International SEO: An In-Depth Checklist
Under normal circumstances SEO can be a tricky business, especially if you don't have a lot of experience with the subject. Expanding your business internationally can turn your SEO campaign into what looks like a daunting project. Fortunately, while it can be hard to optimize your site in a language you don't speak, there are steps you can take to help make your international SEO go smoothly. We'll cover those five steps in-depth to help get you on your way to ranking overseas.
1. Find Your Current International Audience
Before ever launching your international site, or before even deciding to expand globally, research where your current international demand is coming from. Gauge current and potential interest by looking at your site traffic by country in Google Analytics. Open the Location report under Geo and sort by sessions to find the countries that your traffic originates from. These should be your top candidates to get their own targeted sites or pages.
Open up the Google Search Console Search Analytics report and filter by country. Check the boxes for impressions, click-through rate (CTR) and position. Countries that already send you lots of clicks, receive a large number of impressions and have higher average positions are good starting points for international targeting. It will be easier for you to rank well in countries where you've already gained some traction.
2. Determine Language vs. Country Targeting
Does it make more sense for you to create sites in alternate languages, or to target them geographically? This might seem like an insignificant difference, but it will actually have a big impact on how you go about creating your international site. There are advantages and disadvantages to each:
- Language: Optimizing your pages by language has fewer restrictions on the audience you'll reach. Your site in French will be relevant and accessible to French speakers all over the world. It will also make translating/creating content simpler since you won't need to optimize it for specific cultures or markets. The downside is that your content will have to be generic and free of idiomatic phrases that may not be used globally.
- Country: You'll be able to really target your content, so you can have discounts, sales and other offers. You also won't have to worry about linguistic variations like the differences between British, Canadian, Australian and American English. The downside is that you'll be limiting your audience to a single country and you'll have to do market research to optimize your content for local buying behaviors.
3. Decide which URL Structure is Best for You
We've discussed site structure for international SEO before. Whether you decide to go with regional or language targeting, you'll have three options for URL structure for international websites:
- County code top-level domains (ccTLD): example.fr
- Subdomains: fr.example.com
- Subfolders (also called subdirectories): example.com/fr/
Each option has its strengths and weaknesses, and there's really no "right" answer.
ccTLDs are pretty self-explanatory: They use country codes as the top-level domain, instead of the generic .com, .org or .net. Perhaps the biggest advantage to using a ccTLD is that it does your geotargeting for you. When Google sees example.co.uk or example.it, it knows to serve those pages to users in the United Kingdom and Italy, respectively. In fact, ccTLDs provide such a strong hint that they will override a conflicting hreflang value. ccTLDs are best for you if:
- You have a physical presence in that country.
- Have a well-established and globally-recognized brand.
- Have products and/or service whose availability differs by location.
- You have the resources to build, maintain and promote several different sites.
Before you decide, remember that if you use ccTLDs, you'll need to research, devise and implement a separate SEO strategy for each one, and you'll water down your site's ranking power. Each ccTLD has its own requirements, so you'll need to research those as well.
Using language or country-specific subdomains could be the way to go for a company that hasen't built up a lot of brand awareness globally, or you won't be consistently creating regionally unique content. If you do create geotargeted subdomains, make sure you use Google Search Console's International Targeting. This will make sure that Google will use that subdomain in searches in the appropriate country.
Like with ccTLDs, you won't really be able to share link juice and authority across subdomains, because Google treats subdomains as separate domains.
Subfolders are the fastest and easiest option to implement, as they just require you to create a few extra folders for each country and/or language. They're a great option for smaller companies that have built up lots of authority and backlinks, don't have any variation in products or services offered in different geographies, don't have the resources or don't meet the requirements for ccTLDs.
The main drawback to subfolders is that they can be somewhat ambiguous for both human users and search engines. They may not be able to tell if your subfolder /fr/ is meant for users in France or for all French speakers. You also run the risk of the wrong content ranking if you have different subfolders in the same language (ie: your American pages could outrank your Canadian pages for English SERPs). You can overcome this by using International Targeting in Search Console or hreflang tags, but that won't help your human users.
4. Localize Your Content
Localizing your content is one of the biggest challenges you'll face when you start expanding to other parts of the world. Simply translating your site word for word isn't going to be enough to rank - you need knowledge of your actual market to truly be effective. You'll face these challenges continuously at almost every step of creating your multilingual or multi-regional website.
Obviously your new target audience isn't going to be searching for your current list of keywords. Even if they speak the same language as you, they'll use it differently - think of the differences between British, Canadian and American English. As a result, you'll need to do keyword research specific to the new language and/or country you're targeting. Ideally this should be done by a native speaker.
- Google Keyword Planner: Select your keywords by country and language to make sure you see search volume and competitiveness for the right market. If you've already got a few keywords in the relevant language, use them to get ideas for other keywords in the right language. Enter your landing page, if it's already built, to get a list of suggestions if you don't know where to start.
- Google Trends: Another useful free tool from Google. See how people use keywords in other languages and what they're looking for. Particularly useful in this tool is the related queries at the bottom. You'll see what keywords people are using in their native language when searching for that subject. You can toggle between top all time and list of keywords that have recently received the biggest increase in searches. You can use this to tailor your content for relevance.
- SERP Checker: If you've got a Pro or Premium plan with WooRank, SERP Checker is a great tool for international keyword research. Toggle between Google domains to track keywords in each of your regions. If you're targeting a new country that speaks the same language as you, see how your keywords are already ranking and how much search volume your current keywords get on that Google domain. Once you've got some keywords in the local language, add them to the tool to see if they get enough traffic. Add up to three competitors to find out how they rank and what keywords they target.
- Translation software: Both Google and Bing have free translation platforms available. You don't want to use these to translate your whole site, but you can run a few keywords through them to get started, and then use Keyword Planner to get related keywords and volume.
Localize On Page Elements
Once you've done your research, get your translated keywords onto your pages in the most important places:
- Title tags
- Meta descriptions
- Image titles and alt texts
It's not enough to simply run your pages through a translator, especially your content - people can tell and you might end up embarrassing yourself. (You don't want to end up like these guys.) You're best off hiring a local (or at least native speaking) copywriter to craft a compelling sales message in the language. Unless you've done some serious market research, they'll have the best knowledge of local customs and culture and what will resonate with your audience.
We talk about this a lot when discussing international SEO, but that's only because it's so important: hreflang. Check to make sure you've correctly implemented all your hreflang tags for every language version of your site that you have. This will help you avoid duplicate content issues. Use hreflang="x-default" to designate your default global landing page.
Aside from just translations, you also need to localize other aspects of your site as well. Make sure things like currency, addresses, phone numbers and times are correct for the local audience. Listing product prices in dollars is going to be a major turnoff to someone in the EU.
5. Link Building
Once you've created some good content in the local language, it's time to get some local link building. Most link building techniques are still relevant, the main difference is that there probably won't be as many chances for you to reclaim lost or broken links, especially if you're entering a market for the first time. Fortunately, the basics of outreach remain the same. Find bloggers that:
- Are interested in/relevant to your niche or industry,
- Cover topics that are relevant to your content,
- Already link to content similar to your own,
- Have authority to pass link juice.
If you've hired a native speaker to craft your on page content, have them help with blogger outreach. They'll come across as much more authoritative and trustworthy just by writing in the language at a native level. If they're an expert they can also help you identify the local influencers in your niche.
There's a lot going on when you optimize your site for global audiences. If you follow our checklist you'll be in an excellent position to start ranking in international search results.
Did you decide to target by language or region? What URL structure did you use for your global website? How did you address the challenges of localizing your content?