Do you want to expand to a brand new market? It doesn’t matter if it’s a neighboring country or one on the other side of the globe, you need to get prepared. We created for you a complex guide on SEO abroad to get your business ready for expansion, building international SEO strategy and measuring the effects. Enjoy!
- On which market should I start selling abroad?
- Signals that your products may have some potential on the other market
- Will my shop be really trustworthy abroad?
- When Google is not enough: in which search engine you should be highly positioned?
- Technical preparation
- Language or country targeting?
- Domain, subdomain or catalog. What should you choose for the language version of the site?
- CMSs that give you the opportunity to enter a new market
- The structure of URLs and hreflangs and international management: how to help Google interpret the language version
- Create an international sitemap
- Content creation
- Technical preparation
- SEO Process – links, content, optimization
- Measuring Effects
Nowadays, many businesses tend to consider expanding and entering foreign markets. No wonder – we can now offer services or deliver goods basically anywhere, without much of an effort.
There are many online stores that are already present in one country and don’t have to fight for their position there. Nonetheless, they are hungry for more and they want to increase their sales while expanding abroad.
Very often services or products on foreign markets can have lower competition, be better adjusted to the audience or, to put it simply, be more expensive.
Because sales in the world of e-commerce happen online, and logistics companies are able to deliver products to the majority of countries in a short amount of time – the question is not if you should enter new markets, but when, where and how to start.
Where are you at in your decision process to enter foreign markets?
- I know I want to start selling abroad (Go to “Preparation”)
- I am still considering it and thus, looking for information about SEO abroad (stay and read more)
2.1. Should I enter another market with my online shop?
To make the right decision about expanding abroad you need to get to know the market you want to conquer. A good decision is usually to enter neighboring markets. Territorial proximity or similar stage of development of a particular country makes it easier for you to find your potential clients there.
Also, international logistics or logistics within the EU is an important factor determining the ease of entering another market and reaching potential clients with your offer and products. Therefore, selecting neighboring countries can be a good decision at the very beginning.
2.2. Is International SEO for me?
Should everyone invest in an international SEO strategy?
This simply won’t work if you run a local business: for instance, a beauty salon in a small city (however, exceptions can happen everywhere). After all, international SEO means entering another market, being present in another country and preparing and executing an SEO plan there.
If you sell a product that may be unpopular or even legally forbidden in a given country, you shouldn’t think about entering such a market as you can do yourself more harm than good.
It’s a totally different story if you offer a unique, innovative product, and you know that it can be interesting for clients abroad. However, if you plan international SEO activities, you need to reassure that you meet several criteria: whether you have real possibilities of managing orders and requests all over the world, whether you can provide delivery everywhere and whether you can manage secure payments in other currencies. This is the reason why international SEO strategies are rather executed by large companies, corporations or start-ups. On the other hand, small business also can decide to perform SEO activities abroad – especially if they run an innovative or niche business offering something that can be useful for the audience abroad, or has a chance to go viral.
If you feel and know that in your case going global will definitely work wonders for your business, that’s great – keep reading our article!
3.1. On which market should I start selling abroad?
If you want to go global, you can’t aim to be everywhere, because you can reach no one in the end – and burn a lot of your money resources once you’re at it. To make international SEO effective and beneficial, you need to adjust it to selected markets and particular audience, and you won’t be able to do it without proper, detailed research.
How to do the research?
First of all, you need to get some basic data about the traffic on your website. You can get some insights thanks to e.g. Google Analytics. Check where your current visitors come from and what languages they speak. They can be the first signals for you to head in the right direction. It is especially important if you have a language version, for example an English one, and you are thinking about running another language version on your website.
3.2. Signals that your products may have some potential on the other market
Signal #1: Google Analytics
3.2.1. Analysis of international traffic
How to find out what countries your visitors come from? It’s easy!
- Enter Google Analytics
- On the left side, select Audience -> Geographic data -> Location
This is how you can see users from other countries who visited your website.
If you don’t have a customized language version for those countries, there is a high probability that they use automatic translation systems built in their browsers.
Having data about countries, you can notice (as below) that it may be worth expanding your services for English speaking markets, such as the United States (US) or Great Britain (UK) and even different markets: Germany (DE), China (ZH), The Netherlands (NL) and Ukraine.
You already know countries your audience comes from, so it is high time for you to find out what languages you should translate your website to. You can figure it out by checking Google Analytics -> Audiences -> Geographic data -> Language.
You have some basic knowledge about countries and languages of your visitors, but it is still not sufficient – there are only signals that you are likely to have visitors from abroad who are interested in your products or services.
Signal #2: Competitors
3.2.2. Competitors analysis
Analyze your competitors’ activity and strategy. Find out what language they use to communicate with their clients and what countries they deliver services or products to. This kind of information you can find out on their websites, checking what language versions they already provide their visitors with, what countries they include in delivery costs, etc.
Then the decision is up to you: you can either focus your activities on the same area or do quite a contrary and be present where your visitors are not active (yet), and where you already have some visitors from.
The knowledge of your competition’s activities, markets they appear into and keywords they use to boost their positions in search engines can help you make a decision and check if there is any demand or space for you on a particular market.
What else a detailed competitors’ analysis can help you with?
When you get familiar with the details of products or services of the most visible brands on a particular market, you will be able to evaluate whether your offer differs from what you have seen, what your strengths can be, how to build a competitive advantage and what direction to head to increase chances for achieving success.
By analyzing the content on your competitors’ websites, you can find out what kind of content and what media in a particular country or area are the most interesting and appealing for users. You can figure out what they are looking for, what they are asking for, how and what with they interact, what they want to read about. This can help you find and adjust content on your own website. Of course, it is not about copying activities, but rather customize the best local practices to your own needs to take your competitors over.
It is also worth checking where backlinks leading to your competitors’ websites come from. You can identify a valuable list of sources to create your own backlink strategy. It can be just a very start of building a complex and effective link building strategy, suitable for international markets.
The most crucial is the fact that you can gain some information what keywords your competitors have chosen for SEO process, and either use the same ones or modify them (e.g. by next long-tails) to be visible in search engines on more key phrases.
