Francesco Giunta

Francesco Giunta

Senior Search Strategist

International SEO is a very important aspect for any international business’ digital strategy. Large businesses that operate on a global scale need to fully understand their markets from a digital perspective as users’ search behaviour is different in each country.

In addition to that, businesses need to have a proper technical SEO strategy in place in each region they operate in, failing that would make success (e.g. positive rankings and subsequent conversions) more complicated to achieve.

When it comes to International SEO there are several aspects that need to be considered. The marketplace needs to be analysed and competitors need to be identified in each one of them. In many cases there are local competitors that have more “SEO authority” because of their brand image, their history in that given country, and their current relationship with the audience.

Penetrating a new market is not an easy task if there is not a clear understanding of the market and a clear strategy in place.

International opportunity analysis on Google Analytics

An important step that needs to be taken is to analyse traffic data from foreign countries to the site. On Google Analytics under “Audience” and then “Geo” it is possible to see where the traffic is coming from. This will help in identifying opportunities and then make plans to expand the business in new markets.

Google Analytics provides a good breakdown in the “Geo” section as it gives traffic data from countries, cities, continents, and sub-continents.

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The breakdown into countries, cities etc. is extremely useful as it can guide the SEO strategy from a local perspective too. Identifying top cities where the traffic comes from is definitely advantageous when devising a local SEO strategy.

The same analysis needs to be done on a language level in order to have content for the different segments of the audience. In terms of content optimisation for international SEO there are several areas that need to be covered and analysed. In Google Analytics a first step is to identify all the languages that can be included in the optimisation.

Another important area often overlooked is the search engines presence in each country. Of course we know that Google is going to be the primary search engine in most of the countries but there are several others that are also popular in some regions. The below table gives an overview of the most common ones per country.

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Keyword research

In terms of understanding the audience’s behaviour a crucial action to undertake is to analyse how the target audience relates to a given product or service.

How do they search for a product? How extensive is the research for a product? What type of language do they use? Do they use jargon? Are colloquialisms also included?

All these questions need to be answered as the content that will be needed on the site will need to reflect these habits and language aspects.

Like every SEO strategy one of the initial and most important steps is the keyword research. It will help SEO to understand all the types of search terms that the user adopts in the search process.

The language that is adopted can be easily understood by carrying out the research, and all the specific ways of searching for the service/products, also related to the culture, can be spotted and then included in the on-page content. Search volume is also another important aspect that needs to be looked at.

The research will help SEO to see when and where a given product/service is more popular or will be more popular. This can be easily done using a combination of search volume data and Excel.
The example below shows search volumes for a whole year, the conditional formatting helps to identify the best moments for approaching the audience with targeted content marketing campaigns.

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The other aspects are of a technical nature and are rather important as they are meant to guide search engines when they serve results or analyse a site in a given country.
When it comes to International SEO the site structure and the type of TLD is definitely a hot topic. There are three main roads that SEO can take in terms of internationalisation of the site:

Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD)

This is a rather strong way to go, as it is very specific because the domain will have a targeted TLD such as .co.uk, .it, .fr, and so forth. The efforts for this type of domain will, however, be more as there will be separate sites in each country. Below there are a couple of points that can help to understand the benefits and drawbacks of adopting ccTLD domains.

Pros of ccTLD:

  • Search engines can easily identify the site as it is very specific in that given country.
  • Rankings can be achieved more easily as the search engine sees that the site is targeted to users in that country.
  • The site also will not be affected by changes in the algorithm that happens in other countries. We know that Google sometimes roll out the updates in some countries first and then in others later.

Cons of ccTLD:

  • A separate strategy is needed for each TLD.
  • In order to have more chances of higher rankings it is also needed to host the site in the country where the site is operating in. This will definitely have additional costs.
  • The site will need local links as well in order to rank.

Subdomain

This is useful when the brand/company wants to emphasize the focus on its product through a microsite, an example would be http://myproduct.brand.com or uk.mycompany.com. This will need also a separate strategy and unfortunately the main domain will not help in terms of passing authority.

Pros of subdomain:

  • The subdomain can be geo-targeted and have a local IP address, it will help in terms of geo-localisation.
  • The subdomain can also be easily tracked in Google Analytics.
  • This can be a great way for showcasing a new product or a new section of a site. It can be focused on only one area of the business without interfering with others.

Cons of subdomain:

  • Also in this case a separate SEO strategy will be required.
  • Country subdomain for different versions of the asset/site will be more complicated to have.
  • The SEO authority of the main domain will not be passed to subdomain.

Subdirectory

This can be used when the brands wants to keep its identity in some ways and stick with only a .com or .de TLD for instance. There will be different folders for each language and territory such as http://www.mybrand.com/de.

Pros of subdirectory:

  • The technical aspect of the site can be managed by one team.
  • This option is also cost effective compared to the others.
  • Domain authority is passed to all country folders.

Cons of subdirectory:

  • The sub-folders will not have dedicated IP addresses, so less geo-localization power.
  • In general a sub-folder does not send strong local signals to search engines.
  • If the site gets penalised by Google then the whole will suffer from that.

Hreflang for best practice SEO

The hreflang tag is an important tag that helps in avoiding duplicate content across the different domains of sites that operate globally.

This can be implemented in three main ways:

  • Through an HTML tag
  • In the HTTP Header
  • Through a sitemap

At Branded3 we have already covered this aspect in another blog post which can be read here.

In this post I will cover only the HTML implementation to give a quick heads up to the fellow SEOs out there. The HTML hreflang tag is a very simple way to send signals to the search engine when a website has the same content, or with some minimal changes, and serves it in different countries.

For instance, a business that operates and has the same content in The United Kingdom, The United States of America, and Australia, needs to think about the signals that it sends to search engines; the hreflang will help in doing so.

The tags will need to be added to all the pages that have the same content. The syntax of the code should look much like the following:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.mysite.com” hreflang=”en-us” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.mysite.co.uk” hreflang=”en-gb” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.mysite.com.au” hreflang=”en-au” />

The implementation of the tag will tell the search engine that a specific piece of content or page will need to be visible in a given country, which will help to avoid possible issues such as being outranked by other potentially stronger domains from the same brand.

Conclusions

International SEO strategies can be slightly more complicated to implement as there are several areas that will need be to be assessed. These differ in nature and go from pure marketing analysis to technical SEO.

However, International SEO success can only be achieved where there is a clear understanding of the market and the audience, and also where the technical aspects are covered in full.

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