Ultimate Guide to International SEO
International SEO, defined in the next section of this guide, is the process of optimizing your website so that search engines can identify what countries you want to target, enabling you to rank across multiple markets and drive relevant organic traffic to your site.
At Tea Time SEO, we were joined by some well known speakers in the International SEO field. Chloe Fair, our author of this guide realises that as SEOs, we can often focus a lot on the technical SEO aspects of a site and ignore some other key considerations. International technical SEO is important, and she will cover some of the key aspects of that in this guide. However, in order to grasp what International SEO is and how you can succeed with it, you need to understand the bigger picture.
This guide will cover some of those elements where Chloe will take you through some key definitions and explanations of critical areas of International SEO. She will then discuss the importance of understanding market entry and touch upon why you need to treat each market in a unique way and devise an SEO strategy for each.
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Chapter 1 - The Difference Between International SEO and Local SEO
When we’re talking about international and local, they are very different. With international SEO, people often refer to localized content and localization of content, but that doesn’t necessarily mean local SEO. These are the differences.
- International SEO is the process of optimizing your website so that search engines can easily identify which countries you want to target and which languages you use for business.
- Local SEO is a search engine optimization strategy that helps your business be more visible in local search results on Google. Any business that has a physical location or serves a geographic area can benefit from local SEO.
International SEO is optimizing your website so that search engines around the world can understand your website and it can rank in the relevant markets and for the relevant languages. You need to ensure that your content is localised so it is relevant to that specific market.
An example of this would be fashion ecommerce sites, for whom it is important that they are optimising the site towards the seasons that are present in their target country at that time. This, of course, varies. An example of localisation can be seen on Nike’s sites in the screenshots below.
Nike’s main navigation for the GB site: https://www.nike.com/gb.
Local SEO is more geographically focused, based on searches that are navigational and city or town specific. This is where search features such as the map pack and knowledge panel come into play. An example of this can be seen below, where the Impression site has two offices and the location searches bring up the appropriate office.
When learning International SEO from the beginning, it is always important to get to grips with these key terms and definition. There are some commonly used phrases, terms and buzzwords that repeatedly crop up and have caused confusion in the past:
A canonical is an important element of a page that needs to be set up correctly in order for the Hreflang tag structure, defined below, to be optimal. A canonical tag is a way of telling a search engine which URL is the master copy of that page. You would therefore have a self-referring canonical tag on the master page and then canonical tags on twin pages, if this is relevant.
Example canonical tag:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.authoritas.com/tea-time-seo/”/>
An Hreflang Tag is an attribute that shows the search engine what language your page is in and allows you to tell the search engine if you have the same page in other languages. If you are unsure of what a specific country and language code is for your target market, then you can refer to this guide.
Example Hreflang tag;
link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”en-us” />
Considering best practice SEO where optimising for a positive user experience is key, translated content is frowned upon. This is a consideration especially when content is translated more literally, perhaps by a translation tool or a translator who has no understanding of the wider context of the page or brand.
Chapter 2 - What Do I Need to Know About Market Entry?
When getting to grips with International SEO, understanding market entry is really important. Market entry and a market entry strategy considers so much more than just SEO. However, it is common, especially in today’s digital age, for business owners and stakeholders to put a lot of pressure on the organic performance of the site. They rely on this performance to succeed in their new country where they launch the site instead of properly understanding the new market and thinking the performance my be different than in their home country.
It is crucial to take a step back before launching a site internationally and think about the shared goal that you have with your client, stakeholders and other agencies, as well as understanding the wider strategy and all other external factors that could be affecting the organic performance of the site.
Often, as SEOs and digital marketers we can get lost in the technical and site intricacies, but to get to the point of advising on relevant and successful SEO strategy, we need to understand the
business’ performance in other markets and the wider strategy.
Understanding the following will be key before getting stuck into an SEO strategy for their growth markets;
- How have you grown your business in your current markets?
- Have you focused on other channels and marketing methods outside of organic?
- Do you have a lot of partnerships, referrals etc. that have led to business critical leads?
- Have you invested in an organic strategy or has it been more holistic?
This is really important and not investigating the overall strategy and marketing plan can often trip up even the most experienced technical SEOs. You should also make sure that you are not isolating your SEO work.
Marketing managers or people that aren’t that familiar with SEO and search engines will often ask you to focus on one site, for one market, and that’s it. However, always thinking bigger than this considering all websites and channels that are affecting your organic performance will make sure you succeed in your international SEO strategy.
1. Make sure that you understand the search landscape of the markets that you are entering.
This is really important as you can’t assume that you can replicate what you’ve done in your current market with a completely different market; it has to be unique. Things can change.
