International SEO: The Ultimate Guide

International SEO Ultimate Guide

Let me guess.

You want to start trading internationally – a good move if you ask.

It’s time you made those tough decisions. After selling domestically, within your country borders for a while, and experimenting with everything, why not dip your toe in the international business pool and see how things turn out for you?

As you try to work out the rest, we’re glad to remind you that we got you covered on one critical thing – International SEO.

For the uninitiated, 

What’s International SEO?

International SEO is the process of optimising your website to target people in different countries and who perhaps speak a different language. 

Think of international SEO as an advanced form of geotargeting. But instead of targeting customers in a different city or state, you’ll be optimising your site to target customers in a different country. 

How is International SEO Different from Regular SEO?

We’re not suggesting you create a copy-pasted version of your home website in a different language like we see with many businesses.

Far from it; International SEO flows deeper than that – in fact, it’s a field of its own.

Translating and localising your site content is only but the first step of the whole process. Your website needs to be fully optimised for your target audience, starting with your brand messages to your site offering and overall user experience. 

You might have one of the best performing websites in Singapore. But that’s not to say replicating the same website and content idea for another country guarantees the same results.

You’re to treat each website individually, paying attention to its overall performance. Otherwise, you’ll be risking having your websites compete against each other – and worst of all, not getting indexed at all. 

For example, if you have a website for Singapore, that website should not appear in Malaysia’s search results, assuming you also have a website that targets Malaysia’s people.

The two must operate independently of each.  

You have to be keen on how you use the href_lang and canonical tag. Otherwise, some of your sites may not be indexed at all or suffer serious duplicate content issues. 

Going Global: What’s the Right Time to Go Global?

Going global isn’t for everyone or all types of business. You have to analyse the opportunities in other countries and have a convincing reason for the move. Your bosses have to be convinced that that’s the right move. 

You can start by reviewing the international market. Dig through reports, stats, and your own data, and only make a move when you’re convinced that’s the right thing to do. 

So, should you go global?

That’s your decision to make. But here are three useful pieces of information to base your decision on:

  • Government Website and Trade Organisations Websites such as WTO.org and Trade.gov have the best international trade and business news to inform your decision. Use the information you find on these websites to identify the country or market to go after.
  • Numerous websites provide information about specific countries. They have detailed internet-related statistics and reports that you can trawl for information about the business environment in any country. 
  • Your Own Business Analytics: There has to be a reason you’re even contemplating this whole idea in the first place. Maybe you have a lot of people visiting your site from a neighbouring country. 

Are you getting a lot of traffic from a particular country? Is the traffic big enough to warrant your attention?

Do You Need International SEO?

If regular SEO appears hard to you, international SEO is bound to be even harder.

Geotargeting is a great tactic for reaching international customers or clients. But are you prepared to set up a new website from scratch and translate everything from your original website? Even more, it would be best if you were to optimise the new version of your website for new conversions in the SERPs. 

Here are some of the reasons to consider international SEO: 

  • If your local operations don’t satisfy you and you feel like scaling to a new height. Ever felt like your business is staling? Well, that’s reason enough to look into the new opportunities around you and take advantage of every single one of them, including international trade. 
  • Suppose you’ve been receiving order requests from customers in a different country. Do you feel like you have a ready customer base in a different country? Why not set an online portal or set up a business branch in that particular country? 
  • When you’re more likely to drive even bigger traffic or better conversions by setting up a new website or translating your website in a different language
  • You have a plan, time, and financial means to work on international SEO. You seem to have everything figured out, so why not go for it?

Your business must meet one of these conditions to justify the need to invest in international SEO. Otherwise, you’re better off postponing your plans. You could secure the ccTLDs for the countries with potential. You also want to create alerts in your GA (Google Analytics) dashboard as you wait for the right signals to invest in international SEO. 

Identifying Opportunities for International SEO

After assessing your business and establishing that there’s a lot to gain by investing in international SEO, the next thing you want to do is identify some of the available opportunities for international SEO.

Here’s How to Go About It

Assess your Business Model

This is where you take an in-depth look into your business model. You have a few essential questions to answer regarding this:

  • How does your company or business operate online?
  • What online business goals do you have?
  • How do you deliver your products or services?
  • Do you offer local services, or are your services completely site-based? 
  • Are you in a position to deliver your products or services globally? 
  • What business constraints do you have? 

These questions are to help you understand the implications of globalising your business right from the beginning. They’re to help you save a lot of your time and resources. 

You have to carefully evaluate your business for its weaknesses and strengths to avoid incurring unnecessary international SEO expenses 

Assess Your Potential for International SEO

The next thing you want to do is to evaluate the potential of your site for international SEO. The easiest way to do this is to go through your Google Analytics data – Audience ~> Location

This is a great option for discovering which country your site visitors are coming from. 

