International SEO is not just about choosing ccTLDs versus subfolders. It’s a complex process requiring some serious thinking and above all, planning.
Your international SEO activities may break into pieces in any phase. I’ve gathered my best practices and created this 56 point checklist that will help you prepare your website for international visitors.
You can also download a Google Docs version of the checklist here.
- What is International SEO
- Decision-Making Phase
- Preparation Phase
- International Team Basics
- Evaluation Phase
What is International SEO?
✓ Why Do We Want to Go International?
This is about your business strategy. If you don’t have one, international SEO or marketing won’t help you. You should know why you want to enter new markets.
🌐 Examples of poorly defined business objectives: “We want to approach users in the UK because they are generally willing to spend more money.” or “We chose to approach Spanish speakers because we have a Spanish translator on board.”
🌐 Examples of clear business objectives: “We’ve had a growing number of enquiries from Mexico” or “Web designers in Brazil lack proper educational materials in Brazilian Portuguese.”
✓ Is There Potential to Sell Internationally?
This point verifies your presumptions. Check your Google Analytics geo-traffic, look at your current customer base, check the trends in particular markets and check the situation on those markets: geo-political, economical, tax and legal.
✓ Language or Country Targeting?
Language targeting is useful when you want to approach users speaking the same language in different countries. For example, same-language countries, users who travel a lot or field specialists who are used to reading in foreign languages. On the contrary, targeting users in a particular country is usually more precise and efficient than targeting users by their language.
🌐 Example: You decide to approach users in South America with a Drupal template you have developed. Spanish-speaking users in different countries will use the template the same way and it will give them a solution to the same needs, so language targeting will be the best option.
🌐 Example 2: You sell German wines. You decided to enter new markets like Norway and Switzerland, but you are also dealing with local distribution channels and specific tastes of local consumers. Country targeting will definitely be the option here.
✓ Pre-select Your Target Markets
Before making any decision regarding which markets you will focus on, go through your historical sales data, competitive data, search data and market data to identify which markets to focus on. You may be surprised that the best markets for you don’t have to be the ones you originally thought about.
✓ Are We Able to Build an International / Multilingual Team, or Would it Be Better to Outsource That?
Once you start your multilingual SEO campaign, you should ensure the smooth running of it. Sudden cut down of the campaign is a bad sign for users and search engines. Make sure you have capacities available before launching your international SEO activities.
✓ Are We Able to Manage International Projects Ourselves, or or Would it Be Better to Outsource Them?
International project management’s specifics include:
- Dealing with different cultures and different working habits
- Frequent miscommunications and misunderstandings
- Time zone differences
- Software inconsistencies (character sets, text direction)
- Different delegation strategies: Be aware that you will not be able to apply the same delegation strategies (e.g. hiring a local SEO provider) in every country and expect the same results
- Different costs: the costs of a local SEO company in India and in Germany can differ substantially.
✓ Which Languages Are We Able to Cover in Help Desk?
The languages in which you provide customer support may have a direct impact on customer retention or even acquisition.
✓ Will We Have a Budget if the Work Is Outsourced?
Plan your budget in advance to ensure the outsourced work will be continuous under any circumstances.
✓ Do Keyword Research
Before using any tools, get insights from a local native about how your product / service is perceived and searched for by local users. You may realize that local users are used to a certain way of using it and search data may reflect that. Once you have a true idea of the behaviour, collect search data using both native speakers and automated tools like Google Adwords, Yandex.Direct or Bing AdCenter. Find more about multi-cultural keyword research in my SEMrush blog post: 7 Tips for Cross-Cultural Keyword Research
✓ Do Competitive Keyword Research
Direct or indirect competitors may give you a lot of additional data. However, never copy your competitors: they’ve probably earned their rankings for a reason. Get inspired and extend your content by the keywords found to make it more valuable for your audience. Research topics that are not covered by the competitors and fill the gap.
✓ Monitor Social Media Buzz
Use the insights provided by the native speaker to search for social media buzz. What social media platforms are used? You can find out using eMarketer or find your favorite tool here: 20 Free Buzz Monitoring Tools.
✓ Is There Clear Demand for Our Product? If Not, Can We Wait for It to Grow?