An example would be if we were a home and garden ecommerce site and were looking at optimising our garden products. We would have to consider the differences between barbecuing and grilling because a grill and grilling means something different in the UK than in the US. It’s making sure that you’re optimizing for those specific terms and ensuring that you are not just duplicating content. This is also why translating keywords does not work without keyword research, search intent analysis and an understanding of the industry and products in that market.
2. Understand business goals and growth markets with market maturity
This comes down to understanding the key differences in different markets. For example, is the product range in the US going to be the same as in Australia? Do people even know that this product works? Are there any competitors that are dominating the landscape?
This will then allow you to understand what you need to include in your international SEO strategy. For example, will you need to include more informational content to educate your audience and users? These are the big questions that can be answered through using tools such as Searchmetrics and SEMrush where you can get a really good overview of the competitor landscape.
3. Always make sure you are auditing a legacy or primary domain
Even if a business owner or stakeholder says that they have no presence in their new market and have done zero work to have any presence in that market, it does not mean they don’t! Sites can easily gain traffic from many countries unintentionally, in a similar way to how sites can rank for keywords or gain backlinks unintentionally.
If you’re entering a new market, it’s likely, if you’ve got a main site, maybe a .com site, that the site is already ranking in that market already in some way. It’s critical that in your initial audits you are considering this site and understand its performance so that you avoid cannibalisation.
Chapter 3: Most Common International SEO Mistakes
1. Take the time to see if any non-local pages are ranking or driving in the market. If so use hreflang to adjust
For most SEOs, the objective is normally getting a page ranking instead of making sure the right page ranking. They may not realise that the wrong page is ranking which has a negative impact on traffic and conversions. Therefore is important to check your site on a regular basis especially if it is a global site.
Take the time to see if any non-local pages are ranking or driving traffic/conversions in that market. If so use hreflang to adjust. How can you see what is ranking?
Go to Google Search Console and look at one of your top level pages for a product that you sell around the world, for example the /EN page. In the example we went through in Tea Time SEO and as shown in the image above, the local page which was the /IN page, WAS NOT ranking on page one. There was no signal to tell Google it should use the /IN page over the /EN page. Instead, the NON Local page – the exampleco.com/EN page was shown 3.2 million times in markets where there was an existing local website.
This means there’s something wrong with the international seo implementation. In most cases, this is an HREFLang problem, in other cases it might be a semantic problem. You might have wording on your global page that’s neutral English, and in the other markets it might skew maybe to local English or British English. So this is the first thing you should check is, how big of a problem do we have ? For example, if someone wanted parts for an elevator in London it is most likely the US page would rank for “elevator parts” as the UK page will use the phrase “lift parts”.
2. Fix errors in XML sitemaps and GSC to reduce wasted requests by Search Engines
One of the things we hear a lot is that, “We did HREFLang and it sort of sucks. It’s complex, it’s too hard.” HREFLang itself is embarrassingly simple. It’s our complex websites that make it a challenge. We see here a case where a site had 7.7 million tags, 580,000 errors. When you have that many errors, it’s your problem, not Google. Google’s told you the problems. The other common mistake is when HREFLang or local market sites aren’t being indexed is a case like at the top; 131,000 pages were valid, but over a million were bad. So you have 10 times more pages that Google’s wasting resources on. So try to fix some of these and specifically focus around the world.
3. Make sure your canonical tags for local language versions are correct
Make sure your canonical tags for local language versions are correct as canonicals can be a big problem. There are many people who manage websites are confused by canonicals, even some celebrity SEOs who write a lot, really don’t understand how this works. It is pretty obvious when you come into some cases with websites.
Here’s an example, a site in Lithuanian, but it doesn’t rank in Lithuania.
- English – https://www.mysite.com/lt/home
- Spanish – https://www.mysite.com/lt/home?locale.x=es_LT
- French – https://www.mysite.com/lt/home?locale.x=fr_LT
- Chinese – https://www.mysite.com/lt/home?locale.x=zh_LT
- Lithuanian – https://www.mysite.com/lt/home?locale.x=lt_LT
The core site, the one without any kind of location, the canonical tag incorrectly points to English.
The canonical tag says the following:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.mysite.com/lt/home” />.
This is pointing to the English-language version of the site. This means you’re effectively telling Google you don’t want them to use your Lithuanian version. This is totally wrong. In this case, the site owner was trying to get rid of tracking tags and actually got rid of their parameter-based language tags in error.
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About our authors
Chloe is responsible for managing large client accounts and heading up Impression’s international SEO service. She specialises keyword and content mapping, language & culture and understanding the impact & risks of new market entry. She supports small and large businesses in improving their organic presence in the UK and globally across over 40 markets.
Bill is the founder of Back Azimuth Consulting. Well known on the conference circuit, he has spoken at conferences in 33 countries. Outside of that, he is also a co-author “Search Engine Marketing Inc” and he developed the HREFLang Builder which won best Search Software in 2020.