International SEO – tips for technical website optimisation

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  • shutterstock_317634212

A successful international SEO campaign requires the same skillsets and know-how as a domestic campaign. The difference is that additional knowledge is needed to apply market-specific information such as language and cultural differences. Whilst this can be a daunting prospect for many businesses, in practice entering new markets is easier than you might think.

In any language, the goal of a fully optimised site is the same: to present content in a convenient and user-friendly manner, and to generate the most relevant search results. For example, someone searching for ‘ladies shoes’ should be presented with results that guide them not only to websites specifically featuring ladies shoes, but to those that present their content in a logical, structured and familiar manner, whatever the language.

In previous articles we have highlighted the cultural and linguistic best practices for international campaigns.  In this article, we provide some guidelines for technical SEO, to help ensure that your international campaign achieves maximum visibility and trust in organic search results in your target markets.

Build technical SEO into the site from the onset

It is not unusual for organisations to see SEO, particularly technical SEO, as something that is applied to a website once it has been built - like applying a coat of paint once a house has been built. However, there are elements within the site’s infrastructure that are extremely important to optimise from the onset, without which a site might need to be completely rebuilt in order to compete effectively for organic rankings.

Whether translation, web development and SEO are being delivered by the same team or by different teams, it is vital to ensure that technical SEO requirements have been built into every element of the site from the onset.

Optimise URLs

‘SEO and user-friendly’ URLs include strategic keywords in the directory structure or filename that allow visitors to see the path they have followed. These keywords in URLs are also identified by search engine spiders and contribute to a site’s overall page ranking.

A SEO-friendly URL:

A non-SEO-friendly URL:

SEO localisation is a different skillset from translation, and localising URLs is often forgotten in the translation process. This can lead to two problems. Firstly, the foreign customer will see immediately that this is a direct translation from a different language. This can be detrimental to the customer’s overall appraisal of the organisation, and may lead to a lack of trust between consumer and brand.

Secondly, search engine spiders are tuned to identify and favour keywords in local languages, so URLs that remain in the original language will be penalised. If SEO-friendly URLs are going to be used, brands must ensure they translate and optimise clearly for the required languages. Please refer to our piece on which international domain to choose for more information regarding your choice of website URLs.


While a translation agency has the ability to convert your keywords into another language, this alone cannot guarantee that these are the terms which your target audience overseas is actually searching for. All sorts of linguistic nuances and semantics are at play here, and only a native linguist will be able to correctly advise you on where best to focus your efforts. See our advice on localisation to help you pick the most relevant keywords for your brand.

Meta data

Meta data is important for users as well as search engines, and the same rules apply i.e. don't rely upon direct translations for effective SEO. As well the fact that the direct translation might not be in common use in your target market, there is a risk that the length of the translated words is not within the character limits set by search engines. For example, "summer sale" (11 characters) when translated into German becomes "Sommerschlussverkauf" (20 characters): it's easy to see how meta data containing similar changes can quickly exceed character limits. This will result in too little information coming through for the user and search engine to understand what the website is about and how it is relevant to the search query, and organic search rankings will suffer.

[Note: see our latest research on meta description lengths.]


A key method for creating and maintaining local domains in the most optimised way is by correctly implementing hreflang code. This markup signals to search engine robots that the duplicated sites belong together, yet different versions serve different markets and languages, which are relevant for different audiences. The code also implies site pages where there is the same language, however, they are targeted at different regions e.g. Portuguese for Portugal and Portuguese for Brazil.

An example of a hreflang set-up is shown here:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-us” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-gb” />
<link rel=”alternate” href =”” hreflang=”de-de”/>
<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”de-at” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=””hreflang=”br-pt” />

Failure to implement the correct hreflang code when going global will not only affect search engine rankings and visibility in-country, but can also affect the original website and all other connected sites.

If you would like advice on how to adapt your websites for overseas markets, please feel free to contact us on +44 113 212 1211, we will be happy to help.­

The next piece in the series will discuss how to leverage content and online PR tactics to gain coverage and links internationally, which will help your website’s visibility and gain great brand exposure.