A Guide to International SEO: Set Yourself Up For Success

Updated: July 26, 2021
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A Guide to International SEO: Set Yourself Up For Success

The Ultimate Guide to International SEO: How To Get Set For Global Success

So you’ve taken our company to new heights domestically, and you’re on the hunt for new customers and traffic; things are starting to get a little tricky.

We hear you, but there is a way around this obstacle. International SEO is one of the most powerful ways to get ahead and we’ve got a thing or two to say in the matter.

Having supported a number of companies and brands across the country – and even global – with excellent international SEO practices and strategies, we’re ready to share our top tips and dish them out for you in this guide.

It’s time to enjoy the wonderful world of search engines.

Understanding the basics of international SEO

International SEO is a whole different ball game than local SEO, as you’ll soon see. You’ll learn about hreflang tags, whether you can take shortcuts with machine translations, keyword research, and what kind of URL structure to add to your root domain, plus much, much more.

Ready to get insights on how the experts do it? Good, because you’re about to be enriched with knowledge and ready to take companies beyond borders by the time you finish reading this guide!

What does setting up a website for international SEO entail?

Before you plunge into the technicalities around international SEO, we’ll give you a little taste of what we’ll be covering.

If you don’t know the terminology or concepts below, don’t worry – we’ll get to them within this search engine guide.

You can expect to learn in this guide to international SEO:

  • Careful and strategic keyword research
  • High-quality content – be prepared to make it lengthy if the competition is high
  • Language factors and tips that make for the best user experience
  • Translation and hreflang implementation strategies
  • Subdomain vs. subdirectory case studies and benefits

We’ve poured our search engine knowledge and experience into this article so that you can benefit from the pros and prosper as a result.

The field of international SEO is growing, and you’ll need all the help that you can get to get your website to the top!

When should you start considering international SEO implementation?

If you’re noticing that a local business is getting significant traffic from overseas, it’s time to think about expanding.

Going from standard to international SEO is a big step, requiring a lot of coding, fresh content to target users and to appeal to consideration.

Before you take the plunge, make sure to get your game plan right and really think about your international SEO strategy and overall intended markets.

There’s no point in investing huge amounts of time and resourcing into a target country that doesn’t make logical sense.

Luckily for you, we’ve outlined several handy tips to consider when looking to expand your search visibility through international SEO.

Let’s have a look at what a great international SEO strategy looks like.

What does a good international SEO strategy look like?

Like all SEO strategies, going international requires a “divide and conquer” approach. It calls for an understanding of the technology, as well as a focus on providing high-quality experiences. So where should you start?

Begin by doing thorough market research in intended countries

If you want global domination, invest a lot of energy into finding your market and the target country they’re in.

Identifying the right opportunity is crucial to success, and you don’t want to be barking up the wrong tree when online businesses are on the line.

Start by finding out where your audience is at. Not every country is worth optimising for, so don’t push your product where it won’t be well received.

The key to the successful marketing of any kind is being crystal-clear on your niche and goals, which is especially relevant for international SEO.

Pro tip:

Once you’ve done the initial research, testing through pay-per-click could prove to be worth your while.

You can do this either through ads or through paid search, where you can see which audience clicks through.

Remember to have the ad on your landing page

From there, you can see which landing pages are worth translating and optimising. No point in spending time and energy creating content for which there isn’t any demand!

Do the right kind of keyword research

Often, when SEO experts are doing keyword research, they set country-specific parameters within business analysis tools. If you want to cater to an international audience, you’ll want to make sure that your root domain settings are set to “everywhere” or “international”.

This will help cover your bases and make it non-specific enough. Depending on where you get your data from, you might still see country-centric semantic keywords being used.

It’s always safer to go for long-tail keywords with “online” at the end of them for international audiences, even if there’s high demand in one country.

You want to make it accessible for everyone – so keep your options open, and make sure you’re being general, but still relevant.

For language variation subdomains and subdirectories, switch over to country-specific search settings and keywords. This will ensure that you’re relevant to the audience, rather than being general.

Remember, crystal-clear marketing wins over-generalisation.

How should you approach keyword research for your website?

