International search is difficult, messy, complex work.
Agencies can add a great deal of value through specific knowledge and experience in international SEO, but they can be cost-prohibitive, as well. You really want to be sure you’re getting the greatest return on your investment.
in this column, you’ll find practical tips to help brands get more out of agencies and global SEO channels.
What’s So Challenging About International SEO?
Like everything else in digital marketing, in international search there are no industry-wide standards or objective criteria — only widely varying best practices.
Global is an important area that often experiences poorly coordinated and haphazard workflows and results.
Why is this so hard?
First, let’s acknowledge the truth: SEO is a difficult channel.
International search is complicated, dynamic, and multi-disciplinary. Therefore, most in-house teams need support from agencies that know the space well.
What they tend to find, unfortunately, are a lot of “make it up quickly” approaches. While this is understandable in an emerging field, brands deserve and require better.
This is partly due to the complexity of the space, and partly to international agency capabilities that are generally under-developed and over-sold.
Today this is harder than ever, due to the competition for talent in search marketing.
1. Technical SEO Is Tough Enough
The complexity starts with technical SEO. Specialized expertise requirements vary by country and region.
While Google maintains global supremacy, there are areas of the world where Google doesn’t dominate.
China, where Baidu rules, or Russia where it’s Yandex. In Korea, it’s Naver. In Japan, it’s Google with a Yahoo! twist (or maybe, it’s Yahoo! with a Google twist).
This is a wide swath of knowledge for one agency to completely master.
Even without considering the dominant search engine in a region, global companies that want to monitor, for example, sitemaps and indexation statistics by region.
Usually, it means creating multiple Google Search Console (or choose your flavor by country) accounts and rolling them up into a shared view, then using a third-party tool on top of it for crawls and deeper insights.
2. Content Requirements for International Are Huge
Then we move into the content side of SEO.
The obvious needs for global search are translation, localization, and keyword research performed accurately in the native language, accounting for local dialects and habits or behaviors.
But more broadly, this work needs to accurately inform content strategy decisions which, if done effectively, should focus on relevant on-page signals and messaging that leads customers and prospects down the funnel towards a conversion goal.
This work can’t be neglected.
3. Paid Search Has Its Own Issues
On the paid search side, not only does keyword research per the former criteria need to be accurate, bid strategies and negative matches need to keep reigns on ad spend to ensure lack of continual management doesn’t recklessly increase CPCs.
Landing pages must be fast and deliver performance, taking into account country-specific and regional behaviors and expectations.
It’s way too much for in-house teams when spread across multiple countries and regions but unfortunately, most agencies struggle here, too.
4. Large Agency Footprints vs Small and Nimble
Traditionally, large agency providers with global footprints provide the most international search support.
Agencies like these have offices in every major region across the globe.
They have blue chip clients. They have partnerships with the largest tech providers.
All this is fabulous; however, there’s one little problem: they’re not very good at doing global work.
Many of these agencies have global coverage built by acquisitions over the years.
These acquisitions provided the in-region shop with a sign to put above the door branding them as part of the “big agency” but without any work on integration other than transitioning everyone’s email address, adding more meetings to the calendars, and putting them through various operational and HR-led distractions.
Most of these in-region shops aren’t centrally managed. They’re essentially independent but affiliated local agencies lacking federated and centralized global processes.
Being more agile, independent agencies often have a unique advantage.
Since they are typically smaller and more flexible than holding companies, they’re often able to focus on holistic approaches and are integrated by design.
Even without a network of offices across the globe, they can handle international search using a centralized approach, sometimes even under the same (virtual) roof.
For these reasons, I tend to prefer smaller and leaner independent agencies for global work, even without the large footprints of holding companies.
They’re usually more focused on doing complex SEO work well and can really execute on it, not just sell it.
There are, of course, good examples of large holding companies doing global work well.
Being a large company with brand cache may be enough to get attention from the best agency holding companies; being the latter and bringing a large media spend to the table assures attention.
To be fair, it also quite fairly assures quality delivery and account management. But it still doesn’t mean agencies won’t face some of the same pitfalls that are ever-present in global search: complex organization and global execution of search campaigns done cohesively and consistently.
This isn’t solved only by budgets.
Factors In-House Teams Should Consider for Global Search Agencies
So, what’s an in-house team to do? When you need global search work, I recommend going through the following list of criteria in some fashion:
Does the agency have global case studies you can reference, and does the agency have a track record of global clients and existing clients in the countries and regions you’re focused on? Can you talk to one of their current or former clients?
Who are the main agency stakeholders in your key regions, and can you meet these people? This is a key consideration.
What is the account team structure the agency recommends, and who owns the global program from their side? Where is that person based?
What are the processes and global governance checks and balances the agency uses, and how does it actually work in practice? For example, what does a global technical program look like for them? A global content strategy? What can be done centrally and what needs to sit in the specific country and/or region?
Who do you call when there’s a problem? If it’s the person running the account from #3, do you like that person? I would put a high value on the relationship and overall likability of the account lead and their team.
Conclusion: It’s Still a Work in Progress
There are probably literally pages more one could say about this. And that sort of brings me to the final point.
This stuff is messy. It’s complicated. It’s hectic. It’s not easy.
And no matter how slick and polished it all sounds in a pitch deck, it’s a far cry from how it really looks in the field.
Talk to some existing or former clients and get their perspectives. Talk to Forrester or one of the large tool providers. Talk to your friends and colleagues.
Maybe we can all figure this out one day. Until then, finding the right global SEO agency is still a process in need of higher-quality solutions.