Going global is a huge moment in any business’s growth journey. It’s the start of new markets, new customers, new products — and a WHOLE lot of complexity.
For any business contemplating global expansion or already pursuing worldwide domination, NOW is the time to build an SEO game plan.
As any SEO agency will tell you, the worst thing that can happen is you launch into a new market with ZERO online visibility and your international audiences have no idea you exist.
That’s where International SEO comes in.
International SEO is the process of optimising your website and content so that search engines can see which countries and languages you want to target.
It’s like geo targeting, except rather than trying to attract traffic from a specific city or state, your website targets a specific country and languages.
This guide covers all the essential aspects of international SEO to help you develop a robust plan that catapults your website to the top of relevant, profitable rankings - wherever in the world you are.
The Essential Guide to International SEO
Before you do anything else, you need to organise your internationalised content with the right site structure.
The goal is to make it easy for search engines to know where to send traffic from the countries you are targeting.
There are lots of ways to organise your content, but our experience shows the ideal site structure is subdirectories.
This is where your internationalised content is placed in a specific subdirectory, or subfolder, of the root domain.
The URL looks like this:
The reason it’s so good is that you can use the existing authority of the main domain to boost the visibility of your international content as you expand.
All the big players are using subdirectories.
Look at Apple.
When you visit the .com site, you’re prompted to choose a country or region.
Let’s say you choose New Zealand - you are sent to this subdirectory:
All the content on this subdirectory is specifically created for the New Zealand audience:
Other ways to structure your website.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular.
A. Use a country code top-level domain (ccTLD)
You’ll have seen ccTLDs before - these are the two-letter codes that tell users and search engines in which country a website is registered.
The code comes after the domain name, like this:
Here’s a cool graphic that shows the world’s ccTLDs:
The problem with ccTLDs is that they are expensive to maintain. Plus each international website has to earn its own domain authority before gaining visibility. That takes time - and time is of the essence when you’re seeking world domination.
Speaking of world domination, one company that uses ccTLDs is Amazon.
Here’s how the French version looks in Google search - note the URL:
Here’s the Australian version - note the .com.au address:
The English version has a .co.uk address - you get the gist.
This approach is good if you are a large, well-established global brand and will be creating heaps of content, like Amazon.
You need access to the resources and budget to maintain multiple sites.
B. Place internationalised content on a sub-domain.
This is where you create multilingual or multi-regional third-level domains.
The advantage is you don’t have to worry about building and maintaining multiple unique sites.
It’s a good option if your content and products aren’t significantly different, except for minor regional or language tweaks.
It looks like this:
The main problem with this approach is around sharing authority.
The truth is, the value and link juice you’ve built up on one subdomain won’t really help the others.
So, the more subdomains you have for different languages and regions, the more diluted the authority will be between them.
The next task is to set up country targeting in Google Search Console both for your main domain and each subdirectory.
In other words, you need to go into Google Search Console and claim each domain and subfolder one at a time and specify which country you want to target.
How to do it:
Log in to GSC. On your dashboard click "ADD A PROPERTY" and claim ownership of each domain and subfolder.
Click on the property in your dashboard.
Click Search Traffic -> International Targeting
Go to the Country tab at the top and tick the box next to Target users in.
Choose the country you want to target with your property.
Now repeat this for each property.
Hreflang tags are super important.
Why? What do they do in the international SEO process?
These language meta tags are bits of code that tell the search engines which languages you are targeting on your website or pages.
So the search engine can serve that result to users searching in that specific language.
If you search for “Nike official website” in Australia, you get this:
Do the same in France and you see this version:
Nike uses Hreflang tags for language targeting.
So how do you do it?
We don’t want to worry you but here’s what Google’s John Mueller said about them:
It’s not as bad as you think, so long as you follow some simple rules:
Make sure that your site navigation, content, help desk, everything is in the primary language of the region you're targeting.
Never use machine translations - they don’t cut it.
Suggest an alternate language site, but don't automatically redirect a user to different language versions based on location.
How to implement a Hreflang tag
First, you need to construct the tag.
Hreflang tags use consistent syntax:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://shop.com/alternate-page" />
Let’s break that down:
link rel=“alternate” tells search engines that there’s an alternate version of this page.
hreflang=“fr” is the important part - it tells search engines that the reason it’s alternate is because it’s in a different language. That language is French.
href=“https://shop.com/alternate-page” tells search engines that the alternate page can be found over at this URL.