Keyword research can vary greatly from language to language and country to country. Direct language translations sometimes just aren’t practical, which is why going with machine translation is a bad idea.

In fact, wrong target keywords could cost you a whole target market and missed search queries, so make sure knowledgeable people are behind your content, site structure and language translation. You won’t regret it.

Is large search volume always important?

Search volume is worth paying attention to. But it’s not always the most important factor for international SEO – especially if you’re cracking into new markets, some of which are likely to be in developing countries.

Look for relevancy instead. You’ll need to have a decent knowledge of the people in your target market to do this successfully – which is why we recommend doing thorough research before you go all in trying to target people from any location and language.

Remember, if you’re not present in a particular location yet, word of mouth is likely to play a key role in catapulting awareness.

Early adopters will tell their friends, who will search for you if they like what they see, hear, or experience.

When that happens, the number of customers and visitors to your website is likely to snowball. And your website search volume is likely to grow with it.

Quality content is key here for your business to succeed.

Create a clean, clear site, great content and URL structures

Nobody likes navigating through a mess, least of all search engines, Google and your visitors. They both want to be able to read your page, understand where to locate the information or products on the page, and return back where they came from if they need.

Let’s work through our little guide for this particular subject and make sure your efforts and hard work towards search engines pay off.

Plan your sitemap from the get-go

Planning how to appeal to search engines can save you massive pain later on. Looking at the big picture is a great starting point – and you should always aim to do this from the viewpoint of your website visitors.

Hopefully, your root domain is divided into clear categories. If not, get that sorted before you go any further. Google likes a clean, organised site that it can crawl, understand, and then index for sitemaps. Once they do, you’ll get more traffic flowing through your online doors.

Once you’ve got that sorted, it’s time to make an important decision on URL structure for your expansion goals and ability to appeal to search engines. Keep reading and find out what you need to know on this matter.

How to efficiently deal with URL structures for search engines

Nobody likes looking at a lengthy, messy URL, especially search engines like Google. It’s visually unpleasant, it’s hard to read, and it’s untrustworthy. And if there’s something you don’t want to be online, it’s untrustworthy.

Instead, make sure to have a clear, logical structure that makes sense. You want it to flow, be easily read, and be easily replicated.

Pro tip:

Don’t include language or country codes within the URL parameters – this is messy and inconsistent. Remember, Google likes clean URLs, so find a way to craft sleek and simple URL structures that are consistent all throughout your site.

Use a URL structure that’s right for your business

There are debates as to which kind of URL structure you should use. The big question is: should you go for subdomains or subdirectories?

The subdomain URL

Under this URL structure, your main site is a URL like www.example.com.

For a country-specific site variation, say Spain, you would use www.es.example.com, and then have your content translated from English to Spanish on the site.

SEO tip:

This approach often works great for rankings, but always consider whether it’s right for the company or business that you’re working on.

The subdirectory approach

With this URL structure, your country-specific site becomes a subdirectory. That means it’s www.example.com/es for the case study situation outlined above.

There are two advantages with this approach, namely:

  1. External links are counted as coming back to the main site, rather than a subsite
  2. You earn more trust from visitors within the country that you’re targeting

Most of your target audience outside of the U.S trust local domains over general or international domains (i.e, .co.uk vs .com).

Even though a subdomain URL structure contains a country extension, the country code is at the beginning of the URL, rather than at the end, meaning that it’s registered under the root domain.

If the website you’re looking to expand requires a lot of local trust, this option might be best for you.

The option might also be preferable if you expect to have a lot of external linking coming back to your site. As it’s a subdirectory, amassing a large number of links from reputable sources in the countries that you’re targeting will only add to the authority of the base domain.

This could be advantageous if:

You’ve got a highly innovative product or service that disrupts the way in which things are done, and is likely to get a lot of press

Have a content-rich site like an online magazine, which brings fresh content to various audiences (think VICE media or similar)

If it’s important that your website be presented as a “local” variety of the original domain. Think McDonald’s, which is a global business, but has slightly different menu variations in every region that it franchises to.

One-size-fits-all never works for URL structures, so always go with a case-by-basis for every business. Make sure to do your research and collect plenty of data to ensure that you get it right, first time around.