Based on the keyword research, you should find out in which phase your audience is: See – Think – Do – Care. Are they clueless about your product and how to use it? See phase. Are they aware of it (social media buzz) but not searching for it yet? Think phase. Are there product-related keywords? Do phase. Do the keywords mirror their difficulties in using the product? Care phase. The earlier the phase, the lower the competition but the more time required to get the audience used to it. The later the phase, the greater the competition, but the faster the response.
✓ Define Your Key Markets
Now when you have all the necessary data available, clearly define your key markets you want to target. After the release of Google’s Pigeon update, country targeting is often more efficient than language targeting. If you have a purely global product, define your buying personas for each market separately.
✓ Ecommerce Integration
Decide if you want to implement e-commerce into your website. This will affect the subsequent analytics implementation, as well as the strategy.
✓ Choose Your Communication Languages
Choose the official communication language(s) to avoid future misunderstandings. This language should be fluently spoken by key team members.
✓ Research Local Payment Methods
Payment methods vary substantially from country to country. PayPal is rather common in the US and Western Europe, while Eastern Europe prefers cash on delivery (Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine). In some countries like Germany, users prefer invoices and deferred payments: they only pay in advance when they get a discount from the overall price. In China, the most frequently used payment gate is AliPay, while in the Middle East, Payfort is preferred. eMarketer provides comprehensive data regarding the most frequent payment methods by country.
✓ Local Helpdesk
Does your product/service require customer support? Don’t assume your customers will be willing to speak your language, especially when targeted in their local language. An upset customer may ruin your reputation on local discussion forums pretty easily and you may not get a chance to respond. Decide who on your team will be given this responsibility or consider hiring a local help desk provider. You can find pros and cons of an outsourced helpdesk here: Stop Outsourcing Help Desks.
✓ Set-Up Local Alerts
Local alerts allow you to monitor new mentions about your brand or desired keywords. Use Google Alerts or Mention.com.
✓ Choose a TLD Structure
Your TLD structure should reflect whether or how much your business tends to be local:
1. You are a purely global business with a centralized approach
Your product is perceived by global users very similarly: e.g. you are targeting a specific group of users (Drupal developers, golf players or brain surgeons).
Best TLD solution: Use a single TLD and communicate in one language that prevails within your audience. You can later add subfolders e.g. /de/, /ru/ to provide multilingual content.
🌐 Examples: apple.com, drupal.org, nasa.gov
2. You are a global business with local aspirations
This means you want to target local users individually, as you may be providing local support or simply want to cover their individual, locally specific needs. You realize that country-specific traffic dominantes on the language versions of your website (e.g. users landing on your German website are mostly from Germany or generally convert better).
Best TLD solution: ccTLDs or gTLDs that work particularly in the target market.
*DE domain for Germany
*PL domain for Poland
*COM domain for the USA
*COM.AU domain for Australia
Check what TLDs appear in local SERPs for the keywords you are targeting.
🌐 Examples: amazon.com, skoda-auto.com, ikea.com
3. You are a local business with global aspirations
You may be a local attraction, a hotel, restaurant, university or a local ticket reseller.
Best TLD solution: Keep a single ccTLD. You can add multilingual content in subfolders. If your business is located in France, keep a *FR domain. If you are in India, keep an *IN domain. You will appear for local specific queries more likely. For more information on local SEO for global businesses, read my SEMrush blog post: Think Globally, Act Locally: 5 Local SEO Strategies for Global Businesses
✓ Purchase TLDs
This one is obvious. Learn from the skoda.com example: Skoda.com Case: Can We Get Our Domain Name Back?
✓ Choose Your Web Hosting Provider
Some search engines, like Baidu and Naver prefer locally hosted websites. The higher the distance from the server to the user, the higher the loading speed, and it can extend by even seconds. If you are targeting distant users, you should definitely consider setting-up local web hosting or go with one of the global web hosting solutions.
✓ Choose Your CMS Provider
Basically you have two options: an open-source CMS and a tailor-made CMS.
1. Open-source: E.g. WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, OpenCart. Cheaper and quicker to set up, plugins and modules available for multilingual/multi-regional websites (website structure, localization, page equivalents, hreflang etc.). Decent e-commerce integration options.
