Phrase and beyond
What Is International SEO, and How to Make the Most of It?
With 60% of global consumers preferring products and services in their own languages, optimizing your website for international markets can be a powerful strategy to expand your customer base. Follow this guide to learn how to build an international SEO strategy that will win over your global audiences.
What is international SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing a website and its content to ensure visibility in search engines like Google. International SEO is also about ensuring a strong search presence, but it aims to drive organic traffic from multiple countries (multiregional SEO) and/or languages (multilingual SEO).
International SEO ensures that search engines can easily identify which countries your company wants to target. It also shows search engines which languages you use to attract customers from different countries or speak different languages.
How does international SEO work?
Google and other search engines are engineered to match search results to the language and location of the user. International SEO works by letting search engines know that your site has content suitable for searchers based in a particular country—or users who are searching for products or services like yours in a specific language. International SEO involves using language targeting, hreflang tags, designated URL structures, and other localization signals to target content to your users around the world.
Why is international SEO important?
Pushing your website and its content with international SEO will improve the visibility of your product or service in global markets. In other words, you can build a stronger customer base, and ultimately, get more conversions.
What are the benefits of international SEO?
International SEO is a great way to grow a business. It can give you the edge over your competitors. If they don’t optimize their content for certain countries or languages, you can take advantage of that by tailoring your content to those countries to bring in even more traffic.
International SEO will enable you to establish your business in other countries. The enhanced global user experience will help establish your business as a global brand. This will result in more customers returning to your website, and last but not least, increase your profits.
What makes a strong international SEO strategy?
An international SEO approach that’s successful in one market may not necessarily work well for another due to differences in cultures and languages. That’s why strong international SEO strategies allow for adaptation for various regions or countries.
To be successful in international SEO, you need to cater to the cultural differences in each language or country you want to provide content for. Put another way, it’s important to localize your content rather than just translate it. Depending on your specific business needs, you can either work with in-house linguists or rely on professional translation and localization services.
For example, you need to ensure that your target audience is able to make purchases in their national currency. You’re also expected to provide answers in their native tongue—and within their cultural context—to questions they might have at any point of the buyer journey.
Localizing a single website or multiple sites to meet all these expectations can feel like a mountain of a task. Nevertheless, with the right planning and technology support, you can easily incorporate localization into your global growth strategy.
Start thinking about employing a translation management system (TMS). Engineered to support translation management with smart automation, it will streamline your localization workflow end to end and integrate seamlessly with your existing tech stack.
Best practices for international SEO
The key to building a strong international SEO strategy is to get to know your audience and anticipate their needs.
Define your market approach
No two international SEO approaches are the same. The approach depends on your business and target customers.
If you offer the same products or services worldwide to different language audiences, then you should opt for a language-based segmentation approach. This involves optimizing content on your website so that it is the same in every language that is relevant for your business.
If your company offers different products or services in different national markets, or operates under different brand names in different countries/languages, you will need to approach each country separately. You will need to have dedicated country websites, all with their own international SEO approaches.
Do your market research
Before launching your international SEO strategy, define which audiences may be interested in your product or service, and find out what’s important to them. You can do this by researching how these audiences typically find products or services and by doing some keyword research. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know which audiences to cater to and how.
Do competitor research
Look into your future competitors and gauge their performance when it comes to SEO, content marketing, and paid advertising. International SEO will help you to find new opportunities, especially if your competitors are not currently optimizing their content for certain markets or languages.
Plan your strategy
Build an international SEO strategy using your market and competitor research. Find out where your current traffic is coming from by looking at Google Analytics. You may find that you already have a large audience in a specific national market. If so, you should start optimizing your website for this country first. Otherwise, you should use your company’s global strategy to define which international market or language to start with.
Choose the right domains
If you need to create dedicated websites for different countries, you will need to choose your domains wisely. Before selecting a domain for your brand, work with an agency experienced in the local market, as well as with native-speaking experts. You need to make sure that your chosen brand name and domain elicit the right brand associations and responses from local consumers.
In case you want to use more than one word in your chosen domain name, make sure they work well together and they can’t be misread to form new words. This is crucial as the wrong domain name could be misconstrued and even lead to embarrassment or mistrust.
Choose what audiences you’re interested in catering to first
When it comes to international SEO, you don’t have to optimize your content for all countries and languages at once. It can be a multi-stage roll-out. Start by catering to one new audience to gain insights into how to implement international SEO, and take it from there. This will also help you and your team to get familiar with international SEO and gain momentum for future projects.
Use dedicated URLs for each localized content variant
To avoid confusion, you should use a dedicated URL for each local content page. There are a few URL structures that webmasters can use to target particular countries. Here are the most common options:
- Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs for short): example.de
- ccTLDs, or global top-level-domains (gTLDs for short), in combination with subdomains: de.example.com
- ccTLDs or gTLDs in combination with subfolders: example.com/es/
- ccTLDs or TLDs with a combination of subdomains and subfolders: es.example.com/es-mx/
Choose the right kind of domains
If you need designated webpages for specific countries, having country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) may be the best solution. Domains like yourbrandname.es and yourbrandname.fr send signals to search engines that these sites should be served to users who are located in Spain and France.
