One of the biggest challenges of international SEO is that search engines like Google often display different results to users in different countries. There are several signals that search engines analyze that help them determine where your pages should rank and what languages it should appear for. Read our latest article to learn more about international SEO and the key factors that should be considered when developing your global strategy.
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the process of optimizing your website so that it can be easily found and ranked by search engines in different countries. It also involves making sure that your site appears in the correct language for each target country.
How does international SEO work?
Search engines like Google will take into consideration several different ranking signals to determine which pages should appear for users in different countries or languages. Some of these signals include:
- Country-specific domains, pages, and localized URL structures
- Local keyword and content optimization
- Hreflang and HTML language tags
- Internal linking and dedicated localized sitemaps
- Backlinks from local authorities in the target region
The benefits of international SEO
There are several benefits that come with optimizing your website for international audiences:
- Increased traffic from multiple countries
- Improved user experience
- Greater brand awareness and reach
- More opportunities for conversion
Best practices for international SEO
Below are key best practices to follow for international SEO implementation:
Identifying which markets to target
It's important to determine if the main goal is to target specific languages; target specific countries; or a combination of both, as this will inform your overall international SEO strategy. The first step is to ideate which international markets you would like to target. The most common way to do this is by looking at your current customer base to see where they are located. You can also use Google or Adobe Analytics to see where your website traffic is coming from. If you have a large amount of traffic from a particular country, it may be worth targeting that market with international SEO efforts.
There are three types of approaches to consider when analyzing your market:
- If you have an audience in multiple languages, consider segmenting your website by language to better reach each individual group. This involves having different versions of your website that are optimized for specific languages. An example would be targeting both English and Spanish-speaking users within the United States.
- If you offer various items or services in distinct national markets, you should address each country separately. You'll need to set up country websites with their own unique international SEO tactics. An example would be if you have a website in English that you want to target toward users in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. While all three countries use English as their primary language, the nomenclature in each country can be quite different.
- Leveraging a combination of both approaches. If you have distinct markets, with users that speak multiple languages in each market, you'll want to have different versions of your site that are optimized for these specific languages within those different regions.
Once you have determined your international markets and approach, the next step is to research your competition if they’re performing well in the search results to see what tactics they’re using.
For example, if you're targeting the French market, look at how competitors are using hreflang tags and country-specific domains. If you're targeting the Spanish market, look at their website content to see if it’s been translated into Spanish, or how they have their menu navigation set up to segment regional / translated content on their website.
You can also use the BrightEdge platform to research your international competitors by entering their domain in the "Content Research" tab and filtering keyword rankings by country / language. This will show you all the keywords and pages that they rank for. You can then use this information to improve your own international SEO strategy and determine what pages you need to create or optimize to rank for those keywords.
Adjusting content for each unique region
Once you've decided on the right international audiences to target and performed your competitor research, it's time to start thinking about a few of the following items for each of your pages:
- Target language
- Locations (country / region)
- Search engine(s) used in each region (i.e. Bing, Google, Baidu, Yandex)
- Local customs and culture
- Changing price to reflect national currencies
- Date formats
- Time zones
- Phone numbers / address / contact information (NAPU)
These factors will help you determine the best way to reach your target audience and ensure that your international SEO efforts are successful.
To ensure that your pages rank highly on search engines, you will need to use the right language for each page, depending on where you want them to rank. For example, if you have a website dedicated to users in France, most of your content should either be translated in French or English.
If you have a website in French that you want to target towards users in France and Belgium, both countries speak French as their primary language. However, unique pages should be created to specifically target each country with hreflang tags properly implemented.
Search engines use hreflang tags as a primary signal when determining where to serve localized results.
Hreflang tags are a code that resides in the backend of a website (or sometimes via sitemaps) and helps to translate pages between search engine language versions. It's essentially a mapping procedure, giving search engines information about URL language variants for specific pages.
This information allows search engines to understand the target market of the current page as well as any potential alternative options that might be available to users in other markets. Additionally, this provides them with a default version to serve should anyone search from a market without its own dedicated page.
Not only will implementing hreflang tags improve user experience, but your rankings will also benefit from informing search engines that close duplicates are meant to serve specific regions. This helps to ensure that users see the most relevant version of your content and prevent near-duplicate content issues.
For hreflang tag implementation, it's important that the target page includes a reference to itself, as well as references any other translated alternatives of it that exist on the website, to give search engines a full view of what translated content exists. This also ensures that the content is served to the right language / regional audiences.
