A Guide to International SEO


Business owners and online marketers already know how valuable SEO is. That is why SEO is a big part of their overall marketing efforts. Once you’ve set up a well-established SEO campaign, it’s time to look towards expansion. For the purpose of this article, expansion means extending your reach to international markets. Yes, there is something known as International SEO.

The most important thing you need to bear in mind about international SEO is that it is a far more complex challenge than local and domestic SEO primarily because you’ll have to deal with different languages and cultures. If you think it’s as simple as translating your web content into the language of the new market you want to capture, think again. You’ll have to make sure your message resonates with your international audience based on their customs and culture as well.

The Basics

Here’s a piece of good news for you: The techniques and tactics you use for domestic SEO efforts can be useful for international SEO campaigns. Basically, you’ll be adding a new dimension to your SEO approach as well as your long-term online marketing strategy. SEO fundamentals apply whether you’re optimizing your website for 1 or 100 countries. As always, you need to remember that optimization needs to be an on-going effort that needs to adapt to changes in:

  • search engine algorithms (you’ve probably noticed how busy Google had been lately in upgrading their algorithms).
  • consumer preferences and behavior (the keywords they use in online searches and the buying methods they adopt).
  • technology trends (the arrival of new technologies that may interfere with your SEO tactics, new ways to improve user experience on your website, etc).
  • industry advancements (new trends in your industry, how well the competition has adopted to these trends, etc).

Expand to the international market means you will also need to take a closer look at the following components:

  • culture specific web design
  • new URL structures
  • country code top-level domains
  • opening branches in various countries
  • the country of origin for inbound links
  • content languages and context
  • blogging and social media habits of each international audience group

You’d do well to learn as much as you can about these components to help you determine what impact it will have on your SEO efforts and how much it can affect your expected results.

First Steps

Before you even make your first move in optimizing your website for the international audience, you’ll need to put things into perspective and plan your strategies properly. Without a good plan, you can easily become overwhelmed by the task of promoting your brand in several countries and cultures. You’ll need to be both focused and realistic in your goals, targets, and strategies.

Do you have the potential to successfully launch an international SEO campaign?

This is perhaps the very first question you need to reflect on if you’re planning to extend your reach to an international audience. It’s not enough that you want to market your business internationally; you have to objectively gauge your readiness and capability to succeed in that endeavor.

To answer this question, you need to check the traffic you’re currently getting from other countries. Google Analytics will be a good tool to use for this purpose. You should also check your site visibility in other countries with Google Webmaster Tools or SEMrush. Furthermore, you can use the Google Keyword Tool to determine the local search volume for relevant keywords in the countries and languages where you’re getting good traffic volume.

How can you target your international audience?

It’s best to start with just one or two countries when you decide to do international SEO. If you have employees who were raised in another country, then perhaps you’d like to start there, as they’ll already have an advantage in terms of understanding their language and culture. Another option would be for you to start with a country that has a robust Internet marketing industry, as that would make it easy for you to set up a network with bloggers, content providers, and other online marketers in that country.

Once you’ve identified the country where you’ll begin your international SEO efforts, you need to work on understanding the behavior and characteristics of your target audience. You will also need to identify and analyze your competitors in this new market. Your goal should be to get the best results possible in a few countries, rather than settle for mediocre results across various countries. You can always expand even more at a later date.

How do you develop an internationally targeted website?

Each of your international websites should have its own structure, such that they can be crawled, indexed, and ranked separately, even when you link them to your main website. Make sure the structure you choose for your international sites is easy to navigate. It is also a good idea to specify the language and country by adding the “content-language” tag in your HTML <head>. Wherever possible, use a local IP address for your international sites. Finally, you should make use of the geo-targeting option of the Webmaster Tools by specifying your target countries.

Measuring Your Progress

Once you’ve put your international SEO strategy in place, you will naturally want to know whether your efforts have borne fruit or not. You’ll want to know how close you are to achieving your goals. You’ll want to know if your investment in time, money, and effort was well worth it or if they’ve gone to waste. This is why it’s important for you to regularly monitor your SEO progress.

Track each of your international websites separately. Treat each version as an entirely different website, with a different market, a different audience, a different set of goals, and a different set of factors that can possibly affect your chances for success. Each website version should therefore have a separate profile in the Webmaster Tools and Analytics tool of all search engines you’re targeting. You may then configure these profiles such that you can track internal activities between the different versions of your website.

You’ll be glad to know that most SEO tools that allow you to track rankings (although ranking tracking becomes lesser accurate with each day) in domestic search engines also allow you to do so in international search engines. To learn how you are doing in terms of international search visibility, you’d want to track your rankings with the keywords you target for international search. It may be a good idea for you to create a table showing the keywords and tactics you’re using for each international website. This way, you can track the results for each keyword and tactic, and determine where you need to make adjustments in order to improve your results.

