What is international SEO? Why has the term become such a buzzword in recent years?
You might have heard about the claims about how international SEO can benefit businesses looking to target international or even global markets. Yet where should we actually start in implementing or even discussing international SEO?
In this guide, we will learn all you need to know about international SEO. By the end of this guide, you’d have learned about:
- What is international SEO, and why is it important?
- How can businesses benefit from global SEO?
- Common myths and mistakes on international SEO
- How to implement international SEO for your business
- International SEO checklist you can follow
Let’s dive in right away and start with the basics: what is international SEO?
What is international SEO?
In a nutshell, international SEO is the process of implementing optimizations to a website to target users that live in different countries and/or speak different languages online.
But how is internal SEO actually different from local SEO?
In practice, international SEO may involve ranking for different keywords in different locations depending on your target audience in each country/location. It can be as simple as translating a website into different languages—60% of consumers prefer content in their native language— or as complex as creating completely different content and experiences for each unique market.
Further below in this guide, we will discuss different practices we can approach in international SEO implementations.
However, the main principle remains the same with traditional SEO: understanding your target audience and optimizing your website’s content and experience to cater to this audience’s preferences. Just, in the case of international SEO, you have multiple audiences In different locations and potentially different languages and cultures.
Why is international SEO important?
In short, international SEO allows your business to reach a wider, international, or even global market.
Your brand and your website (albeit in multiple versions) will be seen by more people in other locations apart from your host country. This will translate into increased visibility of your products and services, which hopefully will translate into more paying customers.
Even if your website has already attracted foreign visitors before any international SEO implementation, optimizing the site with international SEO principles would give them a better user experience, which will ultimately help with driving engagement and conversion.
Another key benefit of implementing international SEO best practices on your websites is how you gain access to valuable data analytics, allowing you to gain valuable insights like:
- Knowing what types of content work for a certain audience and which part of your content is not very effective
- Identify why website visitors won’t convert into leads (i.e., by signing up for a newsletter.)
- Find out why the sales in certain location/country is not increasing
- Why does a website for one location has particularly high cart abandonment
- Why are there more people asking for Google Maps directions for one location than the others
In short, international SEO can facilitate data analytics to help you analyze the international or even global market. This allows you to understand your foreign prospects better, familiarize yourself with their preferences, and create the best possible website to cater to their needs.
International SEO vs. Traditional SEO
The main difference between international SEO and traditional (local) SEO is scale.
Local SEO has a narrower focus and is only targeting a specific audience in a specific geographic location (i.e., a single country.) International SEO, on the other hand, targets multiple audiences across diverse geographical locations.
An effective international SEO strategy must be holistic, covering all kinds of policies, processes, and systematic practices you perform to optimize your website (or websites) so that the search engines—Google, Bing, etc.—can properly identify the geographic location (county) you are targeting, what languages you are supporting, and the specific keyword(s) you are optimizing for.
An international SEO strategy for websites may involve:
- Creating multiple content strategies, each applicable to one local market.
- Developing multiple websites with radically different designs and structures due to different audience preferences and habits
- In more limited cases, it may involve modifying the products/services first before promoting them on the website.
For example, let’s say a US-based pizza restaurant is planning an expansion to Japan.
In this case, the first thing the company should do is to ensure that Japanese customers are directed to the right page on your website. For instance, you may build a specific page containing Japanese locations and menu information specifically tailored for Japanese guests.
To achieve this, you’ll need a website structure that includes pages for both US and Japanese guests and then utilize metadata to ensure users can be directed to the right page based on their devices’ location or from the language they use on the search requests.
With that being said, we can summarize the differences between international and traditional SEOs as follow:
- Target market: international SEO requires you to research multiple buyer personas to ensure your brand can align with customer expectations in each geographic location.
- The number of content: you’ll need to create more content both in terms of quantity and variations in international SEO than you would in a traditional SEO.
- Competition: competition in international SEO is obviously greater and more challenging. Depending on your target market, you may need to compete with multinational enterprises in your target locations.
- Budget: pretty obvious that local SEO would be more affordable than international SEO due to the smaller scale.
Do you need to implement international SEO?
The answer here depends on your company’s plan to expand to another country or countries on a short- and long-term basis.
If you at the moment don’t have any plan to expand beyond your local markets, then investing in international SEO may not be worth your money and time. While it may be tempting to build your website in multiple languages from the get-go, it can be counterproductive when visitors who land on international pages realize you don’t serve in their country at the moment.
If, however, you are planning to expand beyond your local markets (especially outside your country,) then investing in international SEO is simply a must. You’ll need a comprehensive international SEO strategy to compete with a massive number of potential competitors at the international and global stage.
