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International SEO Guide for Marketers

George Kasiouras
September 30, 2022
11 min read

International SEO has its own set of challenges compared to when you are delivering content in a singular language. And if you don’t take these challenges into account, no matter how good your content may be and how many backlinks you get, chances are you won’t rank.

This means that you’d be losing a lot of organic traffic. To be more precise, only 25.9% of internet users are using English, 76% of internet users prefer buying products with info in their native language, and 40% will never buy from websites in other languages.

That’s why bad website localization and international SEO practices will make you miss out on a lot of customers. Here is how to do it right!

What is International SEO?

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is all about you taking the necessary steps to increase your odds of ranking in Google’s results for the language that you are writing for.

International SEO - Transifex

English content can rank in multiple regions, assuming that people in these regions search for their needs in English.

For example, our article on What is Localization ranks in more than 20 countries. And that is partly because it’s such a popular keyword. You are guaranteed to have some people searching for it in English, even if that’s not their native language.

But what if you want to rank for those who search for it in their native language? Well, that’s where international SEO comes in!

As the name suggests, international SEO is all about SEO, but for content that’s available in multiple languages.

The thing is that international SEO comes with some additional challenges that you need to solve before you can reap the results of your labor.

When Not to Focus on International SEO

International SEO is great, but also not for everyone.

If your services are only available locally, there is no point in localizing your content. ‘Cause when your new website visitors come in, they are only going to be disappointed when they realize that the solutions they found are not available to them.

In that case, first, start by expanding your business and making it available to other regions, and then you can start investing in localization and international SEO.

The Importance of International SEO

International SEO is a great way to organically grow your business. Plus, if your competition is not working on it, this means you’ll be getting a competitive advantage with a relatively low investment.

Last but not least, you can use international SEO to maximize the results of your existing content and localization.

Step-by-Step International SEO Guide

1. Audience Targeting

Creating content in multiple languages and optimizing them can quickly get expensive. Doing it for every region, including for those that are not interested in your services, is not the greatest of investments.

Instead, start with regions that are already showing an interest in your content and business. Creating international-SEO-friendly content for them is a sure way to increase your organic traffic and customers.

Taking a look at who your competitors are targeting will also give you more insights to work with. And you can use tools such as Ahrefs or ScreamingFrog to do that, or you can also use a VPN to see the results that other regions are getting.

Then, you can find further audiences by asking yourself these questions:

  • How and where are people looking for the solutions that I offer? (Keyword research)
  • Who may be interested in my services? (Audience targeting)
  • How can I most effectively optimize my website for them? (Localization)

2. Keyword Research & Localization

Localization and international SEO are not just about translating your existing content. It’s about creating the best experience for various regions.

How you do that can differ depending on the region you are targeting and the kind of product or service you have.

If you are offering a software as a service (SaaS) solution that is internationally available, you’ll mostly just have to make your pages and blogposts available in other regions by translating them and following the best international SEO practices.

But if you offer something that requires a physical presence on a location, you’ll also have to take users into account.

For example, if a local searches for your local business, maybe they want to learn what times you are open. But if someone does it from another region, maybe they want to learn what you do and when your services will become available to them.

So for that example, the keyword may be the same, but the user intent is different, and so is the content that you’ll need.

3. URL Structure

With the planning phase out of the way, the next step is to decide what URL structure you want to use for your website.

See, when it comes to international websites, there are typically 4 kinds of URL structures you can use:

  1. Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD)
  2. Country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD)
  3. Subdirectories
  4. Subdomains

Google are pretty smart at working out which language version of a page is appropriate to show to different users. Hreflang really helps when there are multiple versions of a page in the same language, such as English for UK and US audiences where there are small regional variations. The pages might be very similar in content, be seen as duplicates and folded together for indexing. Hreflang helps Google understand the relationship between these pages and show the appropriate version in the SERPs for the user. – Dan Sharp, Co-Founder of ScreamingFrog

Each option has advantages and drawbacks. The short version is that for most people, gTLDs with subdirectories offer the best solution between ease of use, expenses, and results.

ccTLDs, on the other hand, are the best pick for those who have the budget to build new websites. And don’t forget that a new website also requires you to build authority for it so that it’ll rank, meaning that you’ll once again have to get traffic, backlinks, etc.

Here is more in-depth information about them.

Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD)

The generic top-level domain refers to most websites as we know them, meaning example.com, example.org, etc.

The benefit of this URL structure is that you are not limited to any specific region. Anyone who searches for a keyword in English, from any country in the world, can find you with that URL.

Assuming, of course, that your content is SEO optimized and that Google deemed it worthy for it to rank, which is how this works regardless of your URL structure.