2. Tailor-made: Suit specific needs better. More suitable for specific payment options (e.g. payment gates in specific countries like China), better support of non-ASCII websites (Arabic, Chinese, Korean, …), better integration of special features like specific discussion boards, back-end features for registered users, etc. Better support of complicated global website structures (e.g. combination of TLDs and subfolders).
✓ Define Your Global Website Structure
Once you have agreed on your TLD structure, it’s time to think about the URL structure. Your URL structure should reflect the following:
- Your actual product / services structure: If you are running an ecommerce website, make sure to put the right products into the right categories.
- The market priorities: Put the things people are looking for higher in the website structure.
- Your brand priorities: Key content should also be put higher in the structure.
- Search engine priorities: Some search engines like Baidu favour simple structures without deep pages. It is advised to keep within 3~4 levels even for big sites.
Also, don’t forget about website search results pages, pagination pages (page 1, page 2, page 3), filtering etc. Find more about how to build a website structure here: How to Create an SEO Friendly URL Structure. If you are using subfolders, you must retain those subfolders for any URL within the same website language version.
could be the Spanish version of your website that you decided on.
is an example of a page, while /es/ must remain for any Spanish content.
✓ Localize Your URLs
The language of each and every URL should correspond to the content under this URL. Localize your URLs first to nest the new URLs in your global website structure at this stage. The best practice is to match the title and leave out the so-called “stop words”.
If you have a page title in Italian “Beni di consumo,” then the URL should be:
while “di” was dropped from the URL as a stop word (conjunction).
Here’s how to localize URLs with non-ASCII characters:
1. Cyrillic alphabet
Cyrillic alphabet is used in Russian, Ukrainian or Mongolian and can be transcribed quite easily:
2. Umlauts and accents
Umlauts, e.g. in German, are transcribed differently because the umlaut usually gives a word a totally different meaning:
On the other hand, other non-semantic accents are simply removed, like in this example in Czech:
3. Chinese and Japanese alphabet
Chinese symbols are typically transcribed to pyinin and Japanese to romaji and then tonal punctuation is removed. Like this:
You can find the most common ways of transcription/transliteration in this Wikipedia article.
✓ Define Your Key Landing Pages
Each of your products or services should be represented by a landing page. If you are running an ecommerce website, category pages will probably be your key landing pages. Create separate LPs’ equivalents in every language/country version of your website.
✓ Create a Global Website Map
Draw the website structure in a simple chart and identify equivalent pages across the multilingual/multiregional website. This roadmap will give you a clear idea how to plan for localization or where to implement hreflang tags.
✓ Localization Strategy
Now it’s time to create your tailored localization strategy. Divide your content into these groups:
This is the content that defines your global brand: About us pages, partner pages, Mission & Vision etc. Anything that describes your brand on a global scale.
Make sure your content speaks a neutral language without any regional connotations or metaphors.
Workflow: Translate > Review by local natives > Gather suggestions > Create global tone of voice > Finalize source content > Translate with the TOV > Proofread
Your marketing content should clearly speak the language of your audience: Landing pages, product pages, home page.
Make sure your marketing content speaks the language of your target audience (which doesn’t have to be the official one at all).
Workflow: Research keywords > Write a brief > Transcreate > Proofread > Check keyword implementation > A/B Test
All manuals, product descriptions, documentation, FAQs, user guides etc. should be translated accurately to avoid any incorrect use of your products or services.
Workflow: Prepare for translation > Create a glossary > Translate > Review > Proofread
Workflow: Translate > Review by field specialist > Update > Final review
Back-end / System
System texts often involve different locales: time and date formats and timezones, metric units, form items (address, ZIP), phone extensions, etc. That’s why regular translation gives you barely applicable nonsense-content that requires a lot of correction.
Workflow: Create glossary > Select tools (below) > Export > Translate > Import > Test > Review > Update > Final Import
Your contact information should be created from scratch and include relevant contact details for your users.
✓ L8N Tools Selection
Select the best localization tool to achieve the best quality and consistency of the texts.
Factors you should take into account:
- Export file format / extension
- The extent of content to be localized
- The number of translators
This Wikipedia article will help you pick the best one.
