International SEO for Dummies – The eCommerce Edition

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Published on 29/08/19 by James Vjestica.

What is meant by ‘International SEO’?

Depending on your long-term business plan, it may be worth considering adopting ‘international SEO’ to potentially reach your ambitious goals. International SEO essentially provides the opportunity for you to communicate your company’s message and products to people – you guessed it – across the globe. Breaking this down further, it most commonly includes either people who reside in another country or individuals who speak different languages. If utilised effectively, this type of business expansion can lead to impressive results.

Sounds simple, right? Not entirely. Whilst international SEO is achievable, you must take certain aspects of your business into consideration before deciding if it will be beneficial for you. Depending on your international SEO plan, it is worth taking the following into account:

  • Specify your target country and/or region with an international-friendly URL structure (country targeting).    
  • Specify which language your pages are targeting by using language tags (language targeting).
  • Create content in your target audience’s language(s). Without this, you will not rank highly.

However, it is possible that you will be targeting a specific location or language, meaning that all three of the above may not necessarily be applicable. In other words, a different approach may be required. Before we move on to URL structures, it is vitally important that you retrieve the required information in order to plan appropriately.

Analyse your data

Before deciding on your international SEO strategy, your very first step should be to extract the data of your website including organic search visibility, conversions and conversion rate. Once you have this data, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there any other countries and/or languages that are already providing organic search visibility and traffic?
  • What is the volume and general trend of the organic search visibility and traffic coming from each identified country and language?
  • Which keywords and pages attracted the search visibility and traffic for each of the top identified international markets?
  • What is the conversion rate of the visitors from each of the top international markets?
  • What is the general trend of these international markets?

These questions can be answered by analysing data on Google Analytics, Google Search Console and advanced SEO systems like Moz or Conductor. More specifically, you can find the required information with ‘Geo’ reports under the ‘Audience’ section of the former and the ‘Search Queries’ reports of the latter. Once these questions have been answered, it will allow you to identify your most popular international countries and languages markets and the trends that occur from these visitors.

Once this data has been analysed, if it is apparent that you already have a relatively high or medium organic search visibility with a positive correlation of conversions, it may be wise to prioritise this demographic to enhance its organic search potential. If this is not the case, it does not necessarily mean you should discard this respective demographic altogether; it may just take more time and resources to see international SEO potential.

Keyword Research

The next step is to deter the potential of the top country and language markets through keyword research. This will really help you in the long term by collecting data such as:

  • Relevant keywords and phrases used by your international audience(s) who search for your website and its products
  • Organic search volume of each keyword per country/respective language user
  • The level of competition of the chosen keywords per country/respective language user
  • Your current rankings for these keywords within your target market

After going through these steps, you should have a much better idea of which organic keywords your target audience respond to, along with how competitive they are among other organisations within your industry. If you are a beginner, we would recommend using the following websites to assist with keyword research:

Google/Bing Keyword Planner – This is a great tool to not only find out the popularity and competitiveness of keywords, but it also suggests alternatives that you may not have originally considered. However, you should be aware that while these figures are perceived as being ‘official’, they will not necessarily be 100% accurate. Also, you can specify your findings by selecting the countries you wish to see the figures for.

BrightEdge: Much like Google/Bing Keyword Planner, this provides alternatives to the initial keyword you have chosen. BrightEdge provides many alternatives, so many in fact that it would be advisable to export the results on an excel spreadsheet. In addition, it will also provide the competitiveness and popularity of each keyword for you to make informed decisions as to which ones to use.

Country/language targets and their URL structures

Once you have the required information about your chosen keywords, you can then move on to potential countries and languages and how to target them. When targeting countries and/or languages for your international SEO plan, it is worth revising the data to decide which have enough organic search volume to increase the chances of a return on investment (ROI). This is not a ‘black or white’ decision as, for example, if you do not see enough search volume with specific countries, you can focus on languages instead.

