Author: Lidia Infante
Going international can help your business reach countless audiences in new markets so that you can serve (and sell) to them, much in the same way as your existing customers.
While that's typically the goal, international endeavors can stumble, stall, and even fail outright if the proper international SEO considerations aren't taken into account. Ignoring the particularities of international SEO can even harm your initial markets, making the business expansion completely counterproductive.
This guide on international SEO will help you take your business abroad without harming your brand. By the end of this read, you will understand how to rank for the right terms in the right places and make sure your website is speaking the language of your audience—wherever they might be.
Table of contents:
What is international SEO?
International SEO is a set of techniques dedicated to optimizing your website for users in different countries. This includes optimizing all your website content, backlinks, meta descriptions, images and any other elements you need to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) across the world.
The aim of international SEO is providing a better experience for your potential users by ensuring that they land on the version of your content that’s most relevant for them.
Do you need an international SEO strategy?
International SEO might not be for you if your audience is mainly from the same country or searches for your services in one language.
International SEO comes into play when your business uses translation strategies to target different languages or localization strategies that tackle the needs of different markets, regardless of language.
If your business does plan to branch out, a well crafted international SEO strategy can help you get the most visibility for your efforts. However, if your customers are local, and you don’t intend to expand to anywhere else, you likely don’t need an international SEO strategy!
What is the difference between international SEO and regular SEO?
Search engines are fantastic tools, but they need a little help from site owners to provide searchers with relevant results. International SEO helps inform Google (and other search engines) which pages are in what language and which ones are created for specific countries. This is mainly achieved through the hreflang tag.
If you’re targeting audiences in Eastern European or Asian countries with international SEO, you will have to learn to optimize your content for search engines such as Yandex or Baidu (which claim a larger share of the market in those regions). These have their own sets of ranking factors, particularities, and challenges.
International SEO follows the same principles as traditional SEO, but with the added complexity of hreflang, market-specific analytics, international keyword research and international link building. Beyond these particular techniques, international SEO has the same aim as traditional SEO: to put the right content in front of the right user when they search for it.
What you need to consider for international SEO success
Just as with regular SEO, there’s much more to think about than just keywords when it comes to your international SEO strategy. You also need to take the following into account:
Translation and content localization
Not only will proper localization help your content convert better and perform better in search (with keywords changing to suit local demands), it will also ensure you’re speaking in a way that resonates with your audience.
For example, think about a turn of phrase you might use in English content and whether it would make sense in a different country. English is a language full of sayings that won’t translate, so whether it’s “counting your chickens before they hatch,” or “assuming the grass is greener on the other side,” content localization can prevent your content from confusing your international audiences.
Maintaining complex content systems
Maintaining just one content system can be a big job, but when it comes to international SEO, you’ll need to keep tabs on your content for every market you serve.
This will include deciding which content will be available in which languages, localizing it, adding information relevant to that country, and staying on top of your version control. Every time you update one piece of content on your site, you’ll likely need to do it in every other language that content is written in, too, or all that work you’ve put in will quickly go to waste.
Alternatively, you’ll have to define a fallback option for this. We’ll speak about this more in depth in the tools section of this article, when discussing translation management systems.
The intersection of SEO, UX, and culture
Different design signals don’t always translate to different markets, so you’ll need to consider the overall layout of your site as well.
For example, Amazon faced some challenges with its UI design in India: users were not using the search bar, as the magnifying glass looked like a table tennis paddle to them. These types of miscues can frustrate users, but are relatively easy to avoid with a proper localization strategy (as opposed to merely translating an entire site).
Different languages might include special characters that you don’t typically handle in your core website. Internationally, you’ll encounter complex character sets and diacritics, along with vertical or right-to-left reading. These affect the way your content is displayed and form validation.
Most of these issues can be solved with some strategic planning and good internationally-focused CSS.
Why is international SEO important?
In short, international SEO will help your business make more money by reaching customers in more markets. There are four main strategies for growth (according to the Ansoff Matrix):
01. Growing your market penetration
02. Launching new products or services
03. Developing new markets
04. Diversifying (by launching new products in new markets)
International SEO is key in two out of those four strategies (growing your market penetration and developing new markets).
Understanding why businesses go international provides very valuable context to inform your SEO decisions. This can be important because what’s best practice for SEO isn’t always what’s best for business.
On occasion, businesses make what might seem like compromises on quality that can be frustrating for SEOs, such as using automated translations, not investing in a regionalized content roadmap or not fully localizing the content for all its international audiences. But, when looking at those decisions through the lens of increasing revenue and ROI, we can understand that we are optimizing for scale, not perfection.
However, improper international SEO implementation can potentially hurt organic performance in the business’ core market. If search engines don’t understand how pages are targeted, users could be served the wrong page, leading to a poor user experience, reduced conversions and, ultimately, a dip in revenue. Or, your website could be seen as giving search engines unreliable signals, having duplicate content or providing the wrong canonical URL for users. This could lead to less traffic and, again, lost revenue.
While international SEO can be important for business expansion, it must be executed properly to prevent damaging the business’ core market.
