If you’re looking to expand your business for an international audience, you probably already know there are two ways to grow: paid channels and organic channels.
One of the most powerful channels to grow your business is SEO (or search engine optimization). It’s the key to scaling your business cost-effectively.
Even at over $1B in ARR, 60% of HubSpot’s customers come from free channels:
“It’s no longer enough just to have the market at home,” says Sara Chaya Presch, Director of International SEO at Argos Multilingual.
“With the rise of the internet and globalization, businesses are increasingly operating on a global scale, which means companies must think from a global perspective in order to stay competitive and succeed.”
Ok, so your website is already optimized for search engines in your native language, but how do you prep it for international SEO (iSEO)?
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the process of optimizing your website to improve your rankings and traffic in international markets. This is done by following a set of best practices that internationalizes your website’s structure in a way that makes it easy for search engines to understand which countries you want to rank in, while localizing your content to target the right keywords and search intents that your target audience are searching for.
Why is international SEO important for your business?
No matter how much content you write about [insert your niche here], most of it won’t rank well because it takes a) tons of time b) countless hours of work (or money).
But here’s the good news:
While the internet is full of English content, there’s not enough content in other languages (even though the majority of people don’t speak English).
That means International SEO is one of the best ways to organically grow your business online. The more your website is optimized for search, the more traffic you’ll drive to your site.
Ranking for keywords in competitive industries internationally can be difficult, but these best practices will give you a fighting chance to challenge for the top spot.
A quick note on search engine market share
As I’m sure you know, Google dominates the global search engine market share with a 92.2% market share and its nearest competitor Bing clocking in with a 3.4% share.
Other search engines in the mix are Yahoo (1.2% global market share) which is popular in Japan, Yandex (1% market share) which is popular in Russia, and Baidu (0.8% market share) which is popular in China.
The most recent and notable challenger to the search engine monopoly is the privacy focused search engine Duckduckgo that has a 0.6% global market share.
With Google being the dominant search engine globally and the technology leader in understanding content on the internet, it’s typically the main search engine that you should optimize for. If you can rank highly on Google, it’s likely you will see success with the other smaller search engines (unless you’re trying to target China or Russia).
How to do International SEO: 5 steps for going global organically
1. Understand what regions or languages you want to target and prioritize
The first step in crafting an international SEO strategy is to work out which regions and languages you might want to target.
One of the quick and dirty ways to get a gauge of where to start with this is to look at your brand search to see if there are any countries you are already getting interest from.
You can do this in your Google Search Console account by:
1. Clicking on “Search Results” in the performance section
2. Clicking your top brand keyword
3. Selecting the country tab and sorting by impression
If your website doesn’t already have a GSC account set up, here’s a handy link to Google’s documentation on how to get this up and running.
This data will tell you which countries your brand already has traction in. It’s a good starting point because if you’re already being searched for in locations that you don’t actively target, you have a head start to grow your business in that country. This method can quickly demonstrate if there is some existing interest for your brand in other countries.
If you do find that there are people searching for your brand in other countries, it’s worth checking the search result in that country for your branded keyword to make sure there isn’t a company there with the same name as you. You can do that using this free tool.
Next, you want to gauge search interest in your target countries with localized keyword research.
2. Localized keyword research
Doing localized keyword research can show you how much search interest there is for your product or service in different countries.
This can be a challenge to do if you aren’t a native speaker of your target country’s language, so you may want to hire an international SEO agency that has both the SEO expertise and language skills to help you.
With that in mind, here are the main steps in localized keyword research.
Note: this keyword research methodology will also come in handy when it comes to localizing your content into the new languages as you will include these keywords on the page in order to signal to Google that your page is relevant for that keyword.
- List the most important keywords for your business.
You can do this by grabbing your top non-branded keywords from the Google search console performance report. Alternatively, create a list of keywords that your customers might be using to find your product or service online. It’s worth checking that these keywords are actually being searched for, so run them through a keyword research tool to see if they have any search volume.
- Localize your keywords into the native language of the markets you want to target to see if they have people searching for them there.
This is the tricky part. A straight translation of a keyword is not always going to result in a keyword that has the same search intent behind it because users in that country might be searching in a slightly different way using different words and phrases. That’s why it’s good to have a native speaker help with localization as they will best understand the native nuances.
Use a keyword research tool to see if the localized versions of your keywords have search volume in your target market using Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Google Keyword Planner.
If you find that the localized version of a keyword doesn’t have any search volume, then try some variations of it to see if users are searching in a slightly different way. Again, this is where the expertise of a native speaker comes in handy.
Pro tip: one way to find potential variations if you’re not a native speaker is to see what keywords successful pages are already ranking for. To do this, grab the URL for one of the pages that ranks highly for your localized keyword and plug that into Ahrefs site explorer.