Tools for competition analysis:
- SYou can check link building strategies of your competitors or companies in your industry with tools such as Ahrefs and Majestic.
- SEMrush is a tool that gives you a lot of possibilities for competitors’ analysis. Its advanced features help you identify competitors from your industry, checking what keywords they have been using, what phrases generate their traffic, what their potential is, and more essential data you may need.
There are of course many other tools you can use for competition’ analysis – we only named a few. The most important fact is to use them and make conclusions on a regular basis that will help you apply solutions and changes on your own website. Remember to check your real competitors: those brands that have the most similar offers to yours.
If you already know what your competition is on a particular market, nothing will tell you more about your international potential than the analysis of the keywords of your future market rivals!
Sighal #3: Analysis of the potential of competitors’ keywords
3.2.3. Keyword research for international SEO – how to make it right?
Creating a list of keywords for SEO process for your website can be a challenge. In this case, you need to adjust your SEO strategy to a brand new language, cultural and technical realities since Google does not have to be the only search engine for your new audience. The most crucial thing is to check the potential of your product as early as possible, and thanks to that keywords analysis it is possible or simple easier. In addition, such analysis is necessary also after the decision is made and the market is chosen.
You should make the analysis on a few levels:
- General keywords – you should write down and identify those keywords that are general and describe your business well, for example: “shop with…” – those will be informative phrases that drive general traffic, especially to the main page.
- Keywords matched to a category – it is worth checking out how users look for products in a particular category, as these keywords can support expanding the reach. This can also help with building the structure of your website as for categories.
- Keywords matched to products – identifying what your potential clients use to find out more about the products is crucial! Types, models, names, sizes or brands – they can all boost conversion if you allocate them in the structure right, based on the data you gather.
For each type of keywords, you should create a separate mock-up with those words that can be helpful for creating a structure and linking keywords with pieces of content. Keywords’ research helps with creating a structure for the main menu, as you will have all detailed information on how to name categories and subcategories best to be found by potential users.
Tools for international keyword research
How would you, as a user, look for a particular product or category? You need to answer this question to do a proper analysis of keywords.
Such a change of perspective can visibly impact the shape and type of content you will publish on your site. You need to remember that if you want your website to be displayed on specific keywords, they need to be used on that website. There is no other way to rank on those keywords. Google wants to show this kind of content that answers questions in the best way, so you need to care about your content planning and strategy.
There are quite a few tools that can help you with preparing keyword research. You can obviously benefit a lot from using Google Keyword Planner and Search Console (if you have some samples of data). Google Trends is often used to support activities and identify what keywords worldwide gain popularity and what kind of phrases are popular in your niche.
You can base the keyword analysis for your business in other countries on SEMrush showing you positions, the difficulty of a particular keyword, the search volume or CPC.
To plan keywords in other languages and for other browsers, we recommend you use the tools listed below:
At the end of the day, remember that keywords need to suit your products and services on your website, no matter what tool you use. The compatibility with the organic search results in a particular country can give you nothing if you don’t have anything related to them on your website.
Draw your attention to those questions:
- How keywords related to your business are found by your international visitors? (English speaking ones, but not native speakers)
- What is the volume of organic search for your keywords in each country?
- How competitive are those keywords in each selected country?
- What do those keywords already give you – what are the positions are you already present at in those countries?
And after sorting out the most profitable phrases with the highest potential, choose those you want to prepare your SEO activities for.
What is worth doing while planning keywords?
- Bear in mind that Google is not the only search engine in the world.
- Adjust the language of keywords to a particular market.
- Don’t just assume that the English language version of your website will be a great idea for each and every market (however, there are countries where the search requests are sent in two languages: the national one AND English – let’s take the Netherlands as an example)
- Collaborate with a native speaker.
- Don’t use just single keywords – take all forms and synonyms into account too.
- Think long-term about converting long-tails – it is definitely another factor to keep in mind for content marketing and SEO.
What to avoid?
- Literal translations that won’t be understood by native speakers (e.g. false friends)
- Translations made with the help of a translating program that will not sound natural for users, and search engines can see them as duplicated content
- Paradoxically the tool called Google Global Market Finder, where the results are based on a translator’s data.
- Choosing those keywords that do not appear on the website
The analysis of keywords will be an important answer to the question: is it worth going global? Is there enough demand? However, there is another factor you need to take into account while deciding on expanding your services.
Signal #4: Logistics and business possibilities
3.2.4. Logistics and business possibilities
When you have already initially chosen the markets you want to conquer, ask yourself some questions.
- Are my products or services adjusted to the cultural life and reality of the country I want to be present in?
For example, Gerber, when entering the African market, didn’t see a satisfying level of sales. Why? Due to the common illiteracy on this continent, the majority of products include pictures to show the content. The picture on Gerbers’ labels showed the face of a baby – for many, the product was regarded as a baby mash.
- Are my products/services known and needed on a particular market?
For example, in Japan, one of the foreign companies wanted to stand out in the market with their “innovative” washing powder for making laundry also in cold water. However, in Japan it was common to make laundry in cold water anyway, so the product was not special at all.
If you answered “yes” on questions above, find out what are law regulations and specifications of markets you’ve selected. This way, you can eliminate markets where law regulations are impossible to overtake. You can identify it with some help of e.g. World Trade Organization – Global Trade website: https://www.wto.org/ or International Trade Administration https://www.trade.gov/or even on official websites of governments in each country.
Use the data published by companies that provide reports on the behaviour of internet users globally or in their own countries, such as: https://www.internetworldstats.com/ or https://www.emarketer.com/.
Also, some blogs can be useful – look for blogs of agencies or local freelancers who cover topics such as building recognition and creating an SEO strategy. If countries that you selected have no boundaries as for law regulations, culture or infrastructure, and additionally you already have some website visitors from those countries – entering these markets can be a really great idea, and SEO process there can be effective.
If you kind of figured out where abroad you should be present with your offer, think also about some elements that may impact your brand awareness and trust, and find out how you are able to deliver them to your potential customers.
