Expanding your business internationally is an excellent way to grow and scale your company. However, deciding to enter foreign markets involves making several decisions and taking actions that establish your organic presence.
This article will guide you through 15 SEO steps to follow that will allow you to conquer new markets successfully.
Table of contents:
Deciding to go international
Globalization has made it easy for almost any business to expand its presence internationally. If you detect a great opportunity or a fair amount of traffic to your site from a specific country, it could be worthwhile to target this market more thoroughly.
Nevertheless, entering a new market without solid preliminary research can lead to wasted time and resources. To prevent entering a market blindly, in-depth keyword research and competitor analysis can be used to help clarify market potential.
1) Keyword research
Local keyword research will allow you to gather data regarding the search volume and traffic potential of search terms related to your product/service in the local language of new markets. Moz Keyword Explorer is an excellent tool for this purpose.
Other than search volume, the Difficulty is a key metric to consider, as it defines how competitive your keywords are in the different languages and markets.
An overview of the keyword “electric scooters” in Moz Keyword Explorer.
Note: Be aware of the fact that one-to-one translation of keywords doesn’t always work. Words can have different meanings in different languages, and, in some markets, multiple words and phrases can be used as synonyms for the same product or service.
It is highly recommended to have native speakers of the languages in the area you’re targeting lead your keyword research, as they’ll understand the particular market and culture well. If you don’t have the resources internally to conduct the local research, you could outsource this task to a local expert.
Additionally, using Google Trends to study local keyword trends can be a great way to highlight areas with the highest interest in your product or service. The analysis of the interest over time and interest by region is a quick and good way to identify trends and potential in a market.
Interest in the search term “electric scooters” over time and by region in Google Trends.
2) Competitor analysis
Based on the relevant keywords and queries highlighted in the keyword research phase, you can define organic competitors in your new market(s).
Organic competitors are competitors on the Search Engines Result Pages (SERPs) ranking for your target search terms. Some SEO tools, like Moz, will give you an overview of the local SERPs for your queries. Based on the relevant keywords and queries highlighted in the keyword research phase, you can define organic competitors in each market(s).
Organic competitors might overlap internationally, but might also significantly differ from market to market. It’s worth checking in which countries your main organic competitors are present, in which languages their website(s) is/are available, and how qualitative their content is, as it will help you determine which markets are worth expanding into yourself.
The most attractive markets are obviously the ones with a high search potential and relatively low competition. It is up to you to decide to enter more competitive markets, considering your particular and available resources.
Domain best practices
Much like in your home market, the choice of your domain name and structure in new, international spaces can impact your local rankings, as well as the perception of your brand.
3) Website configuration
Going international necessitates adapting to a different country, language, or both:
A multi-regionalwebsite is a website targeting several countries (airbnb.com).
A multilingual website is a website targeting several languages (tiqets.com).
A global website is a website targeting an international audience (theculturetrip.com).
The number of different website versions necessary depends on the audience you want to target.
Country targeting means that you want to target one or multiple specific countries. In this case, one website version for each country is needed.
Language targeting means that you target an audience speaking the same language. In this respect, one website version in this particular language is required.
The different types and website versions needed depending on country and language targeting.
A global website approach can be effective if your audience is already international and has no need for customization (e.g. a marketing blog like the Moz Blog). Nevertheless, most people prefer to browse in their language, and it’s harder for a domain to rank in a specific market when it’s not localized.
4) Brand name vs. localized name
Your domain name can be either a name related to your brand/company or a localized name adapted to the local market.
Some companies choose to localize their domain name, as it allows them to include keywords that are relevant to the target market. This is, for instance, the case for the websites of the Auto1 Group, an automotive company, which adapts its name to each target market:
Example of domain names of the Auto 1 Group with localized domain names for different countries.
In general, using your brand/company name is recommended, as it allows you to consolidate brand authority and awareness among different markets. However, if your brand name has an ambivalent meaning or is challenging to pronounce in a certain language, it’s preferable to adapt your domain name to the local market.
Example of a branded domain name that needed to be rebranded due to international expansion.
5) URL structure preference
Geotargeting means serving the correct version of your website to users according to their location. In this context, the choice of the URL structure is crucial, as it will be an indication for both search engines and users.
Anatomy of an URL structure with different subparts.
URLs can be structured in three different ways to target international markets:
ccTLD: country-code Top Level Domain (.fr; .de; .nl,…).
gTLD: generic Top-Level Domain (.com; .org; .net,…) + local subdirectories (.com/fr; .org/de; .net/nl,…).
Subdomain: local subdomain attached to the root domain (fr.domain.com; de.domain.org; nl.domain.net,…).
Note: Some websites use parameters (for instance: www.domain.com ?loc=fr) in order to display the content to users based on their current location. This technique is not recommended for geotargeting. In order to optimize ranking potential, each version should have its own URL.
Overview of different URL structures with their advantages and disadvantages.