Below is an example of hreflang tag implementation if your website is localized using a subfolder structure:
<link rel="alternate" href="https://example.com/en-gb" hreflang="en-gb" />
<link rel="alternate" href="https://example.com/en-us" hreflang="en-us" />
<link rel="alternate" href="https://example.com/en-au" hreflang="en-au" />
<link rel="alternate" href="https://example.com/" hreflang="x-default" />
Additionally, hreflang tags can be implemented in one of three ways:
- Within the <head> section of each of your site pages;
- Via HTTP Headers;
- Through XML sitemap hreflang implementation.
Meta tags for language
Although Google prefers hreflang tags for international SEO, other search engines - like Bing - use meta language tags to decide the language on-page and where the content should be served.
The meta language tag should be added within the <head> code section of each internationalized page, and takes the following form:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Language" content="en-us">
The value of the 'content' attribute is a hyphen-separated combination of a two-letter ISO 639-1 language code, and an optional two-letter ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 country code.
For example, to indicate that a page is in French as spoken in France, you would use 'fr-fr'. To indicate that a page is in French as spoken in Canada, you would use 'fr-ca'.
The meta language tag should be used in conjunction with hreflang tags, as not all search engines read meta language tags.
Domain strategy (pros and cons)
Crafting a strong domain strategy is vital for international SEO. It's best practice to have dedicated URLs for each local content page. There are a few URL structures that webmasters can use to target countries, which we cover below:
Several websites employ the use of country code top-level domains (ccTLDs for short): example.de, example.fr, example.es, etc...
ccTLDs provide the clearest signal to search engines and are easy to rank locally, but they can be expensive to maintain. Additionally, existing domain authority isn’t passed between new ccTLDs and your global top-level domain (gTLD), which can hinder your ability to rank new ccTLDs quickly.
Many websites often leverage their existing global top-level domains (example.com), with either subfolders or subdomains to break out language / regional content variants.
Below is a gTLD example that uses a combination of subdomains and subfolders: ca.example.com/fr; ca.example.com/en.
You can also set up dedicated subfolders to serve a similar purpose: example.com/fr-ca, example.com/en-ca.
Using this method, international content is placed in a specific subdirectory, or subfolder, of a global top-level domain. This method is easier to maintain compared to leveraging ccTLDs and passes existing domain authority from your gTLD to localized page variants, allowing these new pages to rank quickly and effectively in the search results.
However, subfolders are a weaker signal to search engines and users for local results, requiring additional SEO tactics (like hreflang tags) to ensure that these pages display in the right language / regions.
Subdomains are used to separate content into multiple "third-level domains," each with its own language or region, and are easier to maintain than ccTLDs.
Like subfolders, subdomains are a weaker signal to search engines for local rankings and require leveraging other SEO tactics (such as hreflang tags) to ensure that search engines are serving results in the right regions / languages.
Unlike subfolders, subdomains don't pass existing domain authority from your gTLD - Google treats subdomains as a separate entity, and users may prefer to click on "local" results, depending on the region (example.de instead of de.example.com).
gTLD with language parameters
A general top-level domain (like .com, .net, or .org) can be targeted to speakers of a specific language by appending a URL parameter to serve translated / local results.
This method is easy to implement, but can be difficult to properly optimize (subfolders, ccTLDs, and subdomains are preferred compared to parameters, because parameters can lead to unwanted spider traps / faceted navigation issues).
Organize the site structure
If you want to make it easy for search engines to understand your website's URL structure, be consistent throughout the site (using a comprehensive subfolder / subdomain structure or leveraging ccTLDs for all targeted regions).
For example, don't mix subfolders with parameters and subdomains with ccTLDs. Only use one primary method of organization.
Optimizing for the right keywords, regionally
When you're focused on global SEO, using the right keywords is crucial to your success. Make sure that you don't just translate your keywords, as each language / region has its own set of nuances to follow.
Depending on the keyword, some may be easier to ideate, while others might take more time. For example, in international industries such as medicine or IT, English terms are often used instead of the country's native language. As a result, translating these keywords would not be beneficial.
The number of total monthly searches for keywords can also vary from one country to another.
To ensure your translations are accurate, it's best to work with native speakers. You can use automatic translation tools for keyword research as a starting point, but because language nuances often aren't captured by translation programs, the outputs may not be accurate or properly optimized.
Localized content variants (don’t use machine translations)
Once you've identified your target audience, know what languages they speak, and have crafted your list of target keywords, you can begin creating content.
If you're targeting a multilingual audience, you'll need to decide which language to use as the default for your website. This is the language that will be used for all your content unless you specifically target a different language with an alternate version of your site.
To help capture nuances in language and region, you should use human translators instead of machine translation.
