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What is International SEO? The Ultimate Guide for 2024

Julia McCoy
Friday, 31st May 2024
What is International SEO

So, you’ve got a website that’s killing it in your home country. Congrats! But have you ever thought about expanding your reach and tapping into international markets?

International SEO is all about optimizing your website to rank in search engines across the globe. It’s not just about translating your content into different languages (although that’s definitely part of it). It’s about understanding the unique search behaviors and preferences of users in different countries and adapting your SEO strategy accordingly.

In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about what is international SEO, from identifying your target markets to implementing hreflang attributes and building a global backlink profile.

By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of what international SEO is and how to use it to grow your business beyond your borders.

Let’s get started!

Table Of Contents:

What is International SEO?

International SEO is the process of optimizing your website to rank well in search engine results pages (SERPs) for users in different countries or who speak different languages.

An international SEO strategy will target specific geographic regions and linguistic preferences and create content that’s tailored to these audiences.

For businesses looking to expand their reach globally, international SEO is crucial. By optimizing your website for different countries and languages, you can tap into new markets, increase brand visibility, and drive more targeted traffic to your site.

This can lead to increased sales, revenue growth, and a stronger competitive position in the international market.

Local SEO vs. International SEO

While local SEO focuses on optimizing for a specific geographic area, international SEO targets multiple countries or language regions.

Their key differences include:

  • Targeting by country, language, or region vs. city, state or zip code
  • Optimizing for different search engines (e.g. Baidu in China, Yandex in Russia)
  • Adapting to cultural differences and local search behaviors
  • Handling technical aspects like hreflang tags and geotargeting

Targeting Specific Countries and Languages

The first step in any international SEO strategy is identifying which countries or language regions to target. This involves researching potential markets, analyzing competitors, and determining where there is demand for your products or services.

Identifying Target Markets

When choosing which international markets to target, consider factors like:

  • Market size and growth potential
  • Language and cultural barriers
  • Local competition and search landscape
  • Regulatory and legal requirements

Tools like Google Trends can help you gauge search demand and analyze competitor performance in different countries. I also recommend working with local market research firms or consultants who have on-the-ground knowledge of your target regions.

Conducting Market Research

In-depth market research is essential for understanding the unique characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of your target audiences in each country. This may involve:

  • Analyzing local search trends and keyword popularity
  • Surveying consumers about their needs and pain points
  • Identifying popular local websites, influencers, and media outlets
  • Examining local buying habits and payment preferences

Adapting to Local Search Engines

While Google dominates globally, some countries have their own preferred search engines.

For example, Baidu has over 70% market share in China while Yandex is more popular than Google in Russia.

To succeed with international SEO, you need to understand the unique algorithms, ranking factors, and SERP features of each local search engine and optimize accordingly. This may require working with native language SEO specialists or local agencies.

Translating and Localizing Content

To engage audiences in each target country, it’s important to not only translate your website content but also localize it. This means adapting your messaging, tone, visuals, and cultural references to resonate with local users.

For example, if you want to expand your business to Latin America, simply translating your website into Spanish isn’t enough. You have to research the local search landscape and adapt your content to resonate with the cultural preferences of Latinos in each country in the region.

Avoid relying on machine translation, which can be inaccurate and off-putting. Instead, work with native speakers who understand the linguistic and cultural nuances. They will translate your web pages and advise you on things that would appeal to local audiences, from color schemes to content topics. The result was a site that felt authentic and trustworthy to local users.

Optimizing Website Structure for International SEO

International SEO requires a strategic approach to website structure. You want to make it clear to search engines which countries and languages you’re targeting.

Choosing the Right Domain Structure

The first decision you’ll need to make is the type of domain structure to use. The most common options are:

  • Country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs): These use two-letter codes to indicate the country, like webisite.fr for France or website.de for Germany. They provide the clearest geotargeting signal to search engines but can be more expensive and time-consuming to set up and maintain.
  • Subdomains: With this approach, you’d place your internationalized content on a separate third-level domain, like fr.website.com or de.website.com. Subdomains are easier to set up than ccTLDs, but the geotargeting signal isn’t quite as strong.
  • Subdirectories: Another option is to use subdirectories or subfolders within your main domain, like website.com/fr/ or website.com/de/. This keeps all your content on one domain, which can help with link equity, but the geotargeting signal to search engines is weaker.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer – the best domain structure for your international SEO efforts will depend on your specific business needs, budget, and resources. But in general, I recommend using ccTLDs if you can swing it as they provide the clearest signal to both users and search engines.

Implementing Hreflang Tags

Once you’ve got your domain structure sorted, the next step is to implement hreflang tags. These are bits of code that tell search engines which language and country each version of a page is targeting.

Here’s an example of what an hreflang tag looks like:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="https://example.com/en-us" />

This tag indicates that the page at https://example.com/en-us/ is targeting English-speaking users in the United States.

You’ll need to add hreflang tags to the header of each page on your site, specifying the language and country for that particular URL. It’s a bit of a tedious process, but trust me – it’s worth it.

Hreflang tags are a key signal to search engines and help ensure that the right version of your content shows up for searchers in each market.

