Last year the world changed dramatically.
People were pushed further online, which created new potential for businesses seeking to compete in markets worldwide.
But in order to succeed in international SEO, one must understand issues of page experience, URL structure, keywords, SERPs, and more from a global perspective.
Building and expanding your company’s digital presence requires that you are able to get in front of audiences in each of the regions in which you do business, particularly in search.
SEO has grown more essential than ever before, with 68% of all online experiences beginning with a search engine.
Use this guide as a checklist for a more effective international SEO strategy today — and for years to come.
The Checklist for International SEO Success
Optimizing content to perform in several countries requires a solid strategy but in the end, it’s all about execution.
Run through this list of international SEO considerations to ensure your campaign and content are on point.
1. Hreflang – the International Setup
An hreflang is an HTML attribute that shows the language your content is displayed in and also the geolocation of the reader. It can look like this:
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.site.com" hreflang="en-uk">
The HTML tail “en-uk” is used to tell search engines like Google the language and location you want to target with your content. This is important if you’re approaching a certain market and language.
Note: Hreflang doesn’t work with Bing or Baidu, which use the content-language meta tag:
<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-uk">
First, determine the search engine you want to focus on before going deeper into the technical optimization of your site.
2. Choose the right URL Structure
In order for your content to reach the audience you want, you need to consider URLs based on ccTLDs (country code top-level domains), subdomains, and subdirectories.
The method by which you will determine URL structure largely depends on your resources. In a perfect world, the best approach is TLDs—if you can manage several domains at the same time.
If not, subdomains are the next best thing. Lastly, you might choose a subdirectory if neither of the above options are suitable.
3. Prepare for Page Experience
With every update Google makes, it seems to focus more and more on on-page experience.
Case in point: Core Web Vitals become ranking factors in May 2021.
This is important to keep in mind, especially if you handle international SEO.
As part of the page experience, probably the most important thing to prepare for is mobile-first index (or mobile-only index). Mobile-first is a global issue and it is important to be prepared for it in every country in which you operate.
4. Avoid Machine Translation
Even though it may make life easier and translation quicker, you should really avoid machine translation.
I’ve seen it plenty of times.
A marketer wants to target more international markets and chooses to translate the whole site with a translation plugin.
Every time, content writers find translation errors (as I would call them). When translating from one language and dialect to another, there are language nuances that a machine won’t find.
A bad translation will not improve rankings.
Use local translators who also understand the importance of context.
This will protect your reputation with local consumers from their first interaction with your brand in search.
5. Understand That Keywords & SERPs Vary from Country to Country
Even though the Google algorithm may be universal, the SERPs vary widely on a local level.
Searching for any given product in Sweden will give you a whole other set of results than a search for the same thing in the U.S.
If targeting a specific keyword in several countries, begin by analyzing the SERPs.
Be aware of changes in search volume and the meaning of the term to locals for your target keywords, as well.
For example, the word “SEO” is a global term that is used in the same way in several countries. But searching for “football streaming” in the U.S. means something entirely different than “football streaming” in the UK.
Take this into account when focusing on your country-level strategy.
Seek out both strong keyword volume and search intent in your terms of choice for each country.
6. E-A-T is Here to Stay
E-A-T stands for “Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.”
Found in Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines, these qualities in content help build trust.
Here are some elements you should focus on:
- Author names and biographies in editorial content
- Cut or edit low E-A-T content
- Build up a personal brand
- Optimize technical security
- Moderate User Generated Content (important in YMYL)
7. Don’t Just Build Links; Build Relationships
Yes, links are still important. And because links are based on the idea of recommendations, I don’t ever think they will leave the ranking factors.
Even though Google’s position is that you should not build links, there are still tactical ways to approach this ongoing gain of authority.
Focus on quality over quantity.
A relevant link from a site with a domain rating of 50 and few outgoing links will earn you better rankings than ten irrelevant links from sites with less than 10 ratings for domain authority.
But don’t be tempted by unsolicited LinkedIn connections asking you to buy their links. Instead, build relationships with marketers or people from the industry you work in.
Remember too that for international SEO, links have different values depending on the origin of the backlink.
If your site gets a lot of backlinks from URLs ending with “.it” it gives Google the impression that your site is relevant to audiences in Italy and it can therefore rank accordingly on those local SERPs. Local links will have the highest impact on search results.
It’s not about trying every single tactic. It’s about finding what works for you in each country and using that on a larger scale.
8. Keep an Eye on International & Local Search Trends
2020 brought us dramatic shifts in search volume and behavior due to the pandemic.
In general, however, our preferences are constantly changing and trends can vary widely from country to country.
Check out “working remotely,” for example, which increased from 22,200 to 40,500 in monthly searches in the U.S. – an 82% increase, from October 2019 to 2020.
In the UK, the search volume for the same term over the same period increased 175% from 4,400 to 12,100 in monthly searches.
Clearly, there is a larger market in the U.S.
If you were a company like Zoom and had to choose where to allocate budget, the U.S. market has greater potential.
You can use a tool like SEOmonitor for trends and volume search, as I have done above. Or, use Google Trends for finding upcoming trends in every market.
Google has also released its Year in Search, which can give you key insights into the market you work in.
9. Create a Plan & Execute
In the world of SEO, you’ll have a lot of analysis but in the end, it’s all about execution.
Based on what we just went through, you should now be in a better position to create a plan – a roadmap – and start executing.
Divide your punch list into technical SEO, content, and link building. From there, create your own optimization calendar.
I recommend using this marketing calendar to get started.
A Few More International SEO Tips to Support Your Strategy
Allocate Resources Appropriately
SEO is all about prioritizing your resources to achieve the most important tasks.
It’s always a good idea to prioritize your time based on the overall strategy, especially when working with different countries.
If you have a link tactic that grows your domain rating, keep doing this instead of trying new ones. If you have to choose between creating a new blog post or updating an old one, focus on what would have the greatest impact on your ROI.
And if you have to choose between working on task A or task B, ask yourself what would benefit the user the most. That’s your answer.
Think & Act Holistically
In international SEO, your scope is broader than if you worked with only one niche in one country.
Optimize in a holistic way by focusing efforts around a user-friendly taxonomy and your main pillars to ensure you grow on more keywords than you would with a narrow view.
Automate Your Most Time-Consuming Processes
If possible, auto-generating content like product descriptions and meta descriptions can help you save both time and money and see results a lot faster.
Your time is better used somewhere else.
Connect with People, Internally & Externally
In order to be the best in the international space, you have to connect with marketers and fellow industry professionals all around the international markets you work in.
Since we’re talking about connections, you may work in a company where you’re sitting in different units around the world.
In this case, it is extra important that you connect with international colleagues in order to gain the best insight from other markets.
Communication will help grow the company as one organization. If you’re a leader, this is a must – not just in SEO, but in any aspect of the business.
Think More Locally
In short, thinking more locally is the key to international SEO.
Every country is its own market.
This needs to be your mindset in order to succeed.
Your main goals with SEO are often a better share of voice, increased revenue, and more/higher quality leads.
In order to achieve your goals, you need an overall strategy in place.
Now you also have a tactical checklist based on the best practices for an international approach to help support it.