Reaching audiences worldwide: A guide to international SEO


Nicola Winters

Head of International


International SEO

When it comes global expansion, there is no one size fits all approach. Each market comes with its own unique set of opportunities and challenges, so adapting and localizing your marketing strategy is crucial if you are to successfully launch internationally.

Using this guide, you can optimize your international SEO efforts for new markets, ensuring you are best prepared for marketing to new people and new cultures.

What is international SEO?

International SEO has the same objective as SEO: improving organic visibility and performance on Google and other search engines. With international SEO however, the focus is on improving this visibility across different global markets.

No matter the market, the process is the same: identify technical issues, content gaps, and backlink gaps and use these insights to build a bespoke strategy. However, the specifics of each tactic change depending on the market. For example, website trust signals vary between different countries and it is important to get this right if you are to compete against local businesses online. Likewise, preferred content format is different from one market to another and you need to understand which medium is right if you want to build a successful content marketing plan. Identifying the differences in common practices and behaviors will make or break your international expansion.

Within this guide, we’ll take you through the steps required to identify and implement an SEO strategy, offer some practical tips, and discuss an infamous example of international SEO gone wrong.

How to implement International SEO

You have identified a market where your company wishes to begin offering its product or service in – where does your SEO strategy begin? There are four crucial steps to planning and implementing your international SEO strategy.

Research, research, research

Before you begin trading in a new market, you need to understand to truly understand the market. What gaps are there in the market for your brand, and what is the existing competition? How does your target audience in this market compare to your customer – do they use the same social media platforms? Are their interests the same? What does their customer journey look like?

It is crucial that you use a native speaking digital marketing expert to conduct market research as they have a better understanding of the culture, as well as the digital expertise, to understand opportunities and challenges for your brand in order to build a successful strategy.

The first step involves qualifying your selection of the market: you need to establish if there is a demand for your product or service in your chosen market. There are a few ways you can gage product interest:

  • Take a look at your website’s analytics by country. Incoming traffic (and any conversions) from the country in question suggests that there is product interest from that market
  • Set up some PPC landing pages in those countries and monitor click-through rate and conversions. This method can also provide you with insight into that market’s user behaviors.

Once you’ve established the demand in your prospective market, it’s time to learn as much as you can about it. Get started by looking into the following areas:

Keywords

  • What keywords are trending that are relevant to your product?
  • What is the keyword difficulty of these terms?
  • Do you currently rank for any of these terms in that country?

Competitors

  • What search terms do they currently rank for?
  • What content topics are they writing about?
  • How does their backlink profile in the chosen country compare to yours?

Behaviors

  • Are there any significant cultural norms that might affect how you market to this audience? E.g. Do colors take on different significances?
  • Does everyone speak the same language or are their several?
  • How do their expectations of ecommerce differ? E.g. Is delivery expected to be free? Do they have different security certifications?

Spending time on this phase is essential if you are truly understand your customer and the market and therefore build an effective SEO strategy. It will also prevent your from launching into markets where there is not currently enough demand for your business.

Use mother tongue speakers

As mentioned above, it is essential to have native speaking digital marketing experts leading the team if you are to successfully launch into new markets.

Simply translating language A to language B can remove context and change the message, as different languages often use different words and phrases to mean the same thing. Using a translator, rather than a native speaker, means you may miss out on keyword opportunities as translators are often unaware of local and cultural slang which can be used in search. Translators are also unable to create website content for your international site that is optimized for search while being culturally and linguistically sensitive. At best, directly translated content does not read well but vaguely makes sense. At worst, it can be brand damaging.

Localize all marketing efforts

It’s not just language you need to consider, but the everyday culture of your new market. Different countries have different national events and consume content in a different way, which means your current marketing calendar with yearly campaigns and events may not be appropriate for the market you are expanding into. For example, Black Friday is yet to make it to many countries outside the US, so creating marketing campaigns around the huge days of sales may be ineffective with little return. Another example; Christmas in Australia is during summer, which means content displaying wintery, snowy scenes may not resonate with the audience.