Geotargeting with Search Console

Another useful tool for international SEO is Google Search Console.

In the “International Targeting” section, you can specify a geographic target for your entire site or for specific subdirectories.

For example, let’s say your main site is website.com, but you have internationalized subdirectories like website.com/fr/ and website.com/de/. You could use Search Console to tell Google that the /fr/ subdirectory is targeting France, and the /de/ subdirectory is targeting Germany.

It’s important to note that geotargeting in Search Console is just one signal among many, and not as strong as using ccTLDs. But it’s still a helpful way to reinforce the international targeting you’ve set up through your domain structure and hreflang tags.

Utilizing Subfolders and Subdomains

As I mentioned earlier, using subdirectories or subfolders is one way to organize your international content without the hassle and expense of separate ccTLDs.

In this case, your URL structure would look something like:

  • website.com/en-us/
  • website.com/fr/
  • website.com/de/

Subdomains are another option, where your international content lives on separate third-level domains:

  • en-us.website.com
  • fr.website.com
  • de.website.com

Both subfolders and subdomains can be effective for international SEO when implemented correctly with hreflang tags and geotargeting. The key is to keep your structure consistent and easy for search engines to understand.

Whichever approach you choose, I recommend keeping your international content closely tied to your main site, rather than on completely separate domains. This helps maintain your domain authority and link equity across all your content.

Creating Localized Content for International Audiences

Optimizing your website structure is just the first step in a successful international SEO strategy. The real key is creating content that truly resonates with your target audiences in each market.

I’ve seen far too many businesses take the lazy approach of just running their content through Google Translate and calling it a day. But trust me – that’s not going to cut it if you want to build trust and engagement with international users.

Keyword Research for Different Countries

Just like with your local SEO efforts, international keyword research is crucial. The terms people use to search in French, German, or Japanese may be completely different than the English keywords you’re used to targeting.

When I’m doing international keyword research, I rely on native speakers to help identify the most relevant terms and phrases in each language. Tools like Ahrefs and Moz Keyword Explorer are also great for getting country-specific search volume and SERP data.

For example, let’s say you’re in the fashion industry and want to target the keyword “dresses” in France. Your keyword research might reveal that the most popular related terms are “robes femme” and “robes de soirée” rather than a direct translation of “dresses.”

Keep your pages ranking high by integrating slogans that are popular with the locals.

Avoid Machine Translations

I can’t stress this enough – relying on machine translation tools like Google Translate will not give you the localized, high-quality content you need for international SEO.

Even the best machine translation is still pretty clunky and unnatural sounding to native speakers. It doesn’t capture the nuance and local flavor that’s so important for connecting with international audiences.

If you want your content to truly resonate, you need to work with professional translators – ideally, native speakers who understand the ins and outs of the local language and culture.

Yes, this can be more expensive and time-consuming than just copying and pasting your content into Google Translate. But the extra effort is worth it for creating content that international users will actually want to read and engage with.

Consider Cultural Nuances

Language is just one piece of your international SEO strategy. To really connect with global audiences, your content also needs to be culturally relevant.

Let’s look at a real-life example.

When KFC first expanded to China in the 1980s, their famous slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” was initially translated as “Eat your fingers off” – not exactly the most appetizing message.

While that’s a pretty extreme example, it illustrates the importance of considering cultural nuances in your international content.

Everything from the images you use to the way you format dates and times to the pop culture references you include should be tailored to each target market.

This is another area where working with locals is key. They can help you navigate the cultural landscape and avoid any embarrassing faux pas.

Optimize for Local Search Intent

Finally, it’s important to keep local search intent in mind when creating content for international audiences.

Let’s say you’re a travel company and you want to target the keyword “vacation packages” in Germany. Simply translating your existing US-focused content probably won’t cut it.

German travelers may have completely different expectations and preferences when it comes to vacations – things like popular destinations, length of stay, time of year, and so on.

To rank well and engage those users, your content needs to align with their unique search intent.

Before creating content for a specific international market, I always do a SERP analysis to see what type of content is currently ranking for my target keywords.

What are the top-ranking pages talking about? What format and angle are they using? What kind of language and tone?

Analyzing the local search landscape gives you valuable clues about what users in that market are actually looking for. You can then use those insights to inform your content creation and ensure you’re meeting the needs and expectations of your international audiences.

Building an International Backlink Profile

International SEO link building is not just about acquiring any links but about identifying relevant link opportunities that will significantly impact your global rankings.

From my perspective, the key is to adopt a localized approach. This involves identifying the most authoritative and trusted websites in each of your target countries.

Identify Relevant Link Opportunities

So, how do you find these international link-building opportunities?

Begin by using tools like Ahrefs and Majestic to analyze the backlink profiles of your top competitors in each market.

Identify patterns in the types of websites linking to them – are they local industry blogs, news sites, or directories?

Compile a list of these potential link targets for outreach.

Outreach Strategies for Different Countries

Link-building outreach can be challenging in any language. But when dealing with different cultural norms and communication styles across various countries? It’s a whole new ball game.