To view your visibility in organic search listings, add organic traffic as the second dimension. 

The next thing would be to check out your language information. Go to Audience ~> Overview ~> Location report. This should give you an idea of how to approach multilingual SEO. 

There’s a chance for you to go even deeper. You can check the traffic sources for each country and language. Go to Acquisition ~> All Traffic ~> Channels

Now go ahead and click on “Organic Search,” followed by “Source” as the primary dimension. 

It’s safe to say that Google has critical information that you can use to determine whether or not international SEO is a worthy investment for you. 

Look into Other Search Engines, not just Google

Google might be the leading search engine globally, but it’s not the only one with potential.

It’s the most popular search engine in most countries, but not quite popular in a few countries. For example:

  • The most popular search engine in Russia is Yandex (with a 60% market share). 
  • The most popular search engine in South Korea is Naver (with a 70% market share). 
  • The most popular search engine in China is Baidu (with an 80% market share). 

As you can see, it’s critical to find out which search engine is popular in your target country. You also want to research this search engine and figure out how to conduct your SEO operations best. 

Research the International Search Market

Still, on identifying international SEO opportunities, you have to research the international search markets. Remember: keywords research tends to vary from country to country, and it’s very different from what you’re used to in regular SEO. 

Be sure to research potential search phrases, organic traffic, behaviours, and potential competitors. You need a keyword research tool such as SEMrush to help you out with this. 

You also want to evaluate the keywords that you already rank for – again, SEMrush is the tool for this. Just click on “Top organic keywords” to pull a complete list of keywords you already rank for. Next, go ahead and evaluate these keywords for their search volumes, keyword difficulty, CPCs, and competition. 

Since you’re just starting, we’d like to assume you’re not ranking in any keyword. That means you can only conduct a competitive analysis of other similar websites. Use Alexa to check out the top 500 websites for each territory or country

Keyword Research tools for International SEO

How do Search Engines Determine Your Target Audience?

What happens when it’s now part of search engines to do their job?

In an ideal world of marketing, search engines must appropriately rank your website for its intended audience. The problem is that there isn’t such a thing. Search engines depend on you to feed them with hints of what you think your target audience might be. 

Let’s go through some of these hints and find out how they impact your international SEO effort:
Content Analysis: what language is your content written in? Localisation is the first hint you give search engines about your target audience. For example, search engines can tell the difference between American and British English. Meaning, they’ll only serve British content to the people from Europe and countries that speak that type of English. 

Domain Hints: Search engines will look at your ccTLD domains and tell your content is intended for which part of the world. If your domain name ends with a .au, they’ll definitely tell you’re targeting the people from Australia. The same applies to Singapore and the rest of the countries in the world. 

Backlink Profile: Search engines will analyse your backlinks and where most of them are coming from and connect the dots. Say a piece of content on your site has most of its backlinks coming from German websites; that’s a dead giveaway that your website is targeting Germans. 

Hreflang Hints: Hreflang is an html attribute for language. If you translate your website content into multiple languages, you’ll want to help search engines choose the most appropriate version of your content to serve its users. Popular search engines such as Yandex and Google depend on the hreflang attribute for this. 

Content Language HTML attribute: The hreflang attribute only works for a limited number of search engines. For example, it doesn’t work with Baidu and Bing. These two search engines use the content-language HTML attribute instead to gather hints about your intended target audience. 

Webmaster Tools: You can configure geotargeting and language in the Bing Webmaster Tool and Google Search Console. 

Business Listing: Listing your business in Google my business or Bing places is another viable option for informing search engines about your target audience. Search engines can easily gather geographical hints from a locally listed business website.  

Do You Need a Website for Each Country?

Definitely, yes – but only if the market is big enough to warrant the investment. 

Remember, you’re not just creating the website for SEO reasons. But to provide the most fitting user experience for visitors in that particular country. 

For this, you want to make sure you have a dedicated website for each country you’re targeting. 

This might not be a feasible option at the beginning. But as time goes and you begin to understand your site visitors differently, it would be best to serve each of them with a unique user experience. 

It’s okay to experiment with everything before investing. Learn to test the waters. In that case, we suggest you use Hreflang tags to inform Google which country and language each website is created for. 

What Domain Names Should the Sites Have – gTLD or ccTLD?

This question could have made great sense back in 2008. We could have suggested you settle for a ccTLD domain. 

The problem is that this option is not feasible for everyone.  

Plus, much has changed over the years, and the TLD you choose won’t have that much of a bigger impact on SEO. Plus, there are other ways to geotarget your websites. 

However, you should note that some search engines (like Baidu) still rank websites based on their local TLDs. Moreover, Singapore users are more likely to click sites with a local TLD over a generic one. 

Should the Websites be Hosted Locally?

International SEO has come a long way. 

Search engines used hosting as one of the ranking signals for international SEO in the early days of the internet. 