3.3. Will my shop be really trustworthy abroad?
First things first: let’s talk about something that is required no matter what market you chose to expand to: a so-called SSL certificate.
It is a protocol that ensures the safety of connection with the Internet, and you can easily identify it in your browser: you will see a small, green padlock. SSL gives a high level of security and data privacy, which is extremely important when it comes to shops online.
What are other factors you should take into consideration to be more trustworthy in the eyes of your potential clients?
Payment – meet your users’ needs and requirements
Clients do look at payment methods, and this factor can be deciding for them while shopping. You need to focus on the security and convenience of payment. If the only available method is a popular bank transfer, for some cultures it can be just suspicious. The approach actually depends on the country you are going to sell your products in.
One of the widely known and used methods is paying by card, especially Visa and Mastercard. PayPal is also really popular. There are also a lot of local solutions that can be implemented in various regions and countries: SEPA Direct Debit in the European Union, quick payments with Klarna</ b> in Sweden, Sofort in Germany, iDeal in the Netherlands or BLIK in Poland.
Due to the convenience of use, possibilities of being integrated with banking services and the security of the transaction, they are often selected by clients and local sellers. In the e-commerce industry, also Google Pay and Apple Pay are increasingly more popular for mobile payments.
The ideal solution for the client is to make it available for them to pay in the currency they have in their country. This approach is worth implementing if you want to sell your products or services in one or more countries. The problem seems to disappear in case of selling in Eurozone, which consists of many countries within the EU.
As the number of markets you plan to be active on is increasing, the risk of unstable exchange rates is increasing, too. Examples? Last years’ fluctuations of Russian Ruble or Venezuelan Bolivar. If you decide to take a global approach, it is worth limiting currencies in the shop to the minimum: to US Dollars and Euros, or other popular, stable currencies, such as Pound Sterling, Swiss Francs, or the currencies of countries your business has high hopes for.
For the price policy for a particular country, you should take many regulations into account. The one made by the European Parliament in December 2018 concerns GeoBlocking and you should definitely get familiar with it. More details: GeoBlocking: new Regulation enters into force.
Long story short: you can’t redirect the user to an interface in another language based on their location (e.g. where they live); you can’t block the accessibility of your products or services because of someone’s location and you need to make it possible for the client to purchase the product in more attractive price if this is what another language version of your website indicates. The aim of Regulation (EU) 2018/302 in the European Union is to eliminate discriminating practices in the world of e-commerce.
You need to remember that choosing European markets need to be connected with adjusting to this regulation, so using scripts for geolocation and forcing another language version of your website according to the IP will be forbidden.
From the SEO point of view, geolocation scripts can cause a lot of trouble: Google bots are from the US, so they would be always redirected to the English version of websites, so other language versions of those websites would not be indexed. If your CMS has the feature of geolocation, we strongly advise you to turn it off.
Payment methods are important, but also delivery matters. Clients require clear information on the costs and time of delivery as well as the possibility to track the parcel. Even the most international shop out there does not have to offer a variety of available methods. The most optimal solution is to find global partners that will be able to manage courier services in a quick and reliable way. It is relatively easy to find many companies who are responsible for delivery, logistics, and fulfillment for e-commerce businesses. Surely they would be able to prepare some specific requirements, regulations, costs, and processes for each and every country. Thanks to successful collaboration, clients are provided with clear info about their orders.
Make your activities legal and trustworthy: care about certificates
Another factor that can make your business more trustworthy, are certificates that you can put on your website. For example, the absolute must-have for shops online is the Trusted Shops certificate.
If you know which market you want to conquer with your business, think twice which search engine, or the language version of Google, you want to be present in. It can quickly turn out, though, that the choice is not as obvious as it seems to be.
3.4. When Google is not enough: in which search engine you should be highly positioned?
The world market of search engines is ruled by one giant – Google. According to gs.statcounter.com, the search results just on Google generate more than 90% of traffic on websites below:
However, it is not everywhere that users’ preferences divide just like that.
Where Google is not number one?
An interesting case can be seen in China where Google practically does not exist in the market due to political issues. The local players’ division is easily visible: Baidu, mobile search engine Shenma and Sogou. What is also interesting, Bing does well in China. If you are considering expanding your business to China and building some business contacts here, be sure that you are familiar with all of the aforementioned search engines. The content is also the king here, but there are more of the local issues that SEO specialists need to face: .cn domain, local hosting and lack of connections with websites blocked in China.
If you want to start selling in Russia, you should definitely dive into Yandex.ru. It is still slightly more popular than Google.
Generally speaking, content is the most important factor for search engines. Linking, if done unnaturally, can do more harm than good. Due to the size of the country, local SEO especially matters. The user from Vladivostok will probably not make the most of the amazing offer of a company from Saint Petersburg. Yandex is also popular in Belarus and Ukraine.
The divide of search engine platforms
In many countries, the segmentation of the market goes as below: the first place is occupied by Google with a huge advantage over rotating second and third bing and Yahoo!. Many smaller, local search engines do not matter any longer. Just to name a few still popular solutions, it’s worth mentioning Czech product Seznam (more than 10% of traffic in March 2019) or South-Korean Naver (over 14% of traffic).
Making it easy for the SEO department
The popularity of the Google search engine has one special advantage: activities leading to international SEO can be very similar to each other for each country.
A lot of rules about the quality of content and external links’ structure is similar also for Yahoo! and bing. Local solutions are focused on website accessibility for audiences from particular regions of the world. That is why it’s worth using local domains, hreflangs and other effective methods of describing website location which will help with the right interpretation by bots both of world giants and local search engines. How is that possible? Keep reading to find out.
Rome was not built in a day. Let’s start the preparation!
If you know that you want to enter a new market with your store, products or services and create a new language version of the site – you should prepare for it now.
Increasing visibility on the internet on another market is not an easy task, so you should think straight ahead of how you want to promote your business abroad. International SEO activities can be very helpful once they are well-conducted. That way they can increase your website’s visibility for users in a given country. However, SEO for the other countries has its own specifics, it is, of course, a separate SEO process, which includes technical optimization, linking, content, analytics – just like in US, but the rules in Germany or Spain will often be completely different.
