How to Take Your SEO Global Without Sacrificing Your Domestic Success

November 14, 2019 - 13  min reading time - by Adam Blackford-Mills
Accueil > SEO Thoughts > How to Take Your SEO Global

Going global is a gamble, especially when it comes to SEO. Developing an international SEO strategy requires a lot of planning, but also a leap of faith. There are pros and cons regardless of which direction you take, and there’s no guarantee that your existing visibility won’t be affected.

Recently, we found ourselves in a ‘going global’ situation with one of our largest clients. Having managed their SEO strategy for a number of years, their organic visibility was performing well in the UK search landscape. They were ranking highly for a range of relevant, competitive keywords, and they had the added benefit of a keyword-rich company name (which would soon be changed).

Our client informed us of their expansion; that their services would soon be offered globally. We were tasked with focusing our marketing efforts into the US marketplace as well as the UK. This meant their current SEO strategy needed to be adapted. And so, the journey began. Today, we are pleased to be able to say that despite some unique obstacles, their global SEO strategy continues to move forward in a positive direction for both regions.

Though we now think of this situation a success, we certainly hit a number of crossroads along the way. To help you approach your own global SEO journey, we’ve outlined some practical steps and key considerations for you to take into account.

Country vs Language Targeting

Before planning your global SEO strategy, it’s important to identify exactly what you are trying to achieve online. Are you trying to increase users in one country alone, all countries, or those who speak a particular language? When going global you need to ensure that users are served the right content in the right language.

Language targeting is not specific to a country or region. Some languages are spoken all over the world. As an example, you might want to target a Spanish-speaking audience, but not necessarily Spain alone.

Country targeting is recommended when a business needs to market themselves in multiple countries, perhaps offering differing services. An example of this would be an ecommerce site with product ranges that differ by country.

There are some instances where you might need to consider incorporating both language and country targeting. This will allow users to view a relevant country page in their preferred language. Here are some examples of how to make your decision:

Who do you want to target?Language or Country Targeting?
English speakers in GermanyLanguage AND Country
Anyone in GermanyCountry
German speakers anywhere in the worldLanguage
German speakers in the UKLanguage AND Country

Different Domain Options

When going global, considering how to structure your domain is one of the most important aspects. There are a number of choices, with varying pros and cons.

Country code top-level domains (ccTLD)
mywebsite.co.uk

A ccTLD reflects what country, state or dependant territory a website is registered in. ccTLDs are identified by the two letters at the end of a domain name, for instance ‘www.mywebsite.fr’ is registered in France.

By using a ccTLD, you are telling Google that your site content is specifically targeted at a particular country or region. However, be aware that using a ccTLD does not mean your website will not show in other countries. It also does not mean it’s targeted at a specific language.

There are some ccTLDs that Google treats as generic gTLDs, such as .co (Columbia), .io (British Indian Ocean) and .me (Montenegro).

Subdomain
uk.mywebsite.com
International content is placed on a country/region-specific subdomain.

Subdirectory
mywebsite.com/uk
International content is placed in a subdirectory or folder of your root domain. This works like other typical folder structures on websites, for instance mywebsite.com/about-us/.

Domain with language parameters
mywebsite.com/?lang=en-gb
Your domain makes use of a language specific URL parameter. In theory, this could also be used for geo-targeting (e.g. /?loc=uk), but Google actively advises against this practice.

Domains and Server Locations
Historically, server location has been considered a strong geotargeting signal. For instance, if a website is hosted in the US, it was theorised that it would be more likely to rank well in the US. Having said this, there is an ongoing debate regarding how impactful your server location really is.

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Domain OptionProsCons
ccTLD
mywebsite.co.uk
· Strongest signal to Google that your website focuses on a specific country
· ‘Easiest’ way to rank in a specific country
· More trusted by local users
· A stronger signal than server location, so server location becomes irrelevant.
· Authority will need to be built separately on each country-specific domain – there is no link equity passed between separate domains
· It can be expensive to purchase and maintain multiple ccTLDs
· Some ccTLDs have strict requirements
Subdomain
uk.mywebsite.com
· Easy to set up and use
· Different server locations can be used for each subdomain
· Weaker targeting signals to Google
· Less trusted by local users
· Link equity may not transfer between subdomains
Subdirectory
mywebsite.com/uk
· Easy to set up and use
· Same host is used
· Keeps authority and SEO value in one place
· Weaker targeting signals to Google
· Can be unclear to users if the letters relate to the language or the country
· One server location
· Less trusted by local users
gTLD with language parameters
mywebsite.com/lang=en-gb
· Easy to use
· Scalable
· Weaker targeting signals to Google
· Doesn’t look as clean
· Less trusted by local users

Approaching Translation, Localisation & Language Targeting

Decisions about your domain are crucial, however, there are still further considerations when it comes to on-site SEO factors.

