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International SEO in 2020: Core Best Practices

Paul Teddy Director | SEO

More and more companies are expanding globally; after all, in the world of digital marketing, a brand from halfway across the globe is just a Google search away. But there are some specific challenges facing companies on the search engines result page as they expand into new markets.

To succeed globally, you need to pay attention to international SEO—and make sure you are creating a great experience for your customers around the world as well as the search engines.

What is international SEO?

International SEO is the combination of on-page tags, content changes, and site architecture that are required or recommended in order to ensure proper consideration by search engines and positive user experience in regions around the world simultaneously. The technical definition of how search engines (and Google specifically) handle international websites in SERPs seems to suggest that so long as a brand has one effective and authoritative version of the website, they can potentially rank anywhere.

However, there is a key missing component in that idea: your website still needs to be relevant and authoritative for that region. This doesn’t mean that Google was wrong, it just means that “how do I rank in international markets?” wasn’t the question that Google was answering.

So, how do you get your site to rank internationally? The answer is a combination of many technical, design, and content related elements, coupled with localized campaigns. We will cover quite a few specific best practices for the implementation and execution of a successful international campaign, but remember that it’s equally important that you expend resources to build localized campaigns for each and every international version of the site—or at least, anywhere you want to succeed organically.

A well-developed international SEO campaign doesn’t just mean thinking big; it also means taking the time to do localized competitive and product research, keyword and SERP research, user testing and CRO, and more. Whatever work you’ve put into making your primary site successful domestically also needs to be done to make any international version successful.

What factors are unique to international SEO?

Nearly all of the effort that goes into a successful international SEO campaign is exactly the same as what you need for any effective SEO campaign. The biggest difference between the two is what’s considered “local” and how to tailor the overall campaign for that local audience. Beyond that, what’s actually different is a relatively short list:

  • Geo-Targeting – Your site needs to clearly target a specific region of the world, which is typically only a factor when attempting to target more than one region.
  • Transcreation – This is the process of not only translating content to the local language, but also adjusting the content itself and messaging to fit local culture and priorities.
  • Multi-Site Architecture – The days of countless mini- or micro-sites being a reliable SEO tactic for virtually anyone are now behind us, so multi-site architectures are largely a concern reserved for global brands.
  • Cross-Region Linking & UX – Closely related to questions around the architecture is how, or whether, users and search engines are able to engage with and visit alternate versions of the site.
  • Unique Tags – Not counting the inevitable UX changes, best practice international SEO really only requires implementing 2 additional tags or attributes to each page or XML sitemap: lang and hreflang.

What are the UX best practices for international SEO?

The simplest advice for international UX best practices is to make the entire website and all of its alternate versions accessible to both users and search engines whenever possible. Here are a few guidelines to follow when making that possible:

  • Ensure the user knows which version of the site they are on and, if there is a better local version for that user, ask them if they would rather use their local version instead. 
    • One popular and effective option is to display a small pop-up in the header that loads first (follow critical path rendering and mobile-first guidelines and this element can appear nearly instantaneously), which clearly communicates which version of the site the user is currently on AND provides a direct link to a better local version of the site, if one exists.
  • Create a static navigation which similarly communicates which version of the site the user is currently on, with easy access to all alternate versions. While placing this in the footer is technically valid and helps with search engine access, it may not help confused or unknowing users if there is no pop-up enabled.
  • When connecting a user to an alternate version of the site, the destination should match the page the user was on. Avoid dumping users on the other site’s home page; saving users the time of re-orienting themselves or having to navigate back through the site may prevent a bounce or exit.
  • For sites that utilize a language that is read vertically or from right-to-left, there may be design changes required in order to best-optimize for that audience. Note that the best solution, if it were to be a dramatically altered design, may not be suitable for certain site architecture configurations. In these instances, consider the opportunity at hand and whether utilizing a new ccTLD & design may be the best approach.

In addition to the above, an obvious and huge potential UX issue is whether the content is tailored to the user’s language and region, which we’ll dig into in a moment.

What are the technical SEO best practices for international SEO?

Technical international SEO best practices refer most basically to ensuring the site’s crawlability and indexability around the globe. You’ll need to set up processes to evaluate the international site architecture, configure on-page tags, and test and monitor each site’s behavior when visited from around the world.