Next, put the highest volume keywords into Google Translate to see if they match the search intent of your content.
3. Decide which pages you will localize
Now that you have a list of your localized keywords and their search volumes, you can prioritize which countries to go after first. The great news is you don’t have to localize all the pages or sections of your website.
Here are some things you should consider when choosing which ones will make the cut:
- Do they currently get traffic?
- Are they key to the user’s acquisition, onboarding or retention journeys.
- Will they be linked to? You don’t want to create pages that won’t be linked to, we call pages with no internal links “orphan pages” and they will struggle to gain traction in the search results if they have no internal links.
If you want to optimize all of your pages for SEO, you will need to do this keyword research exercise for each page so that each page has a main target keyword and a localized version of that keyword.
4. Decide site and URL structure
For search engines to understand that you want to rank for additional languages or countries you will need to have dedicated URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) targeting them, giving the search engine a unique place to locate that regional content.
It’s not enough to use the same URL and just translate the content on the page and switch it in and out with a plugin when the user switches the language selector.
The simplest strategy to use is language targeting. This means you don’t target any country in particular but instead target all the users in the world that search in that language.
For example: if you were to target Spanish speakers (the 2nd largest language in the world by number of native speakers), you could do so with just one localized Spanish website.
Language targeting is great when the content of the site can be the same for all countries speaking a particular language. Websites that lend themselves well to this set-up are content driven websites where the main aim is to drive traffic and generate revenue from ads or referrals.
Websites or businesses that want a more granular targeting of countries and better control over what users in each country see on their website will want to go with country targeting. Country targeting also allows you to better localize the content to more closely align with how users might naturally talk or a dialect they might use in a country vs the same language in a different country.
Country targeting allows you to localize all of the elements such as pricing, currency, date/time formats, product or service features, and regulatory details that apply to that country. So businesses such as e-commerce, financial services and gambling would likely want to go with country targeting.
Note: you want to avoid creating too many country versions that will be exactly the same as this can cause duplicate content issues for Google.
Check out this advice from Google’s Search Relations Team Lead:
Once you’ve got an idea of which targeting strategy you’re going to go with, it’s time to decide on domain and URL structure.
5. Domain and URL structure
There are a number of different options for domain and URL structure:
- ccTLDs (“country-code top-level domains”)
This is a common way to separate sites with a two-letter code so that each language has a different domain name, such as yoursite.de, yoursite.es, or yoursite.com, based on the language. This allows for clear geotargeting. However, this option is mainly for targeting a specific country, rather than a language, and takes more maintenance/set-up.
- gTLDs (“generic top-level domains”) with subdomains
This looks like de.yoursite.com, es.yoursite.com, or uk.yoursite.com, which differentiates the specific languages within one overarching site. This is another way to easily separate your sites.
- gTLDs with subfolders
Also known as subdirectories, this is a very popular option. This uses the same generic host site (.com, for example), and uses subfolders to create a network of languages within that site. It’s the easiest to maintain and will give you an easy way to target individual countries and languages just by creating new subfolders.
Language targeting with it looks like this: yoursite.com/de, yoursite.com/es, yoursite.com/fr.
Country targeting with it looks like this: yoursite.com/es-mx (Spanish in Mexico), yoursite.com/es-us (Spanish in the USA), yoursite.com/fr-ca (French in Canada), yoursite.com/ca-es (Catalan in Spain)
Google provides a great pros and cons table that can help you to weigh up your options:
Pro tip: read Google’s guidance on how to manage multilingual websites as it’s a treasure trove of valuable info if you’re localizing your website.
One key thing to consider is if you’ll need to migrate your existing domain to fit into one of these structures. If possible, a domain migration is something you want to avoid as it can create ranking volatility and turbulence in your traffic because the search engine has to revisit all of your old and new URLs.
To avoid a domain migration, keep your existing site structure while introducing one of the strategies from above.
For example, if you’re starting from a .co.uk ccTLD, you wouldn’t want to migrate that to a .com/uk, you could just keep the .co.uk and add the other locations on the location subfolders on the .com domain e.g. .com/es-es, .com/es-us, .com/de-de
Things to consider when localizing your website
Now that you’ve got all that structure and strategy out of the way, time for the fun part of actually localizing your content.
Translation quality is important as it feeds into how Google scores the overall quality of your domain. It’s not enough to just machine translate your content and set it live because machine translation isn’t perfect (yet) and using that content without any quality assurance will result in a bad experience for your users, potentially damaging your brand’s perception and holding back your rankings.