International SEO: ranking factors
Google’s and the other search engines’ algorithms are very complex, and in practice, they will consider hundreds of ranking factors to determine your site’s ranking.
In international SEO, however, there are four most important factors to consider:
- Technical optimization
While the term ‘technical’ optimization may seem daunting at first, essentially, it’s only about whether your website is performing optimally to meet your visitor’s desired user experience level.
There are indeed many different aspects of technical SEO optimization, and you can refer to our technical SEO checklist here for a more detailed guide. However, some of the most important technical optimizations to consider in international SEO initiatives are:
- Mobile-friendliness: Google prioritizes mobile-friendly/mobile-responsive websites to rank higher. Not to mention, more and more people are exclusively browsing the internet from their mobile devices, so you wouldn’t want to miss out on this huge market.
- Page speed: Today’s website visitors simply expect a reliable website that is quick to load, ideally no more than 3 seconds in standard connectivity.
- Indexability: This one is for Googlebot and other search engines’ crawler bots. Make sure the pages you intend to rank have no crawl error and can be properly indexed by Google.
- Security: It’s crucial that your website is 100% secure. Implement HTTPS (SSL certificate) and regularly assess the website’s security, so it’s not infected by malware and has no security vulnerabilities.
- Structured data: Optimize your site with Schema.org so your site can be better understood by the search engines and eligible for rich snippets.
- Hreflang: especially important in International SEO; Hreflang tags help search engines to understand which country and language your page is targeting.
- XML sitemap: an XML sitemap lists all pages of your site, providing a guide for Google’s bots on the different pages on your site. With an optimized XML sitemap, you can make sure search engines won’t miss indexing important pages on your site. If your site has an optimal internal linking structure, technically, you don’t need an XML sitemap, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
2. Link profile
As in traditional SEO, links are very important ranking factors in international SEO.
Links, or to be more exact, hyperlinks, are texts or icons that you can click or tap to go to another page or website.
There are actually three types of links in the context of SEO:
- Internal links. Referring to links between different pages on your website. Internal links can help tell Google and the search engines about the structure and context of your website, which can indirectly help with indexing.
- Outbound links. Links point from your website to other websites. Pages with relevant external links will tell the search engines about the page’s context and that your content is well-researched.
- Inbound links. Links pointing from other websites to your website. Also called backlinks, an inbound link is seen as a vote of confidence by search engines. When a website links to your website, this website is essentially saying that your page and your content are trustworthy and relevant.
While all three links are important, it’s quite obvious that inbound links or backlinks are the most important when it comes to ranking factors.
Thus, link building —the initiative to generate inbound links—should be an integral part of your international SEO strategy. However, it’s important to understand that the quality and relevance of the inbound links are just as, if not even more important, than the number of links generated.
For example, a backlink coming from Forbes would weigh more as a ranking factor for a website in the digital marketing niche than a backlink coming from a brand-new/unknown website.
So, in internal SEO, we should focus on generating high-quality links from relevant websites in each target location/country, which obviously can be easier said than done.
3. Social proofs
Social proofs like testimonials, customer reviews, social media mentions from relevant people, and so on can significantly impact your website’s (or websites’) rankings and your international SEO efforts.
Encouraging existing customers to leave customer reviews on your website, your Google Maps listing (more on this later, ) or other local review sites should be an integral part of your international SEO campaign.
However, it’s important to understand that the quality and relevance of the inbound links are just as, if not even more important, than the number of links generated.
4. Google Business listing optimization
We can’t deny the importance of Google Maps in today’s digital environment, and Google Maps SEO should be a part of your holistic international SEO strategy.
Consider the fact that most consumers nowadays rely on queries like “restaurants near me” or “restaurants in (city name)” when trying to find local businesses, and for this type of local query, Google will pull results from Google Maps and place them above the organic search results.
Meaning, when attempting to build an online presence in a specific country or location—the main objective of international SEO— you should also aim to rank higher on Google Maps.
Your business’s presence on Google Maps is based on your Google Business listing, and not to mention, Google will also check your Google Business listing’s Information to find out language and geographic metadata of your site.
In short, make sure your Google Business listing is up-to-date with the current information and includes all the important information related to your business that is also attractive for your target audience in each location.
Implementing international SEO: a step-by-step guide
Due to its larger scale, the implementation of international SEO will naturally be more challenging than the traditional SEO counterpart.
Yet, the step-by-step guide we’ll share below should give you a better foundation for implementing international SEO with success.
Let us begin with the first step:
Step 1: Identify your target audience(s)
Remember that the end goal of SEO is not about pleasing the search engine algorithm.
Google and all search engines have the same objective: delivering the most relevant and reliable information to their users.
