Think global. An online store is wasting a vast portion of its potential if its owner is only focusing on local. To cater for the international market is an opportunity both to diversify and to increase revenue. International SEO is the key to unlocking this global potential.
Every single day, your product may be sought by millions of shoppers around the world. But they will have a tough task identifying you if you haven’t factored in international SEO. Standard SEO tips are legion. International SEO is a little more specialized.
What do we mean by international SEO? It is thinking about how geographical area makes a difference to the user’s search behavior and coming up with ways to work with this. It can involve using a variety of innovations, such as AMP and SEO, which can really benefit you as a result.
You can test the water by trying something quite simple. Maintain your existing URL setting but enable other currencies and international postage. Whether your company is SaaS based or otherwise, this will assess your company and product’s international appeal.
However, it only goes so far: it doesn’t cater for the tendency for users to search in their own language. And even if it’s a language shared with you, they will use different terms and have different tastes.
So, it’s not watertight, but it might serve to spotlight the appeal of your product beyond your national boundaries. If, given the above caveats, you identify demand, imagine how much hotter things will get when you apply some quality international SEO.
Let’s take a look at the options available to you.
One Store to Sell Them All
Well, kind of. What this lacks is finesse. And an idea about variation in behavior based on where the user is. Firstly, in terms of the language they use. Trouser lovers looking for pants on a UK site will get something they possibly weren’t expecting.
Secondly, in terms of the user’s tastes in items, which will vary enormously from region to region. You’ll find it easier to cater to this if you have some sort of concomitant organization which reflects regional variation by having a store for each region.
Thirdly, you will not be able to gain the marketing advantage of, for example, seasonal wear, when what season you’re in depends on what part of the globe you’re on.
So, it makes much more sense to diversify your selling base.
A quick word about cost. The nice thing about having more stores is that there are virtually no extra costs, right? All the stores are, after all, pretty much copies of the original, just with a bit of tinkering to make them region-appropriate. So, no big spend. Great!
Actually, that’s not at all right. It’s a common misconception. The resource needed to keep a separate store relevant to its target country and up-to-date is considerable. Plus all the niggly little admin tasks that will only grow with every new store—tasks like return management, for instance.
And there’s no getting away from all the new content you’ll have to generate, and it’ll need to be good to ensure decent ranking. While we’re on the subject, don’t forget other ways to enhance ranking. Tools like Google snippets can help, for example.
In general, you need to allow for a doubling of resources for each doubling of store numbers. You can do it with less, but it usually shows.
So, you’ve thought about the cost and you’re prepared to spend what it takes. Let’s see the different structural options available to you.
Unique Top-Level Domain (ccTLD)
This approach utilizes a completely separate domain with a country code appendage—for instance, .fr for France, .es for Spain, and so on. This is a good approach for a company with a strong international brand.
There are several advantages to this method. It gives search engines very clear instructions on where this site is directed. It also allows for good flexibility when it comes to applying local SEO marketing strategies.
Another interesting advantage is that some user nationalities will favor sites that are appended with their country code. French users, for example, have been known to display a tendency for clicking on a site with a .fr ccTLD rather than .com sites.
Disadvantages include greater cost in terms of time and money: you will have to maintain a number of sites, each with their own SEO strategy.
This involves a separate third-level domain. Content is held on the generic .com top-level domain, but the code for the country is set at subdomain level. So, while you would have greatstore.com for your global or US activities, you would have de.greatstore.com for your Germany-focused activities.
A better use of a subdomain, though, is when you are targeting a language rather than a country. For instance, once you start thinking along the lines of German rather than Germany, you get Austria, parts of Switzerland and anywhere else German is spoken.
If a subdomain is created for a high-ranking site, it will profit by being swiftly indexed as a result. Secondly, as part of the subdomain, it’s possible to use a keyword that will be useful in search optimization as well as being handy for promotional activities, via, for instance, some nifty email marketing.
Disadvantages include the fact that search engines view them as separate websites, which can adversely affect their rankings. Subdomains can give search engines weaker targeting signals than ccTLD, too.
After content creation has taken place, you need to know where to put it so that it’s organized and clear. A nice solution is using a subdirectory. This is possibly the most straightforward method when it comes to organizing information on your website. For the user, they encounter a very clear signal. For instance, a country is indicated as greatstore.com/de.
There are several advantages to using subdirectories. Subdirectories give stronger signals than subdomains. But that’s not nearly all.
The company can focus on a single website which removes the possibility of inadvertent clashing. Sometimes, subdomains for a given company can feature conflicting content, especially if an update hasn’t been applied to all subdomains.
Put simply, it’s easier to maintain a subdirectory system than a whole bunch of subdomains or ccTLDs.
In terms of rankings, if you are using something like Google Analytics, your positional data will be merged for the complete website, rather than across lots of domains. This simplifies monitoring, somewhat. Much in the same way a good SEO report can.
