How to Leverage International SEO to Optimize Your Online Store

International SEO Optimization in Five Steps

International markets sound so exotic. The words bring pictures of street markets in Dubai, swimming under breathtaking waterfalls in Hawaii, and international SEO…? Probably not that last one, but if you’re growing your business to span across the pond, no matter which side you’re on, you’ll want to keep reading.

Targeting the Right Market the Right Way

Targeting the right market is necessary for success, of course, but reaching out the right way is even more critical. You have to understand your audience’s specific needs and preferences to effectively optimize your web pages for organic traffic from different regions. By tailoring content to local markets, you can increase your visibility and establish a solid global brand presence.

Localized Content

To be fair, international SEO isn’t that much different than everyday optimization. But, much like local SEO, the percentage that isn’t the same makes a huge difference.

One of the key differences, however, is localized content.

Localized content is more than knowing what words to use, but terminology is definitely important. For example, if you’re in the US and marketing to the UK or Australia, keyword research points to using “trolley” or “shopping trolley.” If you’re marketing to the US, “shopping cart” is a good play.

But wait… where in the US are you marketing? If you’re going further south, i.e., the South, “buggy” may be a better choice.

You may be getting the idea that keyword choices are a little more complex than they look at the outset, and you’d be right. Think of international SEO as adding an extra layer of optimization and oversight. For example, as I just briefly laid out with keyword research, you start with the words in your language and then research similar terms in the language of your target market.

Of course, if keywords were the only part of localized content, a good two or three hours of research would be enough to get a good start on reaching your target market…

Ensuring the website is translated and localized for the target market is also vital. This involves adapting the content, language, and cultural references to align with the preferences and customs of the specific country. Hiring professional translation services or working with local experts can help with the accuracy and appropriateness of your content.

With the above in mind, let’s look at the five steps of international optimization I promised at the beginning and go from there.

5 Steps to International SEO

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International SEO is optimization pointed at country-specific targets. When you want to move into international waters, you can capitalize on that optimization to get a piece of content in front of potential customers. The right strategies can help you tap into new markets and expand your customer base.

Let’s examine how five practical international SEO steps can help drive new traffic and growth across other countries, nations, and locales.

Step 1: Market Research and Globalization

Market research is almost a no-brainer as the first step of building your optimization and marketing strategies. Everyone in business knows they need to complete this step. However, again, there’s an added layer of international SEO.

Conducting keyword research is part of this first step. You need to understand the search habits and phrases used by local users. This includes identifying popular keywords in the local language, as well as region-specific variations. 

Pro Tip: If you’ve stepped into the suite of Google tools, you may not have to start from scratch for your keyword data. Google Search Console (GSC) and Google Analytics (GA) can provide valuable insights into your current organic traffic. What country are they coming from? Are you already receiving traffic from your target location? If so, taking the time to dive down into which keywords are being used in that country can help cut through some of the research phase. 

While conducting your keyword research, consider the following questions:

What languages are spoken in your growing market?

Many countries have English as a second language, for example, but we’ve already seen that – even in the same country – you can have different terms.

The research goes deeper, though. Imagine the benefit of knowing how people search locally no matter where they are in the world. You’ll gain knowledge of the keywords and search terms they tend to use. This is where your ability to create relevant content can take on a whole new dimension.

What services or products do you offer that are viable in your new market?

You might have to engage in a ton of exhausting research at this stage. Effective research always pays off in the long run, though. Thinking about your services and products, how well will they fit in?

Using my hometown of San Francisco as an example, it hardly ever gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The chances that extreme cold weather gear will sell well are slim. However, if you sell outdoor gear in general, you’ll find a market in San Francisco for other situations.

What seasons does your new market have?

Seasonal search patterns and trending topics can’t be ignored here. For example, Diwali is the biggest holiday in India and runs between October and November. This five-day festival of lights offers a huge opportunity for businesses that sell crackers, candles, gift boxes, and ornamental products.

Does your new market use social media?

Believe it or not, there are still some secluded places that ignore social media. Not many, granted, but social media is often a significant part of creating targeted marketing campaigns, so answering this question is imperative.

