SEO Without Borders: A Guide to International SEO

seo without borders

1. Domain Name
2. Structure
2.1 Domain Directories
2.2 Separate ccTLDs
2.3 Separate Subdomains
3. Translation
3.1 Professional Translation
3.2 Google Translate
4. Markup
5. Keyword Research
6. Onpage
7. Link Building
8. Common Mistakes

This guide is for those who want to market internationally through multiple country-specific search engines. From basic SEO best practices to more technical situations, we will cover every step of the process.

No more sitting around wondering why you’re not popping up in Google.de; this content is written to be simple to understand and most importantly – actionable!

1. Domain name

It all starts here at the domain name. There are two types, country-specific top-level domain names (ccTLDs) and generic top-level domain names (gTLDs). A country-specific name might be something like widgetizer.fr, while a generic alternative would be widgetizer.com (.org, .info, .biz and so on).

If you’re creating a multinational/multi-lingual site then it’s recommended that you go after a generic (gTLD) domain. There are a few exceptional cases where multiple separate country-specific (ccTLD) domains are a better choice, but this will all become clear shortly.

2. Structure

This has been covered extensively across many SEO forums and blogs. By structure I’m referring to how we set up our strategy with URLs; this part of the process is so crucial to how you move forward and can be an enormous pain to change further down the line. Consider these options carefully!

2.1 Domain Directories (Recommended)

In this instance, all languages would reside on one generic (gTLD) domain, with each language being separated into a folder. Taking the widgetizer.com example:

widgetizer.com/en/

widgetizer.com/fr/

widgetizer.com/de/

Or going further, you can split languages up into country codes, for example:

widgetizer.com/en-us/

widgetizer.com/en-gb/

Pros:

One domain means one SEO campaign; building authority to the /en/ directory will have a positive, indirect impact on /fr/ and /de/.

Cons:

One domain also means one server location; in this instance you would not be able to host the /de/ folder in Germany and the /fr/ folder in France which may impact load speeds – and in most cases this won’t be noticeable.

2.2 Separate ccTLDs

Another common method of targeting multiple languages is to go through entirely separate domain names. For the same countries as above, this would simply be:

widgetizer.co.uk

widgetizer.fr

widgetizer.de

For the United States a .us name can be used, but these ccTLDs are reserved for US citizens and therefore not always appropriate. In this instance, it’s recommended that you register a .com and then use Webmaster Tools to target users in the United States.

Pros:

  • Clear distinction between locations, Google will not get confused as to which site to rank in which search engine.
  • Ability to locate servers in the local region allowing for faster load speeds.
  • Recognisable in the SERPs and trusted amongst local search users.

Cons:

  • Authority does not pass between domains without the use of links (and the impact of this is slight); SEO efforts are therefore increased greatly for every new ccTLD used. This approach is often only appropriate for MNCs with very large SEO budgets.

2.3 Separate Subdomains

One final option for international websites is a multiple-subdomain approach. Using the same gTLD, we can have multiple subdomains to target different users:

en.widgetizer.com

fr.widgetizer.com

de.widgetizer.com

Nick Pateman
Nick is an SEO turned inbound marketer and started out in 2004 by building a bunch of websites with pocket money (seriously, he was like 15). In 2011 he founded Inbound Digital Marketing as the Marketing Director and now puts the focus on brand development both internally and for clients.
Nick Pateman

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13 thoughts on “SEO Without Borders: A Guide to International SEO

  1. I always had lots of problems trying to make my wordpress sites multilingual – could you suggest me any good plugins for it? it would be great if they were free

    1. Hey Siegfried,

      There are some awkward plugins out there; but even the least awkward ones will never be a long-term solution. I really recommend developing your own plugin, or for smaller sites, simply setting up parent pages under /en/, /fr/ and ensuring everything else (like markup) is in place.

      Unfortunately there really isn’t a cheap solution – but once the infrastructure is in place you can go bananas on the content! ;D

  2. Nice post Nick. My thoughts:

    1. Domain name: even the same product but for different countries, I prefer multiple separate country-specific (ccTLD) domains. This is part of the “Geolocation” Google will improve sooner or later. Check out some Latam SERP´s.

    2. Structure: avoid this step if using different domain names. Useless when doing everything with one domain name.

    3. Translation: try to find a local freelance native. This is part of the “tropicalization” of any language. Professional translation is kind of expensive. Google Translate is worthless for this purposes.

    4. On-Page SEO: once you handle unique domain names and content, everything is going to be “easy” when trying to optimized on-page elements. Don’t forget the “Old-School” techniques. Some of them still have “power”. :)

    1. Agree with all your points there including the separate ccTLDs; if someone has the budget to cover the broad SEO strategy required then go for it!

  3. Hi Nick

    some nice tips in here mate , I am hoping to push out an article on rel alternate and hreflang soon and its good to see other SEO’s pushing for this :)

  4. Good tips these Nick. Getting anchor text links in regional language from local and relevant sites hosted on regional servers (in the same country) really matters a lot and helps the site get great local visibility.

  5. Really useful info Nick. It’s interesting to see companies that have their websites in several languages but only get good rankings in their home market. It’s really tough but I think you get better as you go along, and posts of this quality are always helpful. I used a lot of machine translation at first only to find out that Google was penalizing me. Finally I resorted to paying and I’ve noticed the benefits. I used gengo.com and so far it seems to be working pretty well.
    Thanks again!

  6. Hi Nick – a very thoughtful and thorough approach to International SEO. Thanks for sharing!

    I just wanted to put an exclamation point on the importance of using professional **human** translation for SEO. Google has been very clear about the risks of using a machine translation:

    “We recommend that you do not allow automated translations to get indexed. Automated translations don’t always make sense and they could potentially be viewed as spam.”

    That has panda/duplicate content penalties written all over it.

    I recapped the rest of the quote in this post: http://citygatels.com/why-google-translate-will-kill-your-multilingual-seo/

    Original Google Webmaster source: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2010/03/working-with-multilingual-websites.html

  7. Nick, really wonderful post. Still, I have some doubts.

    My company is having two domians .in and .com domain. At present both domains have the same content, banners, templates and so on. I have set the target location of .in domin to India and .com domian to US. My first question is

    1. Still, Google considers this as a duplicate content or not?

    My main aim is to get good rankings in Google.co.in and also in Google.com. So, for that only I have created .in and .com domain. My second question is

    2. If Google considers this as a duplicate content then, how can I come out from this?

    Nick, hope you will provide me a good answer.

    Thanks