If you have decided that you want to enter another market with your business, then this is the moment to hire people who will be responsible for your SEO. Why? For a simple reason: some things are easier to do at the preparation stage, when you can plan them, create a strategy, and consultations will also be more effective because you have more options at this stage. Often, companies decide to employ an SEO expert after the site is already published. Sometimes it can be too late to achieve the best possible effect. SEO should be a natural decision here because we are then able to eliminate some errors that can not be changed after the implementation of the site or their change will be very difficult.
Preparation for the implementation of the new language version should include two aspects – technical and content. Both should be consulted with the marketing department and people responsible for SEO.
4.1. TECHNICAL PREPARATION
4.1.1. Language or country targeting?
Targeting a website for a specific country seems much more precise. It is enough to look at the languages, i.e. Spanish, French or German. They are used by people of many countries in various places around the world who use different currencies and operate in different legal systems. If your goal is to sell in Spain, targeting the Spanish language alone may not bring the expected results. On the contrary, for example, it will increase the bounce rate, because the site can be offered to users eg from Colombia, for which you have not prepared an offer. Analogically – the offer for Germans will not necessarily interest Austrians or Swiss.
So when it is better to decide on language-based targeting? A good example is a case when you publish articles and multimedia that are valuable regardless of the country. So if you create a professional website for programmers, you write an industry related blog or run any other website on which the message matters, not sales – language targeting can increase the number of valuable visits to the website.
Targeting based on language can also be a tribute to the inhabitants of countries with many official languages as well as ethnic groups. For example, in Switzerland, languages like French, Italian and German are commonly used, as well as the Romance language (Romansh), and in one of the provinces of Canada – Quebec – the official language is not English, but French.
In this case, checking the language version of the used browser (or system) allows you to move a user to the website that will be prepared in the language most commonly used by him. Thanks to this, he will be able to find interesting and understandable content quickly. The correct configuration of the site in this aspect will improve visibility in the search results.
How can you do the targeting?
There are many ways to redirect users to the right version of the website. Theoretically, the appropriate link structure, hreflangs, and international settings should cause the search engine to provide them with relevant content. However, you can also make sure that they are redirected where you need, by checking several factors:
- IP address – usually allows you to determine the country of the user correctly, but in this case, there is a risk that the Google’s robot due to its origin (US) will not distinguish the language versions correctly,
- checking the language version of the browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox) – it is a good way to target based on language, but it is worth keeping in mind that many users have English (EN) by default,
- cookies– the language version selected by the user is saved, however, deleting the cookies will clear the settings, and the selection should be repeated.
Of course, you can also force the choice of the language version every time, but if the site will have a lot of them, it will probably turn out to be annoying to a user over time. Try always to suggest a language version based on the browser version and the IP address of the website visitors, but leave the final choice to them. Let them decide freely which language suits them best.
4.1.2. Domain, subdomain or catalog. What should you choose for the language version of the site?
When you plan to conquer foreign markets, it is natural that it will involve the need to prepare the accurate language version of the site, probably more than one. You must decide whether to publish it on a separate domain, subdomain or your language version will be separate subpages within the existing domain.
The decision should include several factors, such as:
- Website type – do you enter the international market with an online store or a service website?
- The CMS, you plan to use (though you can also do the reverse and – if you are at the stage of building a website – the choice of content management system depends on how you want to create a language version and whether this system allows you)
- A number of markets that you want to act in and, therefore, necessary language versions.
- Planned business goals and strategy.
When you prepare a website for a foreign market, you have three choices:
- ccTLD (country code top-level domain) is a separate domain dedicated for a given country, eg .fr for France, .de for Germany, .pl for Poland. You can buy such domains from an international operator like GoDaddy: https://pl.godaddy.com/.
- Language subdomain: if you have a strong gTLD main domain (general top-level domain) and you see it as a brand domain, for example with the .com extension, you can easily create languages subdomains within it, and direct users to them. An interesting solution with a subdomain propose Zalando – it directs English-speaking Germans to https://en.zalando.de/ and German-speaking to ccTLD https://zalando.de/.
- Catalog: while having the main brand gTLD domain, you can create catalogs with the appropriate language versions on it. This solution is used, for example, by Yoox where the language version is available at https://www.yoox.com/de/, https://www.yoox.com/jp/, https://www.yoox.com/no/ etc.
Examples of solutions that you can use to introduce a website on foreign markets:
When should I choose a separate domain for each language?
Select a separate domain when you want to run an international SEO in several specific countries. You can expect that it will bring better results than the subdomain or catalog.
The choice of the top-level domain has advantages and disadvantages, but from the SEO perspective, it is the best solution. On the one hand, it helps you gain the trust of users in your country, who are more likely to visit websites with extensions appropriate for their country, such as .ua for Ukraine, .de for Germany, .sg in Singapore, etc. Domains accurate for a given country have a chance to achieve the highest positions in search results in this localization.
On the other hand, such a domain will most often be assigned to a given language and country, which can be less helpful when you direct the same content in one language to several regions whose inhabitants use it. In addition, starting a business in each country involves buying a proper domain and running separate SEO processes – which significantly increases costs. Especially, because for each of these domains you will also need to create the appropriate links from a given country.
When to opt for a subdomain?
You should decide on subdomains when your home page has a long history and a lot of Google’s trust.
Deciding on a separate subdomain for each language version does not entail additional costs – once you buy a domain, you can create any number of subdomains within it. You must know, however, that Google will treat subdomains as separate domains. They will still require a separate SEO process (due to different keywords). Choosing a solution with a subdomain also creates the following threat: if something happens to any subdomain, it will affect the entire domain – e.g. when a Google filter will be applied to it, or when it is infected with a virus.
Is it worth creating catalogs for the language version?
Catalogs take over the entire power of your domain and are the easiest way to create a language version. However, they do not give the possibility to assign a language version to a specific country. Language versions that act as catalogs within one domain for Google robots are a unity, so the SEO of such a website will be less effective. To sum up, catalogs are the easiest way to translate a website, but also they cause the least long-term effects.
