It’s a small world.
The internet allows small businesses to expand internationally far more easily than ever before. And many companies are now learning how to transition to an international SEO strategy.
The best strategy will depend on whether you’re expanding your business to another country that speaks the same language (e.g. UK, USA and English speakers in Canada), or if you need a multilingual SEO approach (e.g. expanding into Europe, where your site will need to be in French, German, Spanish or other European languages).
To have a successful international SEO strategy, you must complete 4 essential steps. This article covers each one of them and also the common pitfalls to avoid. I will be using a multilingual website as an example, but the tips are equally pertinent regardless. The steps are:
- Do keyword research … correctly!
- Set up your multilingual website
- Build relevant links in each language
- Monitor results and develop the priority keywords
Do keyword research … correctly!
When you translate content from one language to another, or one culture to another, it’s important to make sure that you use terms that have sufficient search volume in that language.
There are often several different phrases that can be used to describe the same thing. Phrase A might be searched for 10,000 times a month and Phrase B only 100 times a month. If you don’t do language specific keyword research, you risk losing 99% of your traffic by using Phrase B without realising the consequences.
If you use Google’s Keyword Tool for your research, then it’s also essential that you specify both the country AND the language to narrow down your search.
If you’re targeting an international audience (e.g. all German speakers) and you just select ‘German’ in the language box, then it actually still shows the international keyword volume, but filters it to words in German. This means that if the word is multinational (e.g. aquarium) then you will get far higher search volumes than accurate.
If you sell a range of products, this might lead you to believe that you should focus on ‘aquariums’ more than is realistic.
To prevent this problem, select ‘German’ for language, but then add all relevant countries that you’re targeting. If you’re targeting the whole of Europe, for example, add Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the location box. In the ‘Aquarium’ example, this reduces the monthly search volume from 673,000 to 110,000, giving a more accurate picture of the overall German searches.
Set up your multilingual website
If you don’t have one yet, the first step is to create a multilingual website. The top CMS systems like Drupal and WordPress have modules or add-ons that make this relatively simple, however, if you have a custom CMS, this may require extra configuration.
However way you choose to configure your site, it’s essential that each page in each language has its own unique URL (web address) and that you don’t use hashtags in the URL to control the language. If you use only cookies or hashtags to control which language is shown, then Google will be unable to index those pages and you risk only one language being shown in the search results.
If you’re creating a new website, then the best long-term solution is to use a single database but multiple domain names (e.g. a .fr for France, .de for Germany, etc.). This is because:
- Using international domain names is great branding. People in France will see a .fr domain and immediately assume that you’re in France.
- If you have a keyword rich domain name (which is recommended if you sell a single product or service, but less important for branding), it allows you to translate this into each language.
- Your .fr domain will receive a boost in rankings from Google.fr, helping local SEO.
- Having a single database means you can make future modifications to design, etc. once and it will immediately impact all of your websites.
One note on translations: automatic translations are progressing fast, but they’re still far from perfect and by using them you risk looking like a fool. You also risk Google labelling your content as ‘automatic content’ and therefore penalising it. It’s fine to use an automatic translation as a starting point, but be sure that a fluent native speaking translator reviews it before it goes live.
To prove the point I’ve translated the above paragraph into French using Google Translate, then translated it back again. Here’s the result below:
Build relevant links in each language
If you’re launching a niche product with little competition, then a short international link building campaign (say 2-4 months) from a top SEO company is likely to be all you need to rank well in Google.
If you’re launching a product or service in a more competitive field, then it may well take longer to appear high with Google for that language. Even if you have a high authority site that already ranks well in one language, there’s no guarantee that a new sub-folder or sub-domain in a different language will still rank well.
What if you don’t have the budget for a multilingual link building campaign?
If this is the case, a good strategy is to choose one country (based on your keyword research) to start with, focus all your links on that country, then once you’re generating a healthy return on investment launch your next link building campaign in a second or third language.
How do you find relevant links in each language?
Our main recommendations for effective international link building are:
- Search for your keyword in the relevant version of Google (e.g. google.ca for Canada) and submit your site to any directories, or submit articles to any guest posts you find from non-competitors on the top 10 pages in the search results.
- Use infographics and images – infographic marketing is a great SEO strategy, however, they’re time-consuming to create. If you’re completing an international SEO campaign in 4 languages, say, you can translate the infographic, which is a lot faster than creating 4 infographics from scratch.
- Focus on quality and relevance, NOT volume. If the link wouldn’t make sense to a human being, odds are it won’t make sense to Google and won’t give you the SEO benefit you’re looking for.
- As far as possible 100% of links should be in the same language as the site you’re linking to. Don’t be tempted to hyperlink French anchor text on an English article (for example), as this won’t work.
- Avoid mass submissions, link farms, any kind of automatic link building campaigns or other spammy sites. With each link ask yourself “If Google didn’t exist, would I still want this link?” If the answer is ‘no’, then odds are that link won’t help your SEO either.
In summary, assume Google is smart enough to recognise a meaningful link!
For more insights, check out the tips and tutorials on the best international SEO strategy.
Monitor the results and develop the priority keywords
If you do thorough keyword research, choose a suitable domain name, translate your site manually (ideally including at least a few blog pages) and build relevant, language-specific links. Then you will receive a better return on investment than if you try and take a shortcut on any of these essential steps. However, there is a final step which is often overlooked, which is to monitor the results and continue to refine your SEO.
One important measure of performance is your Click Through Rate (CTR). If more people click your site in Google’s results for a specific keyword, then it will slowly go up in the rankings. If however, people aren’t interested in your page (based on the Meta Title, Description and URL, as that’s all they see in the search results), then it will slowly go down the rankings.
Your priority keywords are the ones that have a high monthly search volume and that you are appearing reasonably well for (the higher the better). If you’re slowly rising in the search results one likely reason is that you have well written Meta Tags and a healthy click through rate. For those keywords that:
- Have high monthly search volumes
- You appear in the top 20 positions
- Your position is going down, rather than up
It’s worth re-reading your Meta tags and looking at the page the keywords link to as a whole. Then ask yourself if you could rewrite them. Do not change the keywords they target, but do write them in a way that includes unique selling points, or engaging descriptions, to encourage visitors to click your search result in Google, rather than clicking on another company’s website.
Using a tool like RankWatch is a great way to identify which keywords to target, as it’s important to see changes over time.
SEO, particularly international SEO is a time-consuming process, therefore don’t expect results overnight. However, if you focus on the right keywords and on developing quality content and links, then you will gradually move higher and higher in the search results.