The core pillars of technical international SEO
Thinking of marketing to customers in another country, or who speak another language? Even if you’re familiar with SEO (search engine optimisation) in your domestic market, international SEO opens up some new issues you may not have considered.
This article offers an overview of the technical aspects of SEO you’ll need to handle for effective international online marketing. There’s a lot to think about and research when establishing an international web presence.
Decide whether to market to a country or language
Start by clarifying whether you’re marketing to specific countries or language users. Multiple languages may be prevalent in one country, while one language can span multiple countries, with different dialects both between countries and within a single country.
Knowing your target can help determine site structure, site language, how many sites you build and maintain, and much more.
Keyword research not only helps you optimise your site for search engine traffic, but it also helps assess the local market for your products and services. For each of your target markets, you should research:
- Keyword and phrase queries used by international audiences to find your business’s offerings
- Organic search volume for these queries in each market
- Level of competition for these queries in each market
- Your current rankings for these queries in each market
Starting with terms already being used to find you (or your competitors, if you’re new to the market), branch out to find related terms. Look for terms with higher search volume, and the right level of competitiveness and difficulty in ranking for those terms.
The best way to research terms is using the keyword tool of the search engine used by your target market:
- Google Keyword Planner and Bing Keyword Research tool for most of the world
- Yandex keyword tool for Russia
- Baidu Keyword Research Tool or Baidu Editor for China
- Naver keyword tool for Korea
Numerous commercial tools are also available to research keywords for yourself and your competitors.
Be mindful that statistics provided by each service aren’t entirely accurate and are just for reference. Make sure you select the relevant country and language options to get the correct data for your market.
Choose a site structure
There are a few options when it comes to the structure of your site, but unfortunately, there’s no clear winner. The pros and cons need to be weighed in the specific case of each marketing endeavor. The three main options are:
Subdirectory after generic top-level domain (gTLD)
This involves putting content aimed at a particular country or language in a subdirectory or folder within the parent site.
The benefits are that this is the least expensive option, and it draws from and helps build on the domain authority of the parent site. On the other hand, the site structure isn’t always intuitive to visitors, and visitors may not want to shop from a site in another country.
Country code top-level domain (ccTLD)
This involves running a separate website for each target country.
A benefit of this structure is that visitors may prefer to buy from a site with their own country’s top-level domain - although the debate as to how much this matters is inconclusive.
Another benefit is that Google, which handles the majority of the world’s search traffic, has clearly stated that it gives ccTLDs weighted values in search rankings. What’s less well known is that Google has also changed its tune since then. Now, with a properly managed content delivery network (CDN), this domain authority is no longer necessary.
On the downside, building and maintaining separate sites is the costliest approach to site structure. And each new site also has to build up organic search traffic from scratch, which can take years in some cases.
Subdomain after gTLD
This method involves creating a subdomain within the parent domain.
While less costly than a ccTLD, this structure is less likely than a subdirectory to contribute to or derive page authority from the parent site. It is also the least intuitive structure for visitors to navigate.
So which structure should you choose? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer, but these general guidelines might help you get started:
- Use a ccTLD only if you have substantial resources, and you excel at branding and building up organic search traffic from scratch.
- A subdirectory of a gTLD is the most economical option.
- A subdomain inherits the strengths and weaknesses of both a ccTLD and a subdirectory, so make sure you’re able to take advantage of it.
- All options are useful for marketing to a country, but a ccTLD may be the least useful when marketing to a language.
Hosting your website on a local server used to be a factor that Google and Bing explicitly stated was important for international rankings. This is because local servers support faster site speeds for a better user experience.
With the advent of CDNs that deliver web content to users based on geographic location, Google has said that local servers are no longer that important. There are places where a local server is still a necessity, notably China and Russia, and they can also be useful elsewhere, such as Japan.
Other geo-targeting/Geolocation and language indicators
You can further help search engines know your language- and county-specific content exists with some other behind-the-scenes technical touches.
This tag indicates that a specific page has a translated copy in one or more other languages. These tags must be implemented correctly, or else than can actually damage your rankings and user experience!
Example: <link rel="alternate" href="http://www.cctv.com/index.shtml" hreflang="zh-cn" />
For hreflang tags, you’ll need to know the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) language and region codes used by the search engine. You’ll see at the end of the example above, “zh-cn” stands for Chinese language (zh) in the country of China (cn). Many people make the mistake of assuming they already know the codes and ruin their hreflang tags with the wrong ones. Be sure to look each one up!
To speed up load time for your web pages, place hreflang tags in XML sitemaps rather than in the page itself. XML sitemaps are another method of helping search engines serve up the correct language or country version to searchers.
Google itself warns against using URL parameters or IP addresses to redirect visitors to language- or country-specific content. This may prevent search engines from crawling the pages to index them for search results - and there are many other user experience-related reasons not to redirect traffic.
Some other important tips:
- Whichever site structure you choose, be sure to keep your URL structure consistent across your site or sites.