There is no right or wrong setup, as each of these URL structures has its advantages and disadvantages. The choice of the structure has to be made by taking into account the markets you decide to penetrate, the niche you operate in, and your available resources.
The following elements also have to be considered:
Depending on the CMS you’re using, the choice of the URL structure might be limited.
Some countries have specific regulations regarding domain names. To be able to register some ccTLDs, a local residence or company headquartered in the country is necessary (for example, in Norway).
6) International targeting with Google Search Console
For URL structures using a gTLD, you can use Search Console’s International Targeting report to let Google know that your website targets visitors from a specific country. This feature will then be used as a local hint by Google. You can find this report under the “Legacy tools and reports” section in Google Search Console. As you can observe, domains using a ccTLD are geo-targeted by default.
International targeting report in Google Search Console for a French domain using a ccTLD.
“Transcreation” is a portmanteau of the words “translation” and “creation”, and is the concept of adapting a text to a different language and culture. When entering a new market, it’s vital to adapt your website to local users to make it ultra-relevant.
7) Content translation
Creating brand new content is time-consuming. For this reason, when expanding to new markets, most companies choose to translate the content of their original website.
Just like in your home market, the quality of your content impacts your website rankings. Translating content without proper keyword research in the new language, as well as knowledge of your new users’ search intent can lead to poor, irrelevant content that is not adapted to local users. Spend some time expanding your content development processes to account for potential differences.
And remember: everything has to be translated on your page, not solely the body of the content itself. This means translating o-page elements such as image alt tags, URLs, meta titles and descriptions, and headers have to be localized as well. If several languages are detected by search engines, it can send a signal of poor quality and affect your rankings.
8) Adaptation to the new country
Speaking the language of a country doesn’t mean talking to its people. Every country has its own slang and cultural differences in terms of taste, humor, and mentality.
These characteristics can differ enormously between countries. Hence the need to get the content creation managed by a person native (or at least familiar) with the country and its culture.
Country-specific editorial calendar
It’s important to keep track of the national and religious events and seasons in the different local markets. Each country has its own specificities, and your content and promotions should align with it.
The currency used on a website must ideally be the one of the targeted country. In the case of a global website, it’s a must to offer users the opportunity to switch currency with a currency selector. Most content management systems offer the possibility to install a plugin to manage this function efficiently.
An example of different settings regarding language, country, and currency.
Means of payment
Whenever possible, it’s good to adapt to users’ preferences and offer them different methods of payment. Some means of payment are popular and specific to some countries, such as IDeal in the Netherlands and Klarna in Sweden.
An example of the ASOS website with different payment methods depending on the country.
Use of special characters
In certain parts of the world, people:
Use a non-Latin language (Cyrillic, Chinese, Japanese,…).
Use special characters (ß, ü, å, œ, ç, ø, ñ,…) in their language.
URLs must be written and served only using the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) character set. As such, URLs containing special characters need to be encoded into a valid ASCII format by browsers, in order to be adequately processed. Most browsers support non-ASCII characters and serve them unencoded to users. Nevertheless, when copy-pasting URLs in the browser, encoding is visible (see example below).
An example of an encoded URL in the Russian language by Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
Therefore, the use of special characters in URLs makes them less “share-friendly.” Besides, some search engines have difficulty parsing and recognizing URLs with special characters effectively.
A workaround to this issue is to use phonetic transcriptions. For instance, If you target the Chinese market, you can use Pinyin (the romanization of standard Mandarin) in your URLs, instead of Chinese characters.
Whether you decide to transcribe your URLs or keep special characters is up to you. As always, the best method is to consider it from a user’s point of view, and what type of URLs they would prefer to see.
Local regulations have to be taken seriously and must be respected in order to avoid potential legal issues. For instance, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies whenever you track and analyze data from EU visitors, even if your company is located outside the EU.
Similar regulations apply in other regions. In Japan, they have the Act on the Protection of Personal Information (APPI), and California has the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
In the US, accessibility is a serious topic (see the Americans with Disabilities Act). To comply and avoid legal complaints, companies must stick to the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
If you’re not familiar, inform yourself about the different local regulations.
9) External links
As always, in order to enhance your content, it’s recommended to add outbound links to other relevant local websites.
Outbound links are a good, natural way to provide more insights to your readers and context to the search engines about the topic you are covering.
Search engines pay attention to the quality of the outbound links contained in your content. Therefore, it is important that your content only contains outbound links to authoritative local sources. Authoritative local sources are links to pages that are relevant in terms of quality (resources valuable for visitors, topic-relevant, trustworthy authors,…) as well as in terms of quantitative metrics (organic traffic, Domain Authority, …). Outbound links should be editorially and naturally placed into the content and point to up-to-date resources, ideally in the same local language.
10) Hreflang implementation
In an international context, the hreflang tag helps search engines (like Google, Yandex, and Seznam) define which URL version of your site should be served to visitors from a specific area, or who speak a particular language.
