International SEO Beginner Tips: Obstacles, Site Structures and How-To

International SEO - reaching around the world

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Posted by: Gabriella Sannino

A few weeks ago, I was honored to be included in a webinar panel about International SEO from Authority Labs. It turned out great, but we barely got started before it was time to finish up. In fact, we left a lot of ground uncovered. In today’s post, with the help of Michael Bonfils, one of the other panelists, I’d like to cover some of the questions we didn’t get to.

International SEO: Obstacles, Site Structures and How-To

When talking about international SEO, you’re talking about a many-headed hydra. Each location has its own difficulties and considerations. What are those difficulties? What kind of actions and areas do you need to take into consideration? In short, how does the average SEO take a client’s site from local to international smoothly?

Michael knows all about potential issues – the twists and turns of international SEO in the big leagues. His largest international client was HP. Yes, that HP, of Hewlett Packard fame. He worked with HP when they were a combined company with consumer electronics, and an enterprise that spanned about 100 territories and hundreds of thousands of pages. He’s worked with other large brands, but he’s also worked with small brands in multiple countries.

A big take away is that the size of the company doesn’t matter, only the complexity of the international reach.

Beginner SEO? Take Things Slowly

As a young SEO, there’s a ton to learn. Most SEO’s are jacks of all trades, masters of some. Technical website optimization? Yes, please. Marketing background? Check. Ability to think inside and outside of the box at the same time, at midnight, when you’ve been up thirty hours and have to get that last client migrated before morning? Bring it on.

It’s all local.

Sure, maybe you’re going to be in five different countries, but you still have to look close at the language they use. The dialect. What do the words mean in your target areas? So many excellent campaigns have been ineffectual or ruined because the company didn’t understand the people of the region.

How do you do that?

It’s about competitor research. Find out who’s ranking in the local search for main terms. Competitor research is a gold mine of information. Start with the question, “Who’s at the top,” and go from there.

“Make a list of competitors,” Michael says. “Evaluate their use of colors, font, tone, and perceived market popularity. If you’re just starting in International, start with English speaking countries until you get the hand of different languages.”

Absolutely. If you start with your native language, you can see more of what’s going on without having to have a translator. Baby steps. Michael adds that starting with China and Korea as first targets isn’t the smartest way to go. If you want to jump into a non-Google search engine, he says, you’d better start with Yandex.

Don’t Ignore HREFLANG

Ask any veteran international SEO what a top technical issue is, and most will say “hreflang”. This is the part that tells Google which language you’re using on a specific page. It’s a single line, but one that can seriously screw up your international efforts if you don’t get it right.

You’re Not Going to Rank the Same in Every Country

Michael brings up a good point: many SEO tactics are the same, but the search demand/supply is different. For example, you might end up ranking great in Spanish speaking countries, but poorly in Slavic based languages.

Why is this, and what do you do?

In general, if you aren’t ranking in a specific region at all, you’ve either missed something or the competitors got there first and it’s a long upward climb.

However, it’s also an exciting time, because it’s a perfect reason to dig into data and figure out the whys. Are there other terms you should be targeting? Are you putting more effort into a strategy than you should, when another strategy or tactic would work better?

Of course, this brings it back around to competitor research. Dig back in and find the missing piece.

Are the Target Countries Right for Your Brand?

Sometimes, the countries your client wants to step into aren’t the best for their product. So how do you determine whether they’re mining for gold or just a lot of dust?

Michael recommends a market scoring system: “I use a spreadsheet and create several different factors for each country I am considering entering. Factors such as analyzing your own analytics, bounce rate, keyword and language challenges, International and Local competitor strength, UX challenges, SEO infrastructure challenges, brand popularity, and trust scoring factors.”

To get started, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is there any kind of market for what they’re offering? Are people already buying it in your target location, or something similar. Is there an active need or a way to create one?
  • Does my client’s analytics show traffic coming from the target country?
  • What kind of budget does my client have to expand? Expansion can be expensive, and the more thorough you are, the more expensive it gets.
  • Are there language challenges that could get in the ways of sales? I’m sure we all know of at least a few marketing failures because of language barriers.

What About Trust? If You Build It, Will They Come?

Trust – it’s a hard thing to build, and easy to lose. When you’re talking about cross-country borders, how would you go about developing domain authority and trust in different locations? A few things:

For Michael, it’s about link building:

“Get links from the source country to start with. In order to do that, you need to write relevant content that speaks to the audience appropriately and is relevant to the copy tone of the publisher. Content needs to be written around the tone of the product being sold.

Writing content to the tone builds trust and creates relationships with native sites who are willing to link to your in-country site.  Once you have done your research, utilize Authority Labs to evaluate the DA and trust on the publishers you are considering contacting.”

In other words, again, look at the location. Think local. When you reach out to your overseas target areas, do so with words that speak to them.

For example, you can send out garden variety ads, all with the same content, language and people on it, and you may get a few responses here or there. -But, if you send out an ad to a location that matches the language of that location, with content that has meaning for that particular location, with images that the people can relate to, you’ll have a better response.

I really think – and my experience has shown – that treating each location as a separate entity, while complex, often brings the best results. And that includes everything from local site versions and ccTLDs to local backlinks, to serving up specific dialects, ads and images.

How Different IS International SEO from “Regular” SEO?

Authority Labs had a good question. When Michael and I compared answers, it came down to the same thing. There really isn’t a lot of difference, with the exception of complexity. Michael points out that the linguistic challenges are the difficult part, along with getting the technical infrastructure in place.

For me, SEO is like a checkers game. As time goes on, you get to know the basics. You get to the point where you can kind of take a look at a site and get an idea of what you’re dealing with even before you do an audit. We’ve been surprised occasionally, but not often after almost 20 years.

With international SEO, there are a lot more “possibles”. It’s more chess than checkers. The more locations and languages, the more complex it gets. The more people you need to involve. The more your “project” turns into “project management” and “team management” and “agency management”. The more precise your campaigns have to be in order to keep everything on track.

You have the rules and regulations of the various countries to worry about. Does your site comply with them? All of them? Or have you run off the reservation a bit? Lot more to think about and take into consideration with multi-lingual, multi-geo projects.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot more that can be said about the inner workings of international SEO. It’s a world fraught with peril (think GDPR and international regulations), but eventually companies get big enough that they either have to stop growing or expand. And when it’s time to expand, you want to make sure you have all your ducks in a row.

Don’t just assume that international SEO is just “a lot more SEO”. As I hope you’ve realized by reading this article, there’s a lot more to it. Read up on it (we have “The Big Guide on International SEO,” which is a good place to start), do your research, and learn the ins and outs before your client says, “we want to go global.”

In case you missed it, here’s the webinar. Enjoy!

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International SEO Beginner Tips: Obstacles, Site Structures and How-To