The main disadvantage of subdirectories is that they give weaker signals than ccTLDs. Also, there’s an increase in the number of pages within the URL, which will cause the rankings of some pages to decrease. Finally, the scope for local strategies is slightly diminished.
Subdirectories are an enormously popular approach for multinational companies. They are relatively easy to set up and the structure makes the most of the ranking of the domain. They are also very intuitive: users are familiar with the subfolder structure as it feels like it’s been used forever. Like anchor text, for instance, it’s a staple.
Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) With Parameters
This is like the subdirectory option, but the country is highlighted using parameter targeting. For instance, greatstore.com?lang=de-de. This is easier to maintain than ccTLD, but relying on parameters is not the most elegant solution. It may need constant review to ensure the process stays operational. In short, it’s a bit messy.
As the name suggests, this involves setting up a fresh domain. So, in greatstore.com’s example, its German incarnation will be something completely different. Like tollerladen.com. (That’s German for great store. But you probably knew that.)
The advantages are clear. Search engines are given clear signals. Ranking in localized search engines benefits. Local strategies are easy to implement.
The major disadvantage is the cost of setting up the new site, especially in terms of securing a high profile for it. You’re effectively starting from scratch.
If you can’t immediately establish a firm and present link to your established brand in the user’s mind, then you are at stage one in terms of securing a market foothold. You have all the problems associated with start-up.
But maybe one or two of the advantages, too. Your profile will be shiny and new, after all. So let’s not dwell on negatives. Perhaps a fractional CMO can help get you on track.
So, Which One?
Which you decide on using will probably depend on how much centralization of control you would like, as some of the approaches entail a degree of authority being split between different outputs for different territories.
Sometimes, a more centralized approach will make the most of whatever knowledge base you have accumulated. But then there may be benefits from introducing new knowledge.
If you’re still struggling to make your mind up, a good tip is to check out what established competitors are doing in a territory and take inspiration from them. They’d do the same to you.
Another tip is this: whatever you do, don’t target continents as a whole. It’s discourteous and unprofitable. Europe has 24 official languages and over 200 unofficial ones. Do you think one European site will have a chance of reaching most of these speakers? Not a chance.
Speaking of language…
What is Hreflang?
Put simply, hreflang is something you need to know about. It’s a system that tells Google that a number of different versions of a page are available. Annotations are applied so that for a given country or language market, a page in the relevant language will be displayed. Without hreflang, Google will struggle to rank a store in the appropriate region.
You can implement them in a number of ways—for instance, via the HTML head of the HTTP header. They consist of a language code followed by a country code, such as en-us. Sounds simple, but there are pitfalls a-plenty.
Take Japanese speakers in Japan, for instance. Not jp-jp but actually jp-ja. And Swedish in Sweden is sv-se (the language is called Svenska in Swedish). And English in the UK? en-gb. Thankfully, there are hreflang generator tools out there to help you, so go take a look.
Backlinks are one of Google’s top three ranking factors. OK, there are other ways to influence ranking—some legitimate, others less so, like duplicate content SEO techniques. But backlinks are a great area to leverage. So, you need to know how to secure these. One approach is to super-enhance your content by becoming a go-to resource. Content does matter.
You can take a look at your competitors and use a backlink analytics tool to see who’s linking to them, then develop a content strategy aimed at wooing links your way.
Or you can use a brand monitoring tool to find mentions of your product, then approach the site author to broach link possibilities.
Don’t forget the value of internal links, too. A user on one part of your site can be directed to other domains or subdirectories, with all the potential added value therein.
Finally, remember to encourage appropriate international links. For instance, if you’ve received attention from a Portuguese website, you need to encourage them to link to the Portuguese incarnation of your site. Obvious, but sometimes overlooked.
What to Avoid in International SEO
Here are some examples of not thinking about geographical area. Sometimes it’s as clunking as having the wrong currency applied to a product. Or a particular country’s searchers being targeted when the supplier can’t actually transport the product to that country.
Sometimes, it’s a case of a site owner focusing on a particular search engine that doesn’t actually perform well in a particular part of the world. For example, with over 40,000 searches per second, Google may be the international market leader, but in China it’s a no-no.
And talking of search engines, the final thing to avoid is to launch yourself at marketing with them without first checking out the great SEO and search engine tools help that’s available out there.
Further Reading: The 16 Best SEO Tools to Power Your Search Engine Marketing
Conclusion on International SEO
International SEO has its own challenges, both technically and linguistically. But it’s an area that can give enormous rewards.
Most importantly, don’t see international SEO as one-stop. For it to succeed, it needs constant maintenance so that international trends don’t pass you by.
There’s a world of opportunity out there—go get it!
Hero Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Nick Brown is the founder & CEO of accelerate agency, an SEO keyword research agency based in Bristol. He has over 12 years experience in digital marketing and works with large companies advising them on SEO, CRO, and content marketing.