However, much has changed over the years. We now have more other ways to inform search engines about your target market or audience correctly.

Your hosting will only affect your site performance. It will impact its load speed, but it’s not among the signals that Google uses to determine your rank. 

When Is International SEO Important for Your Business?

International SEO is more of a necessity when you’re operating a multilingual website. That means you’re offering the same content in two or more different languages. 

Your account is considered multi-regional if it’s serving content to users in different countries, say, Singapore and China. 

An example of a multilingual website is running a car dealership with a web presence in both Singapore and China. You have two identical versions of your website – one serving content in English and the other in Mandarin. 

As an example, let’s say the Chinese prefer to rent small cars at a lower cost. That means the Chinese version of your website isn’t just a mere translation of your original website in Mandarin. The experience created and the content itself will also have to change. 

Each website will have to be branded differently, with a different brand message and everything. You’ll also be using different product images, prices, descriptions, and currency, of course. 

The Pros and Cons of Using a ccLTD Domain Name

Pros

  • It’s a reliable strategy for both users and search engines to tell the origin of your website quickly
  • Ensures your site ranks better in the search engine result pages for users
  • Easily marketable
  • Great for giving out geo-localised signals
  • Won’t be penalised by any Penguin update or Google Panda should any of your ccTLD site be penalised

Cons

  • Each site will need its own SEO strategy
  • The extra cost for hosting the sites
  • Separate crawling
  • Each site needs links to rank

Which Search Engine Works Best with International SEO?

While contemplating international SEO, you want to do your research and find out which search engine is popular in your target region. Google might be the most popular search engine globally, but it’s not that popular in countries like Russia, China, South Korea, and Eastern European countries. 

The odds are good you might be working with a search engine you have no knowledge of, which translates to extra optimisation work on your part.

Step by Step Guide to International SEO Strategy: 8-step Guide

Now let’s get down to the main part of this article. How do you run a successful international SEO campaign in Singapore?

Step 1: Research Your Target International Market

There’s no international SEO without thorough market research on your target country. As appealing as it sounds, you need to build a serious business case, and it starts by working through the following steps: 

  • Define what your target audience may be interested in. You have to narrow down to the specifics of your product and define what interests them. You can ask around or follow your gut feeling. But above all, you want to confirm everything with your Google Analytics data to find out if you’re already driving traffic or getting conversions from an audience you haven’t been actively targeting. 
  • Define what’s so important when catering to your audiences’ needs: What’s that one thing you shouldn’t miss? What do you think drives this audience into taking action?

Here’s a list of things to consider in your evaluation:

  • Having a ccTLD: If having a local domain name influences your target audience’s decision, why not give it a shot. 
  • Having localised content – and not just text but visuals: Your site visitors will definitely want to relate to your content before making any major business decision. 
  • Localised pricing or enabling pricing in the local currency. 
  • Having a local live chat such as Tidio or LiveAgent
  • Having a local phone number for contacting them
  • Social proof from renowned local companies e.g., reviews and case studies
  • Are you in a position to offer your products and services to audiences in different parts of the world? For heavy products, it makes little sense to ship them to different parts of the world. 
  • Research your target audience to discover how they typically discover products and services: Bear in mind that not everyone searches for products and services they’re interested in on Google. Nor are they on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the coveted social media networks. For all we know, your customers could be all over the place. 

Here are some ideas:

  • If you’re targeting customers in Germany, we’re here to remind you that physical magazines are very popular in the country, especially for certain niches.
  • Baidu is the most popular search engine in China. Also enjoying the same level of popularity in China is WeChat. It’s like people hardly use WhatsApp or any of the popular messenger apps and social media channels. In this case, you want to make sure you’ve figured out how to communicate to your target audience via WeChat. 
  • Yandex is the leading search engine in Russia. Chat apps like telegram are also popular in the country. Do your research to find out where your customers can be found or their preferred communication channel before diving into anything. 
  • You’ve probably heard of Seznam. It might not be the most popular search engine in the Czech Republic, but it does boast a sizeable market share. 

Do competitor research: Gather as much information as you possibly can on your competition. What competitive advantage do they have over you? It goes beyond SEO. 

You have to dig into your competition (the future competition included) and gauge their performance with regards to:

  • Paid advertising 
  • Content marketing
  • SEO

Step 2: Do limited keyword research

Keyword research should be an ongoing process. It’s time-consuming and can never be covered exhaustively. Instead, you’ll only be performing keyword research to the extent that it allows you to build a business case.

Step 3: Start Selling International SEO Internally 

After doing your research and preparing your case study, it’s time to get started with international SEO.

The approach you use involves educating and selling (and not just selling like some people love to assume). 

