10 Years in International SEO

Bill Hunt has been working in international SEO for well over 20 years. I first met Bill back in 2012 at the SMX Summit in New York. I wanted to ask him to take part in our “10 years in SEO” series and share his insights about international search.

1. What was your first role in online marketing and what first interested you in this industry?

My first role was as the owner of a disaster preparedness consulting and products company in Los Angeles. In 1993 I had been using a service called Genie and Niftyserve in Japan to do market research and communicate in different forums. I created a site for the business mainly for Internet savvy purchasing agents to access the product catalog and to reorder supplies. One of those managers added us to a small web directory called Yahoo! we started getting a lot of emails and leads from the San Francisco Bay Area. We created a site before you could even own you own domain in English and Japanese. I had been helping friends get into Yahoo and after the Kobe earthquake the site became very popular with Japanese news outlets for our preparedness tips and products.  We made the front page of the business section of the LA time and before long we had more demand for localized sites, directory listings and getting into the search engines at the time that interest in our primary consulting so we sold that business and went into digital marketing and localization.
SMX NY 2012

2. You have over 20 years in international SEO and I understand your daughter also works in the field. When you trained your daughter, what were the top 3 areas of training?

My daughter Mariko now manages a Search team but previously was primarily in Paid Social Media and Social Strategy.   My son is on the SEO team at a large travel site.  In both cases I taught them primarily about understanding Searcher’s Intent.

1. By understanding what a person is looking for when they use a specific query you can connect to their needs and wants resulting in more relevant content.  This also drives keyword research and content alignment.  

2. Secondly, I taught them to think about search through the key systems that make it work which are Indexability (getting pages in the search engines) Relevance (ensuring the on page elements are relevant to the searcher and engines) Authority (links from relevant external sources to make the site more of a topical authority) and lastly Clickability (ensuring what your snippet has matches intent of the searcher and influences clicks.  

3. The last key element was understading the workflow of the company from first draft of a page until it launches and ensuring those in that chain understand how they impact search and what they can do as part of their job to position impact search.   

3. Do you have a favorite international SEO tool? What are the top 3 features you look for before using the tool?

Unfortunately there are not any true commercial International SEO Tools.   There are not any other than those I built and my favorite of them is Hreflang Builder (https://hreflangbuilder.com) which builds large scale HREFLang Site Maps. We are sunsetting DataPrizm which is the only keyword management and rank performance tool that tool that easily rolls up performance across multiple markets.  

It is ironic with so many tools claiming to be international there is actually none that can do that.  

I am still pretty old school and focus on template optimization so on-page checkers don’t work for me since they still view things on a page and most does not even matter.  I wish there was a tool that could tell me all the pages using a similar template and the performance of all pages on that template. That is what we tried to leverage with our tools but it was different than how most think in this industry.  I like Majestic’s tools for Link Research which works around the world.  The question of features, the biggest is ability to work across multiple markets and languages. 

UK Search Awards Nov 2019

4. What has been the biggest change in International SEO since you started your career?

Honestly it is more the lack of change that is more interesting.  As I mentioned, there are few to no global tools and frightening how many people don’t think if International SEO but only in terms of singular local sites. The biggest change has been the ability to use HREFLang to set specific pages for language markets.  That has been a huge win for complex global sites.

5. Before starting a new project in International SEO, what three steps do you take?

With any project I start with:

1.The current state assessment. I take the collection of words representing what a site offers (never do any other research other than the list of products and services and categories both branded and non-branded) and then see how they rank in the local market.  This allows me to understand what is not optimal.  

2. From the current state I go back to the big 4 for additional points of failure most typical is lack of indexing.  We see global sites with between 50 to 70% of pages not indexed mainly due to appearance of duplication. We ensure all factors of indexing are dialed in from XML site maps to crawl issues to HREFLang then move into On page focusing on the templates of the site.  As I noted, if the same template is used for products in 30 countries then that is what I want to tune so I can get lift across all products in all counties. So no need to audit it 30 times.

3. Then make sure they are interconnected – it is crazy that now around 60% of global sites have removed their global links to other language or sites. Some opt for search engines or leave them off assuming that IP detection will sort it out – again total failures.  Lastly, those pages ranking well lets tune the snippets and then see how things are doing for that same set of words.   If we sort out the less cool and non-sexy items we can get significant results for clients.  

Bill at International Search Summit Barcelona

6. Where have you seen the biggest differences in SEO

There are not as many differences any more as there were. Google is the dominate engine globally with exceptions in Russia, China and Korea mainly due to language processing and local adoption.  So solving for Google gets you most of the world.  

I think some want to be International SEO’s are challenged by revenue first engines like Naver in Korea and Baidu in China.  Since they are a heavy pay to play model there is little real estate to optimize and many equate that with difficulty.  The majority of the first 2/3 of a result page is paid or engine specific features which is why it is harder.  Even with Baidu, most of what works for Google is applicable there except for the emphasis on links as a ranking factor.   

The challenges now are things that used to help with local markets like UK or Japan are no longer really working since Google wants to show the most relevant content.  For example, if you had a co.uk or a .de or a co.jp domain or hosted in that market you were pretty much guaranteed to have that version of a site show up.  That does not work as well now with the bastardization of top level domains, many companies using dot com domains and CDN’s that my not actually be in the local markets.  This is why HREFLang is critical to local market performance.  The other big difference is local vs. global or regional languages.  Many companies expect their English or Spanish site to work in all markets but the local nuances for words are not the same so they need to adapt them to each market.  

7. Based on what has changed during your career can you predict two major changes for the next 10 years?

I think the biggest evolution will be in searcher interest alignment as Google is doing now by looking at dozens of related signals.  This has a number of parallel tracks to it.  They already use the actual query, device, location and have been doing more to understand the previous and exited next set of chained actions.  That is why I taught my kids to think about the full path from the first query to the last query and what content is required along this continuum that connects with the searcher and drives business goals.

I think Google is already doing this with their latest changes to shopping to compete with Amazon. In addition to the results path is the filtering by the context of device type and location. Someone in central Africa on a 3g flip phone will see an entirely different set of results than someone on a 5g tablet in Korea and not because of language but because of their platform and ability to interact with the content presented.  

Bill at IntSS Barcelona

My second prediction is best results regardless of language and location.  That is why I think those domain and location signals are less important to them since they want to surface the best result even if it is in German and then use translation to present it to the user.  For example, if I want to know about the history of Kabuki theater in Japan why only be shown someones hobby blog when I can be shown a site from a theater or historian in Japanese but presented in English.  

Thank you Bill for your time, looking forward to seeing you at another International Search Summit soon. Bill is President of Back Azimuth and he is also co-author of Search Engine Marketing Inc, so you can find his latest articles there.

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