4.1.3. CMSs that give you the opportunity to enter a new market
Maintaining a multilingual site requires a proper CMS that will allow you to manage it efficiently. A lot will depend on it – among other things, the possibilities of search engine optimization.
What options should CMS have for a multilingual website?
- A good multilingual system is one that allows you to generate and manage separate alternative sites for each country, and which allows you to switch between languages and manage them easily.
- It supports the entire Unicode to display all characters for each language in which you choose to publish (the challenging is especially Japanese, Arabic, new Hebrew, Polish, Czech, Finnish or other Scandinavian languages, i.e. all languages with non-standard diacritics). It also supposed to deal with accents and different reading directions.
- It allows for the correct implementation of hreflangs.
- Its interface has language versions, thanks to which your multilingual collaborators can use it, eg Copywriters who complete product descriptions in a given language.
- It bases the structure of the texts on XML, which allows you to separate the content from other elements of the page and any modification (including translation) without worrying about the impact, for example, on formatting.
- It enables domain control, i.e. it manages the creation of subpages suitable to the location of domains, sub-domains, or allows you to manage page versions on separate domains.
- It allows you to integrate the API with the TMS (translation management system).
- Enables you to create a separate sitemap for each language version.
4.1.4. The structure of URLs and hreflangs and international management: how to help Google interpret the language version
One of the basic aspects of online store optimization is to pay attention to a friendly URL structure. In this case, Google focuses on usability. If the construction of the URL allows you to remember it and enter the address to the browser – it will be correctly indexed and has a chance to achieve a higher position in search results than the long and complicated addresses created by some CMS by default.
A friendly URL looks like this:
You should definitely avoid such a complicated structure:
The following symbols should not appear in the link structure:
- diacritic characters characteristic for a given language, such as: ö, ä, ę, ž, ď, etc.,
- special characters as !, #, ?,
- underscores “_” – the hyphens “-” should be used to separate words.
It is also important to remember that the URL should not contain more than 100-115 characters, because the longer the address is, the harder it will be for search engine crawlers to index it. In addition, the simpler the address structure (the fewer intermediate catalogs), the better the URL will be treated by search engines.
Another aspect worth mentioning are domains that use non-Latin alphabets. Among them, the most important are addresses written in Cyrillic in the .рф domain (Russian Federation), addresses with Arabic characters are less popular, but this applies to every language in which special characters appear: Spanish, German, Polish. The basis is to avoid mixing different alphabets – in the case of pages in Russian you can use, for example, phonetic transcriptions for the Latin alphabet. This is important because that way Google is able to index and read them in a form without special characters. If we use special characters, after copying the address we will get the address containing% # $ ^
For example, copied pageaddress.pl/piłka-nożna will create such address
And that is also what Google crawler would get.
Even the results of the Russian Yandex in TOP10 are dominated by addresses written in Latin characters.
When deciding on a multilingual website, remember to inform the search engine robots about available language versions effectively. For this purpose, use the “hreflang” attribute.
The correct implementation of hreflangs consists of three steps:
- placing the HTML code in the form of e.g.:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-DE” href=”https://delante.co/de”>
- changing HTML headline, for example:
link: <https://delante.co/file.pdf>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”en-US”, <http://de.delante.co/file.pdf>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”de-DE”;
- adding links to language versions in the site map (more on this in the further part of the article).
The key and obligatory element of the hreflang attribute is the language – in the given example it is the German “de”. The second part is optional – and determines the country of targeting – in this case, “DE” (Germany).
Examples of the correct implementation of the hreflang attribute:
|Atrybut||Zalecenia dla Google|
|Two alternative language versions of the site – with an offer in English and German.|
|For English-speaking users from the UK, a dedicated website has been prepared, other than for users from the United States. They differ, for example, in currency.|
Additionally, you can implement an attribute that informs the search engine that all users who do not meet the requirements presented in the table should be directed to the default language version, eg to the address https://yoursite.com/. Each language version should indicate each other. If one of them is omitted, the hreflangs can be completely ignored.
The correct implementation of the hreflang attribute on all subpages of the website will make it easier to direct search engine robots to subpages dedicated to clients who use a specific language while living in a given country. Thanks to this, the website will be more useful from the perspective of the search engine.
International targeting in Google Search Console
The purpose of Google Search is to provide users with results that will be most useful to them. For this reason, they choose content according to the user language and country. For websites with national domains, as .es, .de, .us, .sg, it is not difficult to identify potential users and Google does this by its own. For international domains, such as .com or .eu, in the international targeting section of Google Search Console, you should set the country where the target users live.
One of the keys to a profitable international SEO strategy are hreflang declarations. Hreflang declarations help search engines serve the right content to the right audience, prevent similar geolocalized content from being tagged as duplicate content, and might even help new translations profit from some of the popularity and ranking of their original versions.
Whether your choose to implement hreflangs in the HTTP headers, in the page <head>, or in an xml sitemap, the most important thing you can do is to validate your hreflang implementation. Using OnCrawl, you can spot common hreflang errors in a single click, even when your international pages span several difference ccTLDs:
- Not self-declaring a page as its own hreflang translation for the appropriate region and language,
- Forgetting to declare a translation on every URL of a set of translated content,
- Using the wrong country and language codes,
- Pointing pages with no translation to the translated home page,
- Declaring non-indexable pages and pages with canonicals as translations of indexable pages,
- Not doubling your hreflang declarations with HTML meta language declarations or content-language declarations in the HTTP header. This is particularly important if you have a significant amount of traffic coming from Bing or Baidu, which don’t support hreflangs.
4.1.5. Create an international sitemap
In the case of very complex websites, which undoubtedly are e-commerce websites, preparation of the correct site map will improve the indexing of their content. The robots are able to locate it by themselves, but this process can be easier by submitting a new map in Google Search Console using the option Index> Sitemaps> Add a new sitemap. You can also put the map address in the robots.txt file.
There are two approaches to this issue.
The classic is to create a sitemap for the entire page. Using the <loc> attribute, specify the root URL, and the sub-entries that specify the language version should be included in the
<xhtml:link>, tag, e.g.:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<urlset xmlns="http://www.sitemaps.org/ schemas/sitemap/0.9"
If the page contains a very large number of subpages, you can not avoid having to prepare a Sitemap index file and divide the sitemap into several parts.