Another connected question is, what platforms do they use? Mexico, for example, uses Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram the most. France, on the other hand, keeps their hand on the pulse of social media through YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat. For the campaign to be effective, you don’t want to go into Mexico with a Snapchat campaign or France with a Twitter campaign.

How much localization should you do?

Consider the gap between standardization and localization. Find a balance between standardizing your approach so it benefits from scaling and providing enough localization to remain relevant and competitive in each market you enter. Determine how deep localization should go – from simple translation to a complete cultural adaptation.

McDonald’s is the best example of adaptation that I can think of. Go to Hong Kong, and you’ll find vegetable and egg pasta. Japan offers the teriyaki burger. Brazil provides the Torta de Banana, and you can walk into a McDonald’s in Venezuela and get a cheesy empanada. Gastronomic delights, courtesy of your localized McDonald’s.

So, the question now is, how much will you adapt your marketing strategies for your new market?

Step 2: Technical Website Optimization

This second step may take the skills of a professional. Not only is there content optimization, but you also want to ensure your site runs as well as possible. This takes website technical optimization, also just simply “technical SEO.”

There are over fifteen aspects of technical optimization. It doesn’t stop with site speed and broken code. For international SEO, optimizing your hreflang (pronounced H-ref-lang) tags and adding schema to your site are two essentials.

What is hreflang?

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Search engines use the hreflang tag to understand which content goes to which users in what country for which language.

For example, your website is in the US and targets English speakers. Now, you’ve created additional service pages in Spanish. This scenario is where you want to understand and implement hreflang tags.

This tag ensures the user sees the correct translation and creates a more friendly, personalized visit. From an SEO standpoint, it helps search engine bots understand that your international pages are variations of other pages on your site.

Here are a few significant points to keep in mind when implementing these tags:

  • Hreflang tags should be on all pages with international (additional countries) or language-specific changes.
  • Make sure you use the correct language and region codes.
  • All of your alternative pages should link to your original page. If your primary language is English and you have a Spanish version of the page, you’ll want your hreflang tag on the English page to point to Spanish, and vice versa.
  • Provide a way to allow users to switch languages on your site.

What is schema markup?

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Schema is another layer of optimization. An intelligent use of schema markup and structured data coding provides search engines with detailed information about page content.

While schema isn’t necessarily a ranking factor, it does create a more positive user experience. Your company is far more likely to experience good results when your search results show rich snippets.

Schema also helps bots to understand the structure of your page better. If you have breadcrumbs, you can indicate that to the search engine bots. If you have a single link that you want to have more weight than any other, you can tell the bots that, as well.

In summary, when you ensure your site is showing the proper structure and you outline that structure clearly with schema, you provide a better user experience for people and search engines.

Further Reading: What is Schema Markup, and 4 Ways How It Improves Your SEO

Step 3: Content Creation and Localization

Creating content that addresses multiple languages and foreign audiences isn’t always an easy task, but it’s a task you obviously can’t ignore. So, how do you go about it? The answer is at the beginning of this post: localized content.

You’ve already done the market and keyword research in the first step. You’ve most likely decided how far you’ll go to merge into your new market: standardization vs localization. And, you’ve looked at your site (or had a professional SEO look at your site) to update your technical aspects. Now, it’s time to put all the above to work for your audience.

Your content marketing strategies must now expand to address any cultural gaps your company has. Creating connections a global audience can identify with allows you to outpace the competition.

Scenario: Your software business spans two countries: U.S. and Mexico. How do you reach both countries and languages with your content marketing strategy? Here is a simplified approach:

  • Choose the product you’re going to push with your campaign. This product should be something both markets would be interested in.
  • Develop content that resonates with both audiences. Not only does this include using the correct keyphrase for the language, as we discussed above, but also the cultural nuances. Every culture has its own values, nuances, and preferences. You’ll have to take into account the imagery, design, and navigation preferences of your audience.
  • Provide quality translations rather than automatic translations. Google Translate is a good stand-in in a pinch, but having an actual native or bi-lingual translator provides a much deeper level of localization.
  • Optimize your English content for the U.S. and Spanish content for Mexico. Don’t forget to include your hreflang tags and schema markup!
  • Share your content on the appropriate channels for each market. Remember, different countries favor some apps over others. Don’t forget to include this nuance in your content marketing campaign.

