The day has finally come – you have decided it is time to take your business international. Prospects and potential customers are searching all over the world for your products and services, but because your website only caters to one region of the world, you’re missing out on the opportunity. You need to figure out a way to get your content in front of all those eyeballs and in the language they’re speaking!
What this means for your SEO strategy is a leap into advanced optimization practices. There is a ton of information to digest about international SEO, so make sure you really understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into before you dive in. As with any SEO campaign, it’s best to start with your business goals and customer expectations first, then build a game plan on how to effectively achieve those goals.
Remember, Google wants to provide its users with the best information in the shortest amount of time – so if you build your site’s content with this in mind, you’ll be well on your way to ranking in any language or region you’re targeting.
That’s easier said than done, so let’s jump right into the process!
Multi-Lingual vs. Multi-Regional
It’s important to align your business goals with your new SEO strategy to make sure you’re targeting the right audience producing content they will want to read or watch. This brings us to the super important question of whether you want to target specific languages, regions, or possibly both.
Let’s look at a real world scenario using a fictional company we will call IceStix. Now, IceStix’s new line of light-weight hockey sticks are selling like hotcakes in the U.S., and the company is obviously looking to target the international markets in Canada and eventually move into Russia and other Eastern European countries.
In this scenario, IceStix is going to be targeting BOTH the country of Canada and the French language. They’re going to have a two-pronged SEO strategy that focuses on content targeted to the Canadian audience (for example, player bios of Canadian-born players who are sponsored by IceStix, news and blogs about Canadian hockey teams, local hockey league information, maps of rink locations, etc), and then will need to create a French language version of this content as well.
IceStix will have its main website (icestix.com), followed by it’s sister Canadian site, icestix.ca (which will feature similar content written in English but catered to the Canadian audience, which will also have a subfolder for French-speaking visitors (icestix.ca/fr) with the same content properly re-written in French.
There are many discussions from the best SEO minds out there on the different ways to approach this – the method outlined above is just one of many. If going with a ccTLD (country-code Top Level Domain) isn’t an option, you could always start with sub-directories from the main URL. Different scenarios can call for different options, but chances that are using a ccTLD is the way to go. When IceStix is ready to jump into Russia, it can take the strategy above and create content at the icestix.ru URL.
The important thing to remember here is the content – each site has to be built with the user and audience in mind. None of the technical aspects of international SEO matter if you’re not creating content that makes sense for the visitors from each region. At the end of the day you still have to build links to really own the SERPs and that includes getting links from that region. If you’re not publishing awesome relevant content, chances are you’re not going to be obtaining killer links and your geo-targeting strategy will be dead in the sand.
Technical SEO Considerations
Obviously your “usual” SEO best practices should be put into place for each new website you build, but there are some additional on-page tweaks you can do to make sure Google is indexing your content properly, AND that it knows this content is targeted towards a particular region.
One minor ranking factor to take into consideration is your hosting and IP address. For example, IceStix might start off by hosting their website all on one American server in subfolders (icestix.com/ca) but as it’s geo-targeting strategy grows and it moves to it’s own ccTLD, it would be a good idea to have the website hosted with a Canadian IP address. Again, it’s a very minor ranking signal (a disputed one at that), but is a good idea if you want to cover all your bases.
Google has a special tag it suggests using for those targeting other languages. The “hreflang” tag can be used to tell Google which URLs it should index and display for searchers (so you don’t get hit with a duplicate content penalty). There are multiple opportunities to use the hreflang tag, including sites that perhaps only change the navigation or template (forums typically do this) for different languages, sites that have similar content that is re-written in different languages, and those sites that feature completely original content. In addition to using the correct hreflang markup in your header you can also submit it via a language-specific XML sitemap.
Google Webmaster Tools
Another option for properly notifying Google about your international content can be found right in Google Webmaster Tools. If you’re starting out by just using the subfolder option, submit these in Webmaster tools. Obviously when you move to the ccTLD you’ll have to submit these as new sites, but in both scenarios you have the option of defining a specific geographic region.
As we covered earlier, understanding your audience is going to ultimately lead to campaign success in your international SEO efforts, and in more ways than you probably even considered. Sure, having awesome local content is going to play a major role, but you also need to understand how your users consume that content.
This step is one most often outsourced; making sure it is done properly will be crucial to not only your SEO, but your conversion rates as well. Remember, at the end of the day rankings are meaningless if the traffic you are getting does not end up in the visitor taking some sort of action.
Attention to Details
The more you go down the rabbit hole of multiple websites for language/region considerations, the more it starts to make sense to develop specific content catered to these audiences. If you’re including pricing on goods and services, you’re going to want to use the right currency. Including business hours? Make sure you consider their time zones.
Do you have a country-specific address and phone number? You’ll want to re-visit your local SEO checklists and see what makes sense for each region, including your Schema markup, Google My Business, and Bing Business Portal profiles, and even local country-specific search engines. All of these details will lead to better SEO and boost trust in your user-base.
Content Development and Link Building
So our thriving hockey stick company, Icestix, has built its new website targeting Canadian hockey fans and players. All the technical work is done and the site is ready to start building content. This is where all the fun begins!
We could talk for days on end about all the different content possibilities that could be developed for a project like this. The most important part in building a thriving international strategy is being able to take this process and duplicate it in every region and language that you ultimately want to target.
Directories = Links
The first thing Icestix will want to do is provide information to it’s Canadian users about where they can purchase their new favorite hockey stick. Sure, they might sell them right there on the website, but they also probably can be found in new store locations all over the country. I’d create a directory of store locations with all the important store information (address, phone number, hours). I’d probably even go one step further and provide pictures and maps of the establishment so buyers can easily find their way into the store to purchase the product.