Machine-translated content is often not good enough to serve to users and can harm your site's organic performance based on recent updates released by Google, such as the Helpful Content Update.
Link building strategies per market
Link building is an important ranking factor for international SEO. The number of links, as well as their quality, can help you determine how well your website will rank in different markets.
Additionally, generating backlinks from local regional authorities is a great way to signal to search engines that your content should also appear prominently for searches in that region / language.
If many of your site's backlinks come from domain names that end in ".de," it implies that your website is relevant to people in Germany. As a result, your page may perform well within those local SERPs in Germany.
You should also ensure that content variants are included within your sitemap.xml file, as this will help search engines understand the relationship between internationalized pages on your website.
For instance, if you have an English page targeting English speakers, with translated pages in German that target Germany and Switzerland, your sitemap might look something like this.
Fixing bad redirects, crawl issues, broken links
As you craft translated pages, you should also consider the following:
- Are translated pages pointing to the right regional pages? (a page targeting Spain shouldn't be linking to pages targeting China)
- Are your pages pointing to other regional variants?
- Are they pointing to broken links / pages on the site?
- Are there canonical / redirect chains in place that are diluting page authority / hampering crawl budget?
Resolving these types of issues before launching your international SEO strategy will improve a search engine's ability to effectively crawl your entire website, but also save your engineering team time fixing these issues now, rather than compounding them by launching large sets of regional pages that either cause redirect chains, or internally link to the wrong language variants within the page's content.
Other signals for international SEO
Below are a few other SEO signals to keep in mind for international SEO:
Hosting on a local IP
Some search engines, like Google, use IP addresses as a signal to determine where content should be served. Consider hosting on local IPs in your target region to help search engines contextualize where your content should be served.
Linking to localized content
Another consideration is to ensure that your website is linking only to local content in primary areas, like your menu navigation or site footer.
If you don’t have enough local content to link to via your header / footer navigation when launching your international SEO strategy, it's likely too soon to launch.
Implementing unique design approaches (UX)
It's important to consider culture when you're making your design and content because people from different regions often have varying opinions on things like color, layout, and what type of humor is funny.
For example, certain colors may be associated with death in some cultures.
If you want everyone who comes to your website to have a positive experience, it's crucial that you take these cultural and regional differences into account so that there are no misunderstandings.
Menu navigation to switch languages
Give users the option to change languages if they want a different experience on your website instead of assuming that everyone wants English content. For example, a French user may want to read content in English, not in French. There should be an option on the site for users to easily switch languages.
Using a CDN to serve content
If you have a lot of international users, it's important to serve them content as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is by using a content delivery network (CDN).
A CDN is a group of servers that are in multiple countries around the world. When a user visits your website, the CDN will serve them content from the server that is closest to their location.
This helps to improve website speed, which is an important ranking factor for both international and local search results. Additionally, it will improve the overall user experience by serving content that loads quickly for both mobile and desktop users.
Don’t redirect users based on cookies or IP address
When optimizing a website for international search, it is important to avoid redirecting users based on cookies or IP addresses.
This can result in a poor user experience, as users may be redirected to the wrong version of the site or may be unable to access the site altogether.
According to Google:
"These redirections could prevent users (and search engines) from viewing all the versions of your site. (...)Don’t use IP analysis to adapt your content. IP location analysis is difficult and generally not reliable. Furthermore, Google may not be able to crawl variations of your site properly. Most, but not all, Google crawls originate from the US, and we don’t attempt to vary the location to detect site variations."
If a user appears to be in the wrong location, you can prompt them to review the correct version of the site by navigation instead, such as showing a banner at the top or bottom of the page with a message and a link to the suggested page to notify visitors and search engines about an alternate version of a website.
Additionally, it can make it difficult for search engines to index your content properly, because Google can't crawl dynamic content, and even human users may not be able to see the proper dynamic content changes.
Optimizing for local search engines
Once you know the location of your target audience, you can also determine which search engines they're using. Google is the most popular search engine worldwide, but there are other search engines that are more popular in specific countries.
For example, Yandex is the most popular search engine in Russia, while Baidu is the most popular search engine in China.
It's important to note that each search engine has its own ranking algorithm, so you'll need to optimize your content accordingly.
International SEO can be complex and challenging because search engines like Google often display different results to users in different countries. To overcome this challenge, it is important to understand the various signals that search engines analyze to determine where your pages should rank and in what languages they should appear.
By staying up-to-date with the latest developments in international SEO and using best practices such as using hreflang tags and creating country-specific content, you can ensure that your website is properly indexed and ranked by search engines in different countries, helping to drive targeted traffic and increase your organic reach.