Getting international SEO right in 2022
Whether you’re an emerging eCommerce brand looking to ship your goods globally or a SaaS provider looking to tap into new markets where your research indicates there’s demand, you need to know how to get the various aspects of international SEO correct to ensure you have the right global organic presence.
International SEO is the process of ensuring your website (and any regional variations it may have in its content) is easily identifiable and indexable in the countries and languages you wish to target. Google retains its status as the dominant search engine in many countries globally, and so the opportunity to expand your reach to digital users overseas via the organic channel is undoubtedly huge. It is, however, worth checking whether Google is indeed the search engine of choice within the country you’d like to operate in – this handy tool will tell you just that. If it isn’t, you just need to be aware of any specific optimisation best practices for that particular search engine.
Indeed, many brands who possess a site that solely targets their native country may be missing a huge trick by not having a localised version of their website that non locals can access, consume, and potentially buy from if the demand is there. Therefore, a robust and ongoing international SEO strategy that covers all the necessary content and technical requirements can reap huge rewards if done correctly.
There are of course various complications and pitfalls in approaching this. Notwithstanding the various methods to approach it and the resources required to do it properly, international SEO can quickly develop into a complicated venture, particularly if you’re dealing with lots of different countries and languages.
We’ll take you through all the key aspects of this, but firstly it’s important to ask yourself that all-important first question:
Does my website need to go global?
This may seem a bit on the nose, but if there’s no demand for your product or service in certain territories, building a site and investing in solid international SEO setups is going to be a very expensive and fruitless venture.
You need to find out whether there is a market for your product and or services in the territory you’re seeking to target, and whether people are buying this online – Google’s got a nifty tool that can help you do some very basic research around this. It’s also recommended that you speak with your sales teams – they’ll know where demand is coming from and how your customers found you.
You may already have the answers to this question through your existing consumer research and data. And you may have already undertaken the relevant in-market keyword research around your product in your future target markets. If you haven’t, SEMrush and Ahrefs both have excellent international keyword research tools.
There may even be an existing customer base from one of these countries. The logical next step is to expand your website so it serves that country fully in order to widen the opportunity.
International SEO can be a supremely expensive mistake if done unnecessarily. If you’re not 100% sure undertaking a strategy is commercially justified, these are some initial places to explore to give you the right indicators.
Outside of a thorough localised keyword research project, another area to check out is your analytics data. Is there an increasing amount of people visiting your site from a certain country? In Google Analytics, go to: Audience > Geo > Location:
Or simply go to Languages to see what other language versions of your site may be of benefit to you:
How are these users interacting with your site?
Are there patterns of initial engagement coupled with eventual drop off which could be linked to language barriers?
Does Google Search Console indicate trends in visitors from other countries too?
What markets are your direct competitors servicing in outside of their initial target market?
Keyword demand aside, is there a known demand and industry for your product or service in said markets?
These are all questions you should be delving into deeply.
Additionally, you want to take a look at the competition in these new markets. How are they marketing themselves? If they do so well, it may take more effort, time and resources on your end, and so you will need to plan accordingly.
Furthermore, it's very important to look at their product and/or service offering. You need to be able to objectively and honestly be able to answer the question: do they do what we do better than we do? If the answer is yes, SEO will not be your only challenge, you need to develop a business strategy to be able to compete effectively in these markets and get positive reviews, as these will also be fundamental in building trust abroad.
International keyword research should be the eventual blueprint used for building out content in global versions to match the organic in-market demand, though this needs to be accompanied by answering other questions around international consumer demand, and business opportunity as a whole.
Now for the technical setup.
First things first: which international site structure should I use?
Before localising your content and then launching in your expansion markets, there are some big decisions that need to be made about how this will sit technically in your existing website environment. There are a few different ways to approach international versions of your website, each coming with their own sets of pros and cons, and of course each causing ongoing debate within the SEO community as to which is the ultimate method.
Let’s take a look at the main options and what they may mean.
Subfolders or subdirectories (E.g. mywebsite.com/es/)
This structure may be the most common and, on the surface, most scalable method of expanding your site internationally. If you want to keep everything under one roof, under your main domain, and expand your international pages using your existing site structure under respective /es/, /de/ or /fr/ subfolders, then this may be the option for you.