The genius move here would to then contact the store owners and make sure the information is correct and up-to-date, and then kindly ask if they could link to our new Canadian-friendly website. By doing so you just landed some incredible region-specific links which are going to provide your new site with the link boost to get your campaign off and running.
This same strategy can be applied over and over again for the new Icestix website. We could build directories of all the youth hockey organizations across Canada, include as much relevant information as possible, and reach out to those in charge. Free, priceless links!
Free Ebooks = Links
Next up on the content block would be the free safety ebook for youth hockey players. Icestix should spend some quality time putting together an in-depth guide to protective hockey equipment, how to properly wear and treat the equipment, then how to make sure your child is safe in the rink. If it was in the budget, we could even get posters printed for schools and hockey organizations to hang in their locker rooms for all the players to see.
Then, just like we did with our directory listings, we reach out to those in charge of youth sports and offer the book and poster free of charge, of course asking for a link from the school website or blog (and of course free advertising on Facebook and Twitter). Again, killer links we’re getting from very region-based websites, and even more so possibly .gov or .edu links (if we meet the right people).
Interviews = Links
It’s almost too easy with this one: getting interviews with popular, Canadian born hockey players and coaches, both past and present. A tried and true approach to getting great backlinks with minimal effort. IceStix’s approach would be to send players free gear and ask them to test it out in practice (you could even take this one step further and incorporate video on-location with the player, if you have money to burn!). The result is a cool player interview, a tweet out from the player to your new website, and no-doubt tweets and links from the player’s home town and province. More local links!
Offline Events = Links
So far we’re getting some solid ideas on how to build region specific backlinks for your new international strategy. Sometimes, however, a very powerful way to build-up that link juice is to turn the computer off and venture outdoors (and in this example, it’s probably going to be a little cold outside!).
IceStix could put together a cross-country tour to continue promoting player safety in youth hockey. We could take the information we developed for the ebook and develop it into a presentation, and go around to the aforementioned ice skating rinks, youth hockey leagues, schools, and even contact local government organizations to offer up our free safety seminar for parents. Maybe even recruit a local hockey celebrity in each region to help spread the word! Once news of the event gets out we’ll be sure to get all sorts of social media attention (re:links) for our PR efforts.
The list goes on and on for the many different ways we can approach natural, region specific link building. You just can’t buy that kind of ranking power, and the techniques that work the best need to continually implemented to ensure long-term success.
Language-Specific Link Building
Remember that other sub-directory we built, which featured similar content but catered towards the French-speaking provinces? We’ll want to develop a content and link building strategy for that directory specifically, so we can get links from sites that are also using that language (and will no doubt be from the region as well!).
For our company, IceStix, we could create a big list of French-speaking websites that cover the history of hockey, French hockey news sites, French hockey bloggers, etc – literally list after list of everything under the sun that is hockey related and is written in French. Hopefully some of these lists (the more linkbait-y the better) gets picked up via social media and attracts links from hockey fans and the websites that are being featured. If that doesn’t work then we fire up our most trusted link building tool (our email) and fire off some more friendly link requests.
I’m sure there are plenty of guest posting opportunities here that would provide some killer links for our friends over at IceStix. All those bloggers you made friends with by compiling those lists? Ask them to trade content, maybe provide them with periodic original content (written in French) and syndicating their blog on your French-speaking domain.
Another awesome approach would be to reach out to bloggers who DON’T speak French natively, but DO want to reach out to that audience. IceStix could network with websites and bloggers from all over Canada and offer to re-purpose their content for this audience. We literally could take our approach to international SEO and using it to build up our network of backlinks!
Citations, Reviews, and Votes
We mentioned earlier re-visiting your local-SEO checklist and going through the motions with your new region specific websites. This doesn’t stop with just your technical on-site SEO: you want to use the same techniques you use to rank your local SEO clients in very much the same manner.
That means looking for opportunities to get local citation links from social websites where it can make sense. Would a Yelp page help our hockey friends at IceStix? Probably wouldn’t make sense, but there are probably local sporting directories that we could get some good citation links from.
How about business review sites? Those links are always important not just for your SEO, but again for your users to find and read about. Good reviews from trusted local sources usually ends being great for your business and conversion rates in general.
Finally, something that we haven’t mentioned too much thus far is getting traction in the right social media circles. Just like networking with the influencers offline will prove to be a boon for IceStix business ventures, so will creating an active social media presence for their SEO campaigns. Get people to share content on Facebook and Twitter to continue pushing your efforts in the regions you’re trying to target.
So, What Are You Waiting For?
Taking the leap into international SEO waters can be a daunting task for many, especially those with the limited resources. It takes time, money, and more importantly a lot of manpower (not to mention tons of creativity) to tackle one website, let alone 10 different versions of it. Those who find the right balance of workload and profit in one region can learn how to duplicate these processes to much success in almost any region of the world.
As we discussed earlier, there are many technical steps to ensure Google and other search engines know about your new international strategy, and we’ve linked to some of the best articles and guides throughout. Not every approach is going to need a ccTLD right off the bat, and not every campaign is going to have the budget to launch all of those wonderful link acquisition campaigns.
Those who want to succeed are going to have to think outside of the box and develop strong off-site campaigns as they do their on-site SEO. The hardest part is getting started. Don’t let the technical hang-ups keep you from what could be a great addition to your marketing and business strategy. Once you start building the content (even if you start with a sub-directory), you’ll begin developing the processes that could open doors for your future SEO strategy.