The downside is that you may end up with less traffic than some of the alternatives. After all, this URL structure is not optimized for any specific region. So, you are missing out on potential visitors who prefer native domains.

Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD)

Country Code Top Level Domains refer to websites that end with the country code that your website is for. For example:

  1. Example.de (Germany)
  2. Example.co.uk (UK)

These domains perform better in the locales that they are targeting as both search engines and users favor them over their general counterparts. And if you are building something like e-commerce all over the world, this may be the best URL structure to utilize.

Amazon is one of the most popular stores that utilize this structure.

But with all that said, the biggest downside of ccTLDs is that you’ll need separate websites. And the problem with Google treating the localized version as a brand new website is that you’ll have to build authority for it from scratch.

Subdirectories

Subdirectories add the country code on top of your website’s URL (Example.com/de/).

This tells search engines what region your website and content are targeting without the drawback of having to build authority for a brand new website.

Thomann is a good example of this. If you are browsing their online shop from another country, you get: thomann.de/gr/ — not: thomann.gr/.

But the downside of this approach is that some locals may prefer a native, ccTLD domain.

Subdomains

Using a subdomain is a combination of gTLD and ccTLD. A typical subdomain looks like: de.example.com.

This is easy to set up and it gets the job done.

However, search engines still treat subdomains like different websites, which means you’ll have to build authority for each subdomain you create.

Futhermore, this is the most confusing structure for the end user. Most of us will start typing with www or the name of the website we want to visit. So, it’s easy to miss the country code at the beginning.

4. Enabling International Indexing With hreflang Tags

If you have an international SEO plan and you know what domain you want to use, the next thing to keep in mind is how you are going to enable search engines to crawl your international content.

See, Google needs a way to know what languages and locales your content is targeting. And you can mainly do that with hreflang tags.

hreflang tags are a piece of HTML code that you should add to your pages, which gives the crawler the information it needs. Or to be more precise, the crawler sees your translated content, and it can understand what the source language originally was.

For example:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/fr” hreflang=”fr-fr”/>

This piece of code points the crawler to the alternative French version of your page. To be more specific this is what you are “explaining” to the crawlers:

  • link rel =”alternate”: This is an alternative version of another page
  • hreflang=”example.com”: This is where you’ll find the original page
  • hreflang=”fr-fr”/>: This is the language that this page is using for this region

And don’t forget that language is not the same as the region. You can have French for France, but you can also have French for Canada. So, if you wanted to point out that the page is in French, but for a Canadian audience, you’d have to modify your hreflang to look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/fr” hreflang=”fr-ca”/>

You can include the hreflang in your HTTP headers, XML sitemap, or the <head> section of your HTML.

Make sure to reference both the page itself and its translated variants and use canonical links.

5. Getting Started With Localization/Translation

Now that you have a plan and you know how to implement it, you’ll also need the right tool to manage your content as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You’ll need a Translation Management System (TMS).

A modern TMS is not just about managing your content and your team. You’ll also need it for integrations with software like WordPress, Figma, Sketch, Slack, and more.

And these integrations are necessary if you want to work with multiple tools and teams seamlessly while making the overall management easier. Think of how you can use Figma, for example, to start localization from the design phase.

Not to mention it gives you access to tools that are otherwise unavailable, such as a live editor that doesn’t require any involvement from developers to set up.

This is something that you can use to get a live preview of what you are translating and how it’s going to look after localization is complete.

international SEO - Transifex Live

Not to mention you can use one to get rid of having to manage tons of files and/or spreadsheets in the first place. More about website localization with a TMS in this guide.

Pro Tips

Before wrapping this up, let us add a few practices that are good to keep in mind:

  • Optimize URLs for your target keywords
  • Don’t expect to dominate the competition with Machine Translation. MTs are helpful, but translators are the only ones who can provide high-quality localization
  • Avoid automatic redirects. Allow your audience to pick what language they want for themselves. Some people prefer browsing in English instead of their native language
  • You still need to build authority for translated pages with backlinks and traffic, especially if you are using a new domain for each locale
  • If you are using something like Transifex Live, consider also installing Prerender to render your JavaScript-translated pages in HTML. SEO experts are still unsure whether that’s a necessity or not, but better safe than sorry

Wrapping Up

To wrap this guide up, here are the most important things you must do for international SEO:

  1. Target the most suitable audience for your company and website
  2. Don’t simply translate your content. Do keyword research to discover how other regions are searching for your brand or product/s
  3. Use the best URL structure for your needs
  4. Enable international indexing by using hreflang tags
  5. Use robust localization tools to localize more efficiently

 

George Kasiouras
George is the Digital Content Manager of Transifex. If he is not creating content, you'll find him playing video games, the guitar, reading a book, writing a book, or improvising a comedy skit, among other things.
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