A Guide to International SEO: Strategies and Guidelines
You have a business.
Your business has a website.
You use localized keyword research and traditional SEO tactics to help your business rank well online. You have a diversified backlink profile and high domain authority.
But now you want to expand. And this is where it gets complicated.
How do you create an international SEO strategy that works just as well as your localized efforts? How do you merge international SEO strategy with localized keyword research and optimization?
Can’t you just translate your content? Don’t you just need one of those little flag icons at the top of your landing page?
International SEO strategy is technical, confusing, and difficult. Partner that with localized keyword research and you’re suddenly doing SEO backwards and in heels.
This article will:
- Help you decide upon an international SEO strategy that works for you.
- Show you how to handle content translation and localized keyword research.
- Explain how to track keywords locally in multiple locations as a part of international SEO.
1. International SEO Strategies Can Start With Local Keyword Research
How do you decide where you will expand your business?
Almost every business with international expansion on the brain will end up conducting some sort of market research. But if you’re waiting for an SEO signal, there are two factors that can help nudge you in the right direction.
- You notice a spike in organic traffic from a foreign market that piques your interest.
- You notice a spike in users or customers from a particular country or region.
You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to understand that a spike in users from a particular place often translates to a demand for your product or service on that market. That’s easy.
Local keyword research comes into play when you get a spike in organic traffic from a foreign market.
So, your first response?
Conduct research to see what’s attracting new traffic from foreign markets.
- Which local keywords are driving the spike in organic traffic?
- Are they keywords related to my lead-generating content?
- Are they keywords with a history of high click through rates (CTRs) and conversion?
If you can answer “yes” to these questions you may have found a new market to optimize for.
2. Do You Need to Look Beyond Google to Localize Keyword Research?
The next step in preparing your international SEO strategy is to choose a search engine. Depending on which country you target, it may be time to think bigger than Google.
Here’s a list of the leading search engines from around the globe:
- Google (Global Leader)
- Baidu (China)
- Yandex (Russia)
- Yahoo (Japan and Hong Kong)
- Seznam (Czech Republic)
- Naver (South Korea)
If you’re not planning to expand to countries where other search engines dominate, then can you limit your keyword localization to Google?
The most recent data suggests that you can. To a point.
Google is killing it on large markets such as Brazil and India where it has a 95.07% and a 94.53% market share respectively.
On a global scale, Google takes the cake over all other search engines with a 91.66% total market share. Bing comes in second, taking a 2.51% share.
And when it comes to mobile, there’s no competition. Google controls a 97.07% global share of the mobile search market.
On the other hand, Google isn’t omnipresent.
In the US, you may still want to do local keyword research and international SEO for Bing, as Google only has a 80.67% market share.
And let’s say you do want to expand to China or Russia.
In that case, Google has almost zero presence in both countries. To be more precise, Google has a 4.73% market share in China and 42.09% in Russia. That means you’ll need to optimize your websites for Baidu and Yandex respectively if you want to succeed on the local market.
Let’s say you are staying within a market where Google has the monster share of search traffic. Austria is a good example. Google has a 94.16% market share of Austria’s search traffic. So, let’s tailor our international SEO strategy to reflect Google trends and local keyword research.
Pro Tip: Each search engine has its own analytics tools for tracking keywords locally in multiple locations. Be sure to use the correct tools when optimizing content for Baidu, Yandex, or Naver.
3. International SEO Targeting Choices – Language, Country, or Both?
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the way you tell Google (or other search engines) that you’re targeting specific countries or that you’re using different languages to conduct business.
That’s why international SEO strategies cover everything from deciding how to handle your URL structure to using hreflang tags.
But before you get into all the fun technical stuff, you need to decide if a language or country-based international SEO strategy is best for you.
How do you make that decision? And what’s the difference?
The first question you need to ask yourself:
- Does my product or service change if a person in a different country uses it? (Excluding the language differences.)
SaaS and cloud-based companies should answer “no.” A foreign customer comes to your website. They pay. They use the product or service online. Happy customer.
The only change you may need to make is to have your website, blog, and other content in that happy customer’s native language.
To illustrate further, let’s say that language is German. Ask yourself:
- Will German-speaking people from different countries still use my product or service if I do nothing but provide them with German content?
If yes, you will want a language-based international SEO strategy.
Let’s say that’s not the case. The product or service you sell in Germany is different than what you’ll need to sell in Austria.
