Do you serve customers in more than one country? Do any of your customer segments speak different languages? If you answered yes to either of those questions, then international SEO should be on your radar. By applying best practices to your website, you can attract more traffic, grow your global presence, and serve your customers better with these international SEO tips.
What Is International SEO?
International SEO refers to optimizing your search presence for people who are in different countries or speak different languages. Using geo-targeting, hreflang tags, and other localization signals, you can target content to your users around the world.
How international SEO works: Google makes efforts to match search results to the language and location of the searcher. Special signals you add on your website help Google or other search engines know when your site has content that would be suitable for someone who is in a particular country or is searching in a specific language.
Here are four important steps to implementing international SEO on your site.
Step 1: Determine What International Content You Will Provide
Do you want to optimize search results based on language, geo-targeting, or both?
Some sites choose to focus on language, like Facebook’s home page which allows users to select their own language. Air Canada uses a pop-up to let some users select their language, and country, sending them to a specific URL based on their selection.
You can also target content by country AND language choice, like eBay, which makes separate marketplaces available in the local languages of 23 different countries. British clothing retailer Boden customizes content by country, with separate websites for customers in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, Australia, and more.
As you can see, the spectrum of content ranges from simply translating your English material into more languages to creating fully customized experiences like eBay does. Once you know what international content you will provide, you will need to decide how to structure your website for international SEO.
Not sure which countries to optimize for international SEO? One input to consider is to identify countries that are generating a lot of links or traffic to your site. Use Alexa’s free Site Overview tool to check what countries are driving traffic to your site. If you see a lot of traffic from a country you’re not optimized for, you might consider optimizing for those countries. You can also use the Language report in Google Analytics to see what languages your users speak.
Step 2: Set Up an International SEO-Friendly URL Structure
Your URL structure helps Google figure out which of your pages to show searchers in different countries. This is part of geo-targeting, which focuses on location. To further target for language, we’ll show you how to use the hreflang tag in a moment, too.
Most businesses either set up a whole new website for each target country or add a subdirectory structure on their existing website. The approach you choose will depend largely on the resources you can dedicate to the creation and maintenance of it. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each URL structure for international SEO.
A Subdirectory for Each Country on Your Main Website
To set up a subdirectory structure, create a folder on your website for each target country labeled with that country’s two-letter ISO code. For example, to signal content targeted to people in Spain, your subdirectory would look like this: website.com/es.
Pros of using subdirectories: A subdirectory structure is easy to set up and maintain. Adding subdirectories to your website is simple and cost-effective. It only requires one website domain, and the authority you build up for that domain applies sitewide. Some think this option has emerged as the clear choice for nearly any business.
Cons: The international SEO signal for a subdirectory is weaker than if you were to set up a website completely dedicated to a country.
Best for: A business or organization that wants to serve companies across multiple countries and keep its communications on one website.
Examples of companies that use subdirectories for their international websites:
- Apple (apple.com/uk/ for users in the United Kingdom)
- Nike (nike.com/za/ for users in South Africa)
- Spotify (spotify.com/ar/ for users in Argentina)
A Separate Website for Each Country
Some companies choose to set up a separate website for visitors from each targeted country. This is called a local country code top-level domain (ccTLD). A ccTLD for your users in Spain would look like this: website.es
Some codes are “open,” meaning they can be registered for uses other than to represent the country. For example, .co is the official country code for Columbia, but you probably know it more for its association with “company” or “corporation.” Some ISO codes have also been adopted for use with cities: .to is used for Toronto and Tokyo in addition to Tonga. ICANNWiki maintains a list of country code top-level domains.
Pros of using ccTLDs: Dedicating a separate domain using a country code offers the most powerful country signal to search engines for international SEO. It also tells website visitors that your brand is dedicated to its presence in that country.
Cons: Maintaining separate websites for different countries can be expensive. When it comes to international SEO, you’ll also have to build authority for each website separately.
Best for: Large businesses with deep resources. Because maintaining multiple websites is so expensive, it’s not usually a good choice for smaller businesses. An exception is if you are targeting China. It can be difficult for websites to rank on Baidu, China’s most prominent search engine, without the .cn top-level domain.
Examples of companies that use separate websites (ccTLDs) for different countries:
- Sony (corporate website for China: sony.com.cn/)
- Disney (shopping site for France: shopdisney.fr/)
- McDonald’s (in Serbia: mcdonalds.rs/)
Subdomains Not a Popular Choice for International SEO
In theory, you also have a third choice: You could set up a subdomain on your website for each country. However, the disadvantages generally outweigh the advantages.
