Do you speak the language of international search engine optimization (SEO)? With so many companies interacting with customers from around the globe, it's more important than ever to make your web pages visible no matter where visitors are coming from.
SEO is all about relevance. It's about making your website more visible in the search results, bringing qualified leads, business opportunities and revenue. International SEO is just the same, but for a global audience. It's how you help search engines to understand that you are targeting specific markets with region, country and language-specific content.
Who Searches Where?
International SEO can be challenging because not all search engines are alike. So first you have to understand how and where customers across the globe search.
In North America, when we think of search, we think of Google. That's because 70% of searches in the US happen on Google. Outside the US, the picture is very different, with Google accounting for less than 50% of searches.
In Russia, Yandex has 60% of the search market. In China, Baidu has 70%, and in Korea, Naver has 70% of the market. Even where Google is the main search provider, you may get different results in different countries. What you see for a search in Google US will be different from the results returned by Google in Germany.
Understanding Search Behavior
You also have to know how different search engines behave. At one time, while Google focused on link quality, Baidu focused on link quantity. And even today, where Google separates results by type (blog, news, and so on), Korea's Naver delivers universal rather than organic results, putting everything on one long scrolling page.
International SEO is about optimizing for search engine differences, not just linguistic and cultural differences. If you're marketing globally, then a good approach is to create content in different languages. This is not as simple as translating what you already have. You have to do the same research you would do for regular SEO because customers in different regions may behave differently and have different expectations, needs and questions - both your content and your SEO strategy need to respond.
- Paul Woodhouse, Director SEO @ Adept
You also need to think about legalities and administrative issues. For instance, in some EU countries, Cookie Compliance is a factor, while in France, you need a French postal address to register a .fr domain.
Getting Started with International SEO
How do you get started with international SEO? The first step is to decide what kind of website you need to offer your customers. Your options are:
- Multi-regional sites (geared to users in different countries who speak the same language, for example in the USA, UK and Australia)
- Multi-lingual sites (for users in different countries speaking different languages. In Europe for example, you might target users in the UK, Germany, France and Spain)
- Both (aiming to reach users in different countries, some of whom may speak the same language.)
Your next step is to decide on a URL structure. Google recommends three main options:
1. A country code top level domain (ccTLD) - this is where the domain name relates to a specific country. (Example: .au is the ccTLD for Australia, so your site would be http://www.example.au
2. A generic top level domain (gTLD) that avoids specifying a country (such as .com, .info or .co). Combine this with a country specific subdomain (http://uk.example.com) or a language specific subdomain (http://en.example.com).
3. A gTLD with with country or language specific subdirectory (such as http://www.example.com/uk or http://www.example.com/en/.
As you will see, each option has pros and cons.
ccTLDs: Pros and Cons
One big advantage with ccTLDs is that users believe they show information relevant to their country. The trust factor is high, though research shows that .com sites can still outrank .co.uk sites for the same content. That's probably because .com has become a universal website trust indicator.
A ccTLD approach makes it easy to separate sites and sends Google a strong geo-targeting signal, which makes server location less relevant.
However, there are several disadvantages. Depending on local restrictions, not all businesses can gain access to a ccTLD. And you can't always get the ccTLD for each location where you operate. The ccTLD route is also a costly option, with additional infrastructure and site maintenance demands.
From an SEO viewpoint, with the ccTLD route, you need to pay attention to geo-targeting to avoid issues with duplicate content (part 2 of this article will cover this more fully). With separate sites, link building is more difficult and domain authority diluted.
Despite this, most SEO experts recommend the ccTLD for global website optimization. It's what Amazon does, not only using different domains, but changing language, currencies and product groupings to match local norms. However, because of the cost factor, many companies go with the second option: using subdomains.
Subdomains for International SEO: Pros and Cons
Subdomains are easy to set up and allow organizations to retain corporate branding, while separating sites and giving each its own identity. To see this in action, look at Wikipedia. That site organizes local information by using a language specific subdomain, for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page and http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
Using subdomains allows you to host them on servers in different countries (to help with geo-targeting). You can also combine them with subdirectories to target different language groups within a country, for example http://ca.example.com/fr and http://ca.example.com/en.
Using subdomains isn't always good for users, because they may not know they are on a language specific site by looking at the URL (it's more obvious with a ccTLD).
It can be difficult to know what to include on the home page (and linking all your subdomains won't increase their authority much). In addition, since search engines treat each subdomain as a separate site, you need a separate link building campaign for each subdomain.
Subdirectories for International SEO: Pros and Cons
If you're looking for a simple approach, then using subdirectories may be your best bet. It's the easiest way to organize content as all subdirectories live on the same web hosting platform. This keeps maintenance costs low.
To see subdirectories in action, check out Skype, which uses subdirectories to differentiate among languages and countries. (http://www.skype.com/ro/, http://www.skype.com/tr/, http://www.skype.com/no/, http://www.skype.com/uk/)
When you're talking international SEO, there's another big win for subdirectories: all inbound links come to a single domain, increasing both domain and page authority.
Like subdomains, subdirectories have the disadvantage of making it hard to decide what to include on the home page. Using subdirectories also makes it harder for users to recognize geotargeting and it's almost impossible to separate sites. If you're targeting European searchers in particular, it's worth knowing that this demographic favors ccTLDs and will usually choose those in search results.
One Country, Many Languages: Do Them All!
There are many places around the world where people speak more than one language in the same country. Canada and Switzerland are just two examples. If you're targeting web content to these locations, you have a couple of options for organizing your pages. Let's explore these, using Canada as an example:
- You could target content to both French and English speaking Canadians using subdomains and folders. http://ca.example.com or http://www.example.com/ca/
- You could target a particular language group by combining subdomains and folders. http://ca.example.com/fr/ or http://www.example.com/ca/fr/ for French speakers in Canada.
So what's the bottom line on international SEO?
Consistency. It's important to pick a solution and stick to it if you want to get the maximum benefit from your SEO campaign. Once you do that, it's time to address issues like geo-targeting and content translation. We'll look at that in the second part of this article.