When you think about International SEO, it is easy to imagine Global 2000 companies with offices and employees around the globe. It can be equally important to the small business that sells globally from one location.
How do you convince the search engines to include you in their international rankings on a country by country level?
Google has numerous country code top level domains (ccTLD). Each provides search results targeted for a specific country in its native language:
www.google.it.ao, www.google.co.bw, www.google.bi, www.google.ci, www.google.cd, www.google.dj, www.google.com.eg, www.google.com.et, www.google.gm, www.google.com.gh, www.google.co.ke, www.google.co.ls, www.google.com.ly, www.google.mw, www.google.mu, www.google.co.ma, www.google.com.na, www.google.com.ng, www.google.cg, www.google.rw, www.google.sh, www.google.st, www.google.sn, www.google.sc, www.google.co.za, www.google.co.ug, www.google.co.zm, www.google.co.zw
While you and I might use Google or Bing, the top search engine in the Czech Republic is Senzam. In China it’s Baidu. In Japan, Yahoo. Check out webCertain’s Search and Social Report to see top search engines for different countries.
Each search engine has its own set of ranking factors and best practices. For example, on Yandex, the top search engine in Russia, you want to be listed in the Yandex Directory. You will also want to ensure Yandex has the correct region settings for your website.
With the above considerations in mind, I wanted to share some general ranking factors for international SEO to complement the advice shared in the Multinational Search column.
Unfortunately, the best route to optimization may remain unclear or subject to budget. Not everyone can afford or manage hosting in multiple countries. Usually it comes down to gathering as much information as possible then making the best decisions for your budget, company, and visitors.
1. Target Countries Or Languages?
Should you target each country or group them by language? Google seems to favor targeting countries.
If you go to Google Webmaster Tools > Site Configuration > Settings you can designate a geographic target. Something many webmasters do not know is the fact that you can register subfolders separately in Google Webmaster Tools and designate a different geographic target for each subfolder. You must register subdomains separately for Webmaster Tools to recognize them.
Generally, I recommend targeting countries. The exception is when you use subfolders instead of ccTLDs and have clients in many different countries. When both of these are true it can make sense to focus on languages instead of countries to avoid duplicate content issues or diluting link authority. Just make sure you will be getting local links.
2. ccTLD, Subfolder Or Subdomain?
ccTLDs are the best option for international SEO if you believe each ccTLD will be capable of competitive link building over time and each site will receive regular additions of compelling content. I strongly suggest ccTLDs for countries where Google and Bing are not the top search engines.
If you are just starting out or do not have lots of authority among your international ccTLD sites, then using or switching to a subfolder strategy may work better for you. While each country or language section will still need its own links and content, they may benefit from domain wide authority. Down the road you can switch to a ccTLD strategy and 301 redirect authority as you launch new sites. This will work best for Google and Bing SEO.
About the only time I suggest subdomains is when maintaining ccTLDs will be too onerous and it is impossible to use subfolders. This can be the case with hosted content management systems, though you ought to be able to overcome this with reverse-proxies. That said, if each subdomain receives continuous new content and links they may rank well.
Make sure you geographically target each country’s site, subfolder or subdomain in Google Webmaster Tools. Recently Google delisted Burberry’s US site because it duplicated of their UK site.
3. Language Meta Tag
While Bing does not offer geotargeting, it does pay attention to the language meta tag. Make sure this is set properly for all pages on all sites.
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
4. Hosting & IP Address
The geographic location of a website is a Google ranking factor. If you can handle the challenges of hosting locally, do it.
5. Written Language
Language is critical to the success of international content. From keywords to phrasing to grammar, it all impacts your SEO success. Do not simply translate one language into another and put it up on your ccTLD site. Perform native language keyword research so you target the best words and phrases.
Rewrite for each country, even if it’s the same language. That might be obvious when going from Spanish to French, but keep in mind that UK English differs from American English. Local words and phrases enhance long tail SEO and improve usability.
6. Local Content
Use local addresses and contact information, preferably in machine readable format such as Schema.org. Add local stories or case studies with the names and images from within each country. Customizing content for each country or market makes it more relevant, increases local link building opportunities, and decreases duplicate content.
7. Design & Usability
Speaking of usability, different countries prefer different design esthetics. Recreating your mother website in a different language may not be enough. Review each site with a local Web designer or someone who specializes in the target country.
8. Currency & Forms
Do you have currency options for all the countries your websites target? Are those countries listed in checkout or contact forms?
9. XML Sitemaps
Make sure each site uses XML sitemaps and register them with the search engines. If you use subfolders, create a separate sitemap for each country and register it in Google Webmaster Tools as a different website.
Remember, you can register subfolders separately in Google Webmaster Tools and designate a different geographic target for each subfolder.
10. Local Search Registration
11. Local Activity: Links, Mentions, Votes & Reviews
While most of the ranking signals I have mentioned are on-site SEO, the ultimate signals of authority will come from off-site. Search engine representatives have stated that links from within countries matter. You need to engage in local link building. Recently Google announced +1 button in search for more countries and domains.
Obviously, search engines are looking at social signals around the world. In each country, are local websites linking to yours? Are residents mentioning your brand and site in social media? Do they review your brand on review sites? Make sure you have on off-site SEO plan for each country you market to.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.