Last year the world changed dramatically.
People continued to be pushed online, which opened up new potential for companies looking to compete in markets around the world.
However, to be successful in international SEO, one must understand issues of page experience, URL structure, keywords, SERPs, and more from a global perspective.
To build and grow your company’s digital presence, you need to be able to reach audiences in every region you do business in, especially in search.
SEO is more important than ever. 68% of all online experiences start with a search engine.
Use this guide as a checklist for a more effective international SEO strategy today – and for years to come.
The checklist for international SEO success
Optimizing content for performance in multiple countries requires a solid strategy, but ultimately it’s all about execution.
Check out this list of international SEO considerations to make sure your campaign and content are up to date.
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1. Hreflang – the international setup
A hreflang is an HTML attribute that indicates the language your content is being displayed in and the geolocation of the reader. It can look like this:
The “en-uk” HTML tail is used to tell search engines like Google the language and location you want your content to target. This is important when approaching a particular market and language.
Note: Hreflang does not work with Bing or Baidu which use the meta tag in the content language:
First, determine which search engine you want to focus on before digging deeper into technical optimization of your website.
2. Choose the correct URL structure
In order for your content to reach the desired target group, you have to consider URLs based on ccTLDs (country code top-level domains), subdomains and subdirectories.
The method by which you determine the URL structure depends largely on your resources. In a perfect world, TLDs are the best approach – when you can manage multiple domains at the same time.
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If not, subdomains are the next best thing. Lastly, you can choose a subdirectory if none of the above options are appropriate.
3. Prepare for the site experience
With every update that Google makes, it seems to focus more and more on the on-page experience.
Case in point: Core Web Vitals will become ranking factors in May 2021.
This is important to keep in mind, especially when dealing with international search engine optimization.
As part of the page experience, the mobile-first index (or mobile-only index) is probably the most important thing to prepare for. Mobile-first is a global problem and it is important to be prepared for it in every country in which you operate.
4. Avoid machine translation
While it may make life easier and translation faster, machine translation should really be avoided.
I’ve seen it many times.
A marketer wants to target more international markets and decides to translate the entire website with a translation plugin.
Every time, content writers find translation errors (as I would call them). When translating from one language and dialect into another, there are language nuances that a machine cannot find.
A bad translation does not improve the ranking.
Use local translators who also understand the importance of context.
This protects your reputation with local consumers from their first interaction with your brand when searching.
5. Understand that keywords and SERPs vary from country to country
Although the Google algorithm may be universal, the SERPs vary widely at the local level.
If you search for a specific product in Sweden, you will get a very different set of results than the US
If you are targeting a specific keyword in multiple countries, analyze the SERPs first.
Also, be aware of changes in search volume and the meaning of the term to locals for your target keywords.
For example, the word “SEO” is a global term that is used in the same way in several countries. However, searching for “football streaming” in the US means something very different from “football streaming” in the UK.
Keep this in mind as you focus on your country-level strategy.
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Look for the strong keyword volume and search intent in the terms of your choice for each country.
6. FOOD is there to stay
EAT stands for “Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness”.
These content properties are included in Google’s search quality ratings guidelines and help build trust.
Here are a few elements to focus on:
- Author names and biographies in editorial content
- Cut or edit low EAT content
- Build a personal brand
- Optimize technical security
- Moderate user-generated content (important in YMYL)
7. Don’t just build links. Build relationships
Yes, links are still important. And because links are based on the idea of referrals, I never think they will leave the ranking factors.
Even though Google believes you shouldn’t be creating links, there are still tactical ways to achieve this ongoing gain in authority.
Focus on quality instead of quantity.
One relevant link from a website with a domain rating of 50 and few outbound links will get you better rankings than ten irrelevant links from websites with less than 10 domain authority ratings.
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However, don’t be fooled by unwanted LinkedIn connections asking you to buy their links. Instead, build relationships with marketers or people in the industry you work in.
Also keep in mind that links for international search engine optimization have different values depending on the origin of the backlink.
If your website is getting a lot of backlinks from URLs ending with “.it”, Google will give the impression that your website is relevant to the Italian audience and can therefore be ranked accordingly on these local SERPs. Local links have the greatest impact on search results.
It’s not about trying every single tactic. It’s about figuring out what works for you in each country and taking advantage of that on a larger scale.
8. Keep an eye on international and local search trends
2020 brought us dramatic changes in search volume and behavior due to the pandemic.
In general, however, our preferences are constantly changing and trends can vary widely from country to country.
For example, look at Working Remote, which increased from 22,200 to 40,500 monthly searches in the US – an 82% increase from October 2019 to 2020.
In the UK, monthly searches for the same term increased 175% over the same period, from 4,400 to 12,100.
It is clear that there is a bigger market in the US
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If you were a company like Zoom and had to decide where to allocate the budget, the US market has more potential.
You can use a tool like SEOmonitor for trends and volume search like I did above. Or use Google Trends to find upcoming trends in each market.
Google also published Year of Search which gives you vital insight into the market you work in.
9. Create a Plan & Execute
There is a lot of analytics going on in the world of search engine optimization, but in the end it is all about execution.
Based on what we’ve just been through, you should now be in a better position to create a plan – a roadmap – and start executing.
Split your hit list into technical SEO, content and link building. From there, create your own optimization calendar.
I recommend using this marketing calendar to get started.
A few more international SEO tips to aid your strategy
Assign resources accordingly
SEO is about prioritizing your resources in order to accomplish the most important tasks.
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It is always a good idea to prioritize your time based on the overall strategy, especially when working with different countries.
If you have a linking tactic that will increase your domain rating, keep doing it instead of trying new ones. When you have to choose whether to start a new blog post or update an old one, focus on which is the biggest impact on your ROI.
And when you have to choose between working on Task A or Task B, ask yourself which would benefit the user the most. This is your answer.
Think and act holistically
With international search engine optimization, your scope is broader than if you only worked with one niche in one country.
Optimize in a holistic way by focusing on a user-friendly taxonomy and your main pillars to make sure you grow on more keywords than with a narrow view.
Automate your most time consuming processes
If possible, automatically generating content like product descriptions and meta-descriptions can save you time and money and view results much faster.
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Your time is better used elsewhere.
Connect with people, internal and external
To be the best in the international arena, you need to connect with marketers and industry peers in all of the international markets you work in.
Since these are connections, you may work in a company where you are in different units around the world.
In this case, it is especially important that you connect with international colleagues to get the best insights into other markets.
Communication will help grow the company as an organization. If you are a leader this is a must – not just in search engine optimization, but in every aspect of business.
Think more locally
In short, thinking locally is key to international SEO.
Every country is its own market.
This has to be your mindset to be successful.
Your main search engine optimization goals are often better voice, higher revenue, and more / higher quality leads.
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To achieve your goals, you need an overall strategy.
Now you also have a tactical checklist based on best practices for an international approach to aid it.