An alternative way to create an international sitemap
However, you can approach this task differently by creating a separate sitemap for each language version. They should be combined with one common index. Nonetheless, the
<xhtml:link … /> attributes will no longer appear in it, as there will be subpages created in one language within one map.
In this situation, you should pay attention to the correct implementation of the “hreflang” attributes on each subpage. This is crucial because indexing of language versions will be based on their correctness.
The site geo-targeting consists of many factors that complete each other. Consistent and correct implementation of all the elements gives the chance that on the one hand the website will be correctly interpreted by search engines, and on the other, its content will be valuable to the user.
Incorrect address configuration and wrong language identification may result in inappropriate site location by search engine crawlers. The website will not then reach high positions in the search results, and as a consequence, it will remain invisible to users, even if it contains high-quality content. If there is automatically translated or low-quality content behind the top-notch optimization and the extensive structure of external links, the effects of SEO will certainly not be good.
4.2. CONTENT CREATION
4.2.1. Content on the website: how to translate it accurately
Content on the website is a factor that, when written properly and optimized, can cause that your website can be more visible in the search engine page results. The more content you have, the better. Nevertheless, the content is not enough. You should do your research and then plan your content strategy which will include guidelines and content that you publish should be optimized and including links. Without these elements spending a huge budget on content creation will not benefit. It is worth to prepare a plan and a content strategy at the beginning, and include elements such as running a blog that will help to build the company’s image as an expert and provide regularly publishing valuable content.
When it comes to content on the online store, you will need it for the main page, categories, sub-categories, and products. Keep in mind that each type of content should respond to the questions of other users – when someone is browsing products he is probably decided on shopping, while visitors of the categories pages are interested, and users on the home page should find general information about the brand.
In this article, we placed content creation in the stage of preparation for the implementation of the language version. What is important is that the lack of content on the site should not stop us from publishing the site for users. The content can be created and successively developed after the page is turned on, but a content strategy should be planned in the preparation phase.
Before you start writing, it’s a good idea to do research on how users search for certain categories and products. By using the tools, analyzing the websites of competitors, checking data in Google Search Console, we are able to create a database of words for each type of subpage. For each type of content, we should choose keywords that users can search for, match them with certain synonyms (because we increase the chances that someone will find our site in a different way, but looking for the same thing) and use the epithets that users can search for a given product or category.
4.2.2. What is significant while creating content in a different language version?
We must remember the main rule, which says that people from different countries will look for the same products in a different way. The key is to detect these differences and then adjust the descriptions and optimization to them.
The second important aspect is also the language that is the main language on the given website. While in the case of the English or German language version there will be no problem, in countries such as Switzerland or Belgium, we should consider in what language we will create content.
It is worth remembering certain elements that we normally do not pay attention to, and they can be important if we want our site to be displayed on other markets and be popular in these industries.
Correct switching between different language versions of the page
No matter how many language versions are available on your website, make sure you switch between them smoothly. It is important that the change of the language version is intuitive and understandable for all users. You can use button and icons with the flags of countries that correspond to languages (which will be universal) or shortcuts, such as EN, ES, SG, EA, etc. If your site has several dozen versions, it is worth creating a clear panel instead of a button, e.g. in the footer of the page. Changing the language version must involve changing the currency and converting prices.
Flexible website layout
Remember that there is more than one reading system. In Western culture, one reads from left to right, in the Middle East in Hebrew and Arabic – from right to left, traditional Chinese writing from top to bottom, although in the modern version also vertically from left to right. It all affects the habits of users of a given language and a specific orientation on the website. Therefore, what will be intuitive in the West will not work in the East. The layout of your website should be designed in a way that major changes in the particular elements do not affect its consistency. A similar page in all language versions helps to build trust.
One of the most important elements of the website’s appearance is the lettering used on it. It is not difficult to remain coherent when you run international business in the area of Latin alphabet cultures. However, when you enter the markets writing Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese or Devanagari, it is much more difficult. This problem is necessary to resolve, because it may happen that you will need to use two alphabets on the website, and differences in their aesthetic could give users the impression of a mistake. A good way out of this issue is to use multi-script fonts, which are typefaces designed so that even in different character systems they have common features and look coherent.
Typographic differences in the numbers and punctuation
The fact that punctuation changes the meaning of speech is clearly demonstrated by the example of “Let’s eat Grandpa”, in which the place of a comma determines the meaning. Apart from linguistic jokes, in e-commerce, the use of typographic signs can determine whether someone will buy your product or give it up. This is crucial, especially when you present prices and the numbers in prices or units of measure are divided by dots or commas.
For example, in the Polish language, a comma means that decimal parts follow it (the dot is used less frequently), in English – a comma is placed every third number from the end and facilitates reading the numbers, and the decimal parts follow the dot. In German and French, however, it is quite the opposite.
In the end, the point is that if you do not adjust to the local rules of punctuation, you can give the price ridiculously high or very low, although the intention was different. This situation will most likely result in discouraging a potential customer to purchase from you.
Conversion of units and currencies, sizes
The change of the language version should be followed by the conversion of units into those used in a given cultural circle (eg centimeters for Europe, inches for the United States). Make sure that the prices of your products are converted for each currency, and that the sizes (eg clothes or shoes) are given in the specific system for a certain country.
URLs with local alphabet or Latin?
When building pages for areas that use a different alphabet than Latin, do you base the structure of URLs on their character systems? And maybe use transliteration?
One solution is to leave the homepage address without transliteration, which will help in the global recognition of the brand. Although to support the SEO process of local languages, the names of categories and products are worth translating. Ultimately, however, it will depend on the language in which your potential customers from a given country are more likely to search.
In order for product and categories URLs to be correctly read by the search engine, they should be written without special characters, because otherwise, Google will display them as several special characters in a row as below.
