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Businesses today have more opportunity than ever to conduct business internationally. Before you get to selling your products or services to other countries, developing a global SEO strategy now will save you logistical headaches later. Building meaningful relationships with international audiences isn’t terribly difficult, but it needs to be done correctly. Here’s a pretty comprehensive guide to building an international SEO strategy.

Target & Identify

Building a Web presence in another country is an investment of time, money, and energy, so before you decide to globalize your website, you need to spend a bit of time up front identifying your target audiences and markets. Most small and micro businesses don’t have much of those resources, so precisely targeting where to expend your efforts is the first step.

How to Know Where to Focus?

In my experience, most small businesses who build out a global component find their target audiences from one of a couple places:

  • Website Analytics Data: You can view your visitors’ geographies in Google Analytics (any analytics program, really). If you notice that your content is being found by one, or a couple, primary audiences outside the U.S., it may be worth digging deeper into the data to see if those are viable sources of traffic. If the analytics look good (low bounce rate, good time on site, good page views, etc.) then it might warrant experimenting with some content focused specifically on those countries. If the signs continue to be positive, you may want to consider moving further down this list to develop your global SEO strategy.

google analytics screenshot of international audiences

  • Contact Form Submissions: One of the sites I run has all the content focused on and targeted to a United States audience. However, we routinely get inquiries from overseas – South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, United Kingdom… Of course, you have to exercise some caution – do some quick research on these inquiries to determine if they are viable leads or simply well-crafted spam messages. If you continue to receive queries from overseas, consider adding a country list dropdown to your contact form so it’s easier to keep track of foreign inquiries.

Of course, these aren’t the only ways to identify international target markets. Perhaps a country with a burgeoning economy has recently eased tariffs and import regulations, or perhaps there’s a growing community specific to your niche. Wherever you see opportunity to expand, do your research.

Then do some more research. And when you’ve done all the research you think your brain can handle, start the mapping process. Your site will need to be technically sound to stand any chance at performing in another country.

Technical SEO Structure & Optimization

ccTLD as Subfolder or Subdomain?

The debate continues. The jury’s out. The fat lady has not yet sung. The truth is there are benefits and negatives to either option. Nobody wants to hear that as an answer, but it’s the truth. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate it is to send you straight to the belly of the beast. Read up on Google Support about the differences in each option, and their respective strengths or weaknesses.

My personal recommendation is to use the country-specific ccTLD (i.e. example.ca), because it’s the easiest for an end user (and search engines, too) to identify. But this option can  be expensive and depending on the country, there may be limited availability. Here’s a good reference from the Support page overview:

ccTLD pros and cons

Source: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/182192

 

Here are a few places to find ccTLDs (no affiliate links)

Also, you’ll want to create separate XML sitemaps for each ccTLD directory to submit to relevant search engines.

 

Local IP Address & Hosting

Ideally, having a hosting provider and IP address in the same country you’re targeting is the best move. However, your target country may not have great hosting architecture in place so you choose to host the site in a different country, or you may use a Contend Delivery Network (CDN) like CloudFlare – both of these things can distort the localization signals.

To combat this, you can maximize your signals with on-site NAP(Name, Address, Phone number) consistency as well as local directory listings that point to the localized URL of your site. A combination of all these will yield the best results and best help search engines determine what content should be shown to whom. Check your NAP consistency at Moz.com/local.

hreflang Tags

When you translate existing content into the native tongue of your international audience, you need to use the hreflang tag. The tag will, when done properly, help search engines determine which version of content to use for a specific audience. [su_highlight background=”#ffe42b”]NOTE: the use of the hreflang tag alone will not mediate duplicate content issues! This is a common misconception, and one that should be put to rest.[/su_highlight]

Again, this isn’t as direct as it could be. There are variants to regional content assignments, and can be quickly distinguished by the following statements from SearchEngineWatch.com:

  • Multilingual: A website offering its content in more than one language. An example would include a Canadian business with separate websites on the same domain for both the English and French versions of its content.

  • Multiregional: Google defines multiregional content as a website that “explicitly targets users in different countries.” This gets a bit difficult to wrap your head around because websites can be both multilingual and multi-regional, for example you could have a soccer (futbol) site with different versions for the USA and for South America, and both Spanish and Portuguese versions of the South American content.

You can implement the hreflang tag a couple different ways:

Option 1:In Google WMT you will find two sections dedicated to global targeting – the hreflang section, and the international targeting section.

Google WMT Country Targeting

This section reads the content of your site to determine if hreflang tags exist. When you build separate region or language-specific sections of your site, you should add each of those sub-folders or sub-directories to WMT.

 

Google WMT Country Targeting

This section allows you to help WMT determine where you want to target the content of a specific sub-folder or sub-domain to a specific region. Regional targeting is only available to countries.

 

Option 2: You can add the hreflang tag to the section of targeted pages. The snippet will look like hreflang=”x-default” />. Moz does a great job of breaking this down:

Source: http://moz.com/blog/hreflang-behaviour-insights

Of course, not everybody will be totally familiar with how to structure and create hreflang tags. Thankfully, Aleyda Solis created a pretty badass tool to help with just that – www.internationalseomap.com/hreflang-tags-generator.