International SEO Do’s and Don’ts

To truly ensure success in your effort to extend the reach of your brand, you’ll need to know not only what you should do, but also what you shouldn’t do when you launch an international SEO campaign. Although there are undoubtedly a lot of DOs and DON’Ts in international SEO, the five that we will discuss herein are perhaps the most important for you to bear in mind.

DO identify all the resources you need for your international SEO campaign at the outset. Among other things, you’ll have to be prepared to take on local support (meaning a support team based in the country you’re targeting). If you’re selling tangible products, then you’ll also need to take international deliveries and perhaps local distribution into serious consideration. The pricing, exchange rates, cultural factors, and regionality should also be considered.

DO plan the growth of your international web presence right from the start. Surely, you wouldn’t want your international SEO campaign to remain stagnant. What’s the point of optimizing for international sites if you don’t expect your business to grow in the international market, right? Even before you start marketing to an international audience, you should already have a vision of how your business is going to grow in a particular locality. Identify where the highest search volume for your products and services is likely to come from and then focus your efforts there.

DO measure each international web presence separately, but understand how they interact. Measuring your web presence in each international market independently makes it easy for you to make decisions as regards any adjustments you may need to make in your strategy. Remember that what works for one market may not necessarily work for others. Understanding the interaction between your various international sites and conducting a comparative analysis will help you see which market/s you need to particularly focus on.

DON’T assume anything where your international audience’s behavior and preferences are concerned. For one thing, the seasons in one country may be different from those in other countries you’re targeting. With different seasons come different buying (or even search) behaviors. A completely different set of customs is also likely to result in an entirely different set of preferences concerning the same type of product or service. Instead of making assumptions, you’d be better served by doing extensive keyword and market behavior research.

DON’T use automated redirects and content translations. If someone from Spain visits your website, it may be tempting to automatically redirect him to the Spanish version of your site. But you don’t really know if he wants to go there instead of your main site. It would be better to create an alert message, informing the visitor that he can click through to a Spanish version if he wants. Where content is concerned, you can never be sure of the quality of automated translators, so it’s always better to have your content translated by a real person, preferably a native.

Helpful Tools

As with any other online marketing endeavor, there are tools that can help make your international SEO tasks easier. Here are some of that can help you determine your potential for international SEO, target your international audience, develop and promote your international sites, and measure your progress:

SEMrush, Moz Keyword Difficulty Tool, and SearchMetrics Essentials

These are some of the tools you can use to determine your international search potential. Other than determining the search volume for certain keywords in the country that you’re targeting, these tools can also help you identify your competitors and measure current market activity.

Google’s Consumer Barometer, TNS Digital Life, Alexa, and Google Display Network Research

The first two tools can help you understand the demographic characteristics and buying preferences of your target audience. They allow you to interact with data for practically all industries and countries you can think of. The two other tools can help you identify your competitors and learn about their characteristics as well as the trends in the international market you choose to target. They can show you the strengths and weaknesses of your would-be competitors, thereby giving you an idea on how you can set your brand apart.

ProZ, WordReference, and Google Trends

The first tool is an online community you can visit if you have some trouble finding native support, which is important for developing the right kind of content for your international websites. The second tool on the list is a forum where you can double-check a translation in case you don’t have access to a native speaker. The forum contains a large number of threads concerning phrases in various languages. Finally, Google Trends can keep you updated with the latest hot topics in the countries you’re targeting, which is very important for planning new web content.

It can indeed be exciting to embark on a new international SEO campaign, but you should be careful not to let your excitement get in the way of careful planning. Considering the various elements you need to consider, such as languages, locations, and cultures, you need to be focused and realistic every step of the way. A well laid-out plan and the right approach is the key to success in international SEO.

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Emma, aka the "Foxy Lady", writes and promotes Pitstop Media's articles about search engine optimization and social media. She is a fun loving person and likes to help others with good advice. She is also a caring mother of a beautiful daughter.


4 Responses to “A Guide to International SEO”

  1. Best SEO, Content Marketing, and Social Media: January 2014 | ASEOHosting said:

    Feb 04, 14 at 10:00 am

    […] A Guide to International SEO […]

  2. Daniel Page said:

    Feb 05, 14 at 4:45 pm

    Hey Emma-Julie,
    I thought this was a really nice post. International SEO can get really confusing and your guide will be useful to our readers. As such, I’ve included it in my monthly roundup of the best SEO, content marketing, and social media articles. Thanks again. http://www.aseohosting.com/blog/2014/02/seo-content-marketing-and-social-media-best-of-january-2014/

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  3. Emma said:

    Feb 06, 14 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you too, Daniel

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  4. The Internet Marketing Pyramid: Why Every Business Needs a Healthy Diet of all 5 Internet Marketing Groups | color walker said:

    Apr 17, 14 at 11:24 pm

    […] and international markets, SEO strategies must adjust to help meet these goals. Factors such as culture-specific terminology, content languages, and different technology trends must be considered when expanding a brand’s […]