Content is king

You could have the best technical international SEO strategy in place, but if your content isn’t on point for search engines and users, the whole site will be dragged down. Content is and always will be king – so make sure to get it right.

The time, energy and effort you invest into high-quality content pays off. Follow our top content tips and you’ll be creating great quality copy and content that both Google and your audience love.

Be original, even if you’re translating

Just like with your root domain, sites optimised for international SEO need to have original content. Duplicating content isn’t worth it, even if it’s in a different language.

Speaking of which, don’t be tempted to get machines to translate your copy. It will backfire. Why do we say that?

For one, nobody likes to read machine-generated content. It’s impersonal, flat, and hard to read, which will only make your bounce rate increase.

Is that worth your while? Probably not. That’s why we recommend making sure that your content is manually translated.

Pro tip:

Use native language proverbs, sayings and concepts that are relevant within your country.

There are formal versions of words, so use the version that creates the best impression for the brand or company you’re working for. For example, in Spanish “you” is “tu” informally and “usted” formally.

Usted puts more distance between yourself and your customers but earns more respect. “Tu” is less formal, and gives the impression of being more accessible.

Many languages across other countries have these formal/informal versions, so make sure you do your target market research and tap into the cultural perceptions surrounding your market.

SEO tip:

Make sure your copy is visible. Hiding it away won’t win you any points from Google. In fact, your indexing might suffer. Be clear and open – it’ll help you in the long run.

Working with hreflang tags

Hreflang tags are signals that tell Google which countries and languages you’re targeting. They’re often put inside the code in the website, but can be used in a variety of ways.

To be specific, the tag tells Google that one page matches another in the specified language – for example, a British English page (en-br) matches the root domain’s en English.

Hreflang tags are an essential component of international SEO. Their role is to tell Google which version of the website to present to users once they click onto a landing page – and there’s quite a bit to know about them.

What happens if you don’t use hreflang tags on your website?

If Google or other search engines go to a website that doesn’t correctly match, it may not be indexed. To avoid that, follow the tips below and treat Google as a user.

Trust us, it’s the best way to get your site seen on search engines in another country.

How to use standard and alternate hreflang tags

Hreflang tags are signals, not a directive. The standard version is used for common language variations, like English. If you want to be more specific, then it’s time to use alternate hreflang tags.

When you use alternate hreflang tags (also known as link rel alternate href), you’re basically referencing landing pages from the root domain language and telling Google that you have different language versions available.

Not sure how this works?

Let’s go through it together below.

What does link rel alternate mean?

Basically, link rel hreflang is an SEO signal to Google that the redirected page (in the specific language variation) has a relationship to a page on the root domain. it’s a great way to give search engines meaning and context behind language, site relationship, and a specific country.

Let’s take the example of having your website go from general English to UK English.

In your website HTML code, you’ll need to insert a line like this:

Link rel = ”alternate” href = “https://www.example.com” hreflang = ”en-uk”

If it was for Australian English, it would be:

Link rel =”alternate” href = “https://www.example.com” hreflang = ”en-au”. This line signals Australian English, but referencing the root domain, which is in standard English.

These mini case studies are for the English language – but what about a site in Mexican Spanish, where the root domain is in Spanish from Spain?

Well, in that case, you would use link rel = “alternate” href = “https://www.example.com” hreflang = ”es-mx” on our website.

Got the picture? If not, we’re happy to lend our expertise to your international SEO venture. Just drop us a line and we’ll set up a time to go through it one-on-one.

Where to put rel alternate hreflang

There are three ways to add hreflang tags to your website, namely:

  1. Add the hreflang tag to your header tags
  2. Add the hreflang to your HTML code, similar to the examples we show above
  3. Add hreflang tags to your XML sitemaps

There’s no right or wrong here – it depends on how you want to work, and the resources that you have available. We will say this though – KISS is always a good international SEO strategy (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Many users find the XML sitemap route a simple, easy way to stay consistent with hreflang tags.

What is an hreflang x default value?

An x default value tells Google that the URL’s language is broad, rather than specific. In other words, it doesn’t have a set country code specified in HTML, sitemaps or headers.

This setting is useful if you want to use one URL that dynamically changes to different language settings.