Language Targeting
The golden rule about translation is simply that it needs to be done properly. Do not rely on a web browser to translate pages for your users. Pages should be professionally translated throughout, including navigation. It’s recommended that you use different URLs for different translations of pages. Using cookies to guide a user from one language to another is not recommended by Google. Consider again, who you wish to target and where those users may be:

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Who do you want to target?Language or Country Targeting?Domain OptionSample URL
English speakers in GermanyLanguage AND CountryccTLD and language parametewebsite.de/?lang=en and herflang=en
Anyone in GermanyCountryccLTDwebsite.de
German speakers anywhere in the worldLanguagegTLD and language parameterwebsite.com/?lang=de and hreflang=de
German speakers in the UKLanguage AND CountryccTLD and subdomainde.website.co.uk and hreflang=de

Avoiding duplicate content is a common concern when working with multiple languages, but translated content is not determined as duplicate content if it’s done manually and correctly.

When it comes to country-specific domains that have the same content in the same language (for instance an Australian site and a UK site), duplicate content issues will arise. Using a ‘hreflang’ tag will resolve this, however, because they enable you to identify variants of a language.

Lang & Hreflang Attributes

Declaring a meta content attribute with a ‘lang’ or an ‘hreflang’ can help search engines understand which language you are targeting with your website. It can also differentiate between versions of languages, e.g ‘en-GB’ or ‘en-US’.

‘Lang’ tags are an absolute must for browsers and search engines as they specify the language of the content on page. ‘Hreflang’ tags are used to identify alternative language variants on-site, and are essential for international SEO.

‘Hreflangs’ need a self-referencing link, as well as a return link on the alternative URL. Your alternative URLs reflect the relationship of your web pages in alternate languages.

Localisation
Word for word translation isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to website content. Localisation is also imperative – both in the practical and cultural sense.

Practical localisation includes things like timezones, phone numbers, and addresses. Users will want to see phone numbers and addresses they recognise, otherwise they’ll lose trust in your website.

Cultural localisation includes terminology, tone and imagery. No users will want to see robotic, direct translation from another language; they are more likely to have faith in your site if they recognise a certain turn of phrase, for example.

To achieve successful localisation, user testing can help. There’s nothing quite like the scrutiny of a real user native to your target country to make sure your website makes sense and works. If you’re based outside your target country it can be difficult to arrange face-to-face user testing. Fortunately, tools like usertesting.com can facilitate small scale tests remotely and rapidly.

Technical Factors

In addition to your country and/or language specific domain, there are a number of other factors that can help aid your global SEO strategy.

IP Addresses

A site hosted on a country-specific IP will signal to search engines the fact that your site targets a specific country. This is another benefit of choosing a ccTLD or subdomain.

Schema / Structured Data Markup

Ensuring that localised schema (like Local Business and Organization schema) is implemented correctly on your site helps Google understand how your company is structured around the globe. Make use of Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to build and test that your schema is valid.

Site Speed

Following SEO best practice, your site’s speed should be fast. Ensuring that your website still performs quickly for those geographically far away from your hosting server is crucial when going international.

The distance of a user in relation to your website hosting can impact your site’s performance. To resolve this, companies can choose to make use of a Content Delivery Network (CDN). CDNs are a system of servers located throughout the world, with the ability to deliver web pages quickly for those in varying global locations.

Offsite Factors

Overseas Link Acquisition

Localised offsite SEO is critical to international SEO success. Brand search, links, citations, and social signals originating from your target region will provide valuable, localised signals to your website. Though all these offsite aspects are important, none are easier to control than international outreach.
Outreaching and acquiring links from relevant countries is necessary to grow your global SEO strategy. It’s no good having referring domains entirely from the UK, so make sure that international competitor backlink research is part of your wider SEO strategy. Look at global competitors to see where they’re talking about online, and look to acquire these placements.