This structure is relatively easy to set up and build out content from. It allows you to track under your existing analytics and reporting frameworks, and makes use of the existing clout of your domain. By this, we mean that your domain will already be established on some level in search engines and, more importantly, will have links from other sites (a fundamental aspect of SEO) pointing to it. Using subfolders on your main domain means you are not starting from scratch from a link building or indexation perspective (depending, of course, on how good the SEO setup of your original domain is).
One of the key drawbacks, however, is that Google could potentially misinterpret your URL mark-up and show the wrong URL in the SERP. For example, even with proper geotargeting, it may take a while for, say, a localised /uk/ variant of a US page to show up for UK users if Google is familiar with the main US version. Separation may be tricky – but with proper tagging and setups, this shouldn't be too much of a cause for concern and should sort itself out fairly quickly.
Subdomains (E.g. fr.mywebsite.com)
Subdomains relate to building out separate iterations of your website on quasi-separate domains using separate IP addresses and hosting. They exist within the wider infrastructure of their main domain, though sit separately in the sense they appear like individual websites serving specific countries (or in some cases, content topics) altogether.
On the surface, subdomains may send out stronger signals that you’re targeting a specific country, and to your users the optics of them may do the same. You’ll also have a separate entity dedicated to your international SEO efforts for any given market that you’ll be able to curate and foster exclusively for that region.
The downsides? You may have to wait a while for your subdomains to gain traction as they’re going to be viewed as an entity independent of your main domain – which dilutes your domain authority and means more effort on the link building side of SEO. If you don’t have the resources to do this, I’d recommend opting for subfolders instead.
ccTLD or country-specific domains (E.g. mywebsite.co.uk, mywebsite.de)
Country-specific domains, or ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) are also a great option to send clear signals to Google that the website you’re building is targeting a specific country.
While .com is the most common TLD and is used by many global brands with a massive global footprint digitally (think Samsung.com, Apple.com), the use of ccTLDs, in a similar vein to subdomains, may be worth considering if you need a nuanced content or technical approach for certain countries. This may be a legal consideration, or you may be targeting a country such as China that requires a .cn ccTLD to rank well.
The downsides? Similar to subdomains, you’ll be dealing with various separate entities that may end up being difficult to manage and may become expensive – think paying for each domain, hosting, website changes etc. While they send the strongest signals with regard to the territory you are aiming to target, they are a lot to manage, and require SEO efforts (on page, blogging and link building) for each website. If you’re expanding to one or two other countries, this may be manageable, but if you’re looking to expand to 15 countries, this will take a lot of work.
You may also find that ccTLDs are more suitable for local or country-specific businesses that aren’t planning on expanding globally and are only focusing on their origin countries. For example, a UK-based law firm will likely have a .co.uk domain as opposed to a .com to indicate its region of operation.
The subfolder route may be easiest to get started with from a jurisdiction and scalability point of view, though ultimately it may be down to feasibility in terms of how your website is set up and what your CMS allows you to do. For WordPress, for example, there are various ways in which to expand and build out content using the subfolder option in a sustained and SEO-friendly manner. That doesn’t mean you should discard the other methods of course, and Google has documented in its guidance that either of the three options can work for international SEO.
NB: whatever structure you end up choosing, do your research beforehand, as some CMS don’t support certain currencies (for ecommerce sites) or languages, so make sure to do your research here too.
The importance of localised keyword research
Once you’ve decided on your target markets for expansion and your desired domain handling, it’s time to get a proper understanding of the details of the organic search opportunity.
Of course, you’ll be wanting to localise your core product and service pages, as well as any other key URLs around company messaging. To get ahead of the competition, the real opportunity lies in those long-tail content opportunities to get people into the top of the funnel. A vegan ecommerce brand may utilise their blog to write posts on anything from tofu recipes to affordable healthy eating in order to capture new organic visitors, though upon localisation the topics of interest may differ in France, Germany or South America, for example.
This is where getting a localised content strategy comes into play, and why seeding international SEO talent with local language expertise to carry out keyword research cultural sense checks is so important. A straight translation of your existing pages won’t do – you need a tailored localisation strategy that shows your core product offering while touching on the hot topics unique to any given country in order to gain traction. Different audiences in different countries will have different needs and challenges, so it stands to reason that you’ll need to answer these with different solutions, while speaking their language.