Thus, your international SEO should have the same end goal: you optimize your website so you can provide better, more relevant, and more attractive information for the audience in each geographic location you are targeting.
Before planning your SEO strategy, you need to know who your target audience is in various international markets. There are two basic approaches you can try:
- If you already have plans to expand to a specific location/country, then this step should be fairly obvious. Focus on gathering as much information as you can about prospective customers in this area.
- If you just want to gain international traffic (i.e., if you are an eCommerce business, then you can start by identifying the countries your website is already attracting visitors to. Analyze the traffic apart from your host country.
Make a list of your top international markets, both in terms of country-wise and language-wise; then you can start analyzing your target audiences’ behavior and preferences. Here are some tips:
- Leverage the demographics data of your current customer demographics
Use Google Analytics, then go to the Audience section, then Geo reports.
You should be able to gain valuable insights about your current customer demographics from various countries, including keywords, links, and pages that have attracted people in different countries.
Also, involve your sales team in the brainstorming process, and ask them to share insights from their CRM about who is buying your products/services and who isn’t.
- Targeting language vs. targeting country
A unique consideration in international SEO is that you can either target languages or countries.
Consider the fact that there are fewer languages than countries. For example, there are many English-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries, and creating a website in these languages will allow you to reach a wider potential audience.
However, even if targeting languages would make it easier for you to develop your content, you should be careful when translating content from one language to another. Never trust a machine or software to perform the translation. Besides accuracy concerns, there may be linguistic differences and cultural barriers you’ll need to pay attention to.
For example, while Argentina and Spain both use Spanish and technically, you can present them with the same website, the culture and region differences may influence the search queries they use (and thus, your target keywords.)
On the other hand, targeting countries will let you avoid the above issues, but you must optimize your content and pages for each country, and you restrict your visitors to a single nation. Meaning, you’ll need to perform in-depth research for the different target audiences in each country.
- Ask your existing customers
If possible, conduct a survey or interview your existing customers.
Doing so can give you valuable insights into the type of content they’d like to consume, what types of promotions will attract them, and so on. Surveying or interviewing real customers can give you valuable information you won’t otherwise get from tools or software.
Fortunately, with solutions like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey, conducting an online survey is now very easy and affordable. There’s simply no reason not to try surveying your existing customers unless you are a brand-new business with literally zero customers.
- Analyze the SERPs
Manual analysis of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) can also provide valuable information about the ideal audience you should be targeting.
Manually search keywords related to your business, then look at who ranked on the first page of the SERPs. You can also use VPNs to trick Google search into believing you are in a different country than your actual location, allowing you to get search results from these countries.
This can help you understand what types of content are searched for by your prospective audience (in different countries) and your prospective audience’s search intent.
- Analyze social metrics
If your business already has a sizable number of social media followers (it doesn’t have to be that many, even a few hundred will do), then a viable option is to use your social channels’ analytics function to learn more about your ideal audience.
To summarize, in this step, you should identify your target location(s) and your target audience. Then, narrow down your focus to identify the ideal audience that is the most likely to buy your product or service.
The more focused your business is in targeting the location and the people, the better you can plan your international SEO strategy in the next steps.
Step 2: Keyword research
Once you’ve identified your target audience (or audiences), you can move on to the next step: keyword research. Keyword research is the foundation for any SEO strategy. It’s a crucial step to take when you want to start your SEO campaign.
The objective of the keyword research phase is to find the ideal keywords to target in your international SEO efforts, and you can do so by following three main principles:
- The target keyword must be relevant and is often searched by your target audience. You can mainly measure monthly search volume to check for relevance and popularity.
- The target keyword must align with your business’s objectives. Not all keywords that are popular with your target audience will be relevant to your business.
- Depending on your timeline and budget, the competition for the target keyword must be manageable. Even if a target keyword is very popular and valuable, it might not be worth it if the competition to rank for it is too tight.
Keyword research can be done manually or with the help of tools like Google Adwords Keyword Planner, Ubersuggest, SEMrush, or Spyfu. The latter are paid tools, while the Google Keyword Planner is free of charge.
A crucial consideration when performing keyword research for international SEO is that you should not simply translate your English keywords to your other target languages.
Every country and every culture has its unique preferences and nuances, and a search query that is popular in one country may not be relevant at all—or worse, may be offensive—in other countries. Your audience in one country and another may intend to search for the same product but use significantly different search queries.
It’s best to conduct individual keyword research for every target country/language in international SEO. If possible, get help from native speakers from each of your target markets, which may also help you understand the cultural context of your target market.
Step 3: Competitive analysis
Now that you’ve built your list of target keywords, you should be able to identify the direct and indirect competitors for each target keyword.