How to develop an international SEO strategy
A solid international SEO strategy is the first thing to consider before you start optimizing any content. This is made up of five key steps:
01. Understand your users’ search journeys
The internet has penetrated different regions in the world at different rates. While some users will find your site through very specific search terms, less digitally mature markets may tend to focus on more generic keywords.
The more generic a term is, the harder it is to understand the user’s intent. For example, a search for a generic term, like dark roast coffee, could mean that the user is looking to learn about the differences between light and dark roast, or that they’re looking to buy coffee beans, or that they’d like to learn how to roast their own beans.
To solve this problem, you can build a keyword map for each new market you’re targeting and focus on the specific search intent you’re looking to satisfy.
02. Address the market’s pain points
Some markets might be more price sensitive, while others may be more concerned about the quality of your services or your brand’s reputation. Some just might not trust digital transactions, which is evidenced by the popularity of cash on delivery as a payment method.
Research your new market’s pain point and address them head on. If they’re worried about price, try speaking to that concern early on in the purchase journey (this helps increase the likelihood that they continue on their journey). Address quality concerns by highlighting guarantees, reviews, and awards on your website. Finally, understand your audience’s contact and payment preferences, and make sure you honor them.
03. Know your competitors’ SEO weaknesses
To overtake competitors, first you need to understand them. By performing a gap analysis audit, you can understand what your competition is good at and where you can gain the advantage.
For example, many European brands are great at technical SEO, but may fall short when it comes to a good content strategy and backlinks. If you know what your rivals are bad at, you can make sure you’re better.
04. Earn international links
Links show Google that you’re active in the local market, giving your business credibility in different countries. If you want to rank for competitive keywords, you’re going to need links—it’s as simple as that. You can’t just translate your UK or US campaigns and hope for results—you need to create bespoke digital PR or link building campaigns that work for each specific audience.
Adapt your PR topics to suit local cultures by researching the media and culture in your target countries. For example, while stories about the royal family delight the press in the UK, a fun story on the hobbies and earnings of the Spanish royal family would not be popular and can get you in real trouble.
If you want to earn links internationally, you’ll have to find your (culturally appropriate) topics, choose which audience you want to go after, and do some competitor keyword research to understand where you’re likely to make your gains.
International SEO best practices
Now that you have a general idea of how to formulate your international SEO strategy, it’s time to put all that knowledge into practice. Below you’ll find some guidance on how to best optimize your international efforts.
Define your international URL structure
To target international markets, each of your landing pages will need a separate version of the content with a new URL for each language (or ideally, each market, as French speakers in Canada are a different audience than those in France, for example). This allows search engine crawlers to discover and index all versions of your content in the correct regions.
The first step to understanding how to target your audience internationally is to consider your existing (or desired) website structure. Here is what different internationalization structures look like:
Country code top-level domain (ccTLD)
ccTLD URLs use short codes to show people and search engines where a website is registered. Some common examples of ccTLDs include .uk, .us, .kr, and so on.
It’s worth noting that a ccTLD setup targets users based on their countries, not languages, so it would not be the best option for brands looking to target different languages in the same country.
Pros: ccTLDs are great for targeting international audiences, as they clearly tell search engines what countries you are targeting with your content. A .co.uk URL clearly targets the UK, while a .es URL targets Spain.
Cons: As the content is broken across different domains, this setup can be more costly to maintain for engineering teams and can dilute the brand authority earned through links.
Generic top-level domain (gTLD) with parameters
A generic top-level domain (such as .com or .net) can cater to speakers of different languages by using a URL parameter. This can look like:
website.com/?lang=en for homepages, or
website.com/product?lang=en for specific pages (in this example, product pages)
These generic domains are widely recognizable and can instill a sense of authority (and thus, trustworthiness) amongst your audience.
Pros: This configuration reduces complexity by eliminating the location factor. This can improve content governance and centralizes the brand’s backlinks onto a single domain, which can boost the domain’s authoritativeness in the eyes of search engines.
Cons: This structure does not allow you to target users based on location, only language. Parameters won’t show up in the URL on the SERPs, so users might hesitate to click on this result, thinking it’s not right for their language.
gTLD with subdirectories
International content can also be placed in a subdirectory or subfolder, such as website.com/us. This places it on the same level as other content on your root domain, such as product pages.
Pros: This configuration is cheaper to maintain and can help brands centralize their authority, as all of their backlinks are pointing to the same domain. This centralized structure can help website governance across content versions.
Cons: This setup allows for less URL structure customization across languages and territories, as the website structure will need to be somewhat mirrored across languages and countries.
gTLD with subdomains
In this scenario, you’d place international content on a separate third-level domain, such as us.website.com. This setup is becoming less common, as it doesn’t offer a clear advantage over others.
Pros: It offers a more flexible approach than its subdirectories counterpart when it comes to website architecture. Users can easily recognize (in the URL) that they are in a site intended for them.
Cons: A subdomain setup can pass link equity across subdomains and to the main domain through internal linking, but for the most part, Google treats them as separate sites. This configuration is as complex and expensive to manage as the ccTLD setup, but without the added location targeting benefits.