My top tip? Collaborate with local experts who understand the nuances.

Partner with native speakers to craft outreach emails that will resonate with each audience. And remember to leverage popular local social networks and messaging apps to build those relationships.

Leverage Local Partnerships

Another effective international link-building strategy is to leverage local partnerships. Seek opportunities to collaborate with businesses, organizations, or influencers in your target markets.

Could you sponsor a local event or charity? Guest post on a popular industry blog? Earn links through supplier or client websites?

Get creative and think about how you can align your brand with respected local entities to earn those valuable links.

Measuring and Analyzing International SEO Performance

So, you’ve optimized your website for international audiences, built a killer backlink profile, and you’re starting to see some traction in your target markets. Great. But how do you actually measure and analyze your international SEO performance to keep that momentum going?

Set Up Tracking for Different Countries

First, you need to set up proper tracking and reporting for each of your target countries. I recommend using Google Analytics to create separate views for each country and language.

This will allow you to see how users from each location are interacting with your site, and identify any potential issues or opportunities.

Make sure to set up goals and event tracking to measure conversions and engagement in each market.

Monitor Keyword Rankings

Next, keep a close eye on your international keyword rankings. Tools like Semrush and Ahrefs offer great features for tracking your positions across different countries and languages.

Monitor your progress over time and look for any major fluctuations or opportunities to improve your rankings for valuable terms.

Remember, the search landscape can vary significantly from country to country, so don’t assume that what works in one market will automatically translate to another.

Analyze Traffic and Engagement Metrics

In addition to keyword rankings, dive deep into your international traffic and engagement metrics. Look at factors like traffic volume, bounce rate, time on site, and conversion rates for each country and language.

Are there any markets that are underperforming? Is your content resonating with local audiences?

Use this data to identify areas where you may need to adjust your strategy or optimize your international SEO efforts.

Identify Areas for Improvement

Lastly, regularly assess your overall international SEO performance and look for areas of improvement.

Are there any technical issues holding you back, like slow load times or hreflang tag errors? Is your content truly meeting the needs and expectations of each local audience?

Prioritize your optimization efforts based on the potential impact and ROI for each market. And don’t be afraid to experiment with new tactics or approaches – the key to successful international SEO is being adaptable and continually refining your strategy based on data and insights.

Common Challenges in International SEO

Having been deeply involved in international SEO for many years, I can attest to the fact that it’s not always straightforward. Let’s look at some of the most common obstacles you’ll encounter when expanding your SEO efforts globally.

Handling Different Languages and Currencies

One of the most significant challenges in international SEO is managing content in multiple languages and currencies.

Some best practices:

  • Use appropriate hreflang tags to specify language and country targeting
  • Provide clear language and currency selection options for users
  • Display prices in local currencies and rounding conventions
  • Ensure consistent translations across all site navigation elements
  • Offer customer support in local languages

Optimizing for Mobile Users Globally

Mobile usage varies widely by country, with some markets heavily favoring mobile devices over desktop computers.

To optimize for mobile users globally, here’s what you need to do:

  • Use a responsive design that adapts to different screen sizes
  • Prioritize fast loading times and streamlined navigation
  • Optimize images, videos, and other media for mobile
  • Consider mobile-first indexing and AMP pages
  • Research local mobile search behavior and optimize accordingly

Different countries have different legal and regulatory requirements that can impact your international SEO efforts. Common issues to navigate include:

  • Data privacy and protection laws (e.g., GDPR)
  • Advertising and marketing regulations
  • Copyright and intellectual property laws
  • Product safety and labeling requirements
  • Shipping and customs regulations

Work with local legal experts to ensure compliance and avoid penalties or legal issues. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Staying Up-to-Date with International SEO Trends

International SEO is constantly evolving, with new trends, technologies, and best practices emerging all the time.

To stay ahead of the curve:

  • Follow international SEO blogs and publications
  • Attend international SEO conferences and webinars
  • Join international SEO forums and communities
  • Experiment with new strategies and tactics
  • Collaborate with local SEO experts and agencies

By staying informed and adaptable, you can navigate the complex world of international SEO and drive success in your target markets.

FAQs: What is International SEO?

What is the international SEO process?

The international SEO process involves optimizing your website for different countries and languages to reach a global audience. This includes targeting specific markets, translating content, and using hreflang tags.

What is international SEO vs local SEO?

International SEO focuses on optimizing websites for multiple countries and languages. Local SEO targets a specific geographic area or region within one country.

How do I check international SEO?

You can use tools like Google Analytics to monitor traffic from different regions. Also, track keyword rankings in target markets with specialized software.

Conclusion

International SEO is a powerful tool for expanding your online presence and tapping into new markets around the world. By understanding the unique characteristics and search behaviors of your target countries, you can adapt your SEO strategy to rank higher in local search results and drive more targeted traffic to your site.

Remember, international SEO is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires careful research, planning, and execution to succeed in each market. But with the right strategy and a commitment to providing value to your international audiences, the rewards can be significant – increased brand visibility, revenue growth, and a truly global customer base.

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Written by Julia McCoy

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