Top 9 Dilemmas of International SEO and How to Overcome Them
Article updated October 20th, 2020
So you decided to serve your business in multiple countries. Fortunately for you, in this time and age, you do not need to be a multinational huge company to be able to cater to multi-cultural audiences. All you need is a website that caters to country-specific audiences, just like WooRank does.
In this day and age it’s easier than ever to reach an international audience. You don’t need to be a huge multinational conglomerate with offices all over the world. All you need is the right website. If your business relies on organic traffic at all, and it should, this means a whole new set of SEO challenges and issues you need to overcome.
But what is it that makes you equally popular in all your target consumer countries? It is nothing but international SEO. International SEO means to be able to compete with the local businesses on local SERPs even if your business is not physically present in that location.
These search engines could either be ones such as Google and Bing who operate globally as well as locally or it could be regional or country-specific search engines more popular than Google and Bing, in their respective nations. Examples of such search engines are Yandex in Russia, Baidu in China, Seznam in Czech Republic and many others.
In this post, we will be discussing the top 9 dilemmas that businesses face when considering international SEO. We will also talk about how each of these dilemmas can be overcome.
1. Country-targeted or Language-targeted:
The basic difference between a country-targeted and a language-targeted approach is that in the former you target audience of a specific country, while in the latter you target a global audience speaking a specific language.
When your business goals, services and products are not specific to location the language-targeted approach is suitable. This is usually a viable option for brands that have successful global marketing campaigns and are fairly well known. This approach is best suited for sites that has clients in many different countries. In such cases, they would not have to provide separate content for separate sites and can benefit from link authority of the main domain.
However, a site can always switch to a country-specific approach once they realize they are getting higher traffic from a particular language-targeted audience.
But if your business wants to target local audiences from each target country it is best to adopt the country-targeted approach. The country-targeted approach best suits when you are targeting countries with vast difference in cultures, dialects and currency values, specially if we are speaking about e-commerce. You can adopt this approach when you know from your research that the target location has good search traffic potential that helps you bring new business.
Take a look at Amazon, for instance, which adopts the country-targeted approach.
If you have enough resources to maintain multiple ccTLDs, subdomains or subdirectories in the country-targeted approach, this would be a viable option for you. There are resources that will help your various websites compete in the local online markets and one of them is obviously international SEO.
2. ccTLDs, Sub-Domains or Sub-Directory:
Often this is the most important as well as the very crucial first step in international SEO – choosing the type of URL structure. Let’s take a look at the advantages and dis-advantages of using each of these types of URL structure for your multilingual business sites.
The country-specific top level domain approach is perfect to rank higher in local search engines as well as local versions of search engines such as Google and Bing. But it also has its own drawbacks and it usually depends on the financial backup of a company as it can get very expensive to buy and maintain separate top level domains for separate countries.
Example for ccTLDs are www.example.au, www.example.fr. www.example.de
- Geo-targeted by default
- Easily rank in local search engine search results
- More authority for local link building
- Best suited for countries that have a ban on global search engines.
- Faster load speeds as these are usually hosted locally.
- Increased trust factor.
- Expensive to buy multiple ccTLDs and maintain them in the long term.
- Domain availability may be an issue.
- More localized talents required.
- Have to maintain separate Analytics and Google Search Console account.
- In some cases, you have to be citizen of the country to get a ccTLD (for e.g. U.S.).
- Higher SEO efforts required as link juice of each link is individually built and does not influence each other.
If ccTLD’s do not work well for you, you can use gTLD (Generic Top Level Domains) and opt for sub-domains for your various country-specific websites.
Examples for sub-domains are au.example.com, fr.example.com, de.example.com.
- Can have a separate local IP for each sub-domain.
- Easy to set-up.
- Can use Google Search Console for Geo-targeting.
- Can be hosted from different server locations.
- Substantial SEO efforts required as building link authority of each link.
- It can be confusing for users and those who build links to the site.
- The technical support and hosting costs can make this approach a bit expensive.
Using sub-directories is the most recommended approach especially if you are just starting out with international SEO. As your business expands you can always 301 redirect the links to ccTLD’s which is the next best approach.
Examples of sub-directories are www.example.com/au, www.example.com/fr, www.example.com/de.
- Easy to set-up.
- Lower technical support, maintenance and hosting costs.
- Can use Google Search Console for Geo-targeting.
