Though it has not hit its peak yet, International SEO is yet another great form of SEO. Using geo-targeting, Hreflang tags, and other localization signals, you can target content for your users around the world. Do you serve customers in more than one country? Do any of your niches speak different languages? Is your answer yes, to either of these questions?
Well, if your answer is yes, to either of such questions, then International SEO should be on your radar. By applying best practices to your website, you can attract more traffic, grow your global presence, and even serve your customers better by using some of my tips in this guide. International SEO starts with understanding how to best serve your target customers.
The next thing is to make some efforts in customizing your own content and search experience to their needs. Using the simple steps below, you can get started with International SEO quite fast and easily. More so, as you optimize your website for your audiences who are in different countries or speak different languages. Let’s learn more in detail below, shall we?
What Is International SEO?
International SEO refers to optimizing your search presence for people who are in different countries or speak different languages. Whereby, for it to be successful, it uses elements such as geo-targeting, Hreflang tags, and other localization signals. More so, in order to target web content on basis of users from around the world.
Google makes efforts to match search results to the language and location of the searcher. Special signals you add on your website help Google or other search engines know when your site has content that would be suitable for someone who is in a particular country or is searching in a specific language.
In other words, if you know that a good share of your website visitors come from a different country than where you’re located, speak different languages or both, then it may be time to make some changes to your website. More so, in order to create a better experience for all of your international visitors.
On the surface, International SEO may seem like a totally foreign concept, but in reality, you may be more familiar with it than you know. In nutshell, think of international SEO as a Geotargeting practice. But, instead of optimizing your website to attract traffic from your city or state, you’re optimizing it for different countries and languages.
A Beginner Guide: How To Implement A Working International SEO Strategy
Sometimes, you may be only looking to target a specific language or a specific country. In these cases, you may only want to work towards one or two of those three goals. Say, for example, you have an online clothing company that specializes in T-shirts with slogans in Spanish. Remember, Mexico is just as relevant to your business as Spain.
As such, you’d want to target the Spanish language, but not any specific country. If you’re looking to create a completely internationalized site — one that specifically targets a different country and a different language — your high-level to-dos for accomplishing this “international geotargeting” are threefold. In order to fully understand this, allow me to elaborate further.
Consider the following:
- Specify your target country and/or region with an international-friendly URL structure (country targeting).
- Establish which language your pages are targeting with the use of language tags (language targeting).
- Create and maintain content in your target users’ language(s). These are the raw materials with which you’ll actually rank.
Search engines may interpret each different URL structure slightly differently. But, each technique has its pros and cons — including the resources required to implement and maintain them. Before choosing the right structure, it’s worth looking into more details about each option. So, what are the important steps to implement an International SEO strategy?
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In reality, there are a few URL structures webmasters can employ to target a particular country with their websites. They include using a country code top-level domain (ccTLD), a subdomain, a subdirectory or subfolder, etc. As well as a gTLD with language parameters, or even using a different domain name entirely.
Whichever structure you choose, Google recommends that you organize your hierarchy in a similar way in each section of your site so that it’s intuitive and easily crawlable. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these options:
Step #1: Determine What International Content You Will Provide
Do you want to optimize search results based on language, geo-targeting, or both? Some sites choose to focus on language, like Facebook’s home page which allows users to select their own language. Let’s consider Air Canada as our best example.
Air Canada uses a pop-up to let some users select their language, and country, sending them to a specific URL based on their selection. As you can see, the Air Canada Homepage prompts its visitors to choose a preferred language.
You can also target content by country AND language choice, like eBay, which makes a separate marketplace available in the local languages of 23 different countries. British clothing retailer Boden customizes content by country, with separate websites for customers in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, Australia, and more.
Basically, the spectrum of content ranges from simply translating your English material into more languages to creating fully customized experiences just like eBay does. Once you know what international content you will provide, you will need to decide how to structure your website for international SEO. Still not sure which countries to optimize for international SEO?
One input to consider is to identify countries that are generating a lot of links or traffic to your site. Use a Free Site Overview Tool to check what countries are driving traffic to your site. If you see a lot of traffic from a country you’re not optimized for, you might consider optimizing for those countries. You can also use the Language report in Google Analytics to see user language.
