International SEO is the process of improving a website's visibility across local search engines for highly relevant and commercially important keyphrases.
An international SEO strategy is much more than the straightforward translation of pages. It involves digging into the trends and habits of your multinational audience to determine how they're interacting with your market, and how you can aid their search.
Many companies understand the obvious benefits of localising content, but essentially if this content cannot be found by users, the investment placed in localising the content has been wasted.
Multinational site architecture
The first stage of any international strategy is ensuring you have the most suitable site architecture to reach the countries and languages you want to reach. One question which is often asked at this stage is whether a site should target by country or by language.
At QueryClick we recommend a solution which allows for both. We recommend setting up subdomains from the .com domain for each new country, for example ch.example.com for Switzerland.
Creating subdomains instead of completely new country-specific TLDs (e.g www.example.ch) allows the new Swiss version of your site to benefit from the value and trust which www.example.com has built up. The subdomain inherits some of this and therefore gives you an immediate head start in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
To then target specific languages within each country, we recommend using a directory (folder) at the root of the subdomain for each language. For example, ch.example.com/fr-ch/ is the ideal structure to target Swiss French.
This architecture allows you to break out into as many languages as are required in each territory. Here is how we express that architecture generically:
In terms of establishing brand presence in a new territory, country-specific TLDs can be used to run offline campaigns, so you'd use www.example.ch on TV and radio advertisements. The benefit of these vanity URLs is that users have been known to establish trust with their own native TLDs much quicker than they would with a .com.
Ensuring that the domain 301 redirects to the appropriate landing page on your .com site subdomain (so that www.example.ch/win redirects to ch.example.com/win) keeps your brand consolidated, and all content working to benefit the rankings of the main domain.
On 5th December 2011, Google launched a new tag used to markup translated content on multinational sites. The <hreflang> tag helps search engines distinguish between language variations.
Let's say we had an English page of content intended for a British audience, and a very similar one intended for an American audience. Implementing the <hreflang> tag would tell search engines which audience each page is intended for.
The <hreflang> tag can also be used between different languages. Let's presume we are launching a French version (fr.example.com) of our English site (www.example.com).
Adding the relevant <hreflang> tags on all pages of both our English and French sites would also help the brand new French version start performing in the SERPs immediately, using the strength of the .com site as a head start.
Keyphrase research is the first step in any SEO strategy to determine potential in the market, as well as levels of competition.
For international SEO campaigns it's vital that keyphrases aren't simply translated from one language to another. User search trends and habits vary between cultures and languages, meaning keyphrases in English may not be relevant for users in Spain, for example. The aim is to find keyphrases that users in that location or language are actually using.
While there may be a lot of competition surrounding some words in English, these words may not be as popular in other languages. It's therefore extremely important that you don't simply translate keywords. International keyphrase research requires research into how international users search, not a direct translation of the phrases used in a different country.
This image below shows the example of a direct translation of the German phrase “mobile phone” - “Mobiltelefon” - which has a local monthly volume of approx. 3,600, as well as “Handy”, a phrase which also means mobile phone and is far more commonly used amongst German speakers.
It's therefore extremely important that native speakers carry out keyphrase research. They'll be able to identify the phrases and nuances most commonly used in their respective languages.
Mobile website optimisation
Mobile website optimisation is now a major part of SEO strategies and is set to become even more business critical in the very near future.
Online retailers are beginning to realise the importance of this field, as smartphones and tablets are now providing a convenient and enjoyable way of shopping on the go. With an estimated 115.8 million smartphone users in the US at the end of 2012, and 66% of all smartphone users using their phone to shop online, online retailers simply cannot afford to be missing the opportunities offered by mobile search.
The bottom line in mobile search is that all customers should be catered for, regardless of the browsing device they're using.
Companies which already have established websites should follow Google's advice on registering mobile-only pages in the mobile search engine. To ensure your mobile pages aren't indexed along with your pages intended for desktops, mobile URLs should be listed in a mobile sitemap.xml.
If you're using a tool to create sitemaps, make sure this can actually create mobile sitemaps. Additionally, ensure you markup your mobile pages using a standard dialect such as WML or XHTML MP, as appropriate.
