With more and more buyers’ journeys now starting with an online search, international SEO is becoming one of the most powerful ways for global brands to level the playing field with local competitors.
But before diving into details like keyword translation and backlink optimization, companies would be wise to review some of the broader business factors that shape successful strategies.
Targeting By Country or By Language?
Even the most creative international SEO strategy cannot redeem a broken business case. As a result, companies need clear evidence of consumer demand to justify website localization.
This demand may already be quantified by website traffic reports, or it may be projected by market forecasters. But regardless of where it’s identified, companies need to categorize demand as either country- or language-specific. This seemingly small distinction will influence nearly every aspect of international SEO.
Effective country-specific targeting calls for localizing websites to such an extent that they are only relevant to one national audience. While these highly personalized experiences no doubt drive higher conversion rates, they require significant resources to design. As a result, most brands will have to reserve this approach for markets with the strongest commercial potential.
Language-specific targeting, on the other hand, involves creating a common website experience that can engage customers across multiple countries. For many brands, the comparative loss of personalization is more than made up for by the gains in (cost-efficient) global awareness. While offering a completely native brand experience to every customer is a worthy long-term goal, translating websites into their native language is still a much-appreciated first step.
As your globalization plans expand, you’ll likely end up leveraging a combination of these two targeting styles. But confirming which approach you’re adopting with each new audience is a critical means of eliminating confusion and promoting success.
Learning The Local Search Landscape
International SEO is not the kind of game you naturally pick up with practice. It’s the kind of game that rewards in-depth understanding of complex rules. And when expanding play into a foreign market, there’s no guarantee that Google makes all the rules.
Yandex sets the terms for 60% of Russia. Yahoo holds a 40% share in Japan. Bing takes 20% in the U.S. And as web and mobile penetration bring more of the world online, the search engine leaderboard is sure to change in unexpected ways.
So whether you’re adopting a country- or language-specific approach, it’s always wise to review the context in which your target audience is searching. Aside from the subtle nuances between search algorithms, there may be important differences in how customers phrase their queries on each platform.
Gauging Your Localization Resources
International SEO success requires the same rigor as its domestic equivalent. Keywords need to be researched, content needs to be published, and links need to be built. Multiply these processes by several languages, though, and suddenly it’s a different discipline altogether.
This is when you need to honestly assess the strength of localization resources at your disposal.
Can translation software be leveraged to automate complex production workflows? Or will strategies have to be scaled back to limit friction from manual publishing processes?
Can translation quality be trusted the first time? Or will content require multiples levels of review?
Can LSPs coordinate recruitment of local SEO experts? Or will translating source keywords have to be good enough for now?
In this instance, there is no single set of answers that will guarantee or exclude long-term international SEO success. What is essential, however, is designing strategies aligned to the strengths and limitations of your current team. Modest campaigns executed perfectly will always generate stronger returns than ambitious plans executed poorly.
Defining Your Local Footprint
A local business address is one of the most valuable international SEO assets a multinational brand can leverage when building early authority in a new market.
For businesses that rely on local production facilities, corporate offices, or retail storefronts as business requirements, online search visibility obviously has little bearing on international construction plans. The SEO value of a local address is simply an added perk.
For businesses that do not strictly need local outposts to support international operations, establishing a physical footprint is a much more interesting debate. A global eCommerce retailer, for example, might add physical storefronts as a means of strengthening local brand appeal in its three most active foreign markets.
Additionally, any online brand can consider hosting its localized websites in their target countries. Physical proximity is a key indicator of content relevance, not to mention an important accelerator of page load speed. But these incremental advantages will be quickly overshadowed by any server reliability issues. As a result, companies need to be especially thorough if and when they vet the qualifications of potential foreign hosting partners.
Deciding On A Domain Structure
Now that the perimeter of your international SEO strategy is coming into view, you can finally feel confident committing to more permanent decisions like domain structure.
If country-specific targeting is the stated goal, ccTLDs (ex. yourcompany.de) represent the highest standard of localization. Search engines reward their strong geotargeting signals while customers embrace their native URL structures. Unfortunately, purchasing a ccTLD for each new market can quickly become cost-prohibitive.
Sub-domains (ex. de.yourcompany.com) are much easier to set up, by comparison, and can be managed somewhat independently. Sites can be hosted in different geographies and content can be strictly segregated between markets. This is good news for high-volume publishers who don’t want to weigh down a single website, but it forces each new market to essentially build SEO momentum from scratch.
The third option, sub-directories (ex. yourcompany.com/de), may be best for companies just starting to spread their wings across the global marketplace. Setup and support requirements are minimal, and new directories benefit from the SEO authority of the root domain. Unfortunately, local ranking power is simultaneously hampered by an inability to vary hosting locations and a tendency to present users with complex URLs.