Step #2: Set Up An International SEO-Friendly URL Structure
SEOs are probably the same way when debating whether subdomains or subdirectories are better for SEO. As a marketer, that debate can cause confusion and analysis paralysis. A Subdirectory is a type of website hierarchy under a root domain that uses folders to organize content on a website. It’s the same as a subfolder with names used interchangeably.
First of all, in a URL, the subdirectory comes after the root directory or domain name. For example, our root domain is josephmuciraexclusives.com. So a subdirectory URL might be josephmuciraexclusives.com/blog. Or it might be something more complicated like josephmuciraexclusives.com/category/featured and so on.
Secondly, when it comes to subdirectories, think of a structure similar to nesting dolls. Each folder can build off of one another almost indefinitely. That means you could have a subfolder within a subfolder within a subfolder until you’re dozens, potentially hundreds, of layers deep. But, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Too many layers of subfolders can become an SEO nightmare. The URL string becomes long and confusing, the user experience is at risk with every click it takes to get to the next piece of content, and search engine crawlers will find it nearly impossible to crawl your site for new content and other SEO wins you may have added.
On the other hand, subfolders can be great for SEO as they keep any earned backlinks, domain authority, and page authority closely tied to the root domain. And when the site is fairly easy to navigate, the URLs are just short and simple. And now, you can market specific web pages or landing pages by their URL without confusing your audience.
2.1. Adding Your Main Website Country Subdirectory
Your URL structure helps Google figure out which of your pages to show searchers in different countries. This is part of geo-targeting, which focuses on location. To further target language, we’ll show you how to use the hreflang tag in a moment, too.
Most businesses either set up a whole new website for each target country or add a subdirectory structure to their existing website. The approach you choose will depend largely on the resources you can dedicate to the creation and maintenance of it. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of each URL structure for International SEO later on.
To set up a subdirectory structure, create a folder on your website for each target country labeled with that country’s two-letter ISO code. For example, to signal content targeted to people in Spain, your subdirectory would look like this: website.com/es.
2.1.1. The Pros of Using Subdirectories
There are many Pros to using Subdirectories. For instance, a subdirectory structure is easy to set up and maintain. Adding subdirectories to your website is simple and cost-effective. It only requires one website domain, and the authority you build up for that domain applies sitewide. Some think this option has emerged as the clear choice for nearly any business.
2.1.2. The Cons of Using Subdirectories
The main con of using Subdirectories is that the International SEO signal for a subdirectory is weaker than if you were to set up a website completely dedicated to a country.
Examples of companies that use subdirectories include:
- Apple (apple.com/uk/ for users in the United Kingdom)
- Nike (nike.com/za/ for users in South Africa)
- Spotify (spotify.com/ar/ for users in Argentina)
It’s best for businesses that want to serve companies across multiple countries and keep communications on one site.
2.2. Structuring Your Main Website With Subdomains
In theory, you also have another choice, whereby you could set up a subdomain on your website for each country. A Subdomain is also a type of website hierarchy under a root directory, but instead of using folders to organize content on a website, it kind of gets a website of its own. This subdomain is still closely associated with the root directory.
But, it will usually have a separate content management system, template, analytics tools, and more. The structure of a subdomain is fairly flat at the top levels. You’ll have your root directory, then all the subdomains underneath it in a horizontal row. If, for example, our root domain is josephmuciraexclusives.com, then the subdomain URL might be something like this: shop.josephmuciraexclusives.com/.
All subdomains are on the same level. You won’t have a subdomain within a subdomain like you would a subfolder within a subfolder. So, why use subdomains in your International SEO strategy? Well, below are some pros and cons to consider.
2.2.1. The Pros of Using Subdomains
Although a subdomain can be great for SEO, it will require a dedicated person or team that can manage it. Unlike subdirectories, a subdomain’s domain authority won’t automatically trickle down from the primary domain name. You might also pay extra for tools or subscriptions if you’re billed per domain name. Why? Each subdomain will count as a separate site.