The next step is building out links to that content so it continues to build in authority and support your entire strategy.

Further Reading: 7 SEO Copywriting Tips for 2024

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Link building is an important part of authority building. Where you get those links is as important, if not more so, than the links themselves.

With international SEO, optimization steps need to include – you guessed it – links from your foreign market’s location. Let’s return to our scenario.

In the U.S., you want to get links from local, English-language websites that are authorities in the U.S. However, for your Spanish pages, you should look to your local Mexican market. Your linking sites should be authoritative in Mexico and written in Spanish.

Remember that there’s a difference in how you might reach out to local connections. What’s acceptable and appropriate in the U.S. for outreach may not be seen the same in other countries. Make sure to establish the proper method of outreach for your target market.

Further Reading: 7 Best Link Building Practices in 2024

Step 5: Continuous Monitoring and Optimization

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Make it a habit to continuously monitor and optimize your international SEO strategies. Part of optimization, no matter where the target market is, is to review current campaigns and locate areas of improvement. The key to this process is “small changes.”

If a campaign isn’t working as expected, you might be tempted to toss the whole thing. However, optimizing your website, product, services, and campaigns requires incremental changes. When you’re not getting returns, consider the following:

  • How are my pages ranking in each market?
  • Which pages are performing the best?
  • Why are these pages performing so well compared to the others?
  • What changes can I make to my lower-performing pages?
  • What micro-conversions can I update to improve performance?

Once you’ve outlined those changes, make them one at a time. If you make several changes at once, how do you know which one(s) made the difference? By changing one item at a time, it becomes much more evident when one update changes the results of a campaign. You might get impatient with the slow movement, but the results are much more stable and repeatable when you know the steps.

Further Reading: The Top 15 Keyword Rank Checkers to Monitor Your SEO Performance

A Nod to AI

With AI bursting on the scene and so many tools adding AI to their offers, it’s hard to ignore the possibilities. Should you use AI in your marketing? Shouldn’t you?

Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if you don’t learn how to embrace AI, you’ll end up getting left behind. Let’s face it, we’re a growing tech society. So, what does a business owner or marketer do?

Embrace cautiously.

AI is already making a difference in how quickly you can get work done, making it easy to embrace it wholeheartedly. Who doesn’t want to get done faster?

Yet, AI is not a perfect system. For instance, content creation isn’t the best use for ChatGPT yet because it still falsifies data and has hallucinations. There are several other reasons to be cautious, but let’s be optimistic. What can you use AI for?

Content Creation: Tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard are excellent for creating article outlines. You can also have these tools draft you a summary, paragraphs, and more. However, I strongly caution you to review and rewrite these paragraphs in your own words, using the tool output as a loose guideline.

Social Media Marketing: AI tools make social marketing much easier, especially if writing shares is one of your weak points. Provide your source and guidelines, and let your tool do the work. Again, review the output.

Image Creation: From Midjourney to DALL-E and beyond, AI image creation has exploded. There are some issues to pay attention to, however, as copywriting attribution has become a significant issue in this arena.

Make sure to read the article “25 Best AI Tools for Marketing and Business” for a complete list of the top tools.

Further Reading: 15 AI SEO Software Tools to Help Your Content Rank

Let’s Summarize

Although some business types won’t translate well into other cultures and locations, they’re more the exception than the rule. Software and tech companies, for example, often have a borderless nature. Yet, any company with products or services that can cross borders has a hand in the game. \

Venturing into international markets requires reaching diverse markets on a local, personal level. While these five steps–market research, technical optimization, content marketing, link building, and monitoring–are similar in any market, the key to successful international SEO is optimizing based on local cultures, behaviors, and needs.

Why? Because when you meet your audience where they are, your reach becomes much more effective. You’re speaking to them specifically: a personal message to each member of your target market.

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Author Bio

Gabriella Sannino is a well-known author, branding expert, and international marketing consultant. As the founder of Level343, an international marketing and SEO company, her mission is to help businesses of all sizes succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. With over two decades of experience in the industry, Gabriella’s expertise lies in Internet marketing strategies, optimization, and branding. Her passion for delivering comprehensive marketing information has made her one of the most sought-after thought leaders in the industry.

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