Now, look up the code for your language and fill in the tag.
Hreflang supports any standard two-letter ISO 639–1 language code - check out the official list.
Now you have your tag, what do you do with it?
One approach is to include the tags in the HTML head of your web page.
This method is best if you don’t have too many different international versions, languages and countries to specify. Otherwise you can wind up having a huge list of codes in your HTML.
PRO TIP: If you’re using Wordpress, good news! You can use the HREFLANG Tags Lite plugin to do the whole site in seconds.
If you have non-HTML pages, like PDF ebooks or brochures, you can’t use the HTML head method, because there’s no HTML. So, you need to use the HTTP headers to specify the language instead.
The other method is to edit the XML sitemap.
This means including the relevant markup to specify the hreflang of a page and its variants.
This is handy if you have too many international versions to add directly into the HTML head of your pages.
Not sure what’s going on with your Hreflang tags?
Use a tool designed to crawl your website and catch any mistakes so you can ensure you’re always showing the right version to searchers. We recommend Ahrefs’ Site Audit.
Even when you localise your content, you will probably wind up with very similar content across different country versions in the same language.
It’s a common problem with international SEO.
Let’s say you sell the same products in the US, UK and Australia, your content could be almost identical.
The problem is duplicate content can negatively affect you rankings, because Google can’t work out which is the best result to return to searchers.
So, how do you stop it from damaging your rankings?
Use self referencing canonical tags on each variation of your domain to be SUPER SAFE.
A canonical tag is a snippet of code that signals the main version for duplicate pages.
A self-referencing canonical tag is on a page that points to itself.
If the URL is https://shop.com/sample-page, then a self-referencing canonical on that page would be:
<link rel=“canonical” href=“https://shop.com/sample-page” />
The good news is that, if your country versions are correctly geolocated to the relevant markets, the content shouldn’t be seen as duplicate.
But why risk it?
Content Delivery Networks, or CDNs, are essential to your international SEO.
To understand how, let’s look at how they work.
A CDN is essentially a group of servers distributed around the world that work together to deliver online content, such as web pages, images, and videos, based on the user’s location.
The real advantage of CDNs is that they deliver content quickly and without interruptions. That’s traffic for major sites like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon is served through CDNs.
For international SEO, you need a CDN with good global presence, like Cloudflare or Akamai.
Let’s say your site is based in Sydney. People accessing it in Melbourne will receive the content way faster than those accessing it from New York.
Without a CDN with good global reach, users will face frustrating load times.
And page load speed not only impacts user experience, it also impacts your search ranking.
(That’s why you’ll find “improve page speed” on any good SEO Checklist)
The good news is any CMS worth using will have a world-class CDN.
Shopify’s CDN is run by Fastly
BigCommerce runs its own CDN with nodes in London, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore
HubSpot has built its own global CDN infrastructure
Here’s the thing: every web platform is fine until you are ready to roll out international SEO.
That’s where the real issues begin.
If you want expansion within 3-5 years, you should start budgeting for website platform that allows subdirectories.
In HubSpot, setting up language code subdirectories for your blog or pages is as easy as going into the Settings tab of the content editor:
Source: HubSpot Academy
Shopify and Bigcommerce have a super simple set-up but can’t do subdirectories, so you’d have to set up subdomains or different ccTLDs for each region.
Magento is the primary enterprise ecommerce CMS which is capable of subdirectories, but you’ve got to be SERIOUS because there’s a high development cost involved.
If you’re doing local SEO, you’ll already be using Google My Business.
It’s just as important for your international SEO efforts.
Google My Business (GMB) helps you ensure that the most up-to-date and accurate information about your business shows up when people search on Google.
You can add all your locations, opening hours, contact details and more, so users get details of the most relevant location to where they are searching.
We cover all the steps to get started on Google My Business, plus helpful tips, over in this article.
Over to you
If world domination is on your to-do list, or you want to expand into a new international market, you need to invest in international SEO.
With this guide, we haven’t covered every last thing you should do to boost your search visibility in international markets. We haven’t talked about keyword research or link building… that’s a whole other article! Instead, you’ve learned the hot ticket items that need to be in place so you can get off and running in the global market.
Get these things right, and you’re set up for success.
Need help setting up your international SEO strategy? Want to talk to SEO gurus about your long-term global growth?
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