Keeping these challenges in mind, let’s consider one key benefit of using a subdomain. Subdomains are ideal if your business houses a lot of content that would be difficult to manage all on one website. You may also find this structure beneficial if you run several large recurring campaigns. Especially, for business that needs separate web landing pages.
Or rather, if there’s a plan to partner with another organization. As a result, if all you want is to split the branding on the project. In short, subdomains make sense if you have a relevant business need to separate content on your website. However, the disadvantages when it comes to Internation SEO, generally, outweigh the advantages.
2.2.2. The Cons of Using Subdomains
International SEO signal is weaker for a subdomain than it is for a dedicated country domain. It may also be more difficult to take advantage of the main domain authority for subdomains than for subdirectories. While Google says they treat subdomains and subdirectories equally when it comes to ranking sites, SEO experts debate whether this actually holds true.
Many believe that pages on a subdomain don’t reap the benefits of the root domain and are actually seen as separate domains by Google, or that subdomains may possibly dilute the authority of the root domain. Additionally, you’ll have hosting costs for each subdomain. If the best URL structure doesn’t seem clear for your business, take a look at your competitors.
As an illustration, you can use the right tool to see which countries your competitors are getting traffic from. Just consider a Free Keyword Rank Checker Tool to get started for free, throughout a few months/weeks, or even for quarterly stats and so much more. Ahrefs is the best tool for keyword research, backlink checking, and finding link-building opportunities.
One way to gain inter-competitive intelligence using such a tool is to run a website comparison for your top 10 competitors. You can click the top right-hand drop-down and change views for any country worldwide. If your main competitors are getting a ton of traffic from one of your target countries, you can check out their international SEO tactics for that country.
All you’ll need to do is make sure that you are using the proper country code before setting up your URL structure. And then, keep in mind, regardless of the choices you make for your URL structure, Google may still occasionally show the wrong content to searchers. The hreflang tag can provide additional signals to help Google sort out when to show what.
2.3. Creating A Separate Website For Each Country
Technically, some companies may also choose to set up a separate website for visitors from each targeted country. And, as such, this is called a local country code top-level domain (ccTLD). A ccTLD for your site users in Spain would look like: websites.es. Some codes are “open,” meaning they can be registered for uses other than to represent the country.
For example, .co is the official country code for Columbia, but you probably know it more for its association with “company” or “corporation.” Some ISO codes have also been adopted for use with cities: with .to commonly in use for Toronto and Tokyo in addition to Tonga. For your information, ICANNWiki maintains a list of country code top-level domains that you check out.
Examples of companies that use ccTLDs include:
- Sony (corporate website for China: sony.com.cn/)
- Disney (shopping site for France: shopdisney.fr/)
- McDonald’s (in Serbia: mcdonalds.rs/)
It’s best for large businesses with deep resources. And obviously, because maintaining multiple websites is so expensive, it’s not usually a good choice for smaller businesses. An exception is if you are targeting China. Keeping in mind, it can be so difficult for websites to rank on Baidu — China’s most prominent search engine — without the .cn top-level domain.
2.3.1. The Pros of Using ccTLDs
Dedicating a separate domain using a country code offers the most powerful country signal to search engines for international SEO. It also tells website visitors that your brand is dedicated to its presence in that country.
2.3.2. The Cons of Using ccTLDs
Maintaining separate websites for different countries can be expensive. When it comes to international SEO, you’ll also have to build authority for each website separately.
Step #3: Use Hreflang Tags For Language Targeting
Hreflang tags are small snippets of code used on websites with content in multiple languages. They help search engines match up the correct language with the searcher. French speakers will see your French content instead of your English or Italian content, for example. Forthwith, how does Google know which language a user prefers?
Well, the terms the searcher enters are big clues, of course. But, Google also looks at data such as the user’s settings, search history, location, and which Google domain they are using (Google.com vs. Google.de, for example). The hreflang tag is useful when providing translations of your content in subdirectories or subdomains. See an example France Hreflang tag below:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/fr" hreflang="fr-fr"/>
Usually, a search engine like Google or Bing can quickly detect the language on a page without hreflang tags. However, the use of tags helps prevent your different page versions from competing with each other in search results. But, Hreflang tags are not necessary when using separate domains (ccTLDs). Simply, because of the signal that is originating from the country code.
