Interview with global SEM expert Bill Hunt on all things SEO

Recently I had the chance to interview global SEM and social media expert Bill Hunt. Bill is currently the President of Back Azimuth Consulting  and writes a blog on search and social media marketing at whunt.com. Bill is currently on the Board of Directors of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and is active in growing SEMPO’s international base of members.

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions!

Question: You got your start in SEM back in 1994; what made you get involved so early in the game?

Answer from Bill Hunt: There were two primary catalysts for my entry into this industry.  I had my own successful product and service website primarily targeting Japan with earthquake preparedness supplies.  Out of the blue I received a call from a large company in the San Francisco area looking for my product catalog after seeing my site linked on Yahoo!  Prior to that I had never heard of Yahoo since it was just a small site at Sanford.   This call resulted in a very large corporate order.  I mentioned this to a bunch of friends and they asked me to submit them to Yahoo!   We started  to offer this as a side business to companies that did not want to take the time to do it themselves.

The second, and really the primary reason, was the amount of consulting projects that came from large companies wanting me to help them use search and the Internet to target Japan.  I was not a digital or search consultant.   I was a small international business owner that benefitted from the local and national press generated after an insane amount of earthquake kits to Japan post Kobe earthquake.  It was amazing how many big companies came to us to find out how we were able to “crack the Japanese market” using the Internet.   Very quickly the revenue from these consulting opportunities eclipsed the disaster preparedness consulting an kit sales that we sold that business and created Global Strategies and the rest is history.

While we did a lot of marketing and networking in Japan, I have to give a lot of the credit to my wife Motoko Hunt from AJPR (www.ajpr.com) for the hard work of posting on forums and Japanese information sites on how to prepare for an earthquake.  It was a few of those articles and tip pages that were found by the Japanese press that generated all the awareness.

Question: Plenty of websites would love to sell to a global audience, but how well can a US-based site (and business) really do in a foreign organic search space?

Answer from Bill Hunt: It can be an amazing opportunity with the right products and effort.  I have worked with hundreds of businesses sell to multiple markets around the world.  Those that have been successful all put in a similar focus and effort, as they would have to do if search and the Internet were not options.  That is the biggest challenge for companies.  They wake up and assume the world wants their products and want them without any modifications, support or regard to price or the challenges getting them.   I tell companies that the best sign that your ready to go into a new market is you already have demand from that market.

Using search marketing to reach a new market is the easiest possible way to do it.  You can start today with paid search using English words then add foreign words then a localized site then local product adaption etc.

Not really a search related tip but take the time to have three meetings before you spend one minute on any effort on any new country.  First, look up the representative at the US Commerce department for the country desk you are targeting and ask them to tell you about that market as it relates to your products.  They will help you understand tariffs, currency, shipping, laws, and other gotcha’s that should be avoided.   Second is to contact

Question: From an SEO perspective, is it better to create a completely new site for a foreign market (mycompany.fr) or just create a version of your site in that foreign language (mycompany.com/fr)?

Answer from Bill Hunt: That is one of those “it depends” questions.   Lets get this our of the way quickly!  The best option is always to have a site sitting on a local top-level domain such as mycompany.fr and have content and design especially for that country.   You see many consumer package goods and fast food sites often have unique sites for each market.   Just look at McDonalds and KFC they are almost completely different for each country.   However, depending on the size and scale of the site the costs start at $50,000 to maintain just the infrastructure.

Now for those who can’t do that and/or for the average ecommerce company the same site localized for the different markets is just fine as long as you use some of the tools available.  If you look at most of the Global 1000 companies they all use the country/language subdirectory option.  This is the most scalable since it allows all of the site mechanics to work seamless and you can replicate as little of the site as you need for each market.

IF you don’t use country centric top level domains you need to make sure the engines understand the different country/language sections of the site.  You can do this using the Geographical Targets in Gooogle Webmaster tools.  The best approach is to leverage the rel=Alternate Href Language option where you designate each page for the specific country.  Getting links from the local markets in their language helps the engines as well.

Question: What’s the best way for a website to monitor their organic presence globally?

Answer from Bill Hunt: All of the same methods you use for your local language site should be used on any international version.   Key metrics are aggregate and keyword level revenue and traffic for each market.  I am seeing more and more companies peg them against each other to identify seasonality as well as maximizing demand opportunities in the other markets.

One of the features we added to our keyword management tool [www.back-azimuth.com/global-keyword-management] is for a company to see how they were performing for the local language equivalents of keywords in any market they have mapped as well as clusters of similar words.

Question: Could building international links to your website ever hurt your SEO success state-side?

Answer from Bill Hunt: Yes, absolutely.   For example, if you have an abnormal number of links from Germany that are from German pages with a German anchor text to an English page this looks suspicious.  It is even truer if you have a German language page and the majority of the links from the US or India and are English pages linking to the German page with English anchor text.  This just does not seem right.

The lack of links from local languages and markets can be a hindrance as well.  If no French language sites link to your French site it will be a challenge to rank well in those local markets.

Question: What are some of the common SEO problems many companies face when trying to “go global?”