Many keyword research tools, such as Ahrefs and SEMRush, have APIs that pull in keyword volume data from most countries around the world in most languages, and will also offer long-tail search suggestions outside of the highly competitive head terms. Use this as a starting point.
Local SERPs matter
In addition to your localised keyword research and competitor research, always keep an eye on what differences there may be in international SERPs. While Google adheres to the same algorithm globally, there may be SERP layout differences in certain countries depending on the industry. Users may interact with content differently and have their own preferences on what they consume when it comes to certain content types and formats. Google will (in theory) adapt to this in what it presents.
Additionally, if you’re working in an industry that differs on a legislative basis from country to country, you should undertake the correct diligence to ensure that any content you plan to localise isn’t content that has zero SERP presence due to legal (or other) restrictions. This comes as part and parcel of your cultural sense check process, though may fall through the cracks if using an SEO lens that may not be thoroughly wizened up to the regulation differences of certain markets.
SERPs and algorithms of different search engines will indeed differ too. While Google is the overall global dominant force in search, there are some countries where Google has little to no foothold. China, for example, uses Baidu as its main search engine, while South Korea uses Naver and Daum. These differ vastly to Google. If one of your expansion markets includes a country that doesn’t use Google or where Google isn’t the dominant search engine, make sure you know what this means and that you have the relevant expertise on hand.
Geotargeting: what to avoid
Regardless of which setup you choose to go with, you still need to indicate to Google that you have alternative language and country versions of your site content, and this is where geotargeting comes into play.
Firstly, there’s a need to address an often problematic approach that may face international SEO ventures from time to time. When the word geotargeting is mentioned, concepts such as IP redirecting and geofencing come into play, that being the use of servers and user IP logic to ensure people in certain countries are only able to access the content aimed at them. If they’re in Brazil, for example, and attempt to access the Argentina version of the website, they will simply be served an IP redirect that will force them back to the Brazil site. While this does have the desired effect from a simple and effective standpoint for a user, it presents various issues for SEO.
Chiefly, IP redirects used in this fashion will be interpreted by bots and crawlers in the same way that they will be by users. If Googlebot, which in most cases will crawl from US IP, discovers a link to the Brazil site, it will in turn be sent back to the US site by the same redirect logic. This means that there are risks of the Brazil site not being crawled and indexed by Google if such IP redirect logic is used. The same would apply to any other international versions of your site if stubborn IP geo redirects are used. While Google does say it crawls from IP addresses outside the USA, it’s best not to take the risk, as it can have devastating effects on your SEO performance.
Getting hreflang right
This leads us to the need for thorough hreflang implementation on localised versions of your web pages. In short, the hreflang attribute allows you to tell Google (albeit as a signal, not a directive) which language you are using on a specific page, and what country this page is intended to target. Done correctly on each page, hreflang will also inform Google of all “alternate” language versions of any given URL across your site, so there are clear signals and relationships between the localised pages. Hreflang can either be implemented within the html of your page, or within sitemaps – which one you use is entirely up to you, whichever is easiest for your development team.
Taking an example “About” page that has been localised, hreflang markup can look something like this:
The tag in question, implemented in the html on the French variant of the “About” page, is telling Google that the URL https://mywebsite.com/fr/about/ is intended for French language users in France (fr-fr). There is also a reference to an “alternate” version of the page existing elsewhere on the site, which is intended for English-speaking speakers in the UK (en-gb). It’s important to ensure that all hreflang links on any given pages reference the alternate language versions across your site, so that Google doesn’t ignore them. Remember that you can use hreflang to target country + location (fr-fr) or simply language (fr) for all speakers of French in the world as an example. It’s important to have hreflang tags in place for all pages on your site, to ensure they all point to their other language or territory “cousin”.
Hreflang as a topic is covered in depth not only in Google’s own guidelines but on plenty of other blogs and guides as well. We won’t cover it in its entirety here, though as a strategy it is the best way to send signals to Google about localised versions of your page and getting them indexed and ranked in the right countries you’re wishing to target. There are a few common pitfalls with it, which we’ll detail shortly, but if you’re confident enough about it as a concept and are ready to get implementing as you roll out your localised pages, then a quick way to get started is by checking out this hreflang generator tool.