Unfortunately, some people elect to use them with the reasoning that the hreflang tag can strengthen the location signal. If you decide to use hreflang tags on your site, make sure that you follow the guidelines below, first. Not forgetting, if you are a WordPress user, you may be able to use an Hreflang plugin too in order to manage your tags as well.
How To Use Hreflang Tags For International SEO
Considerably, international content is often a translation of English-language pages. Meaning, you’ll end up with a different version of the same page and a similar URL for each language. This means, that these versions could compete with each other in search results. A hreflang tag accompanies each version of a URL across your website, helping to avoid competition.
The 2 Hreflang Tag Components Include:
- Mandatory: The language code (using ISO ISO 639-1 code)
- Optional: A country code (using ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country codes)
Generally, the format for a Hreflang tag is hreflang=“languagecode-countrycode.” Not to mention, each tag specifies both the country and language of the users. And eventually, it’s placement is after the main website URL as shown below:
- “en-US” refers to English speakers in the United States,
- “ar-AE” is for Arabic speakers in the United Arab Emirates,
- “en-AE” is for English speakers in the United Arab Emirates, and so on.
If your main page automatically redirects users based on their location or asks them to select the language for the page (like the Air Canada example above), you may also need an x-default Hreflang tag.
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Similarly, Google explains that this attribute value signals to various SERPs rank algorithms that this page doesn’t target any specific language or locale. Thus, it’s the default page when no other page is better suited. Be that as it may, you’ll generally have three notable choices for where to use the components of Hreflang tags. Such as Hreflang tags for web elements in the;
- Source Code of the header on each page (most popular)
- HTTP header on every page
- URL of your sitemap
Personally, if you are just starting to implement your own Hreflang tags, I recommend that you choose the one that’s easiest for you to maintain. But, be sure to use your Hreflang tags in only one of the places shown above on your website.
Step #4: Support Your International SEO With More Signals
As a matter of fact, if you’re targeting a specific country, think about using a ccTLD. But, if you are focusing on language targeting only, a ccTLD probably isn’t your best choice as they’re meant for targeting a specific geographic area and not specifically the language spoken there. In these cases, you’ll likely want to use a different internationalization technique.
Such as using Hreflang, subfolders, or subdomains in combination with or instead of using a ccTLD. But, eventually, localizing content goes beyond the technical choices outlined above. International SEO can benefit from a well-rounded view of the users of a target country or language. That said, there are still other great cases to consider in your site SEO strategy.
In terms of overall Search Engine Preferences and results query features, at 92% worldwide, Google holds the largest share of Internet searches. But, this isn’t the case in every country. In China, for example, Baidu captures 65% of the market segment share. While, on the other side, Yandex is very popular in Eastern European countries.
Likewise, try to Target Content to Fit Device Preferences as well. People in different countries prefer to access the Internet in different ways. Making your content easily consumable via the most popular devices can help with usability, which can impact SEO. Knowing how people access search helps you know where to put your efforts to optimize their experience.
Additionally, Geo-Targeting Signals can also work in your favor, if only you implement them well. It’s good you utilize the best user strategies to signal the country or language.
Consider the following:
- Host your website on a local IP and link to local content as well,
- Include backlinks to your presence on popular local social media outlets,
- Make sure that you display your product prices in local currencies (ie. Ksh or $),
- Include location data such as address and phone number for your local offices,
- Find more ways to rank on local search engines like Yandex (Russia) & Baidu (China).
Important to realize, the end goal of your overall International SEO efforts is to serve your customers well. Therefore, it will also be worth your while to understand all other inclusive local preferences for similar user experiences. Such as colors, design aesthetics, organization of content, other cultural factors, etc. Above all, translate your content designs, if need be.
But, make sure your content translation rollout is by a native speaker. And then, offer some open review options from the lead members’ audience whenever possible. And then, always remember, you can use Ahrefs Tools in order to support your unique International SEO with competitive insights and more. All you need is to signup for the Ahrefs Advanced Plan now.
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