, .de, .fr, .es, etc.) implies that each website is treated as its own with its respective authority scores.
Subdomain URL structures can also be used in international SEO to indicate the target country or language. For example, a website targeting French-speaking users might use the subdomain “fr.example.com” for its French language pages. Pages targeted at English-speaking users would be on the root domain “www.example.com” subdomain. It’s important to note that subdomains can also harm the website’s overall SEO if mismanaged. Creating too many subdomains can dilute link equity, making it harder for search engines to understand the relationship between them and the primary domain.
A subdirectory URL structure is another way to tell search engines about your content’s target country or language. For example, a website targeting French-speaking users might use the subdirectory “example.com/fr” for its French language pages, while pages targeted at English-speaking users would be in the root directory “example.com/”. Subdirectories can also have an advantage over subdomains in terms of SEO, as search engines tend to treat subdirectories as part of the main domain, which means that link equity and authority flow more easily between the subdirectories and the primary domain.
General top-level domains (gTLD) with language parameters
A general top-level domain (gTLD) is a domain extension not specific to a particular country or region. Some examples of gTLDs include .com, .org, .net, etc. One reason to use a gTLD is that it can be used for a global audience. gTLDs by themselves do not indicate the location of the website. The website owner is responsible for correctly indicating the target country or language to search engines through other means, such as hreflang tags or geotargeting. Hreflang tags: an hreflang tag can be used to specify geography- or language-specific targeting, which helps search engines recognize the correct versions to audiences internationally. An example of an hreflang tag is example.com/es, where /es indicates to a search engine that the website is created for people searching in Spain. Geotargeting: another way to indicate that a webpage is for specific locations is by adding geotargeting parameters to a URL — for example, example.com?loc=es where ?loc=es demonstrates that your website targets Spain.
The last option is to create an entirely separate domain. Even though this is not a very popular approach, it can be helpful if you want to create an entirely different brand within a specific market. This approach requires a lot of work because you must treat it as its own website. Large multinationals with various independent brands typically use such a strategy.
Combinations and when to use what URL structure
Many marketers combine some of the above-mentioned technical requirements when implementing international SEO strategies. What is important is to stick to the same formats across your website to signal to search engines that it is optimized. Here’s a short overview of a few combinations you can use in their respective contexts (inspired by Moz).
|URL||The algorithm’s interpretation||Targeting||URL type|
|example.es||Users in Spain||Country||ccTLD|
|es.example.fr and hreflang=es tag||Spanish-speaking users in France||Country and language||ccTLD + subdomain|
|es.example.com and hreflang=es||Spanish-speaking users worldwide||Language||Subdomain|
|example.fr/?lang=es hreflang||Spanish-speaking users in France||Country and language||ccTLD + language parameter|
|example.com/?lang=es hreflang||Spanish-speaking users worldwide||Language||gTLD + language parameter|
Before you start working on international SEO, aligning internally on whether an international SEO strategy can help achieve your company’s objectives is important. If it does, you probably need to work on a business case to convince your superiors that allocating time to it will pay off. Here are a few tips to consider for building your case:
- Show how international SEO will contribute to your company’s objectives.
- Present an estimation of how long it will take and how many resources you’ll need to set up and maintain internationalized websites or pages.
- Present data on the relevant local keyword opportunities you find in markets and why they are worth pursuing. For example, “this is how many potential buyers can get to our website with these specific keywords”. Also, try to present potential in the market that competitors already cover or forgot to cover. Maybe you noticed that most people search for products or services in their native languages, and that’s currently causing you not to get traction to your website in the market. It highly depends on your context on what makes sense to present.
- Website builder providers like WordPress, Hubspot, Squarespace, and more offer intuitive international SEO functionalities that can help remove many technical challenges. You can use this to your advantage when presenting the case internally, especially when you’re already using such a system.
- Be clear on the timelines to your superiors, especially when SEO starts paying off. As mentioned earlier, it can take four (4) months or more to see results after publishing the first internationally optimized content. Without adequately educating your managers, they can get impatient when there aren’t any noticeable short-term results.
- Present an initial content plan with the content you create to cover the relevant markets. Signal why the content is vital to develop and why it will help with SEO to avoid receiving an overload of content ideas that aren’t good for generating valuable traffic.
So, if international SEO aligns with your company’s objectives, you have the resources, you want to start attracting traffic in specific languages or markets, and you have identified the potential through research, give it a try! But make sure to do your research and understand the technical setups first. Targeting just one language or market is an excellent place to start the implementation. If it brings results, you can gradually expand to other languages or markets later.
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