Learn how to leverage your audience from across the world and take your online search presence to the next level by optimising your website with a solid International SEO strategy.
If you have a business that sells products or provides a service internationally, then you likely want to expand the reach of your search operations and leverage your audience from across the world by adopting an international SEO strategy.
In this chapter, we’ll discuss the fundamentals of international SEO as well as highlight the core factors that you should consider when devising a strategy for your website.
The Fundamentals of International SEO
What is International SEO?
International SEO is a branch of search engine optimization that focuses on driving organic traffic from multiple regions (also known as multiregional SEO) and/or languages (referred to as multilingual SEO).
An example of multiregional SEO is if your business is based in the United Kingdom, but you also target Canada and the United States of America.
Likewise, an example of multilingual SEO is if your business is located in Canada and you have an English and French version of your website.
Multiregional and multilingual SEO can be combined to further maximise your business’ search presence.
Why is International SEO Important?
Considering that well over half of the world’s population is online, there’s a huge opportunity for you to grow your business and reach an international audience.
By allowing you to expand your business in new markets, international SEO can also set you apart from your competitors who perhaps may be limited in their reach.
Moreover, correctly implementing international SEO ensures that users searching for your business will be directed to the correct version of your website. For example, you do not want a customer based in Germany to receive the English version of your website as this may impact their user experience and ultimately may even prevent them from converting.
International SEO not only helps you reach a wider audience more quickly, but it also enables you to create bespoke strategies for each target market by understanding their search behaviour. This way, you can tailor your content and SEO strategy on a market level as opposed to creating a plan that fits all locations.
The Characteristics of International SEO
Although Google’s ranking factors do not vary from country to country, when it comes to international SEO, there are some important characteristics to take a note of.
Remember, Google’s goal is to present users with the best possible results for the search query, regardless of where they are searching from or what language is being used. If you have a multiregional or multilingual website, Google needs to be able to recognise what regions and languages that your website is targeting. Making this distinction presents a challenge for both SEOs and Google.
For example, if a user is based in Italy but performs their search in German, which websites should Google rank?
Displaying the same results for all users irrespective of their location and/or language would not achieve the goal we defined above.
You also need to consider the following when devising your SEO strategy for foreign markets:
- Does your business depend on the user’s location and/or language?
- Does the content, products and/or services your offer change for the new target locations?
- Do you have the resources to create country-specific content?
Devising an International SEO Strategy
In this section we will highlight some of the most important factors that you should consider when devising your international SEO strategy.
Understanding Market Differences
International SEO is a means of growing your business and reaching a wider audience quickly, however, it’s important to first understand the differences between the various markets that you want to target.
There are many cultural differences which may impact search behaviour based on the user’s location and preferred language.
For instance, the same word may have several different meanings depending on where the user is searching from. A great example of this would be the term “football”.
If we were to search this term from the United States of America, we can see that Google displays results related to American Football and the NFL.
However, the same search in the United Kingdom sees results that are related to the Premier League and The Football Association and notably, no mention of American Football or the NFL.
In addition to variance in language, demographics and culture also may influence the SERPs.
For example, India has the highest percentage of vegetarians when compared to other countries with 31% of the population identifying as vegetarian. Likewise, countries like Latvia and Estonia have much higher share of female doctors when compared to countries like Korea and Japan.
How users from different countries navigate your website should also be considered. For instance, Arabic speaking countries read from right to left as opposed to left to right. This means that Arabic users will expect your main content to be displayed on the right side of the screen whereas European users will expect the content to be displayed on the left side.
Another incredibly important factor to consider when it comes to targeting various countries is the law. Local regulations may prevent you from selling specific products and displaying certain information to your customers.
A relevant example of this is GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a data protection law and regulation, which forces companies and businesses who engage and operate in the EU (European Union) to amend their cookie policies.