That will be true for:
- Brick-and-mortar Retailers (McDonald’s)
- E-retailers with Country-specific Offers (Amazon)
- SaaS Companies with Regulated Offers (Netflix)
- Mixed Retailers (Brick-and-Mortar/ E-commerce) (H&M)
In that case, you can make your international SEO strategy country-specific. What does that mean? We’ll get to that in minute.
4. Conduct Localized Keyword Research for Your New Target Market
Again, before we get into all the fun technical stuff behind international SEO strategy, you’ll need to conduct your first round of localized keyword research.
Here are the two most crucial tips to follow when conducting localized keyword research for a foreign market:
- Never machine translate keyword research. Try using online translation services like Gengo to help you or hire a native to do keyword research for you.
- Never assume that high-volume keywords will remain the same across markets. Even if the language is the same as your original market.
You can approach localized keyword research one of two ways.
First, you can start from scratch and conduct all new keyword research in the desired target language.
Second, you can use the keywords you’ve amassed from your original site as a springboard. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Once you’ve done that, assess the search volume behind your new list of keywords. You may be surprised at what you’ll need to rank for in your new market.
Pro Tip: If you’re entering a bigger market (e.g., US), you may want to check search volume across multiple regions to check for consistency in strength. For example, you may find that a keyword’s search volume is different in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
5. Conducting Competitor Research for Your International SEO Strategy
The next step is to conduct competitor research.
Now, you’ll want to take your new localized keyword research and feed it through a rank tracking tool. But let’s say you don’t have access to one.
Then you can feed each keyword one-by-one into Google to see which websites make a habit of appearing in the top 10 results.
For example, we translated a list of keywords into Spanish and then ran them through Unamo’s BETA industry research tool.
We selected Google Spain and the tool populated a list of domains ranking for at least 20% of the list of keywords we entered.
Here’s how it looks:
In total, the tool identified 33 competing domains for that market. We only counted competitors that ranked in the top 100 results for at least 20% of our keyword list. Here’s a snippet of our list:
From the list above we can further identify:
- Which keywords are causing competitors to rank.
- How many keywords overlap with our target keywords.
- What kind of domain URL structure each competitor is using.
But what do you do leverage this information for your international SEO strategy? Again, here’s what you want to achieve:
- Who are your top competitors on your new market?
- What percentage of overlap is there for top ranking keywords
- Are there keywords “up for grabs” and if so, what is their search volume?
Analyzing Industry Competitors for Information
Once you find out who your top competitors are, you can take a look at how they do things.
You always want to do what’s best for your company and your needs.
At the same time, looking at the competition may give you a better understanding of what already seems to work on that market. To get a better understanding of what you’re up against check out:
- Site Structure and URL Structure
- Offer, Content, and Images
- On-page Optimization
For SEO purposes, the least you can do is check out your competitor’s content and on-page optimization. Having that information is crucial if you want to assess the potential for creating better content and outranking your competition.
Working Overlapping Keywords into Your International SEO strategy
Let’s say you share 90% of the keywords you want to target with your competitor. How can you become number one in the SERPs?
You need to work overlapping keywords into your international SEO strategy the same way you do with your local SEO strategy.
- Create superior content.
- Do a superior job of on-page optimization.
- Build a superior backlink profile to your content.
That’s why it’s so important to check out your competitor’s content and on-page optimization. You can’t click your heels and magic your way to number one. But you already know that.
How to Take Advantage of Localized Keywords That are Up for Grabs
You may notice that there are some keywords from your list that your competitors haven’t discovered yet. These keywords are up for grabs.
They are a great starting point for creating new content.
Just be cautious in situations where most of your keywords are related to products or services. The reason your competitors might not rank for a product keyword may have something to do with that product not selling. An example might include rankings for “wool scarf” in Australia.
Pro Tip: Don’t be intimidated by competitors. Their presence indicates a market need for products and services like yours. All you have to do is know how to mine them for a lead.
6. Deciding URL and Site Structure for a Killer International SEO Strategy
Here’s the thing. The debate is ongoing about which URL structure is best for international SEO.
Google says there isn’t one strategy that’s inherently better than any other. Other experts say there are better and worse strategies.
So, here’s the bad news – there is no blanket strategy that works best.
There are better and worse ways to structure your site and your URLs for international SEO results. But there is no good way to tell what will be better and worse for you.
Is there any good news? Yes.
You can more or less end up in the right place by understanding how URL structures work and by planning long term.