- They are not as confusing as sub-domains.
- Can easily build authority as authority signals is not segregated into separate domains or sub-domains.
- Does not have the local advantage or user-friendliness of a ccTLD.
- Cannot be hosted in a local server.
Choose from among the above choices wisely. For international SEO, however, sub-directories followed by individual ccTLD’s are the best choices so far.
According to Google, they detect the languages on per-URL basis. All they require is that the language version is on a separate URL and that Googlebot is able to crawl all of them.
Setting the Right Geolocation in Google Search Console
If you use a ccTLD such as .de, .fr or .ie or a country-coded subdomain, search engines will automatically know to serve those pages to users from the right country (in this case, Germany, France or Ireland). However, if you use a generic TLD such as .com or .org, you need to find another way to tell search engines how to geotarget your website. You can specify this to Google using Search Console’s International Targeting.
This works at the domain level. Simply open up International Targeting in Search Console (the same place you found hreflang errors), and click on the Country tab. Check the box to target users and then select the country you want from the drop down menu. This tool defines geography only.
Bing’s Geo-Targeting feature gives you a bit more flexibility as you can geo-targeting at a domain, subdomain, directory and page level. This is a great tool if you use subdomains or directories for your international site. Target your domain, subdomain or pages by:
- Select the type of URL (domain, subdomain, directory or page) from the drop down menu
- Enter the URL you want to target
- Select the country
- Hit submit
With both Google and Bing, only geotarget your site if you’re using a generic TLD. If you have a ccTLD, the search engines will be able to tell automatically how to serve these pages.
As simple as it is, geotargeting does cause problems for many site owners. Both Google and Bing tools only set the geography, they don’t tell search engines anything about the site’s language. If you’ve got a site in German that you think is relevant to both Germans and Austrians, don’t use geotargeting. The same goes if your monolingual content is relevant to a global audience. An American sports blog would, in theory, be of interest to all Americans living abroad, not just those in the US.
If you find yourself struggling to get international traffic, checking International Targeting should be one of the first steps.
3. Translating Tools Or Local SEO Experts:
The dilemma with keyword research and content copy-writing in international SEO is when it comes to choosing the between tools or local SEO help.
You can use free services such as Google Translate to translate all your keywords and content. But what if a certain part of the country you target uses a different colloquial term more than the actual term. Google Translate may give you exact translations as per the documented vocabulary of that particular language but only a local resident knows the colloquial terms better.
It may cost a lot more to get your keywords researched and content done by local residents who are proficient with search engine optimization. In such cases, you could invest initially on local SEO experts for keywords and translation of content on important pages of your website. For the rest of your website you could use a translating tool and have it proof read by a human who is fluent in that particular language.
You can find local SEO experts in freelancing sites such as elance or any other relevant site for that particular country.
The bottomline is for you to make sure that you use keywords that are locally relevant and have higher usage statistic and compose content in a tone that the locals can easily understand and relate to. Also, make basic on page elements, such as title, description, headers, images and anchor texts, contain locally relevant content.
4. Avoiding Duplicate Content:
Another main concern when it comes to creating multiple site with same or similar content is avoiding the duplicate content issues.
It is normal to have same content and even the same design on all your multi-lingual websites. But how do you tell the search engine bots that the content on all these are not duplicates of each other but just a different lingual version of each other. For this we need to make use a of a little code in the element called hreflang.
In the section of your main website (www.example.com) you need to add a link element. We are taking an example of the Spanish version of your main site and the language code for Spanish is ‘es’. The code should look like the following:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="http://es.example.com/">
If you use a non-HTML version of the content, for instance a PDF, you can use HTTP header to avoid duplicate content issues, as follows:
<br />Link: http://es.example.com/; rel="alternate"; hreflang="es
Another alternative is use a sitemap to indicate the different language versions of your site as detailed in this Google Help post.
If your website uses the language-targeted approach and someone belonging to a nation whose language version does not exist on your website happens to visit your website you must make use of the x-default hreflang attribute. This markup introduced by Google allows you to specify a default page for all those users whose language version of your website does not exist.
You can add the following HTML link tags to your main page.
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-ie" hreflang="en-ie"><link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-ca" hreflang="en-ca"><link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-au" hreflang="en-au"><link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="en">
This example is taken from the Google guide on the subject, for further reference, click here.
