How to create a winning international SEO strategy

A look at the steps marketers and their colleagues can walk through to fuel an international SEO strategy that overcomes the barriers of localisation and cements a strong presence in all your markets.

Localisation has been the predominant SEO strategy throughout the last 20 years. Corner a particular market, and you’ve enough business to be getting on with. But barriers have been dropped.

Global payments technology has opened the door for anyone to buy anything from anywhere, at any time. This means that businesses looking to maximise this enhanced potential are faced with a new set of challenges. They not only have to get to grips with the ‘always on’ approach to marketing, but to cultivate SEO that can handle the varying algorithms, languages, and cultural nuances of the global marketplace. And it all begins with international SEO.

What is international SEO?

International SEO is the process of managing search engine optimization for multiple regions or languages. Get it right, and you guarantee a strong search presence for your business in all of your desired marketplaces, ensuring traffic and custom. But if search engines can’t easily identify which countries you wish to target or which languages your website uses, it can be impossible to reach all potential customers, because search engines typically match results based on user location and language.

Brands with a strong understanding of international SEO overcome the inherent barriers put in place by Google et al through research, a thorough understanding of their audience and products, and the deployment of a series of structural signals – such as nominated URL structures or hreflang tags – and language targeting.

The eight-step plan for a winning international SEO strategy

1. Understand your market

Research is fundamental to every SEO strategy, whether local, technical, or international. Without research, you can’t be sure there is an audience waiting, that you’re going to reach it, or that your efforts are going to prove profitable. So analyse your current users. Conduct keyword research in all of your intended territories, and research your competitors to gain a better understanding of market conditions.

2. Develop your website structure

SEO is the foundation of any good website. If you get it wrong from the start, it’s rather like operating with one arm tied behind your back. To have technically sound foundations which will allow your content to reach its potential across every market you operate in, you need your website structure to reflect the way that you wish to manage targeting. Geotargeting usually relies upon the creation of locale-specific URLs for each version of your website. This can enable you to adapt your strategy according to the changing demands of your business and your customers.

3. Use language targeting

If your web content is not location-specific, language targeting can be a fantastic way to enlarge your customer base. The use of hreflang tags – attributes used to specify the language and geographical targeting of a webpage – let search engines know that there is a localised version of your content available in another language. And they can be used throughout a site, from HTML to XML sitemaps and HTTP headers, ensuring all relevant international content can be picked up by the right audience.

Unfortunately, hreflang tags are not recognised by all search engines in all territories. Meta tags can be a good alternative in countries such as China and South Korea. Which is why it always pays to research your market before you begin.

4. Work on your technical SEO

Technical SEO should be standard practice. But it is still easy to let it slide and overlook basic technical details that may impact your international SEO performance, like image optimization and the use of localised URLs.

5.Focus on content

Content has always been king online and that’s no less true when you’re focusing on international SEO. Producing locally relevant expert content suited to your intended audience is the number one way to generate the traffic you need.

The easiest way is to work with local copywriters and content creators. This not only supports relevancy but provides an unrivalled understanding of culture, language, user experience, and competitors. Translating generic content may produce cost savings, but it carries no SEO value.

It’s also worth remembering that native content can only do so much alone, and that to gain the full benefit, it must be underscored by strong SEO.

6. Build user experience into every element

User experience has become one of the most important points of consideration for all online businesses. In fact, 88% of consumers are less likely to return to a website after a bad experience. So, invest in user interface, trust building, value proposition, navigation and speed, to keep customers coming back – wherever they are from.

7. Make link building a priority

Link building falls in and out of SEO focus. Although it’s not an official Google parameter, it does help build domain authority. If you want your content to be seen by an international audience, having others treat you as an authority is always going to give an advantage.

8. Use your analytics

Using an analytics programme that can tell you where your traffic is coming from, where people are landing, how long they spend on the site, and what they do when they get there can provide you with the information you need to shape and improve your user experience and business proposition.

Why this matters

International SEO can reduce your customer acquisition costs and establish brands globally – an authority to be reckoned with. At a time when trade has truly become global, and the only barriers to expansion are the ones we set, international SEO is an important tool to take businesses forward.

Guido Ampollini

Founder and CEO

GA Agency