Whether it’s small changes like product descriptions, currency and units of measurements or adhering to regulations like GDPR, cultural and demographic differences like this drastically influence both users’ search behaviour and the search results themselves.
This highlights why it’s incredibly important to understand the markets of the locations that you want to target.
Consider the following questions when performing marketing research for your target markets:
1. Have you identified which audiences may be interested in your product or service?
2. Have you identified which products or services are better suited for each of your target markets?
3. Have you identified how the different audiences typically find the product or service you offer?
4. Have you identified the most important content that will help cater to your target audience?
5. Have you identified the core keywords that you will target for each target market?
6. Have you looked at competing domains for the keywords you have identified?
Geo-Distributed and Language-Dependant Crawling
In order to devise a solid strategy to cater to your wider audience, you also need to ensure that Googlebot is able to crawl and index your locale-adaptive pages and importantly, to recognise which location and language you are targeting so that it can display the correct version of your web pages to searchers.
Historically, Google struggled to crawl, index or rank content that targeted different locales because the “default IP addresses of the Googlebot crawler appear to be based in the USA” and “the crawler sends HTTP requests without setting Accept-Language in the request header”. In other words, requests from Googlebot were always made from the USA by default, which meant that Googlebot only saw the U.S. English version of the web page.
In January 2015, Google announced a way that enabled it to support locale-adaptive pages where Googlebot is sent from different IP addresses across the world to handle such content.
Google introduced two different methods for supporting this issue:
1. Geo-distributed crawling is where Googlebot crawls the web page with IP addresses that appear to be coming from outside the USA in addition to the US-based IP addresses.
Google recommends that you treat Googlebot (appearing from a certain country) in the same way that you would a normal user. For example, if USA-based users are blocked from accessing content on your website, but UK-based users are allowed, then your server should also block a Googlebot that appears to be accessing the website from the USA, but allow access to Googlebot accessing the site from the UK.
2. Language-dependent crawling is where Googlebot starts to crawl a web page with the Accept-Language HTTP header in the request.
This means that Google has an improved chance of discovering, indexing and ranking content that is served in different languages.
Cross-Language Search Results
Google aims to make information accessible for all users; which involves presenting users with the best results in their own language.
However, what if these results do not provide a great experience or do not fulfill the user’s search intent?
In cases like this, where Google determines that there aren’t enough high-quality and/or relevant results to rank for the user’s language, Google displays cross-language search results.
This effectively means that even if your web page is not written in the user’s preferred language, there is still a chance that Google may rank it.
The search results include results from pages served in other languages where the page title and snippet (meta description) are translated to the user’s preferred language. If a user was to click on one of these types of results, they would be directed to a live translation of the page which is generated by Google Translate. Google explains that all further interactions that the user makes on the web page is through Google Translate which will automatically translate any links that the user follows.
Cross-language search enables Google to achieve its goal of presenting the best possible results for the user’s search query regardless of their preferred language. For publishers and webmasters, this means that you still have a chance of ranking your web pages without having to create new content for each language; which helps make your content more widely available.
The technical setup of your website’s architecture and URL structure is crucial in ensuring a successful international SEO strategy.
The domain strategy that is used to target your various markets can heavily influence how your site performance in the SERPs. There are three main options to consider for your domain strategy:
- Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)
- Subfolders or Subdirectories
In this section, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each of these options.
Country Code Top-level Domains
Country Code Top-level Domains or ccTLDs is where you employ a separate domain for each of the countries that you want to target.
- example.com – United States
- example.co.uk – United Kingdom
- example.de – Germany
- example.in – India
Advantages of ccTLDs
- Offer strong geo targeting signals to Google as the domains are automatically associated with the country being targeted i.e. .de to Germany.
- Provides a clear separation of your websites.
- Clearly illustrates that the site targets a specific country within the SERPs.
- Serve as a clear signal to users that the website is intended for them i.e. .de for a German user.
- Users tend to prefer sites that appear to be “local”.
