13 steps to building an international SEO presence

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International SEO is far more complex than building search visibility in one country. Each new market opens up opportunities but you have to work much harder to secure them. You can’t just copy and paste your existing strategy and expect to get the same results in foreign markets.

In this article, we look at the key strategic and technical steps you should take to help you build a lasting SEO presence in multiple countries.

1. Start again with market research

Hopefully, this one goes without saying, but every country represents a new market filled with unique audiences and opportunities. Even within the English speaking world, consumer habits in the UK, US and Australia, for example, vary greatly and this has to be reflected in your international SEO strategy.

For example, while clothes shoppers in the UK are searching for winter coats, people in Australia are looking for summer wear and international fashion retailers have to run very different campaigns in each location.

We’re talking about different purchase intents, keywords and product pages here.

Even when different audiences are looking for the same item, their interests aren’t necessarily the same. The concept of a barbecue in the UK is very different from Australia, and the same cliches about bad weather or local slang terms like “bangers” aren’t going to resonate in the same way.

Example from Nike how their homepage in the UK differs from the US during the black lives matter campaign
The US (above) and UK (below) versions of Nike’s homepage show very different messages at the time of writing this article.

So, even for the same product, the key selling points, content, imagery, cultural references, pricing and all kinds of other factors can vary. And this is a UK-Australia comparison we’re talking about – imagine how different things are once you start optimising for markets like Brazil or China.

In fact, Google isn’t even the top search engine in China or Russia and opportunities available on platforms like Bing vary from one country to the next.

2. Choose your domain structure

Choosing the right domain structure for your international SEO is crucial. It helps to think of an international website as multiple versions of the same website linked together. So, if you’re targeting the UK, US and Australia, you’ll have three versions of the same website – one for each location.

Domain structure is important for two key reasons. First, you need a way to deliver the right page/content to each audience. Secondly, you need search engines to return the correct version of each page, based on a users’ location, search terms and possibly language.

You can find Google’s technical documentation here but there are three recommended options for domain/website structure:

3 options for international website structure

As you can see, there are pros and cons to each approach and the right option can vary depending on how many versions of your website you need, which locations you’re targeting and whether languages also come into the mix.

It also depends on what domain structure you already have on your existing website. For example, a .com domain can be adapted using gTDLs but you’re not going to want to use a .co.uk or other ccTLD for international SEO.

3. Language selection

Don’t assume everyone in Italy is a native Italian speaker. You also have foreign-speaking residents, tourists and other non-native speakers in any given location to think about. So make sure you have a UI for changing the default language that’s easy for users to see and understand, even if the page initially loads in a foreign language.

Kayak's homepage which offers a drop down to get to all the other country homepages.

Kayak uses geotargeting to detect user locations but provides a location selection UI in the header of its website where users can choose their location and preferred language.

Advice from Google states: “If redirecting the homepage, make sure the country-target URLs don’t redirect. Ideally use banners when users reach the wrong version.”

And, as an extra tip: don’t use country flags to represent languages because that opens up political questions you don’t want to get involved in.

4. Start again with keyword research

As mentioned previously, the interests and needs of audiences in different markets can vary greatly. So it’s only natural that the keywords you need to target in these markets will also vary, even when you’re simply dealing with English-speaking audiences across international locations.

Now, if you’re only targeting audiences within the same language, then you can draw up lists of keywords for each market.

However, things are a little more complex if you’re optimising for foreign-speaking markets. What you don’t want to do is take a list of English keywords and simply translate them into your target languages. This won’t give you the keywords native speakers are actually typing into Google, merely translations of your original keywords.

You also have to consider that search intent, time differences, cultural factors, weather patterns and all kinds of other factors can impact what people in a geographical location need and expect from a brand like yours – and you need to pinpoint what these unique characteristics are.

To find the keyword opportunities in foreign-speaking markets, you need to work with native-speaking researchers who can help you start from scratch and find out what your audiences are looking for and the specific search terms they’re using.

