If your Google Search Console and Analytics data show a large number of hits from one or more countries that you do not already target with your search engine optimisation campaigns, it might be time to consider investing in some international SEO.
That doesn’t have to mean global SEO – even the biggest multinational brands don’t try to target the entire planet. Instead, international SEO means identifying potential markets for your products and services, which can still form part of a tightly focused campaign.
In this article, we will look at some of the fundamentals of international SEO, including some of the technical aspects and usability issues that many beginners miss in their first attempt.
What is international SEO?
International SEO campaigns are a way to promote your website in different parts of the world. In many cases, these local audiences will speak a different language than your website ordinarily appears in.
Even if the audience speaks the same language – for example, the US, Canada, Australia and the UK – there may be regional differences that make it sensible to serve different content to those users.
This is especially true on e-commerce sites, where location (rather than language) can affect fundamental aspects of the page content:
International SEO is not just about translating the text on your website. It’s a way to build, publish and promote versions of your site that meet the specific needs of multiple target audiences around the world.
Choose your target audience
To get started with international SEO, you’ll need to define your audience. This might be a particular geographical region where you already receive a large number of hits, or it could be a country where you believe you have good prospects to achieve positive return on investment with a location-targeted SEO campaign.
When looking at your Analytics data, remember that not all English-speakers are in England, not all French-speakers are in France, and so on. One wrong setting in your Spanish SEO campaign could lead to a surge in orders from South America, for example.
Once you know where you are targeting, check which search engines people actually use there. In a Chinese SEO campaign, it can be more profitable to optimise for Baidu than it is to optimise for Google.
So the basics when choosing your audience are:
Build your website
You’re likely to need some new pages to expand your website into new geographical regions and new languages, and this is where some of the technical issues start to become more important.
Some of the options to expand a website into a new worldwide location include:
A ccTLD is the country-specific suffix that appears at the end of some website URLs, for example, .co.uk domains. Having a ccTLD URL that matches your target country can sometimes help improve your search rankings, or help you to appear at all in searches carried out from that country.
Language SEO ‘on the fly’
If you want to offer your entire website to visitors from a different country, you could instead include a language selector to translate the text on your web pages, without changing the visible URL.
This is an acceptable route to go down, and you’ll see it used on many of the biggest websites. Just make sure you get the technical elements right – you don’t want your HTML header to still say the page is in English if it is being served with text translated into German.
However, you might find subdomains easier to keep under control, as they effectively give you multiple entirely separate versions of your website, which you can track individually in Google Analytics, Search Console and other analytics platforms.
How to geotarget in Google Search Console
If you’ve opted for subdomains, you can set up each one as a distinct property in Google Analytics and Search Console.
Simply go into the Settings page for each property and tick the boxes to specify a target country and language, and you’re up and running, collecting data that prioritises the geo region or language of your choice.
Google Search Console offers several error-checking reports – including International Targeting, which will flag up any pages where Google detects that your hreflang tags have been implemented incorrectly (or not at all).
Page elements of international SEO
We’ve mentioned some HTML elements that can affect international SEO campaigns, but what exactly are these?
Here are some of the main HTML tags and header elements that can influence the success of SEO campaigns across different countries and languages.
The hreflang tag has become a crucial way to tell search engines like Google what language your content is written in, so that they know where in the world to include you in their results.
You can include multiple hreflang header elements on a page, each of which links through to a different URL depending on the user’s home language. This is a great way to markup sites that have the same (or very similar) pages, but translated into different languages.
You can also include hreflang information in XML sitemaps, making it an even better way to directly tell search engines that multiple translated versions of the same page are available.
In addition to language codes like en-gb (British English), en-us (US English) and so on, you can also specify ‘x-default’ as the hreflang of a page.
This designates the target URL as a catch-all option for visitors who don’t match any of your country-specific or language-specific hreflang elements. For global campaigns, for example, this allows you to direct remaining traffic to a location-generic page written in English, or any other language of your choice.
Including an x-default option is good practice for completeness when implementing hreflang across your website, and it helps to make sure you don’t miss out on potential traffic, leads and sales from countries or languages you have not specifically targeted.