Here are the top technical items to keep an eye on for an international SEO campaign:

  • Hreflang tag usage – we could spend a fair bit of time on hreflang and site architecture strategy but suffice it to say that the best implementation is as inclusive as possible. In addition to the specific regions that are relevant to your business, consider setting up language catch-alls or x-default rules. These both allow the site to appear in regions not otherwise specifically targeted, if Google finds them relevant. All hreflang tags must be reciprocal (i.e. they’re implemented on both versions of the page and point to each other) in order to be valid.
  • Bing – Don’t forget to set lang attributes in your top HTML tag for Bing, Yandex, and other search engines.
  • Sitemaps – For clarity and simplified future diagnostics, consider splitting XML sitemaps up by region, whether the site uses a subdirectory international site architecture or not.
  • Redirects & Canonicals – Ensure that canonicalization and redirect rules are not contradicting the hreflang implementation – canonical URLs and redirects should not cross between alternate versions of the site (e.g. a .ca site’s page canonicalizing or redirecting to the .com version). If they do, it’s a direct contradiction of what the hreflang is meant to communicate, and will invalidate the hreflang. 
  • International site architecture – Google is best/most-consistently-accurate at serving international versions that are built into ccTLDs, followed by subdomains & subdirectories. We recommend either a ccTLD or subdirectory approach, or both, which we detail here. If you’re attempting to advertise the same site in multiple regions, you may struggle if there are significant language and cultural differences.
  • Local-relevance configuration – For sites that use ccTLDs, this is done automatically. For any other implementation of international site architecture, it is necessary to log into Search Console and adjust the country targeting settings. For sites that are targeting more than one specific country, such as a European Union site, a principal country must be chosen.

A special note for geo IP redirects: geo IP redirects do not follow best practices. The major issue with these types of redirects is that in order to implement them and mitigate their drawbacks, you must break several other international and core SEO best practices. They are best avoided and we recommend addressing the underlying issues they’re meant to address instead.

Lastly, one other suggestion is to invest in a VPN service with configurable endpoints. VPNs allow the user to trick the internet into believing they’re actually visiting from anywhere in the world, country-selection permitting. This is an important tool because some sites are hard-coded with a form of geo IP redirect behavior mentioned above. Limited or even zero access to such sites can make it nearly impossible to gather the information needed to build and maintain an effective international campaign.

What are the best practices for content in international SEO?

Content best practices for international SEO all comes down to one thing: localization. Let’s take a look at the specific best practices that are non-negotiable when it comes to effectively building localized content:

  • Transcreation – Transcreation is the act of translating copy into the local language as well as adjusting the content itself to fit the local culture. This is one of the major ‘hard costs’ associated with international SEO. For best results, you need a native speaker of the language as well as someone who actually understands the subject matter (or sufficient research in place of experience) so you can communicate effectively with the local audience.
  • Top-to-Bottom Translation – Translating literally everything is an often overlooked aspect of international SEO. Some of the many elements to consider include:
    • URLs
    • Title tags and meta descriptions
    • Open Graph tags
    • Structured Data
    • Navigation
    • All headings and copy
    • Image alt text
    • Resources such as support docs
    • Assets such as whitepapers
    • Video subtitles
  • Imagery – Images work best when they connect with the user on some level. In order to ensure engagement, evaluate the use of images throughout the site and consider whether it fits or speaks to the local audience or not.
  • Approach each new region with a fresh mindset – While success in other regions can provide a helpful starting point, it’s important to be open-minded about what the actual SERP and competitive landscape is like in each region. Be prepared to make changes to even well-established campaigns and adjust the content strategy to fit what’s actually thriving in that region.
  • Don’t rely on Google Translate – This might seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many global companies still rely on faulty automatic translation. Even in limited circumstances, such as translating a keyword list, Google can get things surprisingly wrong. In a recent experiment performed within our agency of approximately 250 keywords, compared to a human translator and localization expert, Google Translate arrived at the same answer only 30% of the time.

Hyper-localized, automated campaigns that prioritize a great customer experience across channels and up and down the funnel? According to Google’s Chief Evangelist Nicolas Darveau-Garneau, that’s the marketing of the future. Access our exclusive on-demand event featuring NDG to get the full story: Rise to the Challenge of… The Vision: Where Marketing Is Going.

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