4.2.3. What if we translate content to a different language?
We’ve mentioned before that when you transfer your website to a different market; you also need to customize the navigation, products, symbols, and graphics. In this part, we’ll focus on translating the text. What needs to be translated, and what can be left without any changes? Does every translation need to be done by a native speaker? And is it always forbidden to use an online translator?
What do we often forget about?
If there’s already the other language version, e.g. Spanish one, and you want to create another one in English, you need to copy the shop and edit it. It may be a solution, but you’ll probably make some mistakes during this process. If you want to translate your shop, translate everything, including URL addresses, products’ names, categories, messages/errors, content. Otherwise, your customers may face a problem reading a message written in the wrong language.
What do you have to customize when translating to another language?
You cannot translate without optimizing content to the keywords using in the specific language. We’ve already written about doing international SEO keyword research. A good translation should include all the information that people speaking that other language may need and look for. Translating and modifying the context is definitely a good practice. No one will be more helpful in understanding cultural reality than a native speaker.
Translating content – native speaker or professional translator?
It may be tricky – cooperation with a professional translator is a must, but the translator doesn’t always have to be a native speaker. Give your branding content to a native – they will introduce you to people living in the country you want to make your mark in. They will keep in mind the proper language, phrasal verbs, and slang that will help you to create yourself a „familiar” brand image.
When it comes to a category or product descriptions, it’s OK to give it over to a professional translator who will take account of the differences in the metric systems or a currency.
Finally, if you need to translate the terms and conditions, you should always cooperate with the lawyers specialized in other countries’ legislation or international law. The consistency of foreign law is crucial.
What should never be translated?
There’s no need to translate your products’ names if they are registered and you want them to become globally recognizable. However, if your products’ names are made of some keywords, it’s worth to think about the other language version names.
Do not translate title elements and meta tags literally – create the individual and tailored ones for each language.
What with the blog content?
Writing about the topics that would interest citizens of a specific country is way more effective than creating global articles for each language version of your website. That’s why you should write articles based on what is on top in search engines’ results. The best way to do this is to delegate it to native speakers.
How to automate the translation process?
To automatize translating content and managing it, it’s good to choose the best CMS that will let you integrate with translating platform. You’ll make up a lot of time. Is it possible to speed up your work using translating tools, e.g., Google Translate? In general, no, unless articles are checked, corrected, and tailored to specific language by translators afterward. If you translate your content using Google Translate only, Google will consider it as content duplication.
#5 SEO PROCESS – LINKS, CONTENT, OPTIMIZATION
5.1. An effective SEO process on other markets – what is it made from and how to drive it?
If you decide that you want to gain a foothold in the foreign market, you need to prepare yourself correctly. Then it’s time to proper implementation.
So you’ve created your website, it’s gaining the visibility – it’s excellent, but you cannot rest on your laurels. You want to be visible, and you need to work hard to do that. International SEO might be tough, but it’s not impossible to do. You’ll need a properly created strategy, operation, regularity, constancy – it all will make you see the results of your work.
You have to remember that for each language version you’ll need separate SEO process and a budget for it. Include technical optimization on your website, off-site process, which means creating proper URLs to your website, creating content and data analytics.
We’ve discussed the technical and content stuff, so now it’s time for the link building process.
International SEO is about applying SEO best practice to the website internationalization plans taking into account a wide range of factors such as:
- overall business ambition and plans,
- market research, (quantitative research),
- consumer behaviour and product testing (qualitative research),
- linguistic research for market targeted in the plan (incl. keyword research,
- level of existing success in countries where the brand currently operates,
- SWOT Analysis across all business units,
- scope for the penetration plan: both regions-wise + multilingual,
- Brand strategy and specific parameters,
- content strategy plans,
- content localization plans,
- technology and web infrastructure: limitations and flexibility,
- requirements from all business units across the organisation,
- deadlines for deployment of international plans.
International SEO done properly is about being highly strategic and methodical at embedding SEO best practice into every business process that will impact overall organic visibility internationally. The best plan is one that takes into account all above factors, not just domain geotargetting.
5.2. Off-site – link building on international markets
Each country has its own specific link building process – some practices will work for the French market, but not for English or German ones. The main rule is that the links have to look as natural as possible, contain unique content and be sourced from right domains/countries matching tailored to the countries in which you want to have high visibility score.
Be authentic – show where you’re from!
How to make your business more authentic? Clearly show your contact data! NAP data – name, address, phone number – should be easy to find on your website. If you have an office or any other service points in the country you address your offer to, it’s worth to use NAP business cards containing all the most important data.
Commonly known business cards with NAP data
The most popular, common and functional business card is Google My Business. When correctly set up, it shows in search results along with essential contact data and makes it easier to find the business on the map. With a smartphone, you can make a call with just one click. The popular counterpart for Google service is Apple Maps and known in many countries Bing Places (Microsoft).
Beside it, you can find websites that are nothing but top online business catalogs. You can separate them into international reachable portals with local versions available:
Make yourself visible locally!
In many countries, there are local business catalogs oriented towards client needs:
- 11880.com in Germany,
- ezlocal.com in USA,
- insing.com in Singapur,
- scoot.co.uk in the UK,
- pkt.pl in Poland.
It’s worth to mention about their basic offer, and also a paid commercial one. Using this type of websites that are moderated and that verify profiles has two main advantages. They are perceived as valuable by search engines. Those links usually get “nofollow” attributes, but sourcing them might give good results thanks to their marketing presence in a website like that. Besides, when you create an external links structure, you should avoid creating links using only “dofollow” attributes. It may be seen as unnatural and make a bad influence on website rating. Verified contact data is another reason for a user to think that your business is trustworthy.
Where to link from?
It’s highly important that referrals should link to websites with the same language version and that are connected to your industry. So if you prepared a professional English version of your website, chose Singapur as localization and bought .sg TLD domain – it’s worth to source links from worthy websites with .sg domain. If your target is Austrian client, try to find referrals from German websites with .at domain (look at .de, too). Off-site is one of the most important parts of geo-targeting your website.
