With the world becoming increasingly globalized, companies have a great opportunity to expand into new countries. However, it's easy to make mistakes when you're not familiar with the local markets.
SEO is the process of optimising a website and increasing its online presence in order to rank well with Google, drive traffic, and generate sales. International SEO strategy has all the same challenges as SEO in a single language, but also comes with additional technical, logistical and translation challenges.
Following the step by step approach outlined here will help your site generate traffic and sales in a multilingual and multicultural world.
Use a local domain name if it's available
To build a local presence, it helps to register your domain name in the country where you want it to rank. Search engines use geotargeting and a .fr will rank higher in France, but lower in other countries. This also helps with branding as a country code top level domain generates trust with users. If you have a local extension, they are more likely to assume you have a local business. This in turn might mean they assume customer service will speak their language, delivery will be faster, etc.
For large brands, use your brand name as the domain name and purchase a different extension (e.g. .de for German, .fr for France, etc.). For small and medium sized companies, you may want to consider a keyword rich domain name. If you do, make sure you translate the domain name and use a local keyword in it. There’s no point having a site like inflatable-dinghies .fr as non-English speakers in France won’t know what either word mean.
If you have a CMS which doesn’t allow this, or domain names simply aren't available, don't worry, it's only one of 100's of factors Google look at. There are still SEO strategies to help you rank well using sub-domains or sub-folders.
Create a local presence in each country
Another way to show you have a local presence is to set up a local office address and phone number. If this isn’t feasible or cost effective for your business right now, consider outsourcing some of its services like customer relations management (CRM) or a telephone answering service through companies based in countries with whom you want good relations.
Choose a CMS that’s multilingual SEO friendly
The most successful CMS’s like WordPress, Drupal, Shopify and PrestaShop all allow you to easily create a separate domain name using a shared database. This means if you update a photo, price, stock, etc. on one site, it will update on all the sites. These CMS also allow you to translate URLs for each language and present a range of other options to simplify the translation process.
If your existing site isn’t multilingual compatible, you have three options:
- Switch to a CMS that can handle multiple languages (this has the advantage that it’s easier to update the site in all languages in one go, e.g. where prices or stock control is synchronized).
- Copy your existing site, then translate it (this means you have two sites that are essentially identical apart from the text)
- Create a CMS in just the new languages.
The disadvantage with 2 and 3 are ongoing web development work will need to be applied to each site independently. We’d therefore recommend 1 for long-term cost-efficiency.
Highlight important selling points in your redesign
When you translate a site, review your site design and ask yourself if a redesign is required? Different target audiences expect different things in a design. For example, if you have a UK address prominently featured on your UK site, this isn’t a selling point in other countries. For your European or international website versions, you might want to change the font size, or only show the address on the contact page and the terms and conditions.
A couple of examples of how to tweak your design and content for different countries:
- German visitors do more research before buying a product than in any other country, so ensure you include useful blogs and plenty of product details for German visitors.
- For French visitors, they like the reassurance that a site is registered with certain governing bodies and that payments are secure. For French sites, it's worth including logos of key organisations that process your transactions, or that your company is registered with.
- Americans are more likely to be influenced by claims that something is 'the best' whereas Europeans are more likely to ask 'where's the proof?'
Complete international keyword research
When doing international keyword research, it’s essential to review search volume for the specific countries you’re targeting. There will be some keywords, particularly for technical terms where an English word might be used even if a translated word exists. For most keywords, it’s essential to use the native version and don’t rely on the English.
This makes it a challenge when considering how to name your products. Huge international corporations can get away with keeping the same brand names, as they have the power to saturate the media with them. For smaller companies, it’s normally best to translate brand names to a locally recognizable term.
Research shows that even though 55% of people in Germany speak English, only 5% of searches in Google.de are in English, the other 95% are in German. The illustrates the importance of both local keyword research and of accurate translations.
Adapt your translations for SEO
When it comes to international SEO, Google prefers content to be written in the native language of each country. You can't, however, just use software to translate your English site into other languages and expect it to work well. Google consider a machine translation without professionally editing to be spam and automatically generated websites tend to be full of mistakes.
It's better to adapt your content for each country so that it reads correctly, is relevant for the users in that country, aligns with their cultural expectations and has important SEO elements.
For example: if you're targeting French speakers in France, you'll need to provide content written in French; but don't limit yourself only to France—you may also want to invest time into writing a few articles on topics of interest related specifically to Quebec (French-speaking) Canadians or French speakers living abroad.
While it’s important to translate content into each language of your target country, you should also consider hiring a professional translation agency. This will help ensure that your translations are grammatically and syntactically correct, as well as culturally appropriate. Furthermore, it’s important to target keywords with a high search volume in the specific country you’re targeting.
We offer a full website translation service between English, Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Italian. This includes keyword research and all necessary SEO elements to ensure the translated content ranks well with Google.
Adapt content to the local culture of the specific country
Click the above image for a close-up.
The above images show cityscapes from the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany. Many Europeans would recognise the differences and be able to at least hazard a guess at which country each image represents. The same is true in the subtleties of cultural differences.