Please do not attempt to hide the different versions of your website content using the robots.txt file or the noindex robots meta tag.
Incorrect Hreflang Implementation
The hreflang tag is an easy way to tell search engines the relevant language and/or country targets for international websites. Both Google and Yandex, the biggest search engine in Russia, use hreflang to serve multilingual sites to the right audience (Bing uses the language meta tag). When used correctly for a site serving English speakers it looks like this:
<link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”https://www.example.com” />
link: <https://www.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang=”en”
You could use the tag in your XML sitemap instead of adding markup to your pages. Just add an <xhtml: link> to every URL <loc> tag:
<url><loc>http://www.example.com/</loc><xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.example.com/" /><xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-ca" href="http://www.example.com/ca/" /><xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="http://www.example.com/uk/" /></url>
At first glance it’s a simple and straightforward implementation. However, there are few seemingly small things you can get wrong that will have a big impact on your SEO. Read more about how to use the hreflang tag in our Guide to using hreflang for SEO.
Incorrect Country or Language Values
One of the most common issues using hreflang for international websites is the county and language codes. Google and Yandex specify that hreflang values should use ISO 639-1 format language codes and the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for country codes. So a French language website targeting France would use the href value "fr-fr" while a French website for Belgium would use “fr-be”.
The most common culprit is for websites targeting the United Kingdom to use ‘uk’ as the country code. The correct format is ‘gb’ for Great Britain. Another frequent error is trying to use hreflang to target regions such as the European Union or North America. Even though Google calls the country code the ‘region,’ hreflang works only at the country level.
Check for problems with your language and country codes using Google Search Console’s International Targeting report. This report will identify when you use a wrong, or nonexistent, value.
Note that you can’t use hreflang just to target countries. Setting the hreflang value as just ‘gb’ or ‘us’ will return an error since search engines will see those as language codes.
Return Tag Errors
This is another normal problem when adding hreflang tags to your pages. Every annotation must have a corresponding link pointing back to it from the linked page. If you’ve got pages in English and Spanish, those pages must both link back to each other: The English page has to have a link to the Spanish page and the Spanish page must have a link to the English page. Missing these tags causes what’s called a ‘return tag error.’
Again, check your International Targeting report in Google Search Console to find instances of return tag errors.
The most common return tag error is probably the missing self referencing hreflang. Your English pages need to include a link to itself so search engines can tell what language it’s targeting.
Irrelevant or Unnecessary Values
Sometimes hreflang tags are added using language and country values that either don’t work together, or are unnecessary. This error takes two different forms: Incorrect language values and incorrect country values. The first is straightforward: The language set in the hreflang tag doesn’t match the page language.
Irrelevant and/or unnecessary regional values are a bit more difficult because even though they’re not technically wrong, they’ll still hurt your international SEO efforts. For example, say you’ve got a page in Spanish and English. The best practice is to use hreflang values for only the language.
Unfortunately, websites sometimes end up with annotations that add a country code (or multiple codes) when it’s not needed, either accidentally restricting their traffic to a single country or unnecessarily including tags for every Spanish and English-speaking country in the world.
These cases are usually caused by tools and plugins that automatically add hreflang values. Finding and fixing them can be a little harder since they won’t show up in error reports - you’ll have to manually inspect your pages to make sure the language and country values make sense for your targeted audience.
Alternatively, you could use a tool like DeepCrawl. With a DeepCrawl Hreflang Report you’ll also see:
- Every combination of language and region you use.
- All hreflang links on your site.
- All return tag errors.
- Hreflang tags that use unsupported language and/or country codes.
- Every page that includes hreflang tags.
- All your pages that don’t have hreflang tags.
Review pages with annotations to make sure the language values match up with the language on the page, and that any regional values used are both relevant and necessary.
Canonical URLs & Relative Linking
Hreflang is meant to work with your canonical URLs (if you don’t have canonical URLs, or you haven’t set your preferred domain, do so now - there’s a good chance you’ve got a duplicate content problem and don’t know it). What’s handy about hreflang is that it works with the rel="canonical” tag. Accidentally tagging one URL as canonical for every language/region is a common mistake when using these two annotations together. This is most likely to happen when you have pages in one language targeting different geographies.