Avoiding duplication is one of the biggest issues for established websites and their mobile versions.
The robots.txt can be used to ensure the mobile site can only be crawled by mobile user agents, such as Googlebot-mobile.
A different approach, however, is recommended for brand new sites about to be built. In this case, we recommend using CSS3, the latest standard for CSS. Use CSS stylesheets to ensure that your content is displayed correctly to all users.
Indicating the “media” value for your stylesheets (for example, we're all familiar with “screen” or “print” stylesheets), using new CSS3 media queries allows you to create different stylesheets to suit the width and height of the browser used.
New media features include “width”, “height” and “colour” and allow you to tailor your pages to a specific range of devices and platforms based on their screensize - meaning you can target smartphones, tablets, consoles or any other device's web browser of your choosing, without having to change the content or URLs involved.
Multinational Payment Systems
For online retailers, optimising payment acceptance is vital for tapping into new international markets.
It's important that any multinational retailer takes payments in the local currency. Studies have shown that this increases conversion rates and also results in fewer lost sales due to time-outs or declines.
In particular, payments which fail right at the moment of transaction are sure to create a great deal of distrust in your brand, especially one which has only recently entered a new territory.
Besides showing the local currency, it's also essential that your payment processes are localised to each specific country. Although international payment platforms such as Paypal and 2Checkout are becoming more popular and well-recognised, they are still uncommon in many countries.
In this respect, online payment systems present a huge challenge for multinational businesses, primarily because there's so much variation in consumer preferences with regard to online payments.
Before expanding to a new market, it's vital that you thoroughly research its online payment trends and norms. While direct debits (ELV) are the preferred payment method in Germany, credit cards are still more common in the UK and the USA. In Japan and China, cash on delivery is still extremely popular.
Other local norms include bank transfers, postal orders, and cheques. It's recommended that you accept cheques wherever these are used but take note: cheque validity periods can vary greatly, so remember to cash them in good time.
International Search Engines
With a global market share of over 85%, Google is by far the most popular search engine in the UK. A few search engines, however, have managed to tailor their features and services to local audiences, and dominate the market space in their respective countries. Businesses with sites or pages targeting Russian, Chinese or South Korean audiences should make sure they incorporate Baidu, Yandex, and Naver into their international strategies. All search engines behave differently and attach varying levels of importance to their algorithm factors.
While Google allows you to host your site anywhere, and then choose a location for each sub-domain, it's well known that Baidu gives preference to sites that are hosted in China. It's therefore recommended that you host your domain on a server in China.
In terms of ranking factors, backlinks are also extremely important for Baidu. While the quality of the backlinks is hugely important for Google, for Baidu the quantity of the backlinks is of much greater importance than the quality and credibility. In Baidu's eyes, the more backlinks a site has, the better. As for meta tags, this search engine hasn't stated that it ignores the meta keywords tag, but will also punish sites which stuff it with keywords.
When generating content for a Chinese site, be sure to read the Chinese government's regulations on the topic as there are strict rules. Failure to obey these could cost your site good rankings.
Yandex is the largest search engine in Russia, with a 64% market share. In 2012, Yandex announced that, similar to Google, it will attach greater weighting to the quality of links to a site. It has also gone on record to say that it will actively penalise sites with many links from low quality sites.
Yandex also uses title tags in its ranking algorithm. Like Google, the meta description tag is very important and although this is unlikely to directly affect rankings, it can help increase your clickthrough rate.
Yandex hasn't stated that it ignores the meta keywords tag. It's recommended that you optimise this tag as an indicator of page relevancy, but avoid stuffing it with keywords.
Naver has a market share of over 70% in South Korea and its platform style search engine makes it very popular amongst local users. Its results are organised by type, i.e. blogs, websites, cafes, images.
Naver's “Knowledge Search” has been a huge contributor to its success. Users can ask each other questions on almost any topic, from recommendations on local restaurants to health advice.
In terms of ranking factors, a large part of Naver's algorithm is impression-based clickthrough rate analysis. Naver tries to provide more enhanced, content-rich search results, something which appeals to the Koreans' need for as much information as possible.
Naver has recently changed its algorithm to give preference to high quality, credible blogs.