To illustrate: think about a setting where you’re working with a company that’s globally known, has regional variants, but whose root domain has authority over all location variants.

A good example would be Google in this setting. Google.com is recognised as the authority over all other variants, whether they’re .uk, .au, or .es.

Users might go to Google.com in order to read up on the latest international SEO strategies, but automatically get redirected to google.com.au or similar.

While the x default approach is a possibility, it’s definitely not preferred, for a number of reasons. Google Search Console prefers to index verified domains, especially when the server is held locally.

There are a few things you should know about working with Google Search Console, so be sure to pay close attention to the below.

International SEO tagging for Google Search Console

If you want to target a global audience for international SEO, you need to tell Google where to look.

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Targeting and specifying languages in GSC
  2. Targeting and specifying countries in GSC

Always let Google know which country your site is registered in. Google will crawl your site, check that your domain is legitimate, and also check where you get your backlinks from to gauge relevancy.

Your hreflang tags will also contribute to ranking in the correct country, so using them correctly is in your interests.

Sitemaps are essential for indexing

To help Google know how to index your site for other countries, you’ll want to specify pages and language for sitemaps.

First, check whether you have a sitemap already created for search engines to utilise. You can do this by simply add sitemap.xml/ to your URL extension and see what comes up. If a file comes up, you’ll know it’s there. Otherwise, it’s time to specify one.

SEO tip:

The Yoast plugin automatically generates sitemaps. If you’re using it for WordPress or another platform, chances are that you might already have one created.

Submitting a sitemap for search engines to crawl

If you have up to 500 pages or less on your site, the SEO tool XML Sitemaps can create a sitemap for you. In the event that you have over 500 pages, you can either do it manually (which is very time consuming) or pay for a tool.

Once you have a list generated, make sure to remove any of the pages that you don’t want showing up in search.

You might not want these indexed because they’re irrelevant, or not for public viewing. Keeping these indexed is a bad idea because it can increase your bounce rate – which means that it’ll take the site longer to rank. We don’t want that happening, do we?

Break new ground with Google Analytics

If you want to know which keywords your site is ranking for and driving traffic with, you want to link Google Search Console with Google Analytics.

This gives you plenty of resources and will give you data on keywords and traffic, which is invaluable when you’re entering a new market. From there, you can adjust the whole website experience to cater to your target audience – not to mention future customers.

Along with helping you find the keywords your site is coming up for on search engines, Google Analytics will help you uncover the issues that your page is facing.

Security is a big factor for online business, especially when you’re entering a new online market. If you want to gain trust, it’s worth getting your SEO right.

Iron out any SEO errors and security issues ASAP

You’ll want to have the usual SSL certificates in place, a clean robots.txt file, plus iron out any SEO issues on our website picked up by Analytics.

Be sure to address what’s coming up in the analysis report and correct every item that you can – it will help earn trust, and present the company behind the site in the best possible light.

Potential issues you might encounter on your international SEO journey

As this guide on SEO clearly shows, there’s a lot that’s involved in expanding your website globally or even to one other country. Along the way, you might encounter issues that could hinder the progress of your international SEO success, which isn’t ideal.

The three main issues that you might face are:

  1. A root domain outranking your location-specific domain. e.g.: www.example.com outranking www.example.co.uk
  2. If two nearly identical, newly created URLs from the same site are visible in search, this might cause confusion. As a result, click-through rates can go down. Remember, clarity is key, so make sure the right URL is evident and accessible.
  3. If you’ve created a brand new site with country-specific variations and haven’t told Google Search Console about it, the search engine might not send crawlers to index and rank the new site.

Additionally, server location can influence rankings as Google takes that into consideration when searching for the most relevant market.

If your server is located in a country outside of the region that you’re targeting, Geo Settings in Google Search Console need to be specified. Otherwise, you might risk not being picked up by the search engine and have all your hard work go to waste.

Best practices to aid international SEO performance

If you read this far through the guide, you’re well on the way to SEO success. We’d love to boost your potential for global domination even further by sharing a few best practice SEO tips that could make a big difference.

Small things add up, especially when it comes to reeling in traffic and ranking in different countries. Keep the below in mind when creating an international SEO strategy and you’ll go far.