- Websites with local TLDs tend to perform better in most markets i.e. Google tends to rank .co.uk websites for the UK.
Disadvantages of ccTLDs
- Increased maintenance and hosting costs for each domain and location that you target.
- Difficult to establish authority for new markets as domains will have no ranking history.
- Difficult to set up language specific websites, for example a Spanish-language website on a .es domain will be treated and look like a website that is focused purely on Spain instead of one that may also serve customers in other Spanish speaking countries like Mexico.
- Each domain’s SEO is independent where strategies and results will vary on each website. In other words, the SEO on one site will benefit that site only.
- Link authority dilution – a lot of the links pointing to your websites come from other ccTLDs i.e. in a drop down list of all pages. This means that the backlinks from external websites outside of your business will not have as much ranking power as they get “diluted”.
Subfolders or Subdirectories
An alternative to ccTLDs is using subfolders (or subdirectories) to serve content for specific languages or countries. This method can be applied to any domain, but in order for it to work effectively, the site should not be on a local ccTLD, it should be on a top-level domain such as .com or .org etc.
- example.com/us/ – United States
- example.com/uk/- United Kingdom
- example.com/de/ – Germany
- example.com/in/ – India
Advantages of Subfolders
- Easy to set up as you simply have to create a new subdirectory
- Can use Search Console geotargeting (i.e. subdomains can be treated differently by Google)
- All subfolders will benefit from any SEO work that is performed because it is a single domain.
- Links between countries/languages are internal as opposed to external (due to the single domain), which means that there is no link dilution for external websites that may link to you.
- No additional maintenance or hosting costs as you only have to worry about a single domain.
- New markets do not suffer as you are working from an already established domain as opposed to starting from scratch with a brand new domain
Disadvantages of Subfolders
- Visitors might not be able to recognize geotargeting from the URL alone i.e. /in/ may be a page for Indian products rather than a page that is specifically created and aimed for users based in India.
- The separation of sites is more difficult.
- Risk of internal keyword cannibalisation – location pages may end up competing for the same keywords i.e. /us/ and /uk/ which contain English content.
The third and final option is to create a subdomain for each country that you want to target which is placed at the root of the main domain. As with subdirectories, this method works best when a generic top-level domain (gTLD) is being used.
- us.example.com – United States
- uk.example.com- United Kingdom
- de.example.com – Germany
- in.example.com – India
Advantages of Subdomains
- Easy to set up as this is the default set up for some CMS tools.
- Can use Search Console geotargeting (i.e. subdomains can be treated differently by Google)
- Allows for different server locations which helps separate the various versions of the website
- Easier to target new markets as the subdomain inherits some of the ranking power and authority of the root domain.
Disadvantages of Subdomains
- Users may not be able to recognise geotargeting from the URL alone i.e. it is unclear if de.example.com specifies a language or country.
- Risk of internal keyword cannibalisation – pages may end up competing for the same keywords i.e. us.example.com and uk.example.com.
- Serve as a weaker signal to search engines as to the target location that you want to rank for.
Choosing URL Structure
Apart from the pros and cons listed above for each possible solution, knowing how Google determines a target locale may also influence which option you go with:
Google relies on several signals when it comes to predict what the best target audience for a web page is:
- If you use a gTLD and a hosting provider from another country, Google recommends using Google Search Console to define which country your website should be associated with.
- Country-code top-level domain names are a strong signal to both users and Google that your website is intended to target a specific country.
- Google treats ccTLDs (such as .tv, .me, etc.) as gTLDs after recognising that webmasters view such domain names as generic.
- Hreflang statements – more on this later.
- The location of your server (i.e. its IP address) can also be used as a signal. For example, if your server is physically located near your users, Google may see it as a signal about your website’s intended audience. However, considering that many websites now employ Content Delivery Networks or have websites that are hosted in a different country, this is not as strong of a signal.