Answer from Bill Hunt: Hands down the biggest challenge is lack of keywords and content in the local language.  If the local language version of a phrase is more popular it will be impossible to be found without local language keywords and content.

The second biggest challenge is language or country detection.  There are cases where this is necessary to protect prices but if the spider craws from the California or Zurich it may only get those country versions.  You need to make sure you test accessing your site from other countries.  You should do this as a standard browser as well as using a user agent plugin.  Go to each country version as the different search engines.  I recently had a case where they had exclusions for Google and Bing but not for Yandez and Baidu so they were completely invisible in both search engines.

The third is agencies that sell individual country site audits on a template driven site.  I have written before about a company that had 22 different country site audits done and when we matched all of the recommendations 98% were exactly the same.  That is what you would expect on a template driven site where the only things that changes is the language text being inserted into the templates.

Question: Do you have any advice for websites with search teams in separate countries? How can they make sure everyone is on the same page SEO-wise?

Answer from Bill Hunt: Great question.  That is why every multi-national problem should be based around a center of Excellence.   Nearly every company I have ever worked with the Center of Excellence was one of the first big initiatives.  The Center of Excellence develops guidelines to be used by all the brands and locations around the world.  These are not developed in a vacuum but by a collaborative effort of the various search, digital and IT teams and agency partners.  When you have basic guidelines, especially for a dynamic site everything falls into place.  This is critical especially if you use multiple agencies since this keeps them all in line with the global standards.

The COE does not have to be complex, a few companies have a simple list of best practices for common tasks like XML site maps, keyword research, tools, content changes etc.  Others have a multidisciplinary approach with testing and robust QA programs to ensure local market compliance.

Question: Do the rules of SEO change from country to country or does best practice work across borders?

Answer from Bill Hunt: For the most part it is about 90% the same especially for the same search engine across markets.   There are nuances for local search engiens like Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China.   What does change is obviously the language, duplicate content, and language detection.

Question: What should a website do if one of their top keywords doesn’t translate properly?

Answer from Bill Hunt: Depends on what you mean by not translating correctly.  The easy answer is if it does not translate you don’t have a market for that product or service.

You could have a situation where you have a new product that had never existed before in the local market or anywhere for that matter, the probability there is a word for it in the local language should be zero.  In that case you have to educate people using related terms for something that does currently exist or about the problem it solves.

The other case is there is no local “native language” equivalent of a word, as is common in technology.  For example “servers” is typically “servers” all around the world.  There are local variations and in the case of Japanese there is a phonetic way to write this word in Katakana.

The other end of the spectrum is the challenge where multiple keywords can be used to describe your product or service.  A phrase like “anitvirus” in Chinese has as many as 26 ways to write it.  Two or there versions are the most commonly used by the local market while the others are equally correct.  That is a big problem, often translators will give you “linguistically correct” words but not necessarily the most popular.  For example, a large electronics company was selling LCD projectors for business.   The localization vendor used “Projektor” which was linguistically correct but most Germans would use “beamer” to describe the same items and was used significantly more often in searches.   That is why you really need to talk to the market and potential customers and dig deeper into the phrases and concepts rather than just localizing them.

Question: You wrote a best-selling SEM book with Mike Moran back in 2005. What, if anything, about how SEO works today has surprised you since writing that book?

Answer from Bill Hunt: Don’t forget the 2nd Edition that came out in 2008 and the numerous updates we have made for each of the printings.  BTW the newly rewritten 3rd edition should be out later this year.

The biggest surprise is how many of the fundamentals have not changed.  If you give someone a book published in 2008 they often say thanks, put it on a shelf and ignore it.  They assume is out of date.  When Mike and I wrote it we made sure not to include any hyped techniques or “get ranked quick” processes and that is the most common praise for the book.

Along those lines, I am most surprised at how many people don’t follow the fundamental or focus on using diagnostics to fix what they have before working about the latest techniques or buzz.  Honestly, the core elements of indexing and getting scored really have not changed.  A big part of all the algorithm changes in the past 10 years have been to combat spam or keep up with advanced coding techniques.

Question: Which metrics should a company use to evaluate the effectiveness of their global search program?

Answer from Bill Hunt: Honestly, there should be no difference from how you measure success in your home market.  In fact, the more consistent you can make them the easier they are to roll up into a global view and see trends and opportunities around the world.    I am a fan of measuring the “search influenced” conversions, rank, and share of search.  All of these are directional and when they go up we are doing well and down there is a problem.   One of my favorite, are looking at words that are ranking in the top 3 positions but getting a small share of clicks.  This tells you that your snippets are less than optimal.  This is a great metric to show increased performance month over month.

I always suggest the use of an “AlwaysOn” set of words that are specific to the product/service set in each market.  If these are the product and services then you should perform for the core set of words. This makes it easy to measure and monitor those critical phrases.   They can vary by market but those that you offer in every market are the same.

Question: Should international companies create separate social media presences for each country?

Answer from Bill Hunt: It depends on the company but typically I would say yes.  While Facebook and Twitter are popular in many countries they are often not the most popular and in some cases not even used so the local program needs to adapt to the popular services.  Then there are those pesky cultural differences of language, tone and legality of who and what you can and should post.

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