This sounds like an easy thing to do, but there are a few key things to take into consideration:

  • You need the full defined budget, not half or a fraction of it. If the budget isn’t enough, you won’t have a fair shot at succeeding. While going through your checklist, you have to make sure you have the defined budget in full. 
  • International SEO goes beyond translating your site content and populating it with a few relevant keywords. Your success lies in how well you understand the context. 

You have to wear your new target audience’s mind and understand their way of thinking and behaviour. Your personality must also be one they can resonate with. 

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Step 4: Research the Most Appropriate URL Structure

What’s the best way to appeal to your target audience?

A good URL structure is great for inspiring trust and confidence. Your audience will also appreciate you for using a ccTLD domain name. 

Or you could still use your current domain name instead of working with subfolders. Are you encountering technical limitations? Then perhaps it would be best to work with subdomains instead.  

Here are some options to work with:

  • Choose country code top-level domain name (ccTLD)
  • ccTLDs or Generic top-level domains combined with subdomains

Examples: 

example.com

de.example.com

example.com.sg

malaysia.example.com.sg

Each of these options comes with its share of pros and cons.

Method

Pros

Cons

ccTLD

  • Has a better click-through rate
  • The natural advantage of being ranked locally
  • Quite expensive
  • Each domain name will have its own domain authority
  • It’s impossible to have a ccTLD for each market

Subdomain

  • Easier to manage and organise than subfolders 
  • Poor click-through rate
  • Weaker signal for local ranking
  • The subdomains won’t benefit from the domain authority of your primary website, as a subdomain is just a domain name in its right

Subfolders

  • You can benefit from the domain authority of your main website
  • Easier to maintain 
  • Not great for click-through rate
  • Weaker signals for local ranking 
  • If penalised, your entire online presence is affected

Step 5: Keep Everything Short

You’re better off with a shorter URL. 

Learn from the big boys:

  • Apple.com
  • Netflix.com

If you want to go with a ccTLD domain option, and it turns out that your domain name is already taken, consider adding a short modifier.

Pocket app is a prime example of this: 

Pocket.com was already taken, so they decided to add the word “get” before it: getpocket.com, and must we mention that it worked for them. Alternatively, you can use one of the new available TLDs, such as tips, .me, or. Tech.

Keep in mind that the URL you choose must inspire trust and confidence. In this case, you want to make sure your domain name is both memorable and recognisable. 

Lastly, avoid using a domain name with dashes. Such domain names have been misused to the point that they no longer inspire confidence. 

Step 6: Define How You Plan to Manage Your International SEO Strategy

You need a well-defined strategy for managing your international SEO. Your strategy must be longsighted or focused on the future. 

The last thing you want to do is paint yourself in a corner. You can have two separate teams for this – the first one to define your international SEO strategy and the second one to execute the defined strategy. 

Step 7: Thorough Keyword Research

Continue with the keyword research you began, only that you have to go even deeper this time.

Forget about the keywords you used in your original website and instead focus on your target audience.

Don’t Translate Keywords

Keywords cannot be translated. 

Some of these keywords, when translated, could mean a completely different thing. 

The best approach should be to find a native of the country you’re targeting and offer to partner with them. They’re to educate you on your audience’s context.

They can educate you about the slang used and words with double meanings in the country.

Develop a Keyword Strategy

After doing your keyword research, the next thing you want to do is to develop a detailed keyword strategy. 

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Use the keywords you researched to develop the strategy. 

Your keyword strategy should define what type of content you need to create and rank for and after what duration.

Define Your Localisation Process

Your keyword strategy should describe the type of articles or posts you need to create. But before you go further with that, you have to look at your localisation strategy. 

How do you intend to make your business known locally in the country you’re targeting?

Here’s a list of things to consider:

  • How do you plan to use some of the words in all of your content consistently? This should be part of your content strategy – and not just for the search engine. Users also want to see consistency in how you package your content.
  • How do you plan to manage your localisation process? You need tools such as Trello and Google Spreadsheet for this. 
  • Do you have someone to go through your content, proofreading and editing it? You need a native for this.
  • In addition to text, your site could also use some nice visuals and videos. If you agree, then it helps to figure out who will be helping you make them. 
  • How do you plan to address your audience? Will you be taking a formal or casual approach?
  • What constraints are you likely to experience?

Step 8: Create a Link Building Strategy

Unless you’re an established brand, your site is not going to attract backlinks naturally. You have to develop a link building strategy for this. So how do you plan to gain these links? 

Remember: you’re creating a link building strategy for each market. And no two markets are the same. 

Author Bio

Tom Koh is widely recognised as a leading SEO consultant in Asia who has worked to transform the online visibility of the leading organisations such as SingTel, Capitaland, Maybank, P&G, WWF, etc. Recently he was instrumental in consulting for a New York-based US$30B fund in an US$4Bn acquisition. Tom is a Computational Science graduate of the National University of Singapore. In his free time he performs pro-bono community work and traveling.
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