SEO for international markets: expand your reach

Posted by Lilach Bullock on 4 Sep, 2022
View comments SEO
Want to expand your reach and start making more sales in other countries? Nailing down your SEO for international markets is the key to success.

International SEO.

Image: Unsplash

If you’re doing business online, your target market is everywhere. And if you aren’t paying attention to SEO for international markets, you may be losing out on traffic, stifling your opportunities and keeping your business from scaling.

Not all businesses will need international SEO. If you serve the local community, there’s no need for you to worry about it. But if your product, service, or content can be of use to people across the world, then neglecting international SEO could be a costly mistake!

Here’s how to check if you should invest in it, and the best practices for doing so if you choose to go ahead with it.

What is SEO for international markets?

SEO for international markets is exactly as it sounds—it’s the process of optimizing your website or content for search engines, just in other countries. Getting it right can boost your website’s organic traffic in places far and wide, getting your name, products, and services out there to an international crowd who may need what you offer.

In most countries outside of the US, Google is still the primary search engine (though China is a notable exception). So if you’re familiar with SEO for Google in your own country, you already know the basics of how international SEO works.

Why do I need local and international SEO?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you sell social media marketing template designs for high-ticket course sellers. In English, everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say that. Most business people know what “high-ticket” means.

Now imagine a Spanish course seller who’s looking for new template designs. Yours might be perfect for them. But they may never find your products, because small differences in language could mean your site never pops up on their Google search results.

This is why international SEO is essential if you’re serious about reaching global markets. It’s not up to your potential customers/clients to find you—it’s your job to cater for them if you want them to find you and buy from you.

How do I know if I'm ready for international SEO?

Not sure if optimizing your SEO for international markets is going to be worthwhile for you? It’s worth checking out your site’s analytics before you get too deep into things.

Here’s what you want to look for:

Existing international traffic

Are you already getting international traffic? If so, it means there’s potential there and it could be very worthwhile to invest in international SEO to give those numbers a boost. Check out your audience section on Google Analytics; you can see which countries your visitors are in.

User searches

One of the best things about keyword tools like Wordtracker is the ability to search for high-performing keywords country by country. This is an excellent tool for figuring out what your international market is searching for.

Pick a few of the countries you find on your Google Analytics audience section and do some of your own keyword research using those countries. Use your own keywords, the ones people would normally find you with in your own country.  

See what people in those countries are searching for in their own language, and if you can cater for them with your own products and services. This is a great way to validate your thoughts about taking on SEO for international markets.

Implementing SEO for international markets

It’s essential for you to understand that doing SEO for international markets is a huge undertaking. It’s not as simple as the process of SEOing your regular website, so be prepared to spend a bit of time and money on getting this right. There’s the potential for a huge ROI, though!

Once you’ve decided to move ahead with international SEO, here’s how to go about it.

Allocate your resources

Setting up SEO for international markets requires resources. These may include:

  • Software developers
  • Software development tools
  • High-level translation tools
  • A translator (to translate or verify)
  • Writers & editors to create new content

It’s a good idea to make sure that you have resources at your fingertips before undertaking this as a project. If you’re planning on doing it all yourself, then the resources you need the most are time and energy!

Choose your countries

You can't blanket your international SEO to cover every country. Each country you’re targeting needs to have its own strategy, its own content, and its own small nuances to cater to your audience members in that country.

Choose 1 or 2 countries to begin with. It’s better to get your international SEO right for a single country upfront than try to do 3 or 4, because it’s quite an undertaking.

Checking your Google Analytics and doing a bit of international keyword research will give you an indication of which country is the best to start with.

Do some user intent research

As mentioned above, understanding what people in other countries are going to be searching for is key to providing the right kind of content for them. For SEO to work successfully, you need to match it to the target keywords they’re likely to be searching for.

To be clear, there’s more to it than just Google Translating your keywords into the target language.

Context is a huge factor, and using a high-level translation tool or a human translator is your best choice for a high chance of success.

Be aware also of the differences in countries using the same language. Searches for the same product in the English-speaking world might vary enormously across different countries.

Consider your URL

Where your website comes from is important. For example, if you sell pasta-making kits and an Italian user is looking for information on making their own pasta, Google understands that they’ll probably want to get that information from an Italian website, not an American/UK site that’s been translated into Italian.