You can use various SEO tools to help you perform a thorough competitive analysis, but you can also do it manually. Simply do a Google search for your target keyword, and start analyzing the top-ranking pages for this keyword:
- How they approach their content (length, structure, optimizations, etc.)
- Their source of traffic
- Backlinks and overall link profile
- Keywords they are prioritizing in the content
- Other keywords they are targeting
Ideally, analyze all pages on the first page (or even the first and second page) of the SERP, but you can start by analyzing the top three results.
The more information you have about your competitors, the better your chances of winning the competition against them.
Also, remember that this shouldn’t be a one-off thing. Your competitors will adapt and evolve their approach, so you’ll need to constantly keep track of what they are doing to identify opportunities and threats.
Step 4: Content creation and optimization
In this step, you’ll use the information you’ve gathered to start developing your content.
Your content is literally the one that is going to make your break your international SEO efforts, and here are some tips for writing SEO content:
- The content should be original and not plagiarized from any other source.
- The content should be optimized with keywords and phrases.
- The keywords should also be included in the title, headings, and subheadings to make it easier for search engines to index your site.
- It should be updated regularly with fresh and new information so that people can find it on search engines.
Basically, for each target keyword, you have two options.
- Create much better content than what the top-ranking competitors have posted: longer, more in-depth research, better optimizations, and so on.
- Take a different angle and create unique content that may also engage your target audience.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to which approach is better, and it would ultimately depend on how your target market is functioning, as well as the available opportunities.
Sometimes, creating something unique is more effective, especially for competitive keywords. However, some target keywords also demand you to be a ‘textbook,’ and there’s very little room for creativity to create unique content. Assess the situation for each target keyword accordingly.
Also, while you should mainly focus on text-based content, remember that there are other types of content that you can diversify in. Try including infographics and/or videos to enhance your blog posts, for example, and above all: focus on being engaging and informative.
As with any SEO, in international SEO, content should be optimized against its target keyword:
- Include the target keywords and the semantically-related keywords naturally throughout the article.
- Use heading tags properly to optimize the structure of the content. Optimal heading structure can help Google understand the content better, especially for longer articles.
- Make sure to include geo-specific terms in your keywords (important for international SEO) for each target location.
- Maintain optimal internal linking structure and include outbound links to relevant websites.
For international SEO, it’s also important to localize and optimize each content, and you should generally divide your content into two categories:
- Content that is relevant to every audience in all locations
- Content that is only relevant to specific audiences
Consider the individual interest of each audience but, at the same time, consider cost-effectiveness. A good approach is to hire local/native speakers of the target location to localize the content.
Step 5: Technical optimization for international SEO
Besides the ‘traditional’ technical optimizations discussed in the previous section, international SEO demands some unique optimization in several areas:
Optimizing URL structure is crucial in international SEO, and generally, we have three main options:
- Using subdirectories: using a generic top-level domain (gTLD) for each target location (i.e., us. restaurant.com; uk.restaurant.com)This means you’ll need to create a separate website for each location/country and each website will need individual optimizations.
- Using subdomains: creating a subfolder within the root domain (i.e., restaurant.com/us; restaurant.com/uk.) The easiest to set up, but the less versatile.
- Using country-code top-level domains: or ccTLD (restaurant.co.uk, restaurant.us. The most versatile but requires the most effort, time, and resources since.
Implementing hreflang tags in your pages allows Google to correctly identify the language of your content, which is important for international SEO.
There are three different ways to implement hreflang tags: on the page’s heading section, in the HTTP header (for non-HTML pages), or in XML sitemaps.
If you use ccTLDs, however, you may get away without using any hreflang tags since Google can already differentiate the country code used in the domain. However, it still won’t hurt to add hreflang tags to strengthen the signal.
Step 6: Link building
There is no shortcut to getting high-quality backlinks than actually having high-quality and relevant content.
If your content is good, sooner or later, people will link and refer to you.
However, in international SEO, there’s an added challenge that you also need to earn links for your localized website. Here are a few tips on how:
- Check your main website’s backlink profile. You may already have some international links pointing to it. Identify the source, and reach out to them to inform them about the newer version of your site.
- Research your local competitors’ websites and analyze their backlink profile. Reach out to the websites linking to them and offer for them to also link your content.
- Hire a local team to help you outreach local bloggers/websites
International SEO is the key to success in the global market, and if your business is targeting multiple countries, implementing international SEO on your websites is simply a must.
International SEO strategy can be implemented by following these guidelines:
- Understand your target audience and their needs
- Build a strong and consistent brand identity across all channels
- Optimize your website for international audiences