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Getting started with international SEO

Implementing a successful strategy for international SEO can be a particularly daunting task, but the results are well worth it for businesses operating on a global scale.

Given that you’ll often be working across languages and locations, the landscape of international SEO is an inherently complex one, but there are some basic guidelines to stick to if you hope to ensure that your site can be found in your target markets.

Technical basics


Subfolders vs subdomains

The best way to cater to multiple languages or regions is by using subfolders with internationally recognised language codes. This means each language essentially has its own separate part of the site with its own content. This can be region-specific, but it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be as easy to navigate that site in one language as it is in the next.

Using subfolders is better for distributing link value than subdomains, so choose a structure and stick with it. For example, if you’ve gone with a subfolder solution to address country and language combinations but have a single Contact Us page that would work for all languages, it’s best to recreate that in each language. That way, you can have a Contact Us page that fits nicely into each of these subfolder combinations.

Optimise content across different languages


It’s absolutely crucial for search engines to be able to tell what language is in use on a page. All elements of code and copy need to be translated as search engines get confused with multiple languages on one page.

Make sure international content exists on sitemaps too. If you rely solely on autodetection for language/region, and not a recognised structure that search engines can follow (subfolders with language codes, for example) then international content may not be found or served up when it should be.

Utilise the hreflang tag

Use the hreflang attribute to indicate to search engines that equivalent versions of a page exist in different localisations. No matter which version of a page a search engine sees, it needs to be told that other language/region versions exist each and every time. What’s more, they all need to link to each other — for example, if French links to English in the code, English must link back to French.

Some search engines don’t use hreflang tags (though Google and Yandex do). Including content-language meta tags in the header can help other search engines identify the language in use. These can be formatted using ISO639 language codes and ISO 3166 country codes (e.g. FR-CA for French Canadian, EN-US for English United States, EN-GB for English, UK).

User experience


Know your target audience

Make sure targeted regions/languages are really worth targeting. For example, you can put more effort into Russian copy if majority of those reading are Russian, but don’t worry so much about France if there’s not the market for it there. This is more true for international SEO than it is for standard content. Once the site is ranking for key terms, you can see where traffic is coming from by checking language and location of organic search traffic in Google Analytics.

Positive user experience is key. Google dislikes thin content in any language, so it’s worth hiring foreign copywriters if need be. High quality content is also more likely to lead to conversions, and that’s true wherever your visitors are coming from.

Address site errors and redirects


Many sites redirect based on IPs or language, but give visitors the option to correct this if it’s wrong (have a language selector visible on all pages — ideally in the top right). When a new language is selected from the language selector, users should be sent to the equivalent page in the new language, not back to the homepage. Use cookies to remember user language preferences if possible.

Address common website functionality in all languages. Site-wide navigation, global headers and footers, error messaging (404 messages etc), search queries, and everything else must be translated and regionalised. Alt attributes and image titles, too. Any images with text overlays must be translated as well, as must any buttons on-site.

Also worth exploring…


Do your research

It should come as no great surprise that people may search for different terms in different locations. For this reason, if the resources are available it’s a good idea to conduct keyword research for target languages and regions. If not, then basic on-page SEO (URL, title, meta descriptions etc) are still worth optimising, even if it’s only using common-sense keywords.

It helps to be proficient in target languages so that you’re able to use the regional tools/services that are available. If it’s not possible, it might be worth paying someone locally who is.

Identify target search engines

Learn which search engines count — whether that’s localised Google, or something else entirely. While time consuming, it’s worth optimising for and monitoring results in each region — not just Google UK.

Local search is also a real investment, so understand which search engines hold market share in certain countries. Be realistic about how much time can be spent on all this by assessing its importance in the overall scope of your business.

While optimising your international SEO strategy may seem daunting at first, the results are sure to be worthwhile in the long run. Discover more about our SEO services, or contact us to discuss how we can help you.