If you’ve got two pages in English, one for the US and one for Canada, it would be easy to accidentally use the following:
<link rel="canonical” href=”https://www.example.com/US/” /><link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”https://www.example.com/US/ /><link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en-ca” href=”https://www.example.com/CA/ />
In this example the canonical URL for example.com/CA/ is mistakenly pointing to the American page. In this situation search engines won’t be able to accurately tell the relationship between the two pages, which could result in one page being seen as duplicate content, or even cause it to not get indexed.
Remember to always use absolute paths and your canonical URL. If you use relative links like "/en/US", or, if you don’t use your canonical URLs, search engines will have a harder time determining how these pages are related, especially if you use subdomains or country-coded top-level domains (TLD).
5. Hosting Issues:
Another common dilemma when it comes to international SEO is where to the host the sites.
Hosting your site in the respective local nations is the best way to indicate to Google or other search engines that your content is locally relevant. It also increases the loading speed of your sites. But this is not always possible. You may have the language versions of your site in a sub-directory, that can be served from a single host.
However, you do not have to worry about this as in the recent times search engines adopt better local ranking signals than server location.
Here's what Google has to say about managing multi-regional and multilingual sites
6. Language Meta Tag:
If you have built your multilingual sites by a third-party make it a point to check whether they have implemented the language meta tag in them. This may not be a relevant tag with Google as it has many other ways of detecting the language of a website. Search engines like Bing use this tag to detect the language of a page as they do not use the rel=”alternate” hreflang markup.
We have discussed about meta elements in a previous post where language meta tag was listed under optional meta tags. But for multilingual sites such as yours, it should not be an option.
7. Local Ranking Signals:
If you have a physical local address, display the address on the respective landing pages or contact pages and assign a Schema.org markup to make the address machine-readable. This will help improve the optimization of your individual websites on local search engines.
If you do not have a local address, you can always register for a local account with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and any other locally popular social networking sites. Get listed on Google My Business for different locations of your country-specific domains.
Get your country-specific businesses submitted in country-specific directories. We have an archive of some such hand-picked country-specific local and good quality business directories on WooRank blog as follows:
- US local business directories
- Canadian local business directories
- Dutch local business directories
- French local business directories
- Australian local business directories
- UK local business directories
- German local business directories
- Spanish local business directories
- Brazilian local business directories
- Indian local business directories
But the country-specific directory links are not the only ones that will help you be on par with your local competitors on local SERPs. You should also work on earning links from some other ccTLD sites for that specific country. These links will account as some major local signals for your various multilingual sites in their respective local search engines. Even if your country-specific sites are being linked to gTLD like a .com or .net site, make sure the language used on the site is the local language. Such sites are probably already ranking well in the local search engines and they will enhance the link authority of your site locally.
8. Splash Pages
Some sites tend to use Splash pages instead of a conventional homepage automatically redirected with country-specific content.
Take for example Zara.com, shown in the screenshot below:
Splash pages do not help with your ability to rank in local search engines, given that the URL structure of the landing page does not help the search engine understand the targeted country of the page. These pages may seem quick and convenient but they do affect your website’s ability to rank higher in local search engines.
Not only is it detrimental to SEO but it may also cause usability issues as it adds an extra step for the user to choose the language of the site and then view the main content. Instead, an auto-redirect based on the location of the user or a simple choice of languages on the top right corner of your website that loads by default in its English version is advisable.
Take for example Woorank.com. We provide a drop-down list of language options at the top right corner of our website. So, if the users wish to stick to the English version they have no extra actions to take and if they prefer another language they can choose from the drop-down menu.
9. IP Detection And Automatic Redirects:
Language-targeted pages may be programmed to detect the IP and automatically change the language of the site. It may help certain users to land on a page that communicates in a language they are comfortable with, without having to click on extra buttons. But to some users it may seem like a hassle especially if they preferred to see the English-version of the site.
IP detection may also pose problems in search engine bots that originate from a foreign IP address to crawl your local content.
It's better to give your users the choice, like Adobe does as shown in the example below. It not only gives you an option to view the website in the original US version and the detected local version but also gives a list of links below to choose from other countries.
These were the various possible dilemmas concerned with international SEO that many marketing teams face around the world.
While optimizing for search nationally is never that easy, optimizing for search internationally becomes even more complicated. I hope you have found answers to most of the international SEO issues in this post.
And in order to overcome these dilemmas, you must set some concrete goals for international SEO before you even implement above mentioned strategies. You may find this international SEO strategy guide inspiring to set your international business goals straight.