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PMG Digital Made for Humans

Getting Started in International SEO

5 MINUTE READ | February 23, 2016

Getting Started in International SEO

When I first started working on brands that had an international footprint, it took a bit of time to adapt. Different languages, search engines, and, not to be overlooked, unusual working hours. Oh, you don’t like having meetings at 7 AM or 7 PM? You may be out of luck unless you stick to another country in your time zone.

Too Early for Ice Cream

…Or for SEO

International Costs & Benefits

Over the years, international SEO rules have become much clearer, which makes business cases easier to make. At the same time, the competition to rank in countries outside of the US is often reduced. These combine to make a great opportunity for many brands.

However, moving into new markets is not a low effort project. Before you start, take into account the setup and ongoing work that will be needed. Each additional site means more maintenance, more reporting, and more customer support.

Market Differences

Use of devices by consumers varies from country to country. For example, in China, “mobile-first” goes to the extreme  “mobile-only” in some instances. Many brands build experiences with no desktop version at all because of the size of the mobile market.

Additionally, for search, while Google dominates across the globe, that isn’t true everywhere.

Global Search Engines
  • Baidu is the primary engine in China, and in many ways is a few years behind Google’s crawling capabilities.

    • Baidu does offer verification for Webmaster Tools, accepts XML sitemaps, and is dependent on keywords included in the page’s copy and meta data.

    • Additionally, getting an “official site” icon requires a ICP license long legal process.

  • Yandex is Russia’s leading search engine, and is innovative in its own ways – they began using  machine learning even before Google did. Yandex also has webmaster tools verification.

  • Yahoo Japan and South Korea’s Naver are other search engines with a sizable market share.

Meeting User Needs

If you can’t meet the expectations of users, there’s not much benefit to launching another site. An identical version of your domestic site is not likely what consumers in South Korea, Brazil, or the UK are likely looking for. The site should be localized to the users in that country.

  • The business needs to address handling local currency, global shipping issues, and understanding local laws (such as the EU’s cookie requirements).

  • Keep the site fast by utilizing global hosting. Many content delivery networks (CDNs) offer hosting across multiple countries. This can help with both conversion rates and organic rankings.

  • Cross-link between the sites should to provide users the ability to navigate to their desired language/country. Add a globe or a flag icon so that anyone can find the country selector. Use both the English and native languages for country names so they are clear to anyone. If you’re using a country-selector splash page, be sure to A/B test it. For SEO, it’s better to cut out the extra link in the hierarchy and may be for users as well.

    Country Selector
  • Translations to a language should be specific to the target country to account for local differences (e.g. “color” and “colour”).

  • Many international sites are appear to be a jumble of languages. Avoid that confusion by translating as much of a site as possible:

    SERP in Multiple Languages

    Amazon’s listing is in German, while H&M is a mix of English and German.

    • Translate meta data such as titles, descriptions, and Open Graph tags as these will help compel non-English speakers to click into your site.

    • The product copy and purchase details such as shipping info and clothing sizes should be translated.

    • Translating the URLs helps with rankings and click-through rates as well.

    • A number of sites have text that is embedded into images. Creating an image for each language is an option, but the better option may be to go ahead and move to live HTML text overlaying images on the site instead.

  • Even better than a country-specific translation of your site’s native language is adding local content. Do you have any events or stores in the country? What holidays, such as Singles’ Day in China, require specific marketing campaigns and landing pages? Add content that addresses users’ needs in that country.

Technical Considerations

International SEO has its own set of technical requirements in addition to the usual best practices.

  • To differentiate between pages with the same content built for different countries or languages, add HREFLang meta tags across the site. This helps get the right page to the right user.

  • Verify all sites in Google’s Search Console and then set a target country. This is another tool that should be used to alert Google of your sites’ intent.

  • Spend some time considering the URL structure upfront to make informed decisions on platforms.

    • Subdomains (uk.site.com), CCTLDs (e..g. site.co.uk), and directories (www.site.com/uk/) can rank in organic search, but they come with certain trade-offs.

    • Directories can be more challenging to host on a separate platform, though they can usually be easier to roll out on a single platform.

    • CCTLDs incur ongoing costs and can also be more challenging to keep up with, but also are recognized by users and search engines as belonging to a specific country.

    • Utilize a consistent URL structure globally (ie. www.example.com/country/) to simplify analyzing and using the sites.

That should get you started, but of course there’s much more than these items involved in international user experience and SEO. The bottom line to remember is that sites that both meet user needs and check all the boxes on technical details will have the best overall results of expanding into international sites and search engines.

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* Photo credit to Riley Kaminer under CC BY-SA 2.0 license


Posted by John Greer

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