If your business sells products or services outside of the UK, there are a number of factors to consider if you’re attempting to market your products via search engines in other countries.
You will need to explicitly guide the search engine bots to your country or language specific content for it to be indexed. In this international SEO checklist, I will outline the steps you should take when developing and optimising a website to target multiple country and language combinations.
While it is not always necessary to recreate an entire site in another language, or for a different local market, the decision needs to be carefully thought through. A German landing page may initially interest German-speaking customers, but if the rest of the website is in English then you may well annoy the majority of the German-speaking visitors landing on the site. With this in mind, I’d suggest that the first step any business aspiring to boost their online presence internationally should take is to research every target country thoroughly. This will help you assess the extent of the demand for your services in each market.
Identifying potential markets
Even if you haven’t put any time or effort into developing your website to target more than one country, it may still be visible (albeit in a very limited capacity) in other countries. Therefore, you may already be getting a small amount of traffic from other countries. To assess this, use Google Analytics to check your current traffic from other countries and languages using the Geo > Location tab, within the ‘Audience’ section.
In the example above, the website in question is getting traffic from multiple regions, despite not being explicitly set up to target those countries, which is encouraging.
However, as I will discuss later, the volume of traffic a website is able to capture in each country can be significantly increased by developing well structured, localised content for each of the regions you serve.
You can also check your current organic search visibility in other countries using Google Search Console and SEM rush. Search Console lets you assess your international search visibility using the ‘International targeting‘ tab, while SEM rush is particularly useful for researching your competitor’s international search engine visibility, as seen below:
Something key to remember: Google is not necessarily the main search engine in every country (although it is in a lot of them):
For instance, Baidu dominates the search market in China and Yandex is used in Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Knowing this will help you to know what signals you need to be sending and to which search engines in order to get local traffic.
Multiregional vs multilingual websites
There are three key types of global website:
- Multiregional sites target users in different countries who all speak the same language.
E.g. UK, USA and Australia.
- Multilingual sites target users in different countries who speak different languages to the users in other targeted countries.
E.g. UK, Germany and France.
- Multiregional and multilingual sites target users in different countries who speak the same language as users in some, but not all, other targeted countries.
E.g. UK, USA, Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland.
Regardless of whether you opt for a multiregional or multilingual site, the way that it is structured is absolutely essential to its potential visibility in multiple regions, yet this is an issue which so many webmasters overlook.
Google advocates three main options for structuring your website on a global scale:
1. Country code top level domain name (ccTLD)
The ccTLD is an effective method of geo-targeting (targeting searchers by location).
This is why big sites such as Amazon make use of ccTLD in their localisation strategies. The sites http://www.amazon.co.uk/ and http://www.amazon.fr/ not only use different languages and currencies, but also group their products differently and show them in different orders and with different offers.
The use of ccTLDs is strongly recommended by experts as the preferred method for optimising global websites.
- Users trust that a site bearing their country domain will display information that is relevant to their country.
- Strongest geo-targeting signal used by Google.
- Easy separation of sites.
- Server location is less relevant as a geo-targeting factor.
- Some ccTLDs have strict conditions imposed on their use and are not available to all businesses. This may be a benefit to businesses that can use the ccTLD as it reinforces trust.
- More expensive.
- Subject to availability.
- More demands on infrastructure.
- Link building may be harder as each country or language has a totally separate site, with less overall domain authority.
- Has the potential to cause issues with duplicate content if geo-targeting methods are not used effectively across all domains.
- Generally speaking .com domains are thought to outrank .co.uk domains for English content
Using a gTLD with different subdomains to create totally separate websites. This method of organising local information is used by Wikipedia, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page and http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
- Easy to set up
- Allows different subdomains to be hosted on different servers, in different countries (which may help geo-targeting)
- Sites can be easily separated
- Effective way to establish sites as separate identities while still retaining the overall corporate branding.
- Able to target different languages used in one country in conjunction with subdirectories, e.g. http://ca.example.com/fr and http://ca.example.com/en
- While this allows users to see at a glance where they are on a page, they might not recognise geo-targeting from the URL alone, as they would with a ccTLD.
- Treated more as separate sites by search engines – although links between subdomains do not generally carry as much authority as external links. This does mean that each subdomain will need a separate link building campaign.
- Unclear what should be included on the http://www.example.com homepage.
Subdirectories are the simplest way of organising content, as all subdirectories are usually stored in the same space.
Sites like Ryanair use subdirectories for both language and country – so http://www.ryanair.com/ie is English content for the Irish market and http://www.ryanair.com/en is English content for the UK.
- Easy to set up.
- Low maintenance – as files are usually on a single server.
All links point to one domain, which then has greater authority and a higher Page Rank.
Good way to target multiple languages in a single country.
- Harder for users to recognise geo-targeting from the URL alone.
- A single server location is a missed geo-targeting opportunity.
- Difficult to separate sites, as all targeted information is part of a single website.
- Searchers, especially European searchers, often favour ccTLDs and prefer to click on these domains
- Unclear what should be included on the http://www.example.com homepage.