Use pop-ups to give users in other countries language choice

Customers coming to your site want to be able to navigate it in their preferred language. You want to help them do this because it’s all part of providing a great customer experience. So what’s the best way to go about it?

We recommend going with pop-ups.

The moment a customer enters your site, you can give them the option to choose which language they want to browse or shop in, which is especially handy if you’re a well-known global brand.

While catering to various locations around the world is your end goal, remember that tourists and visitors might not be fluent in the language of the region.

It’s always good to give them the option of selecting something more comfortable.

This also ensures they don’t ditch your site for competitors.

International SEO tip:

Pop-ups can help improve engagement and interaction within your webpage, which is a ranking factor. Don’t go overboard with selection settings, but have at least one click prompt in the pop-up to help boost engagement. Google will look favourably upon the interaction.

Get Google My Business reviews in your local country

If it’s relevant to your company, having Google My Business reviews for each country-specific variation of your site is a great tactic.

People can read up on previous customer experiences with your business, check ratings, and make an informed decision on whether or not they want to buy from or work with you.

It’s a well-known fact that these reviews are SEO factors, so do as much as you can to encourage locals in your target country to leave honest reviews and build up your reputation as you break new ground.

Review and update SEO content regularly

Nobody wants to spend their time reading irrelevant content. If you’ve already put vlogs and articles out or translated them into another language, make sure they stay relevant to the times.

That might mean editing previous blogs to ensure that they’re accurate and worth reading. Updating pages to reflect the times also earns you trust points and gives people confidence that you’re not a set-and-forget website.

It’s just one more facet to providing a high-quality customer experience, which is the end goal, wherever you choose to expand a company’s online reach.

Aim to create shareable URLs for international SEO

When you want global domination, making sure your business’s website can be seen in all countries is essential, and international SEO achieves this. Achieving this means showing similar information through shareable URLs, regardless of the user’s IP or language preferences.

While x default can be used in link rel alternate tags, Google doesn’t really like auto redirects, and might even penalise you for it.

A better way to go about this is to have a link or banner on the page redirecting visitors to their preferred language version (another reason why pop-ups are a good idea). This also helps you with internal linking, which you’ll want to account for from the get-go.

The final word on international SEO

Expanding into new territories takes a multi-disciplinary approach, along with plenty of technical knowledge and strategic flair.

You’ll need to assemble a team of knowledgeable developers, content creators and web wizards to help you along the way – which could take some time. We’re more than happy to lend ours to the cause if you need a helping hand.

We’ll never apply a one-size-fits-all approach to international SEO strategy. If you want to take your company global, crystallising this strategy based on case studies and market research is imperative. From there, you’ll get insights, which is where we can help you.

This is much easier to do if there’s an existing brand or product that you can draw upon for reference.

When you’re bringing an entirely new concept to the market, a lot more work needs to be put into communication, requiring a content-heavy content strategy.

Your website will be the first place that people look for, and it will require a lot of maintenance!

You may find that you need to hire translators from sites like Fiverr or Upwork to help with content, but it’s a good idea to stick with one expert team for all the technical activities – especially if you have a large site that needs to have subdomains or subdirectories created.

Before you dive into web expansion and international SEO, sit down and have a think about what your game plan is.

We hope this guide has given you insights into all the elements that you need in order to take your website global, and we recommend that you use it as a starting point to form your strategy.

This will save you headaches, time and money later on, especially if you have a large website. Our seasoned professionals are more than happy to advise you and share insights on the best approach for your specific case.

Just say the word and we’ll set up a consultation.

You don’t have to do your international SEO alone

Breaking into new markets with international SEO takes teamwork. You never know how far you’ll go until action is taken. Ready to start?

We’re more than happy to rise to the challenge.

Our web team has taken many companies beyond borders to new online success, reeling in traffic from valuable markets.

We can help you analyse which markets to target through international SEO, based on current traffic data, keyword research and then start preparing your website for success.

Start laying down the groundwork for international domination today and repay the benefits. Online business is the future, and with the best in SEO working on pushing your domain to the next level, greatness is in sight. Make it your reality now – in any country.

Sean Clancy
Sean -
SEO Director
1300 558 659 - www.edgeonline.com.au

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