Valuable links in international SEO
There are plenty of potential external link sources. First, it’s important to look wisely at the domain data, website link juice, its visibility, and the topical linkage to linking content. In almost every niche, you can find some worth websites and blogs that you can cooperate with by writing sponsored articles or guest posts being something valuable and getting all the clicks and attention. Also, it’s ok to become more active as an expert on local forums where you can share your tips and tricks with the use of your product/service.
The key to creating valuable content is to understand the specificity of a market you want to become a part of. Just prepare one article connected to the most important keyword you care about. You have to remember the social context and slang that can change the language structure.
Show up to your locals!
We’ve mentioned how important is transparency when it comes to your business NAP data. Not only does it help to SEO your website, but also make it more valuable to your clients. But how to get closer to your clients?
Properly located social media – this is the answer you’re looking for. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn run in its clients’ language seem to be a must. It helps to interact, but on the other hand, if the link source happens to be valuable, you can use it multiple times. Of course, it’s impossible to run all the possible social media accounts. Do your research! Maybe it’s worth to try Instagram, or maybe it’s time for Pinterest and sharing your product pics on it. Check out how can you reach people in a certain country. If you want to get to people from East Europe (e.g. Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus), think about the possibilities of vKontakte.
Knowing slang and local dialects is priceless. Be natural – even the best translator tool cannot replace social media specialist with linguist skills.
#6 MEASURING EFFECTS
Everything’s working, but is it working correctly?
If your site has started to build visibility and you’re wondering how you can measure the effects of your work, then you’re probably guessing that tools can come in handy. There are a lot of them and some of them are able to provide you with precise data on how your page visibility is, how many views or enters you get in different time periods. What is also important is the fact that the measurement process shouldn’t be a one-time effect. The results obtained should be the starting point for the re-analysis of key phrases with the potential, traffic trends, and user behavior. Such data will allow you to optimize subpages for new keywords. After optimization, you should properly link the page and check the effects. Then analyze, optimize and connect again. Effects should always be your starting point for further optimization. Thanks to this process you are able to constantly increase the visibility of your website and get the most optimal results.
6.1. What will help you in analyzing and measuring the effects of international SEO?
A good way to check if your site is visited by your target users is to use the geolocation statistics included in the free Google Analytics tool. It’s worth taking the time to correctly implement tracking codes, as this information can be very valuable. Statistics can be found in the recipient > geographic data section and they are divided into two groups: language and location.
When you open this part of the report, statistics are displayed related to the languages used by guests of your site – the number of users using the browser in a given language, the number of sessions, as well as data on their behavior and conversion. Language markings here are in line with the ones mentioned earlier in the article. The first part of the code informs about the language set in the browser (pl – Polish, de – German, en – English). The second one is the information regarding the location of the browser settings (which does not necessarily coincide with the actual location of the user), i.e. en-us – English for USA, en-gb – English for Great Britain.
To determine the countries from which users visit your site, check the location tab. After clicking on its name a world map appears, and below it a table like this:
It contains – as well as the language statistics – the number of users, sessions, behaviors, and conversions, but they are divided in terms of the geographical location of users. It is determined based on the IP address. Due to the possibility of using services, i.e. VPN servers, the data will not 100% reflect reality. However, they allow you to determine the popularity of a site in a given country with high accuracy.
By using additional dimensions, such as the default channel grouping, you can quickly verify the effectiveness of actions taken on a specific market. The results of international SEO should be seen primarily in organic search channels for individual countries, but the acquisition of valuable links can have a positive impact on sources such as social, direct or referral.
Fast market research
Statistics from the geographical data section can be used for other purposes than just checking the effectiveness of actions taken on a given market. If you have prepared a high-quality English site for customers in the United Kingdom, then there is a chance that users from Singapore, the USA and Canada will start to use the same language. Bounce rates in their case may be higher because you haven’t prepared an offer for them – they can’t pay in your currency or you don’t send goods to their country. This is a great tip to analyze the possibilities of further expansion into foreign markets.
6.2. How to measure the effectiveness of international SEO?
Deciding on the investment, which is undoubtedly international SEO, you should remember to regularly analyze its progress. Of course – the desired results will not come immediately, and patience is necessary along with knowledge. The first effects of a wide-ranging campaign will usually be visible after a few months – it all depends on the specificity of the market and the industry in which you operate. If your business is niche, they can appear faster. Where the competition is large, it will be necessary to wait for more than 6-9 months for sensible results.
KPI typical for SEO
The consistent International SEO process, which includes the creation of valuable, optimized content and the correct, extensive structure of external links over time, will improve the position of key phrases in the search results. One of the goals may be to achieve specific places when it comes to key business keywords. Their high deposits will translate into more views in search results over time. The next step is obviously an increase in the number of clicks, i.e. a gradual increase in organic traffic. This is obviously the most compatible.
The ratio of clicks to page views is referred to as the click-through rate (CTR).
Measuring activities in the foreign SEO process and the necessary tools:
- Google Search Console: clicks and visibility
- Google Analytics: traffic channels, organic traffic growth
- SemRush: increase in page visibility
- Ahrefs: increased visibility of the page
If on our site the entry and display of the site will be at a high level, we will be able to begin to analyze it for conversion. Then, when checking the quality of the website, it is worth paying attention to the bounce rate. If, despite the high number of visits to the website, there is no conversion, you should analyze the aspect of its content usefulness and navigation convenience (UX, UI). Traffic and subpage data from which users leave also prove to be useful.
The measure of the efficiency of the SEO process, once we manage to build a growing trend of traffic and visibility at a good level, is to achieve specific goals. In the case of e-commerce, their designation seems very simple – after all, it’s all about selling. Nevertheless, leads, or any form of contact with a customer who can buy a product or service, may also be very important.
Depending on the interaction methods available on the website, the conversion can be:
- filling out the contact form,
- subscription to the newsletter,
- registration on the website,
- telephone contact with the number provided on the website.
Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager will certainly help you measure your goals. The goal configuration tools allow you to precisely determine what action must happen in order for the goal to be considered completed. The simplest example: displaying a thank you page for a successful purchase will be counted as a conversion – sale. The goal may also be an event – clicking a button on the page (eg call or save to the newsletter) or playing media. In precise measurement, it will also help determine the path that should guide the user to achieve the goal.