When you optimize your website for search, you maximize the likelihood of the right people finding the right stuff (your stuff) at the right time—no matter where they are in the world.
So, if you’re wondering about the different local nuances you might have to consider to widen your content’s reach across global markets, you’re already well ahead of international brands that approach SEO with a home mindset, considering only how they do SEO in their own market.
There is indeed a big difference between doing SEO on your home turf and optimizing for global reach. Here are the top six international SEO tips we offer clients when they’re just starting out.
1. Google isn’t everywhere
The first thing to know: there’s more than one search engine you should be optimizing for. Yes, Google is the biggest in the world, but it’s not the most popular in every country.
- In China, Google is banned. Baidu is the major search engine, as well as others such as 360 Search.
- In South Korea, Naver is the major search engine on desktop. Daum is number two. (Though Google is relevant here, too, thanks to the heavy use of Android on mobile.)
- Russia is a huge market dominated by the search engine Yandex. Google captures only 35% of the market.
- Turkey is another example of a market-share battle between Yandex and Google.
Then there are the countries where Google is the most-used search engine, but others take enough market share to not be ignored. For example, Yahoo in Japan, Seznam in the Czech Republic and Bing in the English-speaking world (though much less in Europe than in the US).
The point is, your SEO strategy needs to cater to these search engines and include the tactics that work for each of them. Consult with international SEO experts or scour their blogs for news and best practices. Our friends at Oban International offer a handy beginner’s guides on platforms like Naver, for example, while industry gurus like Search Engine Land will keep you up-to-date on search engine developments.
2. Optimization starts on your own site
Make sure your current website is optimized for search before you start optimizing for other markets. This starts with an SEO technical audit of your site to make sure you’re building your strategy off of a solid foundation. Ranking is contingent on flawless technical SEO.
Your audit should answer questions such as:
- Is your website crawl-friendly? First and foremost, is it easily ‘crawlable’ by search engines? If they can’t find and index your site, any further SEO efforts will be in vain.
- Is your website fast enough? Website speed is increasing in importance and has become one of the major ranking factors in recent years, given the ever-increasing popularity of mobile browsing.
- Is your website mobile-friendly? Mobile-first indexing is another Google effort to force website owners to improve their mobile presence. Starting in July 2019, Google is predominantly ranking the mobile versions of new websites.
- Can you improve your internal site search? For example, you could provide curated search term suggestions to maximize chances of users finding what they need.
- Are you serving up the right pages to the right markets? Hreflang tags are key to ensuring users get pages matched to their language preference and location.
Most search engines provide website owners with Webmaster tools (for example, Google Search Console from Google) free of charge. Take advantage of them! Webmaster platforms are your best sources of information and about errors on your site and how to fix them.
3. Start with research and planning
Once you have an idea of the search engines to consider for each market, it’s time to step back and talk strategy.
That means aligning your SEO work with your wider business strategy by focusing on your target growth regions. And within those regions, choose the languages that are already converting well—depending on what conversion value means to you.
Also, learn from your web analytics and tools like Similarweb to see where users are coming from, what they’re searching for and in what languages. This helps assess your website’s potential for pulling in new markets.
Finally, research the competitive landscape. The key thing to remember here is that your perceived competitors are not your real competitors. Brands you always considered your global competitors might not turn out to be your local SERP competitors in each market. A competitive analysis (using a tool like SEMrush) will help you identify them, taking the guesswork out of uncovering the companies that take the biggest share of locale-specific traffic in your industry and the keywords you’ll need to compete for.
You might even find a different list of competitors per each of your products or services. Is a tiny local company you’ve never heard of dominating the rankings for one of your products? Your analytics tools will show you all relevant competitors, known or unknown, so you know exactly who you’re up against.
4. Think about your website’s structure
Now that you have a strong foundation, you’re ready to design your website with global SEO in mind.
Think about your website’s structure. What’s the best domain and URL structure for separating the multilingual content of your international site? You have three main options to choose from (let’s imagine it’s a site for Germany with the two-letter language code de):
- Subfolders: e.g. yourwebsite.com/de/yourproduct
- Subdomains: e.g. de.yoursite.com
- Country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs): e.g. yourwebsite.de
Which you choose depends on your budget and goals. Separate ccTLDs can make sense when you run physical operations in each market—think ecommerce sites like IKEA—and might feel more personalized to users. However, it costs time and money to create and maintain ccTLDs. (Our Mini Guide to International SEO runs through the considerations for each type of structure and how to choose which one is best for you.)
Also, think about your linking structure and how easily users can navigate to the information they’re looking for. The more clicks needed to reach a page, the less important search engines consider it.
5. Don’t just translate keywords
The keywords on your home site might not represent your users’ typical search habits in their own language. Instead, you need to think about the demand patterns of users in that market—for example:
- Search intent: Take bread making for example. Whereas health-conscious US consumers search around the topic with terms like “whole wheat,” “healthy” and “recipes,” the Indonesian market focuses on affordability and search terms related to price, e.g. “used bread maker.”
- Use of slang: How do users talk about the topic in everyday speech? You might find that products are referred to using hybrid words, idioms or slang.
- Use of voice search: If it’s common in your target market, your prospects are searching not with keywords, but in full, conversational sentences. Someone might type “used bread maker,” but if using voice search, they might say, “where can I find a used bread maker near me?”
Get your in-country resources to brainstorm the many possible queries a customer could use to search for your product. Also, focus on long-tail keywords to start with; it’s an uphill battle to compete for popular keywords until you’ve gained some traction from keywords with lower search volume.
6. Talk to real people
While we did suggest it as a good starting point above, desk research and international SEO ‘best practices’ will only get you so far. And they can become outdated pretty fast.
To ensure your company stays on the cutting edge of international SEO developments, you will need to get input from real people who have expertise specific to the markets you’re trying to convert for.
Some companies think this means they should hire a different SEO team for each market. But that’s almost like hiring different personal trainers for each of your muscle groups, all with their own training approaches and no thought to how results in one muscle group might affect the others. It’s important to approach international SEO holistically to unify your brand message and concentrate your resources in the right places.
One team that can coordinate your entire global digital marketing strategy will get the job done, so look for global SEO services as part of a complete language services solution.
That just about covers everything you should know to get started with mastering international SEO. For more on tactics like building keyword lists, choosing a domain strategy and analyzing website data, check out our Mini Guide to International SEO.
Thanks to our International Search SME Hinde Lamrani for these helpful tips!