Each translated version of each page should include a rel=”canonical” tag that references itself.
This is a way to tell search engines that the page is the definitive version of itself – and it’s important to make sure you reference the language-specific URL and not the generic URL.
Remember, Google might not always be the best search engine for international SEO campaigns, so check if your chosen search engine does things differently.
On Bing, for example, content-language is used instead of hreflang. Implementation is very similar, but you should consider including content-language as well as, or instead of, hreflang to make sure your translated pages are ranked correctly by Bing.
Host server speed and location
The location of your website’s hosting server is not important in itself, as long as your pages load quickly for visitors from different places around the world.
However, the distance between a visitor and your host server can introduce a delay to your page loading speeds. As page speed is increasingly used by search engines as a ranking factor, this could actually have an impact on your search result rankings.
Make sure you test your page load speeds as they will appear to users in the relevant countries, and if you detect an excessive delay, consider whether you should invest in hosting on a server located closer to your target audience.
Finish the job
If you’ve come this far, you should have a website (or several websites) ready to provide language-specific content to visitors from different parts of the world – so don’t neglect the quality of that content.
Translating your pages, or having new pages written from scratch in the relevant language, is the last step towards publishing content that will be beneficial to visitors, as well as giving you the best possible chance to rank highly in the local search results.
Resist the urge to do it ‘on the cheap’. Automated translations are often grammatically incorrect and may be completely meaningless to a native speaker. Manual translations by a talented writer take a little more time and money, but the results are worth the effort.
If you’ve generated XML sitemaps for each version of your site, make sure you submit them to all of the appropriate search engines, including Google Search Console, so your translated pages can be crawled, indexed and ranked as soon as possible.
Get expert help
SEO agencies work on a wide range of different campaigns, and a good web marketing agency is highly likely to have worked on international SEO campaigns all over the world.
By consulting with an SEO agency, you benefit from that experience, as well as the technical expertise required to implement the various HTML tags and elements correctly.
Agencies will usually also have access to the local talent required to rewrite your pages in the target languages, complete with local words, phrases and colloquialisms as appropriate.
International SEO is ambitious, but the growth you achieve can be huge – so don’t feel like you have to try to do it yourself, as there’s no reason to attempt a global SEO campaign on your own.
FAQs about international SEO
How do I know which languages to write web pages for?
There are a few ways to decide which languages to include on your website. You might already have a good amount of traffic coming from a country that speaks a different language. Or you might have a small amount of traffic that you want to build on.
It often makes sense to target a few of the most widely spoken languages, e.g. English, French, Spanish and possibly German for the European market. Just remember to define your geographical reach correctly so you don’t catch French Canadian traffic or Spanish-speaking South American countries if you can’t deliver to those locations.
Should I buy a ccTLD domain name?
A ccTLD domain name can be a good investment; for example, a .co.uk URL for British English websites makes it immediately apparent that you are not based in the US.
Some intermediate and advanced web users routinely use search parameters like ‘site:.uk’ to limit their search results to their local ccTLD, so having a geographically relevant domain can mean the difference to whether or not you are included in their results at all.
My website has included different languages for years; why should I change anything now?
The search engines – especially Google – make changes all the time to the way they rank websites and individual web pages. Some of the technical elements mentioned above may not have been in common usage when you created your website.
The good news is, if you already have translated versions of your content, it could be very easy to restructure your site, so it performs better in global search results.
Should my pages be translated versions of each other?
Not necessarily. Translating pages from one language to another is a good starting point, but different countries – and different audiences/markets – might be looking for different things when they arrive to your website.
In essence, an international SEO campaign is a collection of country-specific regional SEO campaigns. If you can generate better ROI by changing the focus of a page, or publishing a new landing page that doesn’t appear on the other versions of your site, you should do so.
Can I create a truly global international SEO campaign?
Yes, you can. Using options like x-default, you can create ‘catch-all’ pages, so any remaining traffic that doesn’t match your country-specific or language-specific subdomains still has somewhere relevant to go.
Be realistic about whether or not you want to do this. Attempting to cater to a truly worldwide market is ambitious. If you think it is right for you, then go for it, but give full consideration to whether your ROI would be greater with a more targeted, focused campaign.