So, let’s start with options:
- Country-coded Top-level Domains (ccTLDs)
- Subdirectories (Subfolders)
- Subdomains with Generic Top-level Domains (gTLDs)
There are also URL parameters, but even Google does not recommend using them.
- International SEO Strategy Using ccTLDs
Let’s say your main site is:
Using a ccTLD URL structure would mean that you would create a separate, country-specific website for your new market. For example:
Examples of companies that choose to have separate sites for different countries:
Why did they both choose a ccTLD structure? What do the world’s largest e-commerce retailer and brick-and-mortar franchise restaurant have in common?
Both companies have vastly different offers from country to country. Also, both companies are highly recognizable global brands.
Benefits of having a separate site:
- You’re giving Google a clear message that each site is for a country-specific audience.
- Your offers and content are clearly divided, making targeting easier.
- Sister sites for high authority brands like Amazon won’t have trouble ranking.
Let’s say you want to expand to 50 countries.
Not one, not two – 50. You will have to build 50 individual websites.
Let’s say you don’t have brand authority yet.
Now, you will have to build your new sites from nothing. Even if your main site ranks well on your home market, you’ll have to roll up your sleeves to get your new site to rank just as well.
- Building multiple ccTLD sites can be expensive and time consuming.
- You will need to manage offers and content across multiple sites.
- Low brand awareness means building domain authority from zero.
Pro Tip: Long-term planning can help you decide if ccTLDs are right for you. Are you limiting your expansion to one or two markets? Do you have the time, money, and know-how to build multiple sites and domain authority from scratch? Then ccTLD URL structures might be for you.
- International SEO Strategy Using Subdirectories
Again, your main site is:
Using a subdirectory or subfolder URL structure means keeping everything under the umbrella of your main site. For example:
Examples of companies that choose to keep their country-specific offers and content under the umbrella of their main site:
Why did they both choose a subdirectory structure? What do Swedish fashion and furniture retailers have in common?
Notice that both are big online retailers with brick-and-mortar locations. Their offers and content will vary by country, but not by much. They can translate much of their inventory across sites.
Benefits of having subfolders:
- You’re still giving Google a clear message that you are geo-targeting your content.
- Translating offers and content across multiple pages on one site saves time and money.
- Subdirectories will keep the strength of the main site’s domain authority.
- Visitors might have a more difficult time identifying country-specific offers.
- You might be tempted to duplicate content, layout, and user experience across the site.
Can’t you just make sure that visitors get the correct page through automatic redirection?
Google says no. Automatic redirection is bad for international SEO.
Just in case you’re not on the same page, (pun intended) auto redirect is when a website detects a user’s IP address and uses that information to serve them country-specific pages.
What’s wrong with that? Many things. One example:
Your user is an Italian living in Canada for a few months for work.
He wants to buy shoes for his wife. He’s going to miss her birthday while he’s gone.
He goes online to buy shoes and your website detects that he’s in Canada. So, it feeds him the Canadian version of the site. Now, you have an Italian customer who has to figure out how to get to the Italian version of your site by himself.
So, what’s the likelihood that his wife is getting a pair of your shoes for her birthday?
And that’s only one of many things that can go wrong with auto redirect. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course.
One online company that uses IP detection and automatic redirect as a part of its international SEO strategy is Netflix. They sell television programs and television is subject to international copyright law.
Thus, It’s illegal for them to sell some TV shows to customers from certain countries.
How do they know which country you’re from? Your IP address. So, they auto redirect to country-specific subdirectories and they place their content behind paywalls.
The moral of the story?
Unless your products and services are subject to such regulations, don’t use automatic redirect. Instead, consider using the Accept-Language header to detect your user’s browser language.
- International SEO Strategy Using Subdomains
One last time, your main site is:
And using a subdomain URL structure also means creating a new site. For example:
Examples of companies that choose to use subdomain URL structures include:
Why did they both choose subdomain structures? What do a Chinese e-retailer and the world’s largest social media site have in common?
Well, nothing. They just both use a subdomain URL structure.
Benefits of having a subdomain:
- Some web design teams prefer working with subdomain URL structures.
- Keeps offers and content clearly divided by country just as well as ccTLDs.
- For some, keeping the “company.com” part of their URL is important.
- To rank, you will need to build the site’s domain authority from zero.
- Some users may not understand from the URL that they’re browsing locally.
- Need to maintain and manage multiple websites.
One example where using a subdomain may work well:
Your product or service is different and you add that as your subdomain.
event.company.com OR product.company.com
A good real life example is:
Now, remember deciding if you were a language or country-based operation? Here’s where that becomes important for international SEO.