- Other signals such as your Google My Business page (more on this in a later module), as well as including local addresses and phone numbers, currency etc on your web pages may also be used as clues to the intended audience of your website.
In conclusion, whether you want to use separate domains to target different countries/regions (like Amazon and Google) or use a single global domain (like Ikea or Nike) or use subdomains (like Wikipedia), the main thing to remember is to choose an option that makes it easy for you to geotarget your entire website (or at the best least parts of it), to different regions.
One of the cornerstones of international SEO is the hreflang statement. In this section, we’ll discuss this crucial element in great detail.
What is hreflang?
The hreflang statement is code that allows you to inform Google about all of the different URLs on your site that have the same content. These URLs may contain the same content in different languages, or be written in the same language but target different regions.
When Should You Use hreflang?
There are three main scenarios where you should indicate the alternate versions of your web pages to Google:
1. If the main content on your website is in a single language and you only translate the template elements such as the navigation and footer.
2. If you have similar content in a single language but targets different regions i.e. if you have English-language content that targets the US, Great Britain, and Ireland.
3. If the content on your website is fully translated into multiple languages i.e. if you have English and Spanish versions of each page on your website.
Why is hreflang Beneficial for SEO?
By implementing hreflang on your website, you will help Google Search point users to the most relevant version of your web page based on their language and/or region. This ultimately improves their user experience as it means they are less likely to bounce back to the search results to find a more suitable page for their search query. This is important because Google looks at bounce rate as a ranking signal. On top of this, if users are spending more time on your website, there is a higher chance that they will convert.
Apart from providing a better search experience, hreflang helps to prevent issues with duplicate content. For example, if you have similar content with small differences (i.e. currency and prices) that are written in the same language but target different regions, Google may see it as duplicate content. This can lead to unwanted behaviour i.e. Google may crawl one page more often than others or choose the wrong URL as the canonical. By implementing hreflang, you can inform Google that the content is indeed similar, but that it is optimised for different audiences.
There are three main methods of implementing hreflang:
1. HTML Tags i.e. using link elements in the <head>
2. HTTP Headers
3. XML Sitemap
Each method is described in detail below, however regardless of which one you choose to implement for your website, it is important to follow the follow general guidelines:
- Remember to reference both the page itself and its translated variants.
- Ensure that you have bidirectional hreflang attribute references, otherwise Google will ignore the tags.
- Ensure that you use valid hreflang attributes when defining your language and region combinations.
- Always use absolute URLs.
- Ensure that each URL has a return link to every other URL, and that these links point at the canonical versions of your web page i.e. If page X links to page Y, page Y must link back to page X.
- Ensure that the hreflang attribute and the canonical URL match.
- Use the x=”default” tab to add fallback pages for unmatched languages.
Implementing hreflang with HTML tags is usually the easiest method as it simply involves adding code like the following in the <head> section of your HTML pages.
<link rel="alternate" href="url_of_page" hreflang="x-y" />
For instance, if you want to target French-speaking people in Canada, you would add the following code to the <head> section:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/ca" hreflang="fr-ca" />
You can find a full list of compliant operators for x and y here.
When defining the hreflang attribute, you are defining the localised variants of the page in addition to the audience that you are targeting on the current page.
For example, if you have a Spanish home page that is also available in English and French, you may want the default version of the page to be the Spanish page. Then the following definition would be implemented on all variants of the Spanish home page:
<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="https://www.example.com/en/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://www.example.com/fr/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="https://www.example.com/" />
The x-default value informs Google about a fallback page for when no page is available for the audience that you are trying to target.
The second way to implement hreflang is through HTTP headers (commonly used to tell Google about non-HTML documents such as PDF files) which involves returning an HTTP header with your web page’s GET response to inform Google about the language/region variants of your web pages.
Here is an example Link: header implementation for a site that has two versions of a PDF file: one for English speakers and one for English speakers from France:
Link: <https://example.com/file.pdf>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="en", <https://en-fr.example.com/file.pdf>; rel="alternate"
The third and final method of implementing hreflang is using your XML sitemap.