✓ Write Website Content
Based on your website structure, write the content for every page within. “Write for translation”. Focus on the features every page should have according to your localization strategy above. Make the content neutral and easy to read.
✓ Run the Website Localization Project
Create multilingual content of your website according to the localization strategy. Prepare a brief and run the localization project with the workflows above.
✓ Perform Q&A Check of the Content
Using the localization tools, check the following:
- Terminology (keywords) usage
- Segments length
- Trademark usage
✓ Implement Multilingual Content into the Website
Once you have completed the localization project, export the files and implement the content into your website.
✓ Icons, Graphics
Semiotics is the cultural theory of signs and symbols. The perception of signs, symbols, i.e. icons and graphics, differs from culture to culture. Internationalize your visual content: make sure all images and icons on your website are culturally neutral:
- When depicting people, think of ethnical diversity
- Balance male and female element in the pictures
- Think of different clothing styles
- Pick internationally understandable icons: envelope, books, cameras, clocks, eye glasses, microphones, planes, trains, scissors, rainbow etc.
For further inspiration on this topic, see this research performed by Tampere University of Technology. Use further tips from my Pinterest board Intercultural Signs and Symbols.
Especially if you are dealing with users in different parts of the world, individual language or country versions of your website should correspond to the local user experience rules. Eastern countries like China, South Korea or Japan prefer deep website structures that are rich in written content. They generally like to scroll and discover information they need themselves. Whereas in the Western part of the world, the design is rather straightforward and visual. Consult the usability elements of your local versions with a local UX specialist. You can find very good local usability examples in the article: Why Japanese Web Design Is So Different.
✓ Website Geo-Targeting
Make sure your multilingual website is properly geo-targeted.
If you use regional ccTLDs (domains), your basic geo-targeting is sorted. Otherwise, make sure to properly name your subfolders using the ISO codes for language or country, or both separated by a hyphen (“language-country”).
Hreflang tags are NOT a ranking signal nor an ultimate solution for a international websites. If your global website does not use ccTLDs, you’ll need to mark up equivalent pages with hreflang annotations. Find more in The Ultimate Hreflang Guide for Dummies.
Setting a geographic target in WT
You can now set a different target country for either domains, subdomains ore subfolders in Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Central and Yandex Webmaster Tools. Do it if you want to target by country.
Make sure to use your NAP information (name, address, phone) consistently across your web and all business listings. Tools like Yext should help you with the consistency. Mark-up your NAP information with schema.org.
Remember that website IP is a key factor when determining the source of your backlinks. Use tools like Majestic SEO or Ahrefs to find out from which countries you have the most backlinks. Your backlink geo-portfolio should match your geo-targeting intentions.
✓ Talk the Search Engines’ Language
Image credit: torsionmobile.com
It is no longer true that Google dominates globally. For example, Chinese search engine Baidu held 17% of the global market for desktop. Each search engine has different preferences. Yandex disregards backlinks. For Baidu, meta tags and server location still matter. Bing uses similar criteria as Google, but differently balanced. The nuances are described in many articles, but the essential part is described in Webmaster Guidelines: Bing, Google, Yandex, Baidu, Naver.
✓ On-page SEO
Run the basic on-page SEO checklist to make sure your website is search-engine friendly for all of the search engines you are targeting. This list may help. Check Webmaster Guidelines (above) to meet individual requirements of different search engines.
✓ Decide on Your Analytics Methodology
The question whether to have a single tracking code or multiple tracking codes for each subfolder/subdomain depends on a lot of factors. In general, if other subfolders/subfolders are mutually equivalent, it may be worth implementing a single tracking code and define traffic differences using segments/filters in Google Analytics. This will give you the idea of how users are moving through the whole website. If you are running different TLDs at the same time or the content on the separate subfolders/subdomains is rather different, you can go with multiple tracking codes.
✓ Google Tag Manager
Now it’s time to implement a tracking code on your website. Today’s standard is generating a Google Tag Manager code and placing it across all pages on your website. By using Google Tag Manager, you won’t have to implement the tracking code from scratch every time you re-design your website.