- Make sure each page can be found by its own unique URL.
- Cross-link between your different international sites, but don’t overdo it.
- Indicate the HTML Lang and use Content Language Meta Tags and HTTP Headers
All of that technical site setup is nothing if you don’t have localised content.
The need for quality translation and localisation is easy for businesses to underestimate. You can just run your pages through Google Translate to generate your alternate language site version, right?
Unfortunately, machine translation hasn’t progressed to the point where that’s a viable option. At best, the garbled results look unprofessional and will reflect on the quality of your brand.
More likely, machine translation will:
- Make no sense at all
- Fail to convey key terms and concepts
- Misrepresent or undermine a brand’s value
- Offend international visitors
- Create liabilities through material misstatement
- Jeopardise client confidentiality in private sections of sites
And don’t forget, machine translation can bug, glitch, and crash just like any other automated service, leaving your visitor with no translation at all.
Machine translation is especially good at losing implicit, figurative, or idiomatic content in translation. Back translation is a poor indicator for checking the quality of machine translation.
Even if you face time or budgetary constraints, you still need to at least have your main content translated, localised, or trans-created by a professional, human translator.
A translator will not only translate content accurately but will also localize it so that it connects with your audience. They’ll also avoid concepts and imagery that your company or machine translation would have no idea was off-putting to people in other localities.
Localisation is also required of more than text content. Images used on your site, site layout, and user interface design may all need to be adapted to local preferences. Localised content can be the difference between entering a new market and banging your head against the border.
Localised content generates more organic traffic as target audiences are better able to find your content and are more engaged by it. When you use the right words in the right context and deliver the content in a locally appealing way, your site will climb in the search rankings.
Other things to consider when localising content for SEO purposes:
- Title and meta descriptions
- Image and ALT descriptions
- Headers and subheaders
- Main body text
- Embedded Google maps and videos
- Phone numbers with international codes
- Local addresses, hours of operation, and prices in local format
- GPS information
- Schema.org local business mark-up
No matter your site structure, one of the best ways to build page authority for your target country or region is local linking. Generating most inbound links from the target country signals to search engines that search traffic of that country should be funneled to your site.
Optimise for major search engines
When it comes to SEO, optimising for Google is generally a safe bet. Google dominates the market, with 91.66% of the global market share, including 97.07% of the mobile search market. The closest global competitor is Bing, with 2.51% of the global market.
But when you zoom in on specific countries, the picture changes. In certain countries where Google has a more tenuous hold, you’ll want to optimize for other search engines.
Below, you’ll find some tips for optimizing for other major search engines in specific countries.
Google has only a 4.73% market share in China, so you’ll have to play by Baidu’s rules. To rank in Baidu searches, be prepared to:
- Self-censor when it comes to politically sensitive search terms
- Compete with Baidu’s own sub products within SERPs
- Focus on mobile, as load speed and display on mobile devices are crucial for Baidu rankings
- Use simplified, not traditional Chinese characters
- Comply with HTTPS protocols for increased site security
With 58% of the country’s search engine market share, Yandex is the dominant search engine in Russia.
Yandex uses different algorithms than Google to determine search rankings. Yandex values content above all else and punishes low-quality content. It is sensitive to keyword density, and keyword overuse can be considered spammy. Content takes a long time to improve search results, so a long-term view on SEO is called for.
Other things to note:
- Irrelevant backlinks can easily harm rankings
- Title tags can be longer than for Google
- Meta descriptions are often ignored
- Meta keywords are extremely valuable (use 4 to 5 per page)
- Domain rankings greatly increase with age
- Russia is vast, and time zones and regional differences must be accounted for
- Search terms need to be adjusted for the language’s inflections
- Yandex’s share of the mobile market in Russia is rapidly growing
In more authoritarian states such as Russia and China, having a local server and ccTLD, as well as a local culture and language expert on the ground, can help deal with legal and bureaucratic issues.
Naver is the go-to search engine in South Korea, in large part because many Korean webmasters block Google and other search engines from crawling and indexing their sites for security purposes. Naver therefore produces search results of greater relevance and quality within South Korea.
If you decide to Naver, implement the following:
- Focus on paid rather than organic search results
- Also emphasise directory submissions, user generated content, and Web 2.0 properties
- Tailor content to the different algorithms used in different search sub-categories
Yahoo Japan and Yahoo Taiwan
Yahoo is the leading search engine on both islands. Use the keyword research tools of each country’s Yahoo engine when doing research.
Especially for East Asian sites, localising your website means making it visually and audibly noisier, with cuter motifs than is customary elsewhere.
The moral of the story
When it comes to international SEO, localization is the key to success. To effectively localise your online marketing, you’ll need to:
- Thoroughly research the local market
- Invest in area and linguistic expertise
- Tailor your content and site structure to the local market
Hopefully this article has given you a starting point for your international SEO strategy. From here, explore the needs of your target market, and you’ll be on your way toward climbing the search rankings!
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