5. Localise your content strategy

Once you understand how diverse your international audiences are, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t target them all with the same kind of content. You have to cater to the unique interests of each audience and you’ll need to localise your content strategy accordingly.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of content in an international SEO strategy:

  1. Content that’s relevant to every audience
  2. Content that’s relevant to specific audiences

For example, every significant market around the world has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, there are certain aspects of life that affect people everywhere: we all age, we all lose loved ones and we all need to eat. Likewise, there are widely shared interests, such as sport, fashion, socialising, marriage and other concepts that people around the world have in common.

However, the closer you analyse these interests, the more obvious the differences become.

Wedding culture varies greatly around the world, football isn’t the most popular sport in every country and there are plenty of cultures that don’t celebrate Christmas – and many of those that do don’t associate it with turkey and snow.

So that Christmas campaign you came up with for the UK really isn’t going to cut in Indonesia where the tropical country’s 267m+ population is predominantly Muslim. Or New Zealand, for that matter, where Christmas is celebrated during the height of summer.

A successful international SEO strategy needs to find the right balance between cost-efficiency, by producing as much content as possible that resonates with every audience, and effectiveness by creating unique content for each audience to address their unique needs and interests.

There’s another key reason why locating your content strategy is important, too.

6. Earn local links to boost search visibility in each market

By localising your content strategy to match the interests of each market, you also give yourself the best chance to earn local links. This is the best signal you can give Google that your content should be visible in specific markets and it’s also a key strategy for building brand awareness in new countries.

The good news is, it generally gets easier to earn these links as you address the unique aspects of individual markets in greater detail.

The key thing is to make sure you remain genuine because netizens are becoming increasingly quick to call out brands for simply saying what people want to hear. Also, be careful to avoid cultural cliches and stereotypes that might cause offence

You don’t want to be earning shares and links for the wrong reasons, after all.

7. Take a no-compromise approach to technical SEO

Technical SEO is important for any businesses but the workload for international SEO is so much bigger – and the list of things that can go wrong is huge. You’re essentially managing multiple websites that need to be linked together in very specific ways and all appear correctly in each target territory and/or language.

We’ve already looked at a couple of the most important technical details, including domain structure and geotargeting.

Here are some other key essentials you need to think about:

  • Define your languages: Tell search engines which language your content uses with the hreflang tags.
  • Define regions: If you have multiple versions of the same page in the same language (eg: UK and US versions), define the target region in the hreflang in the same way you would an alternative language – more info here.
  • Define your default: Use the x-default value to define the default version of a page users see when their language or location doesn’t match any of the available options.
  • Server location: The further users are away from the server hosting your website, the longer it will take to load and we’ll talk about this in more detail in the next section.
  • Loading times: The server issue makes loading times all the more important and you have to work harder to hit targets – again, more on this in the next section.
  • Internal linking: Make sure all internal links point to the correct version of each site/page.
  • Inbound links: Ensure all incoming links come from relevant sources and point to the relevant version of your site/page.

You can add this list to the usual collection of technical SEO tasks, such as crawl reports, fixing broken links, redirects, HTTPS encryption and consolidating duplicate URLs – all of which is multiplied by the number of website variations you manage.

You’re really going to need to automate as much of the technical SEO process as you possibly can to keep on top of things.

On the topic of duplicate content, if you’re correctly marking up pages for languages and regions with the hreflang tag, then you shouldn’t run into any problems with duplicate content.

8. Make loading times a priority

As listed in the previous section, one of the biggest factors in loading times is the physical location of your website’s server in proximity to users. Quite simply, the further users are away, the longer it takes for pages to load. If you’re only operating in one country, this isn’t a major problem but things get tricky if you have visitors clicking through on the other side of the world. And as we know, the longer your site takes to load, the more likely people will bounce.

the effect of loading times on bounce rates

If your website is set up with ccTLDs, one solution is to host the different version of your website on local servers – the most expensive option but best for UX purists.