In terms of whether you choose to focus on specific countries or languages will deter which URL structure you will need. These can include the following:

ccTLDs – Country Code Top-Level Domain

This is a country-specific top-level domain and is geo-targeted automatically in Google Search Console. These URLs include a two-letter code to indicate to users and search engines in which country, or sovereign state a website is registered. Just be aware, it may take more effort to grow their popularity from scratch as a new domain.

Example: Mywebsite.ie or Mywebsite.de

Subdomain   

This is a major section of a domain, highlighted by a change to the characters prior to the root domain. These are the most viable option when you have a gTLD and wish to avoid adding an additional level of depth to your overall web structure. Again, this option may require additional effort to develop the subdomains popularity as they are usually seen more as independent entities.

Example: us.mywebsite.com

Subdirectories

This is implemented when internationalised content is placed in a specific subdirectory of a root domain. Potentially regarded as the most appropriate structure to begin with if you have a gTLD since they will inherit its popularity. A drawback of using this alternative is the overall complexity of the web structure that is added by the subdirectory.

Example: mywebsite.com/de

gTLD with Language Parameters

This is a general top-level domain e.g. .com, .org is targeted to speakers of a specific language by implementing a URL parameter with a hreflang. A hreflang is a tag used by Google to allow website owners to indicate that specific pages have copy in another language. They essentially indicate all other translated versions of that page along with the language. These can include different languages altogether or different dialects of the same language e.g. English and American English.

Example: mysite.com/?lang=en-us

Different domain

This is when internationalised content is uploaded to an entirely different root domain.

Example: newwebsite.com

Search engines may interpret these URL structures differently from one another, meaning that each has their own pros and cons. It can be difficult when deciding which structure is best for you. In order to help you make the right decision, the table below highlights the pros and cons for ccTLDs, subdirectories and subdomains.

URL Structure Pros Cons
ccTLDs Clearest signal to search engines   Simplest way to rank locally Each site has separate domain authority   Expensive to maintain
Subdirectories Consolidates domain authority   Easier to maintain than ccTLDs Users prefer to browse locally   Weaker signal to search engines
Subdomains Easier to maintain than ccTLDs May dilute domain authority   Users prefer to browse locally   Weaker signal to search engines

Whichever structure you decide to use, Google recommends that you structure your hierarchy in a similar fashion in each section of your websites to ensure that it is easily crawlable.

Optimisation

Firstly, it is imperative that all the information on your website can be communicated to your target audience(s). You must include the following information:

  • Correct language
  • Timezone
  • Currency
  • Contact information
  • URLs
  • Menu and navigation elements
  • Headings
  • Title and meta description
  • Main body information
  • Images and ALT descriptions
  • Reviews

Following these bullet points will ensure that you are notifying users and, more importantly, search engines that they are in the right location. Also, you should consider that marketing for different countries will mean adhering to their culture – they will therefore look at aspects such as colour, layout and humour differently to you.

From a more technical perspective, it is vitally important that you make sure that your pages are crawlable, indexable and relevant by providing the targeting signals Google look out for to avoid any search issues. As these international web versions must be crawlable and indexable, they need to be featured in their own URLs under the respective web structure you have decided to implement while refraining from using scripts or cookies which could hinder search engines indexing your content. In addition, you should cross-link your different international web versions to clearly show how to access them.

Do not cut corners!

To summarise, if you are targeting a specific country, using a ccTLD would be your best option. However, if you are focussing purely on language targeting, a ccTLD will most likely not be your best option as they are for targeting a specific geographic area and not a respective language. In this instance, it would be wise to use a hreflang, subfolders or subdomains in conjunction with, or instead of a ccTLD.

There is much more to international SEO than simply translating the content of your website to a different language. It is an SEO project that requires much research, analysis and planning to deter the most effective strategy to target your international audience while overcoming any obstacles which you may be faced with. Lastly, fully optimising your website(s) by taking all required features into account is essential for your target audience to navigate around your website and assist in the return on investment your hard work will deserve.

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