The international SEO signal is weaker for a subdomain than it is for a dedicated country domain. It may also be more difficult to take advantage of the authority of the main domain for subdomains than for subdirectories. (While Google says they treat subdomains and subdirectories equally when it comes to ranking sites, SEO experts debate whether this actually holds true. Many believe that pages on a subdomain don’t reap the benefits of the root domain and are actually seen as separate domains by Google, or that subdomains may possibly dilute the authority of the root domain.) Additionally, you will have hosting costs for each subdomain.
If the best URL structure doesn’t seem clear for your business, take a look at competitors in your target country.
One way to gain international competitive intelligence using Alexa is to run a Site Comparison for your top 10 competitors. You can click the top right-hand drop-down and change views for any country worldwide. If your main competitors are getting a ton of traffic from one of your target countries, you can check out their international SEO tactics for that country.
Make sure of the proper country code before setting up your URL structure. And keep in mind that regardless of the choices you make for your URL structure, Google may still occasionally show the wrong content to searchers. The hreflang tag can provide additional signals to help Google sort out when to show what.
Step 3: Use Hreflang Tags for Language Targeting
Hreflang tags are small snippets of code used on websites with content in multiple languages. They help search engines match up the correct language with the searcher. French speakers will see your French content instead of your English or Italian content, for example.
How does Google know which language a user prefers? The terms the searcher enters are big clues, of course. But Google also looks at data such as the user’s settings, search history, location, and which Google domain they are using (Google.com vs. Google.de, for example).
The hreflang tag is useful when providing translations of your content in subdirectories or subdomains. While search engines can usually detect the language on a page without hreflang tags, the tags help prevent your different page versions from competing with each other in search results. Hreflang tags are not necessary when using separate domains (ccTLDs) because of the signal from the country code, although some people elect to use them with the reasoning that the hreflang tag can strengthen the location signal.
If you decide to use hreflang tags, follow the guidelines below. WordPress users: You may be able to use a plugin to manage your hreflang tags.
How to Use Hreflang Tags
Consider that international content is often a translation of English-language pages. That means you end up with a different version of the same page and a similar URL for each language, which means that these versions could compete with each other in search results. A hreflang tag accompanies each version of a URL across your website, helping to avoid this competition.
The hreflang tag can include two components:
- Mandatory: The language code (using ISO ISO 639-1 codes)
- Optional: A country code (using ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country codes)
The format for a hreflang tag is hreflang=“languagecode-countrycode.”
Hreflang Tags Example
By pulling up the source code for Apple, you can see its hreflang attributes:
Each tag specifies the country and language of users and is placed after the URL. “en-US” refers to English speakers in the United States, “ar-AE” is for Arabic speakers in the United Arab Emirates, “en-AE” is for English speakers in the United Arab Emirates, and so on.
If your main page automatically redirects users based on their location or asks them to select the language for the page (like the Air Canada example above), you may also need an x-default hreflang tag. Google explains that this attribute value “signals to our algorithms that this page doesn’t target any specific language or locale and is the default page when no other page is better suited.”
You have three choices for where to use hreflang tags:
- In the source code of the header on each page (most popular)
- In the HTTP header on every page
- In your sitemap
Choose the one that’s easiest for you to maintain, but be sure to use your hreflang tags in only one of these places on your site.
Step 4: Support International SEO with More Signals
Localizing content goes beyond the technical choices outlined above. International SEO can benefit from a well-rounded view of the users of a target country or language.
Consider Search Engine Preferences
At 92% worldwide, Google holds the largest share of Internet searches. But this isn’t the case in every country. In China, for example, Baidu captures 65% of the market segment share. Yandex is popular in Eastern European countries.
While there will be many similarities among search engines, you will want to explore more deeply how to optimize your international SEO efforts for Baidu or Yandex, for example, if China or Eastern European countries are part of your global presence.
Target Content to Fit Device Preferences
People in different countries prefer to access the Internet in different ways. Making your content easily consumable via the most popular devices can help with usability, which can impact SEO. Knowing how people access search helps you know where to put your efforts to optimize their experience.
Consider Additional Local Signals
Additional geo-targeting signals can work in your favor. Consider using the following strategies to signal the country or language of your users:
- Include links to your presence on popular local social media outlets.
- Display prices in local currencies.
- Include location data such as address and phone number for your local offices.
Because the end goal of your international SEO efforts is to serve your customers well, it will also be worth your while to understand local preferences for colors, design aesthetics, organization of content, and other cultural factors. Do make sure your translated content is prepared by a native speaker and reviewed by members of the intended audience whenever possible.
Get Started with International SEO
International SEO starts with understanding how to best serve your customers and then making efforts to customize your content and search experience to their needs. Using the steps above, you can get started with international SEO to optimize your website for your audiences who are in different countries or speak different languages.
And remember, you can use Alexa tools to support your international SEO with competitive insights and more. Sign up for a trial of our Advanced plan today.