✓ Define Goals and KPIs
Standard SEO KPIs:
- Conversions per source
- Conversion rate
- Long-tail KWs rankings
- Bounce rate
- Exit rate
- Page value
- Direct traffic
- Organic traffic
- Referral traffic
- SERP CTR
- Backlinks count from local IPs
- Rankings by search engine
- Traffic from local search engines
Content promotion KPIs:
- Community size
- Brand mentions
- Tone (positive, neutral, negative)
Translation Q&A checklist:
- Segment length
- Trademark check
Local SEO KPIs:
- Local keywords rankings
- Traffic from local directories
- Branded keywords by locality
- Brand mentions by locality
- Backlinks from local directories
- Locality anchor texts
- Local reviews
- Local landing pages traffic
- Local landing pages rankings
Create reports in Google Analytics and Search Console so you can regularly check the KPI values.
✓ Segment Your Global Audiences
The worst thing you can do is to make a single strategy and try to communicate with different target groups with different desires the same way. Instead, segment them by common behaviours. This spreadsheet will help you research channels and behaviours of your different language groups so you can later decide on which tactics to use.
✓ What Is the Market Maturity
Users search for particular brands they trust, and use general keywords to search for products and services. Often searches occur in different languages where there are more resources. The strategy you should go with is building brand awareness through relationship linkbuilding and media / influencers relations.
There are high volumes of long tail keywords in every shopping phase (See, Think, Do, Care). The strategy here should be a long-tail content strategy plus brand awareness based on content and online PR.
When defining the maturity of your users/market, always consider when the Internet penetration growth started. If it started a year ago, you should be dealing with a low-maturity market. Take into account the future growth also and choose your strategy accordingly.
✓ What is Your Local Competition Doing
Local competition may be a good marker of what works in the market, but also may give you an insight of where opportunities lie when you find a gap in your competitors’ activities. Use SEMrush to gain competitive data and look at your competitors’ websites and get inspiration from their content and keywords.
✓ Choose International SEO Tactics
Now, when you see where and how your target groups are talking about topics related to your products or business, you can easily select tactics and channels:
- Which channels should we be on?
- What languages should we use to communicate?
- What frequency of communication should be best?
- What tone of voice and topics should we use?
🌐 Example: Let’s say you sell licences to your software for users with depression. You found out that users in Brazil use blogs and discussion forums to seek information about how to fight depression (phase “Think”). They communicate in Portuguese. At the same time, users in Portugal and using slightly the same channels. You have a colleague on board who speaks Portuguese fluently. She’s comes in twice a week. That’s a good frequency to respond to comments, at least at the beginning. So, the task you set will be as follows: communicate with Brazilian and Portuguese users about how to fight depression on blogs and forums, 2-3 times a week.
✓ Consider Setting up a Virtual Office & Phone Number
With the rising importance of local SEO, local NAP information (name, address, phone) can make your local website version more competitive in the local context. You can use one of the virtual address services e.g. www.yourcityoffice.com for setting up a virtual local branch. The importance rises when your business has some local aspirations: e.g. you run a local showroom or you deliver products locally.
✓ Trust Signals
Websites that are earning their presence in a remote market always struggle because of low trust at the very beginning . Work on your trust signals that will help you build trust among local users more quickly.
1. Local content and local contacts
Write about what’s happening locally and try to engage locally. Create visual content, e.g. photos of a team member and local people. Your local presence would then get a lot more believable.
2. Locally-recognized certificates
E-commerce certificates is a must in some markets e.g. Germany, where there is a strong legal pressure on local businesses. Use TrustedShops for German-speaking countries or TrustPilot for most European countries. Research what certification authority is trusted among local users.
3. Registration with a local chamber of commerce
If you want to sell locally to end-customers, some markets require registration with a local commercial chamber or register. Find a local commercial authority and research information there.
4. Social proof
Testimonials or references from real local customers or even better, influencers, may give your website a significant trust signal. Approach local influencers and offer them a free subscription or product for testing in exchange for using their statement on your website.
5. Legal content
Make sure that legal stuff is present on your website and in accordance with respective local legal regulations. Bear in mind that the statement “These Terms and Conditions are governed by the laws of the State of /your home market/” may be perfectly legitimate, but does not always work as a positive trust signal.
