International SEO Checklist
If your business sells products or services outside of the UK, there a number of factors to consider if you’re attempting to market your products via search engines in other countries. Here I will outline the steps you should take when developing and optimising a website to target multiple country and language combinations.
While it is not always necessary to recreate an entire site in another language or for a different local market, the decision needs to be carefully thought through. A German landing page may initially interest German-speaking customers, but if the rest of the website is in English then you may well annoy the vast majority of the German speaking visitors landing on the site. With this in mind, I’d suggest that the first step any business aspiring to boost their online presence internationally should take is to research every target country thoroughly to assess the extent of the demand for their services in each market.
Identifying Potential Markets
Even if you haven’t put any time or effort into developing your website to target more than one country, it may still be visible (albeit very limited) in other countries. Therefore you may already be getting a small amount of traffic from other countries already. To assess this, use Google Analytics to check your current traffic from other countries and languages using the Demographics tab, within the ‘Audience’ section.
In the example above, the website in question is getting traffic from multiple regions, despite not being explicitly set up to target those countries, which is encouraging. However, as I will come on to discuss, the volume of traffic a website will be able to capture in each country can be significantly increased via the development of well structured, localised content for each of the regions you’re able to serve.
You can also check your current organic search visibility in other countries using webmaster tools and SEM rush. Webmaster tools lets you assess your international search visibility by using the ‘International targeting‘ tab, whilst SEM rush is particularly useful for researching your competitor’s international search engine visibility, as seen below:
The structure of your website is absolutely essential to the potential visibility of your website in multiple regions, yet this is an issue which so many webmaster’s overlook. I have previously produced an in-depth article on the various structural considerations involved when developing an international website, which you can find here.
There are essentially three main options for structuring your website on a global scale:
- Purchase a Country-Code Top Level Domain Name (ccTLD). This is a domain name tied to a specific country – .co.uk is the ccTLD for the UK. For example, http://www.example.co.uk
- Use a Generic Top Level Domain Name (gTLD), with a country (or language) specific subdomain, e.g. http://uk.example.com or http://en.example.com
- Use a gTLD with a country or language specific subdirectory, e.g. http://www.example.com/uk. If you are targeting countries where more than one language is spoken you will need a structure that includes both country and language subdirectories. For example, http://www.example.com/gb/en/ would be used to target English speakers in Great Britain, http://www.example.com/us/en/ would target English speakers in the US, and so on.
I have previously discussed the pro’s and con’s of each of these strategies, and you can read my article in full here.
Whichever option you choose, I would always recommend that you maintain separate URLs for the content on your site that you’d like to target at different countries or languages. Using cookies to show translated or localised versions based on IP addresses is often problematic and usually results in URLs with added international parameters causing duplicate content issues.
HrefLang is a HTML tag that goes within the section of a web pages source code, which helps Google crawlers understand that certain pages, and folders on a website are targeted at a specified country.
To avoid duplicate content issues, you will need to use the rel=”alternate” (Hreflang) tag so that Google understand that various English language versions of your site are alternate versions used to target different locations, rather than duplicates.
To do this, you’ll need to place a HTML link element in the header of each page of each version of your site you create.
For example, if you had a site to target users in the UK, and chose to use a subdirectory to target users in the US, you’d need to add the following code in the HTML <head> section of the UK site:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=” http://www.example.com/us” />
In this example, you would have specific URLs for English speakers in the UK (en-gb) as well as the USA (en-us), but you may want all other (location unspecified) English speakers to see your generic English (en) (UK) site. In this case you should specify the generic English-language (en) page for searchers, which could well be the UK version of the site.
To annotate this cluster of pages using HTML link tags in the <head> of each page, you’d need to use the following snippet of code:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.example.com/" hreflang="en-gb" /> <link rel="alternate" href="http://www.example.com/us" hreflang="en-us" /> <link rel="alternate" href="http://www.example.com/" hreflang="en" />
Although not all search engines pay attention to the content-language meta tag, others still use it to determine the location of your pages – in other words which country they should be indexed in. For example, Bing recommend the use of the “content-language” meta tag to embed the location of each page in the <head> section of those files. An example of a meta content language tag can be seen below:
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
International Keyword Research
It is absolutely essential that you carry out any keyword research with the help of a native speaker of each of your target languages. It is important that the initial keyword research is carried out in English (or your own native language) prior to it being translated and localised – you will almost always find that the direct keyword translation is never the phrase that is most relevant to your content. With this in mind, you should use professional translation services to translate any keyword research carried out, before going back and carrying out fresh keyword research in your target language, and professionally translating the resulting content.
Localisation is the process of adapting content that has been previously translated into different languages to a specific country or region. For example, people in the US and UK predominantly speak English, however you wouldn’t catch anyone in the UK referring to their trousers as “pants“. Understanding that words have different meanings across different countries and regions, despite those countries using the same language is key to your content being understood by your target customers.
When developing a multilingual or multiregional website, you’ll need to ensure that you localise the following content:
- Meta Description
- Phone number
It’s important that once you’ve done this, you get it checked by a native language speaker prior to the website going live. If you don’t have direct access to a native language speaker, or you just want to double-check something specifically, you should take a look at a forum called word reference.
There are a number of ways of targeting your site at specific countries, which include the following:
- Website Structure
- Using local IP addresses
- Webmaster tools
If you decide to use either subdomains or subdirectories to structure your International sites, you’ll be able to target them at each chosen country using webmaster tools.
To target a website at the US market, you would set ‘United States’ as a geographic target in webmaster tools. This is essentially informing Google that you’d like this site to be served in the SERPs (search engine results pages) displayed by www.google.com (US).
The following image displays how you can set a particular country as a Geographic target in Google Webmaster Tools:
International Link Building
Links from local sites are essential to your success in each region. Search engines will prefer to see local links to each site rather than all links coming from a completely different country. You can promote your international website by obtaining links from relevant local sites, building relationships with local influencers and media, and identifying what works best in each country by carrying out backlink analysis on those sites that are already performing well in each country.
Testing and Tracking
You should measure each of your International web properties independently, from the rankings for each country and language to the visits and conversions.
To check that the technical aspects discussed in this article are being understood by the search engines, it is important that you check your Google Webmaster Tools data following the launch of each site. You can use the ‘International targeting‘ section to assess whether there are any issues with your HrefLang markup.
It is also essential that each site has a separate Google Analytics property set up. Using Google Analytics on each web property will let you to continuously follow-up with your International SEO performance, and allow you to make the appropriate decisions on each site based on the data uncovered from each property.
International SEO is essential to the success of any business wishing to trade their products or services online on a global scale. If you have any questions on the topics discussed in this article, please don’t hesitate to get in touch using the comments section below, or by contacting us directly.
Ben Wood is Head of Digital Services at Hallam Internet Ltd, and has experience delivering international digital marketing campaigns for a wide range of export clients.