In order to do this, add a <loc> element to specify a single URL, with child <xhtml:link> entries to list the different language and locale variants of your web page including the canonical version.
So for example, if you have three different versions of a webpage, your sitemap should include three entries, each with its own three identical child entries.
Here is an example scenario:
If we have the following three pages:
1. www.example.com/english/page.html, targeted at English speakers.
2. www.example.com/french/page.html targeted at French speakers.
3. www.example.com/french-canadian/page.html targeted at French speakers in Canada.
Then the XML markup would look like this:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> <urlset xmlns="http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9" xmlns:xhtml="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> <url> <loc>https://www.example.com/english/page.html</loc> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://www.example.com/french/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-ca" href="https://www.example.com/french-canadian/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/english/page.html"/> </url> <url> <loc>https://www.example.com/french/page.html</loc> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://www.example.com/french/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-ca" href="https://www.example.com/french-canadian/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/english/page.html"/> </url> <url> <loc>https://www.example.com/french-canadian/page.html</loc> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://www.example.com/french/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="de-ch" href="https://www.example.com/french-canadian/page.html"/> <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/english/page.html"/> </url> </urlset>
Note that each URL has a self-referencing hreflang attribute as well as return links to the other relevant URLs.
Apart from Google’s International Targeting report on GSC, there are several third party tools that can be used to help implement hreflang correctly:
1. Use Aleyda Solis’s hreflang tags generator tool for generating or modifying hreflang tags.
2. To test and validate your hreflang tags on a single page, use Merkle SEO’s hreflang tag testing tool.
3. Use Erudite’s hreflang Sitemap tool to generate hreflang sitemap markups.
4. Use the hreflang tag checker Chrome extension to quickly audit your hreflang tags.
International SEO Best Practices & Common Pitfalls
Although we have discussed several steps that need to be considered when creating a strategy for an international website such as choosing the right domain/URL structure and implementing hreflang statements, there are many other important factors to take into account.
In this section, we have outlined the best practices and common pitfalls to avoid to maximise the success of your international SEO strategy.
International Targeting Report
The International Targeting report (which is available via Google Search Console) allows you to monitor your hreflang errors as well as select the country that you want Google to prioritise for your search results.
The report is split into two tabs: Language and Country.
Google displays any hreflang errors with your website in the Language tab,
Below is an example of a website that currently has no hreflang errors, this is what we want to see.
If however Google does find an error with any of your hreflang tags, it will display them as such:
In the above example, the error refers to a single page where there is no return tag. Clicking on the error will display the exact page which contains the hreflang error.
The other kind of error you may see is “Unknown language code”, which is where Google is unable to recognise the language code that you have used in your hreflang.
In addition to displaying any errors with your hreflang tags, you can also specify the primary location that you want Google to rank your website for. This is achieved via the Country tab.
To set your country target:
1. Click the Country tab on the International Targeting Report
2. Check the Geographic target checkbox and choose your country target. Select Unlisted in the drop-down list if you do not want your website to be associated with a single location.
Google’s John Mueller explained the difference between hreflang and geotargeting quite nicely in one of the Google Webmaster Help forums:
“Generally, what happens with geotargeting is that we promote the site (or part of the site — it needs to be clearly separated through a subdomain or subdirectory) when users in that country search for local content. With hreflang there’s no promotion or demotion involved, it just takes the rankings as they’d normally appear, and tries to swap out the URLs according to the best-matching hreflang version. With geotargeting, assuming it’s a gTLD, you need to verify the section of the site in Search Console, and can then specify the country for that section.”
What this means, is that geotargeting essentially gives your website a small boost in Search as you are explicitly telling Google which country you would like to target.