Tracking International SEO – Tools & Reporting

Common Issues
Not being able to track multiple geographic locations

Google Analytics’ Geographic report is limited in what you can filter; i.e. you can only filter by one region or city such as England > London. So, how can you track multiple geographic locations?
The first option is segmentation, e.g. creating a custom segment with your select locations included.
The second option, which we would recommend, is using ‘Views’. This will allow you to have a separate view with a filter of your chosen geographical locations included.

Tracking keywords – Recommended Tools

When undertaking SEO internationally, you need to make sure you’re tracking keyword positions in their respective country’s search engines. Keyword tools like Advanced Web Ranking allow you to easily differentiate your tracking between different countries and cities. We would recommend creating different properties per country, because best practice dictates that you tailor your targeting to different countries’ search landscapes.

Ahrefs is another tool that offers this functionality. Simply pick your location to track their keywords, whether that be by country, state, city or address:

To test searches in different countries’ search engines, you can use online tools such as http://isearchfrom.com/I Search From.

Keyword & Backlink Research – A Process

When it comes to performing localised keyword and backlink research, we recommend using a tool like ‘Ahrefs’. We’ll use this tool as an example in the following process.
With keyword research, Ahrefs’ ‘Keywords explorer’ tool allows you to do your own in-depth, manual keyword research. Their ‘Site explorer’ functionality allows you to undertake competitor keyword research across different countries, simply by inputting your competitor’s domain or URL. These tools will provide you with ranking positions as well as search volume numbers, and keyword difficulty levels, to give you an idea of the competition.

Using these tools, you will be able to identify local keywords to use in your own international keyword strategy, as well as identify new, localised competitors.

Once you’ve highlighted some core competitors through their keywords, you can move on to looking at their backlink profile. Ahrefs have a tool called the ‘Link Intersect’ tool which allows you to input your own website alongside others. With this you can compare who is linking to competitors, but not your website.

With this you can identify any potential outreach opportunities that others are taking advantage of;

Approaching Tough Decisions – A Case Study

The decision on how to approach international SEO is not always a simple one. Every business’ circumstances are unique. For instance, the client we referenced at the start initially had a .com domain for their UK offering. After deliberating, we decided to turn this into their US-targeted domain, and create a separate .co.uk domain for their domestic audience.

Using the methods covered in this guide, we had to ensure that the correct international SEO signals were applied to each domain – differentiating between UK and US signals. This included a ccTLD domain for each market, lang and href-lang attributes, correctly marked up schema, and localised content.

The US-targeted .com domain was able to hit the ground running, benefitting from an established domain with great authority. We had to make sure this authority was channelled properly with the right international SEO signals. To approach this in the initial stages, we developed an extensive US-based outreach campaign. The campaign was focused on delivering relevant content to US audiences across a number of highly targeted US-based publications. Whilst doing this, we were careful to use locally-relevant keywords as anchor text.

Alongside our campaign, our client also supported our activity with in-country events to help generate local brand search and web visits. This combined activity helped us gain international backlinks and increased coverage in the US.

When it came to the .co.uk domain, we were essentially starting afresh. One of the biggest and most important tasks to maintain search visibility was our redirect actions. We created a comprehensive and well-thought-out 301 redirect list in order to redirect around 90% of the pages from the previous site, to identical content on the new domain.

It was also important to push the authority and ‘SEO value’ from the .com domain to the new .co.uk domain, so as to minimise loss in visibility. Our initial aim was to identify relevant backlinks to point from the .com domain to the new .co.uk domain. To do this we highlighted the best UK-based referring domains and contacted their webmasters. We asked them to amend the links so that they pointed to the.co.uk domain. We ended up amending around 75% of the .com’s UK-based publication backlinks.

As well as amending relevant backlinks, we also looked to create new high-quality backlinks to the .co.uk domain. This was achieved through finding guest blogging and outreach opportunities across relevant UK publications. Following these steps helped to strengthen SEO value in the UK.
Overall, this was a successful project with great results both in the UK and USA. Our international SEO efforts paid off – with great results. Monthly leads generated via organic search have increased by over 244% YOY for the US site, and monthly organic search from non-UK markets grew by 294% YOY. We’re excited to see how this continues to perform in the future.

Adam Blackford-Mills heads up the team at MRS Digital, a leading inbound marketing agency in Hampshire, UK. With over a decade of experience in the industry, Adam ensures that MRS are at the forefront of search marketing, utilising the latest techniques and technology.
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