Let’s assume your website is www.pastamaking.com. To get this right for international SEO, you have a few options:

  • A separate domain with a different “area code”. eg. www.pastamaking.it

This is first prize, known as a TLD or top-level domain. It’s tied to your target country and will show up when your user searches for your keywords (as long as it’s SEOed well), but it requires an entirely new website to be designed. It’s somewhat costly, but generally yields the best results.

  • Pages on your current domain using a gTLD (generic top-level domain) for a specific language. eg. www.pastamaking.com/lang=it-it

This is the most convenient and cheapest way to SEO your site for international markets, but it’s the least effective. It may give you a small boost but it won’t be as effective as an entirely separate domain.

  • A subdomain of your current domain. eg. www.it.pastamaking.com

This adds a language code before your regular URL. Search engines see subdomains as standalone websites, but any SEO work done for your regular site doesn’t carry over into subdomains. You’ll need to SEO each one separately.

  • A subdirectory on your current domain. eg. www.pastamaking.com/it

Subdirectories, also known as subfolders, have one advantage over other options. Backlinks on subdirectories also boost the ranking of the main site. For example, if your Italian subdirectory gets a backlink from a high-authority site, your English main site will benefit from that too.

SEO each different language

However you’ve chosen to set your URL up, make sure it shows up in the language that your primary user speaks. Remember that if they’re searching in their native language, their Google results will be popping up in that language. Every part of your site needs to cater to this, from the menu bar to the 404 page!

You can add language tags to the <head> tag of your page. These indicate to Google which language your site is in. These are called hreflang tags, and they tell Google that the page it’s looking at is available in another language, so it can rank the right page.

Here’s what that looks like:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://pastamaking.com/it” hreflang=”it-it”/>

You should use a single language for all text and navigation on a page. This is better both for Google and for the user’s experience.

Localization

Creating a site for your international audience is about more than just translating the page. It’s about creating a user experience that caters specifically to local needs, adapting your website not just to the language, but also the culture of the target country. It encompasses a wide range of factors, from providing culturally relevant or appropriate images, down to showing prices in the local currency,  and addresses, phone numbers and dates in the right format.

Google has a useful localization checklist to help you with the process.

Don’t forget to assess continuously

Don’t just SEO your sites and forget about them. It’s an ever-changing digital world out there, and what works today might not work so well in a month from now. Ongoing research is a necessity.

Thankfully, you can get most of the information you need to stay up to date through just your Google Analytics dashboard and a great keyword research tool.

Best practices for international SEO

In a nutshell, here are a few best practices to aim for when doing SEO for international markets. Remember, you’re still targeting people, not algorithms. Keep that in mind!

Get ahead of potential problems

Do thorough research to ensure that you don’t run into problems. Are there cultural differences you need to know about, or things you should avoid doing/saying? Nothing ruins your chances like accidentally being insensitive to these things.

Consider other things like the cost, the resource needs, and whether or not you need to hire writers or have an in-house writer or editor. If you have an idea of potential issues upfront and can come up with solutions at the start, you’re already ahead.

Split your country strategies

Whether you’re looking at SEO strategies or content marketing strategies, keep each country separate. Each is unique and requires different research and seeing things from a different perspective. You’ll also need to tailor your backlinking plan to each particular country.

Go all in on language

Cater for your reader by making sure the entire website is in their language. If the website menu and home page is in English but you have 4 blog posts in Italian… It’s not going to fly. Make them feel like your site caters directly to their needs.

There are many translation tools out there, and they’re improving all the time, but nothing beats human knowledge and local expertise. Using a qualified translator to translate or at least verify will ensure your site looks authentic to the local audience and avoid linguistic or cultural gaffes.

In conclusion

SEO for international markets is trickier than regular SEO. There are quite a few moving parts, and it’s crucial to do it in the right order to get the best results. But it’s not as intimidating as it may initially seem, so if you’re seriously considering it, I can tell you that it’s worth the effort.

Whether you’re already getting good international traffic and you wish to cater for this audience more specifically or you’re branching out into the international market with your product or service, nailing down your SEO for international markets can give you a huge boost.

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