Rather than using your existing calendar to plan your new market’s yearly strategy, your expansion will be more successful if you build a new global calendar which encompasses each market. Our International Sales Events Calendar is a great place to start.

Optimize your website

Technical SEO plays a vital part in a successful international launch as it ensures that the localized site can be found by users in that market. When targeting people in a certain country, there are two major decisions to make that let search engines know you’re looking to target people in that country.

Hreflang

Ensure that the relevant pages on your website have correct hreflang tag used, as Google uses this to identify the language and country that page is targeting. We often see websites using the incorrect hreflang annotation – this can send users to the wrong site and impact your conversion rate. Make sure you’re getting it right with this guide to fixing common hreflang mistakes.

Domain structure

The domain your site sits on is also a vital consideration for international expansion. You have three options: ccTLD (an example would be sitename.fr for France), sub-folder (sitename.com/fr), or sub-domain (fr.sitename.com).

There are pros and cons to each, touching everything from the passing of authority through your site, cost, and the trust levels locals will have with your brand. There is no exact answer for this but take a look at the image below as a guide to the impact of each.

International SEO best practices and top tips

This guide lays the foundation for building an effective international SEO strategy, but there is plenty more to consider. Start building out your strategy with some of these tips, tricks and common practices used by our international team.

Link build in those countries

Effective link building is an essential part of your SEO strategy for a new target market. No matter your country and audience, a diverse backlink profile is a crucial part of improving your rankings.

For this to be effective, you’re going to need your native speakers again; their knowledge of the country is vital for creating PR campaigns for link building purposes. Without their inside knowledge, you might miss national awareness days, cultural trends occurring in that country’s news cycle, or simply create content which is unlikely to be used by the local media. Check out more tips on launching international PR campaigns.

Harness international directories

Switching back to domains briefly, one significant advantage of ccTLDs is your ability to add that domain onto local directories. Local links from that country are an important part of long-term success, and directories are an easy way to get some that you might not be able to take advantage of using a sub-folder.

Using sub-folders or sub-domains may create fewer difficulties in the short-term but using a ccTLD and generating authority to it will bring greater benefits to your SEO efforts in the country over a long-term period.

Make a distinction between language and country

Another mistake businesses make when launching their international SEO strategy is equating language and country. Some markets are home to more than one language (think Belgium or Canada), and multiple countries might have the same language (such as Austria and Germany). You will need to take this into consideration; do you target by country, by language, or even by region? Once again, make sure you have native experts on-hand to get it right.

Set KPIs at the market level

The demand and interest in your product, accessibility of your product, and the strength of your brand in that market can cause the rate at which your organic performance grows to vary. For example, the SERPs on Baidu, the search engine of choice in China, is 80% paid ads on page one – something which should lower your organic traffic and conversion expectations in that country.

Consider this type of insight when putting KPIs in place. Translating KPIs from markets where you’re already established is likely to end in disappointment; start low and wait until you have trust and authority in that market.

Split test in new markets

Even with extensive market research, it’s unlikely that you will get everything right the first time round. Learning to understand an audience takes time, but you can get a better understanding using A/B testing. Switch up the layouts and content and see which gets a higher level of engagement. The importance of A/B testing is growing in marketing, and it should be a strong part of your international SEO strategy.

The consequences of bad international SEO

Still thinking you can get by with translators instead of native digital experts for your international example? KFC thought so too when they launched in China. Unfortunately, their renowned slogan “finger-lickin’ good” translated directly into “We’ll eat your fingers off.” – a famous blunder that may have cost the company millions but one that could have easily been avoided.

Without proper localization, the effectiveness with which you can speak to new audiences is severely damaged. Failure to climb the rankings brings lower click-through rates and no increase in traffic and conversions. Plus, if you aren’t speaking to customers on their terms and in their language, you won’t develop the trust in your brand that will help you expand.

Avoid the common pitfalls of expanding your business globally and take the necessary care that international SEO demands.

Want to learn more about international SEO?Subscribe to our newsletter


x
Get the latest digital marketing insights delivered to your inbox