If that’s not an option, there are steps you can take to minimise any speed penalties.

9. Upgrade your hosting service

Even if you can’t change the location of your servers, you probably can upgrade your hosting service to significantly improve loading times. We recently published an article looking at things to consider when choosing a web hosting company and you have to be especially demanding with international websites.

Check the following details of any hosting package:

  • Uptime: Make sure you can rely on your server to be up and running at all times.
  • Traffic volume: Ensure your package covers you for enough visitors at the same time and on a monthly basis.
  • Server type: Dedicated, cloud or VPS (avoid shared servers).
  • Hardware: Hard drive speed, memory, processing power, etc.
  • Bandwidth: How quickly data can be transferred between your website and user devices.
  • Features: Many hosting services include features or add-ons for content delivery networks (CDNs) and caching that improve loading times for users in certain scenarios.

Hosting services is one area that’s definitely worth investing good money to ensure your website is always up and ready to load.

10. Optimise everything for speed

If location poses a speed disadvantage try to make up as much of the difference as possible elsewhere. Optimise everything for speed by following these steps:

  • Optimise images
  • Compress files
  • Reduce server requests
  • Avoid redirects where possible
  • Go easy on the JavaScript
  • Clean up your code
  • Follow coding best practices

Again, a lot of these tasks can be automated while the rest of them simply follow web development best practices to prevent bloated code clogging up the browser.

11. Use a content delivery network

A content delivery network (CDN) uses a network of servers to store duplicates of your website in locations closer to your target audiences. This reduces the physical distance between users and the closest version of your website, significantly improving loading times.

As with anything, there are some drawbacks to this approach. Above all, CDNs add extra layers of technical complexity where bugs can occur and setting some of them up can be more challenging than others. You also have to consider that people using VPNs may trick your CDN to load content from a location even further away from them.

All in all, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks for international SEO.

12. Use browser caching

Browser caching stores files and data that users download on their first visit to your website and keeps it for future sessions. Users already have this info so they don’t need to wait around for it all to download again, which can make for some pretty fast loading times.

Of course, this only helps with repeat visits and you’ll have to start all over again once a user clears their cache. Still, it’s a great technique to use in combination with the other steps listed above.

13. Segment your data and optimise each version of your site

The fact that you’re running multiple versions of the same website means you’re going to have a lot of analytics data and reports to work with. You’ll want to segment your data for each website so that you can measure the performance of each one independently and address issues for each of them.

Performance will vary across each site and user behaviour throws extra variables into the equation.

It’s still useful to look at global data and spot universal patterns across each version of your website but it’s important that you’re able to optimise for the needs of each target audience. You’ll often find performance factors are more of an issue in some markets than others -for example, mobile loading times in parts of Asia where mCommerce is far more prominent than in the UK.

You’ll also see search trends develop differently in each market and when there’s interest in the same topics, they evolve at different rates and extents. Google Trends is a great tool for measuring search interest across locations with a few exceptions, such as China, Russia and South Korea, where Google isn’t widely used.

Once again, the more granular you get with your segmented data, the more opportunities you’ll unearth in each market and these are the fine details that often make the biggest impact on your search visibility within specific countries.

Need help with your international SEO?

We have lots of experience working with international brands – if you’d like to find out how we can help you, check out our international SEO services, chat to us on 02392 830281 or email [email protected].

Dave Colgate profile picture
Dave Colgate

Dave is head of SEO at Vertical Leap. He joined in 2010 as an SEO specialist and prior to that worked with international companies delivering successful search marketing campaigns. Dave works with many of our largest customers spanning many household names and global brands such as P&O Cruises and Harvester. Outside of work, Dave previously spent many years providing charity work as a Sergeant under the Royal Air Force Reserves in the Air Cadets sharing his passion for aviation with young minds. He can often be found in the skies above the south coast enjoying his private pilot licence.

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