A not widely known fact is that the language quality of the different versions of your site can affect each other. So if you’ve got one very low quality translated site it can bring down or hold back the rankings of its international equivalents, this is because Google looks at quality on a site level.
Maintaining the quality of your content and keeping it fresh is important (content freshness is a ranking factor), for example if you update the original version of you page, you will likely want to update the international versions to reflect these changes. This is where a good continuous localization process can come to the rescue to make sure your updates are of high quality and propagate to all of your versions.
To optimize your pages for search engines there are a number of elements that you need to make sure you localize while also including the localized version of the main target keyword for that page.
We try to naturally include the main target keyword of the page in these places, as it will signal to Google that your content is relevant for people searching that keyword, potentially this can boost it’s ranking and click through rate:
- Meta title
- First paragraph of the copy
Don’t overdo including the keyword on the page as this could be seen as keyword stuffing. It’s best to just include it naturally in these places and in the content. Changing the content to include the keyword in a way that sounds unnatural to the user is not best practice and should be avoided.
A note on images, there’s no need to localize the file name of your images, just keep using the existing file/url and add localized ALT tags (that’s if there’s no text in your image).
Hreflang tags tell a search engine about the international copies of a page so that it can consider ranking those copies in the relevant regions or for the corresponding languages. According to John Muller, Google’s Search Advocate, hreflang is considered one of the most complex areas of SEO. We could write a whole article on the topic, but to keep this clear and concise here are some links and videos for you to learn more about hreflang:
Telling Google about the international versions of your page
One tool that you’ll need for auditing your hreflang tags is ScreamingFrog. It acts as a web spider, visiting all the pages on your website and giving you statistics on response codes, redirects, and canonical tags. ScreamingFrog is an essential tool checking the technical health of your website so be sure to give it a spin as they have a free lisence.
International SEO link building is crucial and involves creating a web of internal and external links that demonstrate your website’s relevance and authority to search engines.
For internal link building, link your content to other related internal content and products, using keyword-rich anchor text. Only link to pages translated into the same language as the target audience to avoid creating a poor user experience. Keep in mind that internal link building should be natural and relevant to the reader, whether that means citing a statistic from internal research or including links to product pages, help documentation, or related articles.
To build external links, identify key partners, media outlets, and clients with enough reach in your target market to make it worth approaching them. Use tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush to gauge the quality of different websites before reaching out. When emailing these target websites, introduce yourself, your product, and why your content is worth being linked to. Remember that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to external link building.
Launching your new international websites
When launching your new international websites it’s important to tell Google about it so they can visit and start ranking your pages. You can do this by submitting a sitemap for your new localized website via Google Search Console.
It’s also recommended to set up a Search Console profile for each of your new sites. When launching make sure you don’t have any noindex tags or have blocked Google’s crawler in your robots.txt from accessing the pages.
Use a TMS to manage your multilingual content
Lokalise can help with a straightforward Translation management system catered to marketers as well as translators and developers. Lokalise integrates seamlessly with popular CMS, content, and customer management tools that are already great at producing multilingual websites, like WordPress, Intercom, Contentful, and Zendesk Guide.
Here’s how it works: Import the content for translation from your CMS to Lokalise in a matter of seconds, and pull it back once the translation is ready. No more spreadsheets or tons of emails — assign tasks and automate notifications when certain actions are completed.
By centralizing your localization efforts, a team or whole company can maintain translation consistency, increase productivity, and deliver faster across different languages.
This makes it easy to ramp up a content generation engine that can go from production to ranking on search engines quickly.
Using a localization tool like Lokalise — or Lokalise’s professional translation service — can help keep every project organized, on track, and successful and eliminate monotonous and manual tasks, whether you’re running your website on WordPress or coding each page yourself.
Tracking and performance measurement
Once you’ve launched new international websites that have SEO baked in, it’s time to measure performance. Here’s how:
Use Google Analytics to analyze inbound traffic, where visitors are coming from, and which pages they are landing on (this can help with debugging any targeting issues).
For keyword rankings you can use Google Search Console (which is free) and will show you clicks, impressions, click through rate, and rankings for each keyword by country.
If you want a more advanced keyword tracking tool, Ahrefs and SEMrush are both great ranking tracking tools where you can set up a project for each country and add your localized target keywords from your keyword research.
Which tools should I use to get started with international SEO?
There are 3 leading tools that SEOs typically use to pull international search volumes:
- Google Keyword Planner: this is Google’s first party keyword research tool and will provide you with the most accurate search volumes as they are coming straight from the horse’s mouth.
- Ahrefs: this SEO tool says it covers 10 search engines. 242 countries.
- SEMRush: this tool touts itself as having keyword data for 120 countries and has tons of features to help digital marketers.