However, as ccTLDs are separate domains, this strategy is typically the most expensive and time-consuming. Each ccTLD domain needs its own digital PR, content marketing, and link building strategy. You also won’t be able to carry over any link acquisition efforts or domain authority acquired from off-site activity on other webpages.
If the location of your audience doesn’t have any impact on your products and services, you can use a single domain, and make use of subdirectories (or subfolders) to host your designated language or country pages. These are typically used by businesses who want to target users in a single market with multiple languages being spoken. They also apply to geographical regions encompassing two or more countries that speak the same language, for example, Spanish-speaking Latin America.
Use the hreflang attribute
The hreflang attribute indicates what language your content is in and what geographical region your content is for. Hreflang attributes also help you to avoid duplicate content issues on the various language versions of your website, i.e. for the English language pages designated for the US, the UK, and Australia, used to target various locations.
You can implement the hreflang attribute by:
- Including it in the <head> section of your HTML
- Including it in your XML sitemap markup
- Including it in your HTTP headers
When using the hreflang attribute, stick to these best practices:
- Reference both the page itself and its translated variants.
- Make sure to have bidirectional hreflang attribute references.
- Correctly define language and region combinations.
- Always set hreflang=”x-default.”
- Ensure that the hreflang attribute and the canonical URL match.
- Use absolute URLs when defining the hreflang attribute.
- Use only one method to implement the hreflang attribute.
Language-target your website (or website pages)
Whether you have opted for dedicated websites that are customized for each country, or subfolders on a single domain, you will need to use the right language for each page. This will signal to Google and other search engines that your content is relevant for users in specific locations, which means your pages will rank higher.
It will also provide a better user experience to local users and encourage them to convert or return to your site at a later date. If this is not feasible, or not strategically important for your company, you can add subfolders with designated pages in each language spoken in your target countries.
Choose the right keywords for each country
One of the best ways to optimize your content for search engines is by using the right keywords. If you’re engaged in international SEO, though, it’s important that you don’t just translate your keywords—in most cases they need to be transcreated instead.
Deal with your keywords on a case-by-case basis. Some keywords will be difficult to transcreate while others will not need to be touched. Some international industries like medicine or IT tend to use English terms even if English isn’t the country’s official language, so translating these keywords won’t make any sense.
For every keyword, you need to find out what exactly local users are searching for, and adapt your keywords to fit local search patterns. For example, Mothers’ Day in the US is on a completely different day to Mothers’ Day in the UK. This means that users in both countries will be looking for Mothers’ Day gifts in different months of the year.
Once you’ve transcreated or researched your keywords, you need to check how many people are searching for them. Use tools like Google Keyword Planner to find out their monthly search volumes in the relevant markets, and incorporate the best keywords into your international SEO strategy.
Avoid automatically redirecting a user to a different language based on location
It might seem like the perfect solution, but automatically redirecting visitors and/or search engines based on IP addresses or browser settings is annoying for users. It can be confusing for search engines too. It can even mean that visitors and search engines never find certain content. Instead, let visitors and search engines know about an alternative version of a page by showing a banner at the top or bottom of the page with a message and a link to the suggested page.
Adapt topics for local cultures
All content that you put onto your designated country pages should be relevant for the local audience. For example, if you provide content that covers trends or news in the US, these topics might not be relevant for visitors located in Australia. If that’s the case, work to provide targeted content that is useful for the demographic who will land on the specific country pages. When it comes to creating localized content, it’s a good idea to check with someone based in the target country to create copy and design a landing page that best appeals to the target audience.
Create a link building strategy for each market
Remember that for international SEO, just like traditional SEO, links have different values depending on the origin of the backlink. If your site gets a lot of backlinks from URLs ending with “.de,” it signals to Google that your site is relevant to audiences in Germany. Therefore, it can rank your page accordingly on those local SERPs. Local links will have the highest impact on search results so it’s worth investing time in building a strong link building strategy for each page.
Consider other SEO signals
There are other ways which can tell search engines that your website is targeting a specific country, such as:
- Hosting your site on a local IP
- Linking to local content
- Finding ways to rank on local search engines like Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China
Along with the best practices listed above, it’s worth considering these signals to see if they’re relevant for your international SEO efforts.
International SEO checklist
International SEO is essential for taking your business to global markets. Optimizing your content for different countries will boost your search presence, strengthen your brand image, bring in more leads, and boost global revenue. To make sure you don’t miss a thing, we’ve put together a checklist for your next international SEO endeavor:
- Work out what international content you provide and for what markets/languages
- Create a keyword strategy using relevant keywords for specific markets/languages
- Set up an international SEO-friendly URL structure
- Create a sitemap
- Determine Language vs Country targeting
- Allow users to switch the webpage language
- Use Hreflang tags for language targeting
- Adjust pricing to national currencies
- Ensure all image alt tags are in the correct languages
- Identify bad redirects and fix them
- Fix broken links, errors, and crawl issues
- Create a link building strategy for each market
- Keep up to date on international and local search trends
- Check the SEO potential of each topic you want to address
- Hire native content creators and industry experts to keep your content relevant
Last updated on May 4, 2023.