Option 3: Include the regionally-targeted pages in your XML sitemap. A great tool to help you do this quickly and easily is http://www.themediaflow.com/tool_hreflang.php.

 

rel=canonical: Preventing Duplicate Content

The rel=Canonical tag (see information about it at Google Support or Moz.com) has been around since 2009, and is one way Webmasters can mitigate the instance of duplicate content. First off, duplicate content is just what it sounds like – information that is duplicative.

But, like with many things SEO, it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Duplicate content can be any of these things:

  • The www and non-www version of a website. For example: http://example.com and http://www.example.com are technically two different websites in the eyes of search engines.
  • Same content on a website in different languages. For example: if you have two pages about dog sweaters – one written in English and one written in Spanish – then without the rel=canonical tag or the hreflang tag, search engines will decide that these are the same pages, and will be devalued in SERPs. Remember: The hreflang tag alone will not mitigate duplicate content issues.
  • Same content on your website and another website. For example: If you write a blog post and also post that on another website as part of a content marketing strategy (this is NOT how to properly do content marketing, by the way), then search engines will choose one source of content as the true content providence. Most likely, it will be the website with greater authority and ranking, so you’re really shooting yourself in the foot.

So, as you can see, the rel=canonical tag is considerably important in every website strategy, especially when you’re adding a gloablized section to your site.

Localization Issues

Too many businesses fail to adequately understand their target market. Some dangerous assumptions that businesses of all sizes make before expanding commerce to another country:

  • People already know our product, so we don’t need to worry about changing product names
  • If the target market is in an English-speaking country, our United States copy will work there just like it does here
    • Some common differences between U.S. English and U.K. English:
      • Coupon = Voucher
      • Elevator = Lift
      • Store = Shop
      • Subway/Metro = Underground
      • Hood = Bonnet
      • Trunk = Boot
      • Line (as in waiting in line) = Cue
  • We don’t need to build a separate section of the Web site. We’ll just sell to whoever finds us
    • This is a low-hanging-fruit mentality and will inevitably direct you to chasing individual sales, as opposed to building communities of evangelists
  • We don’t need to pay for translation; we can just use Google Translate
    • Google Translate is good…as a LAST line of defense. You ever translated a foreign site to English? It’s painstakingly hard to get through. Sure, you can get the gist of the content, but at what cost?

Below are some key issues that routinely go unaddressed in international SEO strategies and campaigns.

Local Currency

When many businesses start to open their sales to other countries, they often neglect a huge piece of the puzzle: providing those international users the option to purchase goods or services in their native currency. Currency rates fluctuate often, and no consumer should bear the weight of estimating the price calculation. Talk about an awesome way to skyrocket shopping cart abandons and missed sales opportunities.

If your site’s built on WordPress, consider WooCommerce or WP e-Commerce. There are countless other plugins, but I’ve had experience with these and can vouch for the relative ease of use and ability to offer foreign currency selections to your foreign audience.

Localized Content & International Content Strategy

Again, when it comes down to truly speaking to your target audience, you have to speak LIKE them. Long gone are the days of customers liking being talked at, they want to be conversed with. And you can’t have a meaningful conversation, nor can you build meaningful relationships and communities, if you don’t include the audience in your conversation.

Everything you do in another country – from your website copy, to your coupon ads, to your video commercials – needs to align with the local vernacular, cultural assumptions and mores, and communication standards.

  • Identify local talking points/social fodder
  • Understand what makes certain blogs/news sites popular (consider the tone, content type, devices used to access content, journalistic integrity, etc.)
  • Work with a local or native-speaking writer to ensure cultural language variations are not offensive and adequately reinforce your brand message
  • Barring that option, use legitimate translation services (many online-based companies are not cost prohibitive). Check out:

Social Media

Each of your social media channels should have individual, localized versions that clearly identifies the channel as being local. The folks over at Convince and Convert have put together a solid plan for launching your international social media presence. Some key takeaways:

  • Local-brand each channel (for example: @AcmeInc, @AcmeInc_India, @AcmeInc_NingboCn) and cater content on those channels specific to the local audience
  • Hire local, native-speaking copywriters to manage your social interactions
  • Identify potential political risks (in China, for example, the use of some words will cause your content to be banned)
  • Provide culturally accepted references

 Global SEO Visibility: Directories, Mentions, Reviews

Go-to search engines vary by country. In the U.S., it’s Google, but it’s Baidu in China, Yandex in Russia, and Yahoo in Japan (bonus: view top search engines in all countries). Once you identify the target international search provider:

  • Make sure you have a local physical address to build up your NAP local signals
  • Start building profiles through their business listings (Google My Business has presence in most countries – I actually used it to book hotels for a recent trip to Germany).
  • Contact local media outlets to get some press and PR
  • Connect with local bloggers to get some product/service reviews
  • Submit or syndicate content to relevant web properties by country
  • Get sites in target country to link to your country-specific TLD
  • Guest blog for complimentary websites in target country
  • Interview local experts in target countries, promote via country-specific social channels
  • Geo-target paid search campaigns through Google, Bing, Yahoo and other local Search Engines
  • Run Facebook and local social media ad campaigns to hyper-target your international customer base

Note: [su_highlight background=”#ffe42b”]ALWAYS use the localized version of your website[/su_highlight] when building links internationally. You need to send positive association signals to the search engines.

Additional Resources