Hreflang attributes are helpful to prevent indexation issues due to duplicate content, in the case where the same content is delivered in the same language to different geographical areas. They’re used as “hints” by search engines, which are free to ignore them.
Hreflang can be implemented in three different ways: Via the HTTP header, inside the <head> of a HTML document, or within a site XML sitemap.
An example of an hreflang implementation in the source code.
11) HTML lang & the Content-language meta tag
While Google and Yandex only refer to the hreflang tag instructions, some other search engines (Baidu, Naver, and Bing) use different tags to identify localized content. HTML lang is an attribute that specifies the language used on a web page. The content-language meta tag is used to indicate the language and country for which the page content is intended for. Be aware of what’s needed in the search engine(s) of your new region.
An example of a hreflang attribute, a content-language meta tag, and a HTML lang attribute for a website with an American-English audience.
12) IP-based redirection
Location-based redirection is the concept of redirecting users to the correct local interface based on their IP location/browser language.
When IP-based redirection is automatic, it can prevent search engine bots from crawling your website. Most of the time, Google bots are crawling websites with US-based IP addresses. Whenever IP auto-redirection happens, spiders will be limited and only able to crawl a single version of your site, leaving other site variations undiscovered and therefore potentially not crawled and indexed.
Moreover, IP-based redirection can have a negative impact on user experience. Imagine you’re in Japan, and you want to read an article in French. You definitely don’t want to be forced to interact with the Japanese version of the domain.
An alternative to geolocation-based redirection is to use non-intrusive geo-based pop-ups/banners or manual location pickers to suggest that users be redirected to the local version of their choice.
Example of a non-intrusive geo-based banner on marksandspencer.com
13) Server location
In the past, your physical server location was used by Google as a local signal, but that’s no longer the case.
For geotargeting we use mostly the ccTLD or search console setting, so place the server where it works best for you.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) July 7, 2017
Nevertheless, server location impacts site speed, as data must travel via a network of physical cables. The closer a website server’s location is to its visitors, the faster it will load.
If your site’s server is located in a different region than your visitors, you can use a Content Delivery Network (CDN). A CDN is a network of servers geographically spread around the world that host and cache websites’ static assets (image files, JS, CSS).
The benefit of hosting some of your resources on a CDN is to reduce the page load time, as these resources will be served locally near the users’ locations. In addition, some CDNs add an extra layer of protection to your website by providing firewall security features.
Off-page SEO refers to all the activities that you perform outside of your domain in order to increase the user- and search engine perception of its relevance, popularity, trustworthiness, and authority. An off-page SEO strategy is crucial in order to succeed in an international environment.
14) Country-specific link building
Links remain one of the main ranking factors. When entering a new market, links facilitate your site’s discovery by both search engines and users. At the very beginning, SEO should work together with other departments such as PR to build links to their homepage and create brand awareness.
When your site is technically well-grounded and serves users with qualitative content, it’s time to start acquiring relevant, local backlinks. By receiving backlinks from authoritative sources in each targeted country, you’ll be able to compete and impose your local presence.
Establish a country-specific outreach strategy for each market, as each one will be different. Some tactics that work well in one country might not be so efficient in another one. It’s crucial to always adjust your approach to the customs of the individual market in order to build valuable partnerships.
The following practices are recommended in the international backlink acquisition process:
15) Local citations and NAP consistency
Local citations are any mention of your business information online. Local citations matter if you are implemented in several countries and have physical addresses, as they allow you to strengthen your local presence. Your website NAP can be found on your website as well as on Google My Business and other social media pages and local directories.
If search engines discover different addresses, they, as well as your users, might be confused. Make sure to remain consistent with your Name, Address, Phone (NAP) in your local citations in the different countries that you are present in. Moz has a free tool to verify the consistency of your citations in the US, UK, and Canada.
Bonus: Different search engines
When talking about search engine optimization, we mostly consider Google, as it’s the most used search engine in the world. Nevertheless, in some markets, Google is not the largest search engine.
For instance, in China, most people use Baidu, and in Russia, people use Yandex. Other popular engines are Naver in South Korea, Seznam in the Czech Republic, and Yahoo in Japan.
Whenever you intend to enter these markets, you have to take time to research and be aware of some specificities related to these search engines. For example, below are some key international SEO elements to take into consideration for Baidu.
Deciding to expand your business or website into a new market is not something that should be hastily attempted. From the SEO side, it requires a lot of thought, careful consideration, and time to do it right.
When entering a new market, your international SEO strategy should consist of:
Studying market potential.
Choosing the right domain and URL structure.
Geotargeting and adapting content to local users.
Developing authority and traffic locally.
From choosing the right structure and geotargeting, to writing compelling content adapted to your local audience, an effective plan has to be designed that takes into account your company resources and market potential for effective and successful expansion.