Choose the right keywords for each country
Just because you rank for one term in one country doesn’t mean you will also rank everywhere else. Focus your keyword research to ensure you’re creating relevant content for the markets you’re entering.
For a detailed look at how you select the right keywords to pursue, read:
“Why cultural relevance is the key to international SEO success” by Veruska Anconitano
“How to approach SEO localization and SEO website translations” by Adriana Stein
Use the hreflang attribute
There is no particular hreflang that Google prefers, but you should make sure you’re only using one consistently. This can live on your <head> tag, your sitemap, and in your HTTP header. It must point to a canonical version of the page.
However, as the man himself, Google’s John Mueller, said, this isn’t always easy.
The hreflang attribute helps Google understand the relationship between the same content in different languages (for example, if you’re selling the same product for two different audiences). This can improve the product’s search visibility and helps prevent Google from mistaking it for duplicate content.
Properly implementing your hreflang tags might feel a little outside of your comfort zone, particularly if you’re used to working on the content side of SEO.
First, you’ll need valid hreflang attributes to be inserted into your code, including the language value, the country value, and the correct URL. You’ll also need return hreflang tags on all alternate versions of that page.
Basically, you’re going to need to get into the code. If you’ve got loads of countries to manage and loads of pages to translate, that could be quite a time investment.
Anglicize special characters in your URLs
Most languages have their own special characters, but as technology is often produced English-first, these characters can get overlooked, creating an opportunity cost.
When putting content out in different languages, it’s best to anglicize any special characters in URLs and file names to prevent any errors due to your tech stack mishandling special characters. Instead of “ñ,” you’d want to write an “n,” and omit any accent marks or punctuation in your characters.
A popular redirection plugin for WordPress caused some mayhem across my international sites a few years back, as they would not recognize the input of characters such as the Spanish “ñ,” or the opening exclamation mark “¡.” These characters were present in some of our URLs and we had no way of redirecting them from the CMS, which added some friction for the marketing team managing those sites.
Most search engines will view both the anglicized version and the one with unique special characters as the same, allowing you to avoid this potential issue in your organic marketing.
Create a link building strategy for each market
As someone who has spent years working in digital PR agencies, I know that a robust link building campaign can draw in traffic from relevant sources and, eventually, lift conversions. This is equally vital when it comes to going global.
In order to earn links internationally, you can't just translate your campaign in your home market. You need to plan a global campaign or create campaigns for your target market.
Market research is key here. You’ll need to look at:
How many digital outlets are available. This will show you the ceiling for your digital PR strategy and help you target your campaigns more efficiently.
Relevant journalists. In many international markets, journalists are fully freelance, publishing in numerous different places. Here, the focus is on building relationships with those journalists instead of the publications themselves—they could unlock the door to some valuable international links.
Consumer trust. If you're publishing studies or providing quotes, you’ll need to provide solid methodologies and excellent data if you want your campaign to get published. Anything less could have an adverse effect on your brand perception.
How many users pay for their news. Publications that rely on advertising are more likely to charge to feature your campaign. Those that rely on paid readers can sometimes work in your favor—you just have to be sure that what you’re pitching is more relevant for the publication’s potentially smaller readership.
Tools for international SEO
Most of the classic SEO tools will be able to handle your site’s needs, regardless of the URL structure you’ve chosen, but there are some aspects of international SEO that require special attention.
How you translate your content is a key consideration. Even if you’re fluent in multiple languages, you’ll need a good translation management system (TMS) to assist you.
You’ll want to look for one that integrates with your chosen CMS and offers features such as smart translations, different tiers of translation (so you can switch from machine or human-driven options accordingly), and a quality assurance process that suits your needs. You’ll also want to think of a fallback option if your translation source changes, as well as how to incorporate version control.
Personally, my favorite TMS is Smartling, but there are many other options out there.
For hreflang validation, I would strongly recommend Semrush’s Site Audit tool. It checks if your language and territory tags are correct and ensures there is a return hreflang tag in place. I think it does a very thorough job and, since Semrush is a classic 360º SEO tool, you may already have an active subscription you can use.
For a more casual check, you can use the SEO Minion Chrome extension. I personally use this extension for a few different on-page checks, including hreflang. It’s worth noting that it won’t check x-default tags if they are rendered in the DOM and not present in the source code.
International SEO is well worth it if you make it work
International SEO is a vital tool if you want your products or services to reach global customers. Doing it well depends on understanding your target market, getting to grips with translations, and staying on top of your hreflang implementation.
It’s not an easy undertaking, but it’s one you need to take if you want your business to grow.
Get your international SEO strategy right and you’ll achieve growth, both in terms of your Google ranking and your business revenue. Get it wrong and your website could be more difficult for search engines and users to understand, which is certain to impact your bottom line.
Lidia Infante - Senior SEO Manager at Sanity.io
Lidia has been working in SEO for almost a decade, helping businesses in SaaS, media and eCommerce grow online. She has a BSC in Psychology and a Master in Digital Business, and is a regular speaker at international SEO events such as MozCon, BrightonSEO, and WTSFest. Twitter | Linkedin