To respect local culture, adapt the language used in each country. In different international markets, people prefer a formal way of writing or speaking; in others, it’s okay to use slang or the informal versions of 'you'. You should also know if there are specific words that would be offensive if used by a foreigner (e.g., calling someone “fat”).
Use local cultural references if possible (for example referencing local geographical sites or celebrities) because they will help readers feel more engaged with the article and identify with it more easily - especially those who live near where these references originated.
When translating content, it’s also worth ensuring things like any mentions of the weather or fashion apply to the country. If you have a site selling clothes, the gloves, scarves, and hats are likely to sell far better in the UK than Italy and Spain, say. If you’re translating your website, ensure you change which products are promoted on your home page.
Include hreflang tags
To help search engines understand which language and regional versions of your site you want them to index and rank, include the hreflang tag.
This tells search engines what the alternative versions of each page is in different languages. If your site is configured correctly, most CMS systems will generate this automatically.
Translate and optimize meta tags
Use the meta title element to give a brief overview of what makes your product or service unique, or the key information contained in a blog. Make sure it’s different for each page and includes local keywords. Keep it short (no more than 58 characters).
Write an enticing meta description that gives a brief overview of what makes your page unique, while including a point-of-interest (or unique selling point) worthy enough to convince someone they should click through from Google's search results pages. Write between 120 and 158 characters for your meta description.
Read more tips and download our Metatag Generator.
Make your blog inspirational and unique
When writing blog posts, it's important to translate some content, but also create content that is relevant to each country. This means you can't just write about "SEO" or "marketing" and expect people from all over the world to understand what you're talking about. Instead, your blog topics should be specific and geared towards a particular region—for example, if there are certain laws or regulations that apply only in France, it's better not to talk about them at all if they're not relevant for other markets.
The saying, "Two heads are better than one," is true, and if you can brainstorm with your international team on what content to translate and what new content to write, that will be a great starting point.
To optimize blog content, ensure that you do keyword research for the specific country you’re targeting. The keyword should then be included:
- Once in the URL
- Once in the Meta Title and h1 title
- Once or twice in the Meta Description
- A few times in the content, along with other semantically related words
Translate everything, not just products and services
Ensure you translate shipping information, FAQs, etc. Even though it might seem trivial to translate this type of content, it will be helpful to potential customers and could lead to better conversions, as well as protecting you legally.
For example, if you’re a bicycle parts company located in the UK and you ship your product internationally, then this is something people need to know about. The same applies for any other products or services you offer.
Consider country specific e-commerce needs
Another challenge is that payment methods are often different for each country. This means you can't assume that your customers will be using the same method of payment everywhere. Some examples of platforms that are particularly important in specific countries are:
- The Netherlands – iDEAL
- Belgium – Bancontact
- Denmark and Finland – Trustly
- Sweden – Swish and Trustly
- Italy – Bancomat Pay (mobile app)
- Poland – Przelewy24 (online bank transfer)
- Norway – Vipps (online bank transfer)
For more examples, see online payment providers by country. The payment options you present to customers are an essential aspect of user-experience which could determine whether your website thrives or fails.
Ensure your customer service supports your marketing
In addition to providing customer service through email, you should also consider providing support via a variety of other channels, including phone calls. It's also important to make sure that your support staff is well-versed in the languages they will be speaking with customers who speak other languages.
If you're in a position where you need to hire new employees or contractors for your international clients' customer service departments, it's important to know what language(s) each country speaks as well as which language(s) will be spoken most often by your clientele. If possible, try and hire people who can speak both English and the native language of the country in question (for instance: an Italian speaker for Italy).
Target high-quality links
Link building for international websites is not necessarily more difficult than link building for local websites, but it is different. Here are some things to consider:
- Include guest posts in your multilingual link building campaign. Guest posting (also known as guest blogging) can be a fantastic way to get exposure on high-value websites and drive traffic back to your own site.
- Try hiring an international SEO agency if you don't have the resources or time to go after these kinds of links yourself. An agency will know how to find the right sites, pitch them properly, and negotiate deals without having too much trouble with language barriers or cultural differences between you and them.
- Ensure your links go to the same language as the content of the page they’re from. Do NOT be tempted to use English links with foreign keywords in the anchor text, as this is more likely to get you penalized by Google than rewarded.
We offer a full multilingual link building service covering many different European countries.
Target the best international social media platforms
Another important thing to consider when optimizing ecommerce websites for international SEO is the way people use certain forms of communication and social media. It might be possible to optimize your website so its content gets shared more on one platform than another, or so it ranks better on particular search results pages (SERPs).
Social media lets you provide localized content and is also one factor Google consider in their algorithm. This is especially useful if you're targeting countries that are quite different from your own, and therefore have different needs and preferences for products or services.
When considering social media platforms, also reflect on the age of your customers. If you’re selling skateboards and your market is predominantly teenagers, TikTok is likely to be a great platform for you. If your product is aimed at over 60’s, TikTok will be a waste of time.
Running an SEO campaign for a specific country is a challenge in itself, but managing an international one brings an extra layer of complexity.
Start by creating a clear SEO strategy taking account the needs of your various local audiences. Consider aspects of both design and content and apply best international SEO practice in order to succeed.
The 15 steps outlined above will help you on your way to success.
If you would like a free SEO consultation, don't hesitate to get in touch.