A Starter Guide to International SEO

International SEO

If your business operates globally, your website should be able to deliver specific content and offer great user-experience across multiple countries, cultures and languages (and often multiple languages within a country). This way, searchers from around the world will be able to navigate your website and find the information that is relevant to them as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

User experience is becoming more and more important in SEO because it leads to fewer people bouncing back to the search results which, in turn, leads to higher rankings. But because visitors from different cultures will enjoy different experiences, your website should not only contain material which appeals to different cultures in different languages, but there should also be a system to instruct search engines to serve the right material to the right searchers.

Consider the following scenario.

Visitors searching in Spanish might be coming from Mexico, Spain, Colombia or many other countries whose official language is Spanish; they will need to be served pages of your website with information that is relevant to their specific country. Likewise, a search in Spanish might be coming from the USA, for example; so those searchers might require information relevant to the country where they are searching from but served in their favourite language which is not that country’s official language.

How do you move through all these intricacies?

This article will cover some of the main best practices of international SEO.

  1. Use the right URL structure

    The first thing to consider is your international website structure: this is how your website begins to tell search engines which content is to be served to specific visitors from different regions of the world.

    There are three main structural options for this, and it is up to you to find the one which best fits your business objectives.

    • Country-coded Top-Level Domains (ccTLD’s). For instance, if your website is www.example.com, you may serve your UK visitors a page like www.example.com.uk. This used to be the standard choice, but many businesses are abandoning it because it is expensive and ccTLD’s often confuse search engines creating a lot of duplicate material.
    • Sub-domains. For instance www.uk.example.com. This option allows you to target visitors by country and region, but it is still treated by search engines like a new domain and requires a separate SEO strategy.
    • Sub-directories. For instance www.example.com/uk/. This is the preferred industry solution at the time of writing because it is the easiest to implement and geo-targeting can be set up in Google Search Console.
  2. Don’t just translate; localise

    Your international website should not just be a collection of translations of your main contents into a few languages; different regions and cultures respond to different contents, designs, colour schemes, images, etc.

    To make your website work best with each region, culture and language, your local pages should contain original material that appeals to different cultures.

    • Have region-specific design. It is not just your website material that is culture-sensitive; the way your material is presented is also a major factor of appreciation. Some cultures score very high on power distance, others on team work, others on individuality: each will react differently to pictures of individuals or groups, for example; or the way they see their long-term relationship with a brand will vary.

      The meaning of colours changes with country, culture and religion; therefore, you should consider your colour scheme carefully before you start designing your website.

      Navigation is another of the clearest issues: some cultures read left to right, others right to left, others vertically. All this should be considered while designing your navigation systems.

    • Region-specific keyword searches. Languages are made of nuances which only a native or near-native speaker can appreciate: have a native speaker to do the keyword search.

      Using machine-based translating tools is a losing strategy if you’re serious about winning with a localised user experience. A native translator will help you understand which cultural references are appropriate or inappropriate for a different location, if certain slang words need to be added or not, and which keywords to use.

      Once you have all your research on phrases and culture, you can build this out into target keywords that you could sprinkle into your traditional SEO taxonomy.

  3. Hreflang tags

    Now you have chosen your URL structure and you have great material to serve to all your readers across the world, you must make sure search engines display the right content to users in different languages and regions. For example, Independence Day sales in July won’t be relevant to almost anyone living outside of America.

    To do so, you must tag your website with “Hreflang” tags. These are bits of code by which you specify which different URLs on your websites should be served in a different language, or the same language but targeted at a different region (“en-us” for searches in English from the USA, “de-at” targeting German speakers in Austria and so on).

    Hreflang is also useful to avoid duplicate content issues. For example, if you have the same content in English on different URLs aimed at the UK, the US, and Australia, the difference on these pages might be as small as a change in prices and currency. Without Hreflang, Google might not understand what you’re trying to do and see all pages as duplicate content. With Hreflang, you make it very clear to the search engine that these different pages are (almost) the same content, just optimised for different countries and languages. Therefore, we use Hreflangs tags which are meant to organise content by different languages, multiple regions with the same language, or one region with different languages.

  4. Optimise for different search engines.
    Although Google is the world’s largest search engine, when optimising for an international website you should consider at least search engines like Yandex, which has a vast user-base in Russia, or Baidu, which is dominant in China. If you want to optimise for these regions you need to understand how these search engines work and how locals use them. For instance, search engines with less sophisticated algorithms are less sensitive to long-tail searches; some do not support the same search operators or spell checkers.
  5. Mobile
    Google announced that they are rolling out what they call “Mobile First”, which means that they are going to crawl and index the mobile version of your website first and then (maybe) your desktop version. If you have a separate mobile website, make sure that it is not just a reduced version of your desktop website, because Google will certainly miss pages which are on your desktop website but not on your mobile one.

    If, like most websites nowadays, your website is mobile responsive, you will not have many problems; however, make sure your website continues to offer a great user experience on mobile with no hidden materials, no annoying pop ups which cover the whole mobile screen and are impossible to minimise and – most of all – that mobile page load speed is good or you might lose ranking and traffic. Consider also which mobile devices are most popular in different countries and test how your website delivers on those devices.

In conclusion, International SEO requires a holistic approach which covers all the aspects of modern Search Engine Optimisation, but if you want to make meaningful connections with your visitors and keep them returning, you must be flexible and adapt to local cultures and communication styles or you are bound to lose.

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