A few weeks ago, I was honored to be included in a webinar panel about International SEO from Authority Labs. It turned out great, but we barely got started before it was time to finish up. In fact, we left a lot of ground uncovered. In today’s post, with the help of Michael Bonfils, one of the other panelists, I’d like to cover some of the questions we didn’t get to.
International SEO: Obstacles, Site Structures and How-To
When talking about international SEO, you’re talking about a
many-headed hydra. Each location has its own difficulties and considerations. What
are those difficulties? What kind of actions and areas do you need to take into
consideration? In short, how does the average SEO take a client’s site from
local to international smoothly?
Michael knows all about potential issues – the twists and
turns of international SEO in the big leagues. His largest international client
was HP. Yes, that HP, of Hewlett Packard fame. He worked with HP when they were
a combined company with consumer electronics, and an enterprise that spanned
about 100 territories and hundreds of thousands of pages. He’s worked with
other large brands, but he’s also worked with small brands in multiple countries.
A big take away is that the size of the company doesn’t matter,
only the complexity of the international reach.
Beginner SEO? Take Things Slowly
As a young SEO, there’s a ton to learn. Most SEO’s are jacks
of all trades, masters of some. Technical website optimization? Yes, please.
Marketing background? Check. Ability to think inside and outside of the box at
the same time, at midnight, when you’ve been up thirty hours and have to get
that last client migrated before morning? Bring it on.
It’s all local.
Sure, maybe you’re going to be in five different countries,
but you still have to look close at the language they use. The dialect. What do
the words mean in your target areas? So many excellent campaigns have been
ineffectual or ruined because the company didn’t understand the people of the
How do you do that?
It’s about competitor research. Find out who’s ranking in
the local search for main terms. Competitor research is a gold mine of
information. Start with the question, “Who’s at the top,” and go from there.
“Make a list of competitors,” Michael says. “Evaluate their
use of colors, font, tone, and perceived market popularity. If you’re just starting
in International, start with English speaking countries until you get the hand
of different languages.”
Absolutely. If you start with your native language, you can
see more of what’s going on without having to have a translator. Baby steps. Michael
adds that starting with China and Korea as first targets isn’t the smartest way
to go. If you want to jump into a non-Google search engine, he says, you’d
better start with Yandex.
Don’t Ignore HREFLANG
Ask any veteran international SEO what a top technical issue
is, and most will say “hreflang”. This is the part that tells Google which
language you’re using on a specific page. It’s a single line, but one that can
seriously screw up your international efforts if you don’t get it right.
You’re Not Going to Rank the Same in Every Country
Michael brings up a good point: many SEO tactics are the
same, but the search demand/supply is different. For example, you might end up ranking
great in Spanish speaking countries, but poorly in Slavic based languages.
Why is this, and what do you do?
In general, if you aren’t ranking in a specific region at
all, you’ve either missed something or the competitors got there first and it’s
a long upward climb.
However, it’s also an exciting time, because it’s a perfect
reason to dig into data and figure out the whys. Are there other terms you
should be targeting? Are you putting more effort into a strategy than you
should, when another strategy or tactic would work better?
Of course, this brings it back around to competitor
research. Dig back in and find the missing piece.
Are the Target Countries Right for Your Brand?
Sometimes, the countries your client wants to step into aren’t
the best for their product. So how do you determine whether they’re mining for
gold or just a lot of dust?
Michael recommends a market scoring system: “I use a
spreadsheet and create several different factors for each country I am
considering entering. Factors such as analyzing your own analytics, bounce
rate, keyword and language challenges, International and Local competitor
strength, UX challenges, SEO infrastructure challenges, brand popularity, and
trust scoring factors.”
To get started, here are a few questions you can ask
- Is there any kind of market for what they’re
offering? Are people already buying it in your target location, or something
similar. Is there an active need or a way to create one?
- Does my client’s analytics show traffic coming from
the target country?
- What kind of budget does my client have to
expand? Expansion can be expensive, and the more thorough you are, the more
expensive it gets.
- Are there language challenges that could get in
the ways of sales? I’m sure we all know of at least a few marketing failures because
of language barriers.
What About Trust? If You Build It, Will They Come?
Trust – it’s a hard thing to build, and easy to lose. When you’re
talking about cross-country borders, how would you go about developing domain
authority and trust in different locations? A few things:
For Michael, it’s about link building:
“Get links from the source country to start with. In order
to do that, you need to write relevant content that speaks to the audience
appropriately and is relevant to the copy tone of the publisher. Content needs
to be written around the tone of the product being sold.
Writing content to the tone builds trust and creates
relationships with native sites who are willing to link to your in-country
site. Once you have done your research,
utilize Authority Labs to evaluate the DA and trust on the publishers you are
In other words, again, look at the location. Think local.
When you reach out to your overseas target areas, do so with words that speak
For example, you can send out garden variety ads, all with the
same content, language and people on it, and you may get a few responses here
or there. -But, if you send out an ad to a location that matches the language
of that location, with content that has meaning for that particular
location, with images that the people can relate to, you’ll have a
I really think – and my experience has shown – that treating
each location as a separate entity, while complex, often brings the best
results. And that includes everything from local site versions and ccTLDs to
local backlinks, to serving up specific dialects, ads and images.
How Different IS International SEO from “Regular” SEO?
Authority Labs had a good question. When Michael and I compared answers, it came down to the same thing. There really isn’t a lot of difference, with the exception of complexity. Michael points out that the linguistic challenges are the difficult part, along with getting the technical infrastructure in place.
For me, SEO is like a checkers game. As time goes on, you
get to know the basics. You get to the point where you can kind of take a look
at a site and get an idea of what you’re dealing with even before you do an
audit. We’ve been surprised occasionally, but not often after almost 20 years.
With international SEO, there are a lot more “possibles”.
It’s more chess than checkers. The more locations and languages, the more
complex it gets. The more people you need to involve. The more your “project”
turns into “project management” and “team management” and “agency management”.
The more precise your campaigns have to be in order to keep everything on
You have the rules and regulations of the various countries
to worry about. Does your site comply with them? All of them? Or have you run
off the reservation a bit? Lot more to think about and take into consideration
with multi-lingual, multi-geo projects.
There is a lot more that can be said about the inner
workings of international SEO. It’s a world fraught with peril (think GDPR and international
regulations), but eventually companies get big enough that they either have to
stop growing or expand. And when it’s time to expand, you want to make sure you
have all your ducks in a row.
Don’t just assume that international SEO is just “a lot more SEO”. As I hope you’ve realized by reading this article, there’s a lot more to it. Read up on it (we have “The Big Guide on International SEO,” which is a good place to start), do your research, and learn the ins and outs before your client says, “we want to go global.”
In case you missed it, here’s the webinar. Enjoy!
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