An important point to remember, is that this feature should only be used if you are targeting a single location/country. If your website targets multiple countries, then you do not want to restrict Google from ranking your site in those other target locations – in this case, you must set the Country to “Unlisted”.
If you have content that is translated in multiple languages on your site, here are some tips provided by Google themselves on how to ensure that users (and Googlebot) find the right page.
Different Language = Different URL
Google recommends using a different URL for each language that your content is available in as opposed to using cookies or the user’s browser settings to adapt the content on the page. This is because it ensures that you are in control of what is presented to the user.
Remember to use hreflang statements to ensure that Google search results link to the correct language version of a web page.
Dynamically changing the content or rerouting the user based on their language settings is not advised because Google may not be able to crawl and index the different variations. As mentioned previously, this is because Googlebot typically visits websites from the USA and sends HTTP requests without setting Accept-Language in the request header, which means that it will only be able to view the English version of your web page.
Make the Language Obvious
Google simply uses the visible content on your page to detect the language being used. Code-level language information such as lang attributes or the URL is not used. Therefore, to make it easier for Google to correctly determine what language is being used, ensure that you use a single language for your content and navigation on each page.
Avoid Automatically Translated Content
Importantly, Google advises that you avoid side-by-side translations as this may confuse the crawler. This is because translating boilerplate text on your pages whilst keeping the majority of the content in a single language provides a poor user experience; especially if the same content appears several times in the search results for all of the languages that your website caters to.
In order to combat this, block search engines from crawling any pages that contain content that is automatically translated using your robots.txt file.
Ideally, you should avoid automatically translated content altogether because the generated text may not be accurate, be treated as spam, and may also come across as being artificial-sounding.
All of these can hinder the user’s perception of your website and create a poor experience overall.
Let Users Change the Language Easily
If you have multiple versions of a page, make it as easy as possible for visitors to shift between the different languages.
Google provides two suggestions on how to go about doing this.
1. Add hyperlinks in your site navigation to other language versions of the web page as this allows users to simply choose and click which version of the web page they want to view. For example, Amazon provides a nifty drop down to allow users to quickly switch languages.
2. Avoid automatically redirecting the user to a particular page based on their perceived language preference. Doing so may prevent visitors as well as search engines from viewing all of the versions of your website. You want to put the user in control to provide the best experience possible. In fact, as of December 3rd 2018, unjustified automatic redirects are illegal in the European Union.
Apart from using locale-specific URLs and hreflang tags to tell Google about which pages apply to which locations or languages, there are few other factors that should be taken into account.
Handling Duplicate Content for International Pages
Providing content that is similar on different URLs in the same language as part of a multiregional website creates issues with duplicate content.
For example, if you have an eCommerce website which targets English speaking countries like the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia, you may only change small elements like the currency, price, delivery options etc.
In this case, Google recommends selecting the preferred version of the page and using the rel=canonical tag in addition to the hreflang tags to ensure that both the correct language or regional URL is served by Google to searchers.
Consider Local Competitors and Search Engines
When introducing your company or website into a new market, it’s crucial that you consider the local competitors who are already ranking for your core keywords.
On top of this, you may also need to optimise your website outside of Google. For example, if you wanted to expand your SEO to the Russian market, then you would also need to ensure that your website is optimised for Yandex (as well as Google). Similarly, to break into the Chinese market, you would need to optimise for Baidu.
When creating a localised version of your web pages, you need to consider the variance in how different search engines rank websites.
Consider Local Search Demand
If you are branching out to cater to different locations, the last thing you want to do is to put in a lot of effort in creating and building a new version of your website, to find out that there is little to no search demand for your product or service.
Use Google Analytics traffic data to analyse and identify the countries that are bringing in the most organic traffic to your website.
You can also filter the traffic data based on Language.
This allows you to identify potential markets that may be worth exploring, but also highlights any that should be avoided and are likely not worth the effort – it’s important to know when and where to draw the line as the last thing you want to do is create a new page for every single language and region.