How to Use International SEO to Your Advantage
SEO is increasingly central to the success of any business in the digital age. And sure, a local SEO strategy is important if your business is trading domestically, but if you're looking to venture into the global market, you'll need an international SEO strategy to ensure you're reaching and connecting with overseas audiences.
So, what is international SEO? Well, it's simply the process of optimizing your website so that search engines can easily identify which countries and/or languages you want to target. And when you consider that 40% of consumers won't buy a product if it's not listed in their native language, international SEO is increasingly important.
When it comes to building an effective international SEO strategy, keep the following pointers in mind and you should start to see your global traffic expanding.
Do your research
Your international SEO strategy won't get off the ground if you fail to carry out ample research as your first step. Before diving head-first into the new and often complex world of international SEO, make sure you have at least a fundamental understanding of the overseas markets and audiences you want to target, so you can gauge where the demand lies and tailor your strategy accordingly. Start by doing the following:
- Use a tool like Google Analytics to segment your traffic by country and determine whether there's already an international interest in your product or service (countries that are generating the most traffic will be your priority targets).
- Use a keyword research tool like SEMrush to analyze specific seed keywords in other countries -- this will generate multiple keyword suggestions, which will provide a solid basis for your international keyword strategy (you can get more specific later).
- Carry out research on competitors already selling in the country (or countries) you want to target. What keywords are they ranking for? What opportunities might they be missing? Are there untapped keywords you can target?
Decide where and who to target
When implementing an international SEO strategy, an all-guns-blazing approach will likely result in a poorly executed rollout in which each of your individual countries are underserved. You could even end up causing more damage this way. Instead, it's better to take a step-by-step approach, prioritizing the key countries and territories first (based on where your research has indicated are the most valuable opportunities, or where the lowest-hanging fruit appears to be) and fully optimizing for those locations before moving on to the next, and so on.
Using the research you've already carried out, identify the market(s) and audience(s) you want to optimize for first. If you've noticed a spike in traffic to your website from users in France, for example, that may indicate a growing demand for your type of product there, and would represent a sensible first option for country-specific optimization. Alternatively, you may decide that optimizing for another English-speaking country first makes more sense, as the removal of an outright language barrier will make it a less resource-intensive exercise.
Tap into local knowledge
You may feel confident that your domestic teams are capable of managing and rolling out an international SEO strategy; and while they certainly might be, you could be missing out on vital local knowledge if you're not recruiting talent from the country (or countries) you're trying to rank in. Though your exhaustive research will provide you with a clear overall picture of your overseas markets, you can only glean so much information as a non-native.
Tapping into the knowledge of people local to the countries you're targeting can be hugely valuable, as an optimally-effective international SEO strategy will build a depth of cultural understanding that's vital for avoiding clumsy faux pas (BusinessNewsDaily lists a solid selection) yet extremely difficult to form without insight from relevant nationals. You can do this through surveys, research expeditions, or even hires: yes, the sharp rise in remote working (accelerated by a global pandemic and facilitated by rapid advances in technology) has made hiring overseas talent -- without importing them -- broadly viable.
Hiring talents from your target markets will also give you an edge when it comes to brokering local deals or scouting office spaces. If you're interested, look into using an employer of record service. An EOR business like Remote makes it possible to conveniently and cost-effectively hire and onboard international talent (whether you're taking on contractors or permanent hires), ensuring that HR, payroll, taxes and all local legal requirements are handled for you. Is this path for everyone? Certainly not, but it might be for you.
Once you've gathered relevant knowledge using the method of your choosing, you need to put it to work by concentrating on content development and distribution. Now that you know which terms and topics to target, you can start to climb the rankings in your selected markets. Just remember that this process will take time. If you're going to start it, you'll need to commit to following it through until you're happy with the content and it's had sufficient time to be accurately placed by the search algorithms.
Use the right URL structure
When targeting a specific country through SEO, the URL and domain structure you use is an important factor, as it helps to send clear signals to search engines like Google about what country your content relates to (as well as making it easier for users to see they're in the right place). You'll have a number of options when it comes to structuring your international URLs, but the three most commonly used are:
- Country code top-level domain (ccTLD): a two-letter domain assigned to a specific country (e.g. example.us for the United States or example.ca for Canada)
- Subdomain: combines a gTLD (a global top-level domain such as .com) with a country-specific subdomain (e.g. ca.example.com)
- Subdirectory: uses a gTLD and places international content in a specific subdirectory or folder (e.g. example.com/ca)
The most effective option is probably a ccTLD, as this sends a clear geotargeting signal to Google and is the most explicit indicator of the country your website serves (for both search engines and users). That said, a ccTLD is usually only available to a large organization with ample resources since it requires you to set up and manage a specific website for each country. Subdomains and subdirectories are easier to create and far less resource-draining, and are better for websites where language is the only real differentiator between countries.
Carry out extensive keyword research
We touched briefly on the importance of keyword analysis during the research phase, but once you've determined where and who you want to target, it's time to really drill down into the specifics of each country and carry out exhaustive keyword research. A generalized, catch-all approach won't cut it, since inevitably there are keywords that might be widely-used in some territories but unfamiliar to users in others (and that's before you even consider other languages); for example, what a US audience would call sneakers, a UK audience would refer to as trainers -- if you were a sportswear brand looking to expand to a global market, you'd need to consider these subtle cultural nuances.
Of course, while Google is the most popular search engine worldwide, that doesn't mean it's the most widely-used in every country. So while a tool like Google's Keyword Planner is great for carrying out Google-specific keyword research (and you'll get the data straight from the horse's mouth) it won't give an accurate picture of countries like China, where Baidu is used by a much bigger proportion of the population. Tools like Ahrefs and the aforementioned SEMrush have large international databases of keyword information, and provide insights on search volume, keyword difficulty and competition.
Optimize content for region and language
Your approach to international SEO will depend on whether you require a language or country-specific SEO strategy. Ask yourself this: does your product or service change if an individual in another country uses it? If the answer is no, you simply need to ensure your content is available in multiple languages using a hreflang tag (this would be true of a SaaS provider like Salesforce, as the service they offer is global and not location-dependent).
For a bricks-and-mortar business like McDonald's, though, the answer will be yes (menus differ between regions, after all), and you'll need to make it country-specific: that is, you'll need a separate strategy for each country, and not just a simple language switch.
Once you've determined which approach to take, it's time to fully optimize for your chosen market: add the right keywords for the right country, adapt your content to fit your audience and create a link building strategy for each individual market.