Whichever option you choose, I would always recommend that you maintain separate URLs for the content on your site that you’d like to target at different countries or languages. Using cookies to show translated or localised versions based on IP addresses is often problematic and usually results in URLs with added international parameters causing duplicate content issues.
In many ways, the decision about how to structure URLs is purely academic. If a logical structure is chosen and used consistently, businesses are unlikely to see major negative impacts on their optimisation efforts purely as a result of their URL structure.
HrefLang is a HTML tag that goes within the section of a web pages’ source code, which helps Google crawlers understand that certain pages, and folders on a website are targeted at a specified country.
To avoid duplicate content issues, you will need to use the rel=”alternate” (Hreflang) tag so that Google understands that various English language versions of your site are alternate versions used to target different locations, rather than duplicates.
To do this, you’ll need to place a HTML link element in the header of each page of each version of your site you create.
For example, if you had a site to target users in the UK, and chose to use a subdirectory to target users in the US, you’d need to add the following code in the HTML <head> section of the UK site:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=” http://www.example.com/us” />
In this example, you would have specific URLs for English speakers in the UK (en-gb) as well as the USA (en-us), but you may want all other (location unspecified) English speakers to see your generic English (en) (UK) site. In this case you should specify the generic English-language (en) page for searchers, which could well be the UK version of the site.
To annotate this cluster of pages using HTML link tags in the <head> of each page, you’d need to use the following snippet of code:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.example.com/” hreflang=”en-gb” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.example.com/us” hreflang=”en-us” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.example.com/” hreflang=”en” />
Although not all search engines pay attention to the content-language meta tag, others still use it to determine the location of your pages – in other words which country they should be indexed in. For example, Bing recommend the use of the “content-language” meta tag to embed the location of each page in the <head> section of those files. An example of a meta content language tag can be seen below:
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
International keyword research
It is absolutely essential that you carry out keyword research with the help of a native speaker for each of your target languages. However, it is important that the initial keyword research is carried out in English (or your own native language) prior to it being translated and localised. You will almost always find that the direct keyword translation is never the phrase that is most relevant to your content. With this in mind, you should use professional translation services to translate any keyword research carried out, before going back and carrying out fresh keyword research in your target language, and professionally translating the resulting content.
A great starting point can be to look at what your competitors are doing – SemRush is great for this:
Remember that Google, Baidu, Yandex and Bing each have their own keyword planning tools that will give you search volumes:
Once you’ve seen search volumes and competition, select the best keywords and keyword themes for your pages. Here’s a really handy guide by Ahrefs on how to do this as well as a helpful SEO checklist.
Once this work is completed and your international site is live, use authority labs to track rankings in particular countries:
Localisation is the process of adapting content that has been previously translated into different languages to a specific country or region. For example, people in the US and UK predominantly speak English, however you wouldn’t catch anyone in the UK referring to their trousers as “pants“. Understanding that words have different meanings across different countries and regions, despite those countries using the same language is key to your content being understood by your target customers.
When developing a multilingual or multiregional website, you’ll need to ensure that you localise the following content:
- Meta Description
- Phone number
It’s important that once you’ve done this, you get it checked by a native language speaker prior to the website going live. If you don’t have direct access to a native language speaker, or you just want to double-check something specifically, you should take a look at a forum called word reference.
There are a number of ways to target your site at specific countries, which includes the following:
- Website Structure
- Using local IP addresses
- Google Search Console
If you decide to use either subdomains or subdirectories to structure your International sites, you’ll be able to target them at each chosen country using Google Search Console.
To target a website at the US market, you would set ‘United States’ as a geographic target in Google Search Console. This is essentially informing Google that you’d like this site to be served in the SERPs (search engine results pages) displayed by www.google.com (US).
The following image displays how you can set a particular country as a Geographic target in Google Search Console:
Schema markup is a language devised by the world’s top search engines: it was created to be universally understood and easily digestible for search engine bots. Think of it as a “Spark’s notes” version of your website.
You can add specific organisation and LocalBusiness Markup that will give search engines an idea of where your business operates, the address and phone number, social profiles of your business etc. So it’s really handy to add it to a website. It’s also incredibly easy to do.
Free bonus: it’s a ranking factor.
International link building
Links from local sites are essential to your success in each region. Search engines will prefer to see local links to each site rather than all links coming from a completely different country. You can promote your international website by obtaining international links from relevant local sites, building relationships with local influencers and media, and identifying what works best in each country by carrying out backlink analysis on those sites that are already performing well in each country.
Testing and tracking
You should measure each of your International web properties independently from the rankings for each country and language to the visits and conversions.
To check that the technical aspects discussed in this article are being understood by the search engines, it is important that you check your Google Search Console data following the launch of each site. You can use the ‘International targeting‘ section to assess whether there are any issues with your HrefLang markup.
It is also essential that each site has a separate Google Analytics property set up. Using Google Analytics on each web property will let you continuously follow-up with your International SEO performance, and allow you to make the appropriate decisions on each site based on the data uncovered from each property.
International SEO is essential to the success of any business wishing to trade their products or services online on a global scale. If you have any questions on the topics discussed in this article, please don’t hesitate to get in touch using the comments section below, or by contacting us directly.