International SEO: 5 ways to scale performance

The Internet offers brands an unprecedented way to reach their customers across borders, but reaching different populations requires an understanding of what people want and then producing content to meet these needs. As you get started with your international SEO strategy, here are five ways you can scale your practices to maximize your potential.

Date published
May 17, 2017 Categories

The digital revolution has truly become a global phenomenon.

In the European Union, Internet penetration reaches over 80 percent, with some countries reaching well above 90 percent. In China, there are 731 million internet users, representing only 53 percent of the population —  leaving plenty of room for growth.

The Internet offers brands an unprecedented way to reach their customers across borders and regardless of language or cultural barriers. Reaching different populations requires an understanding of what people want in these different countries and then producing content to meet these needs.

It’s not a matter of simply translating content into different languages, but of applying basic SEO principles of relevancy and localization on a global scale — while also ensuring technical SEO content is delivered in the correct language to the appropriate population.

As you get started with your international SEO strategy, here are five ways you can scale your practices to maximize your potential.

Understand demand variations from region to region

When completing a global search, you will find that even within Google, content types and SERP layouts will vary from country to country. For example, a particular keyword might trigger a Quick Answer in one country, but in another it will not. In each region, Google models its SERPs based upon local trends and interests to provide an optimal user experience.

Not only will content and SERP layouts change, but so will keywords and traffic rates. Keywords cannot directly translate from one language to another — you must take into account cultural interests, population, slang, and local vocabulary.

Different regions have different expectations from brands within the same industry in terms of what they want to see before they make a purchase decision.

As you develop an international search strategy, you must understand that ranking well for a particular term in one country does not mean ranking well for related terms in another. You must optimize locally and build content and user experience precisely for that local audience. Before taking any steps toward building an international search strategy, you must understand keyword demand and traffic within that country.

Build a global framework for your international SEO

As you create an international search strategy, you’ll find that incorporating technical aspects of SEO will be necessary. Primarily, you will need to employ hreflang tags.

A hreflang tag is a piece of code that helps Google understand the intended language and country for your content. This will ensure your content is displayed in the right region. For example, a Spanish language site written for an audience in Argentina will not provide the optimal user experience for those in Spain because there are differences between the two countries in the vocabulary used, even though both speak Spanish.

The hreflang tag helps to ensure that the consumer audience sees the content that has been written specifically for them to provide the most relevant and helpful experience.

The tags also reduce the threat of duplicate content, because they inform Google that your content has been written for different audiences. Your content for an audience in the United States might overlap with content written for audiences in the UK, therefore, the hreflang tag is necessary to reduce the threat of duplicate content.

There are three main strategies to ensure content is correctly marked with the hreflang tag.

  1. Place the tag in HTTP Header and ensure it is present on every page.
  2. Place the tag in the site map.
  3. Mark up the page itself.

As you begin to mark up content, it is important to use the ISO 639-1 format for all languages, and restrict the size of all site maps to be no larger than 50 mg or 10,000 URLs. If yours will be larger, it is possible to split the map to stay within these guidelines.

Localize the content you create

Once you understand how to create the framework for your global audience, you must also create content for the region-specific site. Recognize that you do not want to simply translate content for one site word-for-word into another language.

The content itself should be localized so that it appeals to the audience within the new region. This means creating content to reflect local search trends and interests and performing keyword research specific to each country. You also want to incorporate local vocabulary and slang, and work with native speakers to ensure your content resonates with those reading it.

If you have multiple locations for a particular business, make sure you implement separate landing pages for each one. Be sure to create content for different landing pages that reflects the region, such as incorporating local landmarks, pastimes, and interests to boost the appearance of each landing page in the SERPs.

Unify differing strategies

For an effective global strategy, you must bring together your global, local, and mobile optimization strategies. Rank countries in order of where you are most likely find customers. Use these rankings to help you identify priorities. Use your global framework to ensure search engines understand where to display your content to maximize your relevance to the intended audience.

Your local and hyperlocal strategies will then guide your content creation process. With local keyword research and by working with a native speaker to identify regional dialects and vocabulary, you can then produce content that appeals to the local audience.

Finally, make sure your content is available for users on mobile devices. Globally, mobile now outpaces desktop, and in some regions, it represents a large segment of the population.

For example, more than 95 percent of the Chinese internet-using population also uses mobile devices. Brands that want to succeed need to ensure that their content is ready for the on-the-go user. This includes responsive design, creating content for the “I-want-to-go” micro moment, and ensuring all web pages are mobile-friendly.

Measure your results

As with all SEO strategies, expanding globally requires you to take careful measurements of your progress. You can use the information from your metrics to see where you still need to improve and build a more effective international SEO strategy.

  1. Take measurements of your presence and ranking in different countries before, during, and after you implement a concrete global strategy. This will allow you to clearly see your progress throughout and narrow down potential areas for improvement.
  1. Track your page rankings to assure pages rank correctly in each country. Errors with your hreflang tags and keyword rankings, such as ranking a term common in the US in the UK, can reduce your relevancy to the local consumer base, ultimately hurting your rankings and ability to engage prospects and leads.
  1. Measure success and impact of alternate digital channels, such as the Twitter account for a particular country.
  1. Consider the potential for PPC when expanding into new markets. When you begin your international SEO efforts, it may take time to gain high rankings for your site. Using PPC can help you gain traction in a new territory. Measure your success with these efforts to better understand search behavior and conversion rates in new territories.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and the importance of digital marketing spreads throughout the globe, brands looking to grow their organizations must understand how to engage audiences beyond their native borders.

There is more to building an international website than simply translating content, and these tips should help you move in the right direction. Incorporating global SEO should be an important addition in the toolbox of any marketer to help them improve marketing to international customers.


Jim Yu is the founder and CEO of leading enterprise SEO and content performance platform BrightEdge

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