Let’s say that you’re a cloud-based company who only needs to geo-target for languages. You won’t need to change your URL structure, but you will need to tell Google there are different languages on your website.
You need to add language tags to your URL structure to tell Google to feed language-based pages to the correct users.
Google uses something called hreflang tags. Here are instructions on how to implement hreflang tags for your site. Once implemented, you can track your tags in Google Search Console to make sure there are no mistakes. And making mistakes with hreflang is common.
Note: Some companies will need to use language tags even if they’re going the country-based route for URL structure.
Do keep in mind that you may need to target multiple languages within one country. For example, you will need to tell Google if your Canadian customer gets a French or English version of your offer.
Pro Tip: Do keep in mind that Bing uses something different than hreflang tags. They use something called the meta language tag. Need to optimize your site for Bing? Here are instructions on how to implement the meta language tag for your site.
7. Change Content to Reflect Your New Localized Keyword Research
Finally, it’s time to prepare your new content.
But how much content can you translate and how much new content do you need to create for international SEO purposes? Does duplicate content make Google mad?
Here’s the thing – you can duplicate content. To a point.
If you’ve got an inventory of 1,000+ items, you will directly translate most of your inventory. At the same time, if you have original blog content or other long-form content you will want to redo your on-page SEO optimization. Otherwise, you won’t rank for your new localized keywords.
Sometimes, that alone can be enough of a content change to result in non-duplicated content. Let your new localized keyword research guide you when deciding if and when to create new content.
Keywords up for grabs? Create new content to dominate the SERPs for those keywords.
Also, don’t forget to conduct multi-regional keyword research. Each locale or region will have it’s own set of keywords. And you may rank well for a keyword in one place, and not so well in another.
That’s why tracking keywords locally in multiple locations is a good idea. You’ll see that you rank well for one keyword in one place and better or worse for that keyword somewhere else.
8. Change Content to Reflect Your New Market Demands
Let’s say your offer needs to change along with your content. What are some things that qualify as content changes?
- Product and Product Descriptions
- Product Names (Tires in the US vs Tyres in the UK)
- Pricing (Currency and Pricing Structures)
- Rules and Regulations
You may also need to change your website layout and user experience. Besides market research and localized keyword research, it’s also best to research cultural differences.
Images are a good example of content that may need to change because of cultural differences. And a good example of a company that optimizes its images for international SEO purposes is Ikea.
One recent example was an image of a kitchen. The US market was shown an image of a large kitchen, while the Chinese and European markets were shown smaller kitchens.
The change of images better reflects the realities of the customers.
Ikea tries to get customers to imagine what the product would look like at home. Besides the in-store fake rooms can you think of a better way to do that then to show images that look like customer’s homes?
If you’re changing your offer, your design, and your pricing, you’ve changed enough of your content to not have to worry about duplication. Just be sure to seed your localized keywords through the copy and you’re good to go.
9. International SEO and Franchise SEO Unite for Brick-and-mortar Locations
And last but not least, brick-and-mortar retailers will need to remember to implement all localized SEO and franchise SEO tactics before calling it a day.
Your international SEO strategy needs to include the following local SEO tactics:
- Standardize your NAP information for easier distribution among local listings.
- Fill out a Google My Business Profile for every physical location that’s opening.
- Research all local, online listings and add your standardized NAP information.
- You will want to create all new social media profiles for your new locations.
- You will want to be sure to include yourself on all local and relevant review platforms.
- Customize your schema markups to reflect local aspects of your business.
- Add your new location as a point of interest to GPS devices and navigation apps.
Do keep in mind that different markets favor different social media platforms, especially when it comes to combining e-commerce functions with social. A good example is China’s WeChat app.
Pro Tip: Be sure that your name, address, and phone number (NAP) is uniform everywhere it appears. And make sure it’s uniform down to the last, tiny punctuation mark. Be meticulous. Google doesn’t like discrepancies in NAP information.
Need to read more about how to apply franchise SEO tactics? Check out our guide: Franchise SEO: How to Apply Local SEO to Multiple Locations
Yes, creating an international SEO strategy is a long, complicated process. But the most important aspects are keyword localization and URL structure.
Start by putting as much effort into your localized keyword research and content planning as you have for your main site. And finish with implementing a long-term plan for your URL structure.
If you can do that, you’re well on your way to entering new markets with a strong international SEO strategy to guide you.