Money-back or satisfaction guarantees work well as a trust signal.
7. Local rating
Good local rating is one of the strongest trust signals. Facebook or Vkontakte offer local reviews plugins if you run a local business page there. Also consider field-specific services like TripAdvisor for accommodation services etc.
✓ Country or Language Redirects
Find more tips on redirects in this blog post: International SEO & Geo IP Redirects.
International Team Basics
You can’t do international SEO without a strong team behind it. It’s virtually impossible to handle all tasks in one person. Think carefully of who to hire. Think of any new member as a key member. Ask yourself: What would this person do if my international business struggles? Is s/he committed?
✓ International Project Management Basics
International SEO can’t be without project management. The tasks involved are so complex that you will soon get lost in email. Learn basic skills of international project management:
- Time management (consider different timezones)
- Delegation (consider different work habits and understanding of “in time” and “on time”)
- Effective planning (see Editorial calendar)
- Evaluation (see Analytics)
✓ Learn about Cultural Differences
As mentioned in the previous point, some cultures have different understanding of the importance of completing tasks in time. For instance, in Indonesian, the exact meaning of the word “tomorrow” means “any time after today.” In German or Spanish, it has also stands for “morning.” Always use clear and simple language and specific assignments with clearly defined deadlines to avoid misunderstandings. Also, some cultures need their time off for daily rituals. Learn about cultural specifics in The World Factbook.
✓ Choose a Project Management System
Your project management system should meet the following requirements:
- Group tasks into projects
- Set recurring tasks and projects
- Assign tasks to teams
- Assign tasks to contractors
- Set time zones with deadlines
- Allow non-ASCII characters in task description, if applicable
- Login for contractors
- Alerts for overdue tasks and projects
- Time tracking for distant team members
You should also set basic rules such as:
- No special characters in file names
- Upload a PDF version along with the source document
- Use one communication language
I use ProWorkFlow because it allows me to create projects and batch add tasks. I have also heard a lot of praise for Basecamp, so I guess it could be the right option, too.
✓ Appoint Key Team Members
- Project Manager: A person responsible for running multilingual / international projects.
- Deputy Project Manager: A backup project manager if the head PM is not available.
- Content Officer: A person solely responsible for the quality of your multilingual content.
- Communications Officer: A person responsible for external communication: consistency, quality, community building, helpdesk.
It should be crystal clear who oversees an important part of the project, even when one team member handles multiple roles.
✓ Create an Editorial Calendar
Create a shared document that will involve dates, topics, languages, team members, completion status. Hand over the Calendar to the person responsible for your website’s content. Some teams prefer a separate and detailed Media Plan or Link Building Plan that involves important steps in communication with local online and offline media and local link building activities, esp. when dealing with local SEO. Simply outline the steps that should be done regularly, and assign the tasks to individual team members. Read more in the article: Make Editorial Calendar in Google Docs
✓ Run a Test Project
Create a test project in the first month. Troubleshoot issues that arise and note them down. Use them to fine tune the project template. Collect feedback from both users and team members. Don’t forget to upload the KPIs above into your project management system so you are able to oversee the core quality indicators.
✓ Check Bounce Rate
High bounce rate is the first warning sign indicating that something is wrong. It could be the content (something the users don’t like, don’t care about or don’t understand). Try to find the cause. Sometimes, in specific cases, even high bounce rate could be OK.
✓ Check Conversion Rate
Another quality indicator is conversion rate. If it’s very low even after a few months, you should think of the reasons why users abandon your website without performing an action: check the Conversion funnel to find out when they are leaving and where they go instead of converting. What sort of information do they miss along the conversion path?
✓ Identify KPI Trends
Check if there is an increase or decrease in KPI values (see above). If the numbers aren’t steadily increasing, don’t panic. Focus on the long-term trend and evaluate the cause of the ups and downs. Follow all KPIs, not just traffic or rankings.
Special thanks to my friend, SEO Analyst Zbynek Hyrak (@OptimalizovanyW) who provided valuable information on international SEO analytics.
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A multi-cultural nerd, digital marketer and SEO/content enthusiast. Likes good beer, dry wine, loves to cook and sing (sometimes all at once).