Common hreflang pitfalls
Even Google’s John Mueller has said that hreflang is one of the most complex aspects of SEO. In theory, hreflang appears simple: I have page A in English, Spanish, and French and I need to markup accordingly so the tags inform Google of their language and region, and the respective alternate URLs across the site are referenced.
However, what if I plan to have a site in all these languages, but page B is available in Spanish and not French? What if the core pages of my site are localised but, referring back to our market research, I have different landing pages for products or content topics that aren’t mirrored across all the other language variants due to lack of search demand?
This can get tricky fast, especially if you’re working on international sites on one centralised domain. One typical area of complication could be if you’ve got an international ecommerce site that offers different inventories in different countries and the product URLs across the different language variants differ.
This can be difficult to manage. Many hreflang implementation tools, plugins or methods may not take these nuances into account. You may end up in a situation where hreflang tags are templated across all pages to cover all the language variants that a site offers, in order to save time.
In some situations, large international businesses may understand the importance of geotargeting through hreflang and develop means to automatically mark-up new pages as they get released, perhaps due to time and resource pressure. This can lead to unintended 404 generation, where you have tags generated for all regions, though due to in-market differences, the actual localised URL that is being referred to as an “alternate” doesn’t exist.
Always ensure the hreflang tags you’ve got marked up on any given page refer to the correct language variants you have on the site of any given URL and that alternate tags are accurate.
The x default tag
Imagine you have multiple sites in English – one for users in the US and one for people in the UK. What if someone searches for you (or your related products/services) in Australia – which version should you serve them? The x default tag lets you choose a default version of your site to show to users when you don’t have a viable alternative in that country or language.
This is what that looks like:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://mysite.com/en-gb” hreflang=”en-GB” /> (For English speakers in the UK)
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://mysite.com/en-us” hreflang=”en-US” /> (For English speakers in the US)
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://mysite.com/” hreflang=”x-default” /> (For English speakers in other countries that may be looking for relevant terms or services and for which there is no specific site set up)
Don’t forget Google Search Console
Additionally, within Google Search Console, you can still (at the time of writing) use the international targeting tool within the legacy tools section of the platform. This doesn’t work for domain properties, but will be available if you have independent “URL prefix” properties set up for individual international versions of your site, be it subfolders or subdomains. It’s worth toggling this so you’re targeting users in the correct country with the correct language.
Once this has been toggled and your hreflang strategy is go, you can monitor impressions and click data from different countries, coupled with additional analytics data, to assess how things are going.
Post global launch: keep on building
Getting an optimum, Google-friendly, global URL structure with all the right hreflang tags is a great achievement and will set you up for ongoing success in your international SEO ventures.
As with any SEO campaign, however, the activity doesn’t stop there. You’ll need to give your shiny new international pages some love. Keep on building out content. Give them a stronger presence; up your internal hierarchy by focusing on internal linking to your new pages. While language switchers in menus are a common factor of international sites sitting on a centralised domain, make sure there are clear additional linking journeys to localised URLs across the site so they’re crawled more frequently.
Regardless of whether you’ve launched using a subdomain, on a subfolder or a ccTLD, a crucial part of international SEO success is building your site’s presence in these markets on an iterative basis. Local link building campaigns should be considered: building highly authoritative links from industry-relevant publications in the market (not just in English or your base language). If you have the resources to hand, embark on local content marketing campaigns and continue to build out high-quality, authoritative content that fills the gaps which your competitors are missing.
Getting international SEO right across the board is all-encompassing and difficult. In an ideal world, you’ll have the dream scenario in terms of your desired technical set-up, hreflang tags ready to go for launch, and a pool of talented international SEO consultants to help you localise and build moving forward.
This often isn’t the case, however. Global expansions can be multi-faceted and nuanced, with various complications and stumbling blocks arising across the way. It could be a restrictive CMS, a lack of immediate resource to help you localise properly, or potentially having to implement proper hreflang post-launch due to timing restrictions.
Yet as a stakeholder in the SEO and overall marketing field, there’s plenty to consider from your part to ensure that each of the key areas are ticked off. Global expansion can bring huge opportunities if done correctly, and the key thing from your side is to ensure communication is constant and international SEO best practice is adhered to throughout the process.