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The Basics of International SEO

globe, international, international SEO, international ecommerce, international marketplace, international business

Building a venture that is not only successful locally but also internationally is a dream that every entrepreneur has. At some point during your startup’s growth, you’ll inevitably think about going global, especially if a significant portion of your website traffic or user base already originate from different countries.

As digital presence is crucial, after defining which countries to target, you’ll have to evaluate the SEO opportunities. This is where international SEO comes in. Defined as “the process of optimizing your website so that search engines can easily identify which countries you want to target and which languages you use for business,” international SEO applies when you’re trying to extend your reach to new international markets, if you open offices in other countries, and if your customers speak first languages other than English.

It goes without saying that competing in new markets requires you to devise new strategies. However, the general steps are the same as you’d find in any SEO effort. Josh Steimle — founder and CEO of MWI, an international digital marketing agency with clients such as Sony, LG, and Symantec — puts it simply, “It’s important to understand that SEO, regardless of where you do it, is made up primarily of four activities: making technical adjustments to your website, creating useful content, building high-quality inbound links and analyzing results. No matter what country, language, or search engine you are targeting, you will focus on these four activities to one degree or another. The devil, as they say, is in the details.”

In this guide, you’ll learn about important considerations for targeting multiple countries, as well as the basics and best practices of international SEO.

Step 1: Research each target country

Photo credit: Kissmetrics.

Every SEO effort should start with research. Kissmetrics suggests that you prioritize markets where “you already have a relatively high or medium organic search visibility with a positive trend or above-quality conversions.”

Once you know the target country or language market’s preferred search engine, identify the current status of your website’s international organic search visibility through Google Analytics, the local search engine, or through Google’s country code top level domains (eg., English speakers typically use Google, Korea’s population predominantly uses Naver, and in mainland China, Baidu is the leader.

The same keywords you’ve been using may not be as popular in other countries, so use the Google Keyword Planner tool to evaluate the best keywords for each chosen market. Pay attention to the organic search volume, the level of competition, and your current ranking for each keyword. The Moz Keyword Difficulty tool is useful in identifying each keyword’s competitive level, based on the popularity and relevance of the competitors.

It’s okay to take cues from market leaders too! Study the sites that rank higher than your site in organic search results and to know which keywords they are using.

Step 2: Localize content

Native language support is necessary if you’re targeting a different language market, and by language support, we’re not talking about Google Translate. Accurate translations of keywords and website content by native speakers are vital to your international SEO efforts.

Different types of content on the website — branding, marketing, technical, legal, back-end, and contact information — require different tones and workflows, which international SEO strategist Martin Kura outlines in detail in SEMrush blog. SEO consulting firm Moz also notes that “implemented properly, international SEO should be nearly invisible to users. They should simply get relevant content, in their language, and within their region (when applicable).”

Taking it a step further, you can localize content by adding stories and case studies relevant to the country or language market. This decreases duplicate content and also creates local activity (likes, mentions, votes, reviews) and link building opportunities, which also affects your site authority and ranking.

Image credit: SEMrush.

Step 3: Optimize the technical aspects

There are three main technical aspects of international SEO: the structure of your website, server location, and hreflang implementation. Weighing the pros and cons and depending on whether you’re targeting a language or a country, you can choose to use country code top-level domains (ccTLDs), subdomains (eg.,  or sub-directories (eg., Avoid mixing different types of structures as they could end up competing with each other.

Photo credit: SEMrush.

Server location affects site speed and user experience, which factor into your search rankings, but these days it is not as important as direct geolocation signals. For this, you would be using hreflang annotations to avoid crawling duplicate content and to help the search engines identify the language and country targeting of a page, enabling them to show the version most relevant to the user.

Hreflang tags have to follow Google’s specifications for values and syntax, using ISO 639-1 for language targeting and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for country targeting. Here is a tool to help you to generate the hreflang tags patterns. ccTLD usage also acts as geolocation signals and so does geolocating each sub-directory or sub-domain independently in the search engine’s Webmaster Tools.

This extensive checklist from Bangkok-based digital agency Primal sums up the points above.

Step 4: Maximizing social signals

One last component that is often overlooked is off-site activity and the use of social media for international SEO. Signals of website authority will come from off-site — backlinks from local forums, social media sites, and other local high authority sites. Steimle wrote, “Social signals from websites like Facebook and Twitter do not directly influence rankings when it comes to Google (Google+ may be a different matter). But effective social media integration on a website can lead to great sharing of content, which may lead to increased linking, and this most likely will impact rankings.”

Search engine preferences in different countries matter as each has different ways of incorporating social signals. More importantly, the dominant social networks for each target market should be incorporated into your website and used actively in your marketing efforts to generate traffic and links.

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