International SEO: Optimizing for the Global Landscape

Search engines have acted as a catalyst to expand target markets and increase reach for businesses of all sizes. For international and global brands, optimizing for different locations and cultures is crucial in driving organic visibility and ultimately growing their business.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” SEO strategy that can be extrapolated into multiple languages, and too often disreputable SEO agencies will promise they can do international SEO when in reality they’re doing little more than leveraging Google translate for multilingual optimizations.

There are a lot of opinions and questions around what constitutes international SEO – both in the SEO community and among global companies. At its core, international SEO isn’t that different from any other digital marketing strategy. You have to start by researching and defining the strategy and goals. Then you implement campaigns and report and measure results over time.

With that said, there are a few key elements to international SEO that should be taken into consideration.

What search engine are you optimizing for?

While most SEOs refer to Google by default, in many countries Google is not the dominant force. In China, the most popular search engine is Baidu. In Japan it’s Yahoo, and in Russia it’s Yandex.

There are countless search engines globally and each has a different way of evaluating and ranking content. The key is to know which search engines are being used by your target audience and to tailor your SEO strategies accordingly.

Localized Content

Whatever you do, do not slap your existing site copy into Google translate and post that for your foreign language websites! Automated translation services don’t take into account semantics, nuances, pragmatics or tone. Localized content will have the biggest impact if you use a quality, professional language translator that can account not only for linguistic differences, but also for cultural, regional and seasonal differences.

Native language keyword research should be your first step in optimizing site content for different languages. Using local phrases and terminology will help usability as well as your site’s ability to rank in Google’s country-specific domains. Based on this research, you can provide localized content in the site’s meta data, headings, currency, NAP (name, address, phone number) and even site navigation. By using location-specific content, you’re able to send stronger signals to relevant users as well as search engines.

ccTLDs vs. Subdomains vs. Subdirectories

One of the most common questions with international SEO is how to separate your content so that users and search engines can easily attribute it to a specific location or language. There are many ways this can be done: you can use subdomains, subdirectories, a ccTLD (country code top level domain) or entirely different domain names.

Using a ccTLD is the strongest signal for search engines to indicate where your website originates and where the target audience is located. This means that having a ccTLD can help improve your site rankings within the specified country’s local rankings. For example, all other factors being equal, will likely rank better in the Australian SERPs than

One of the main drawbacks to this strategy is that each website is a unique entity and therefore has separate domain authority. This means more websites to maintain, optimize and promote off-page. However, it’s important to remember that subdomains and subdirectories are simply weaker signals for search engines and may not provide the desired impact.

HREF Lang Annotations

While search engines are constantly improving their ability to understand pages in different languages, utilizing language markup (or annotations) ensures that visitors and search engines can reach the most relevant page on your website. Specifying regional or language-specific pages with the rel=”alternate” hreflang annotation will help Google identify which pages should be served to users based on their language preferences and geographic location. Additionally, this annotation can help prevent any duplicate content issues that could arise from translating multiple versions of extremely similar content into different languages.

Bing, however, utilizes a different method when crawling and determining a website’s language. Instead of a general tag on the homepage pointing to the alternate languages, Bing uses the “content-language” tag in the <head> section of each page. The meta http-equiv="content-language" tag should be placed in the <head> section of each page that is in a foreign language.

Off-Page Strategy

Lastly, you can’t forget about off-page signals. Gaining links from relevant websites in foreign markets may be one of the more complex aspects of international SEO. It requires more research into the unique competitive landscape and audience behavior of each location. Nebo’s philosophy is simple: If you wouldn’t do it offline, don’t do it online.

A great place to start is by looking at existing industry relationships and ways to leverage those online. While it may be difficult to identify opportunities, it’s important to build references and citations from local resources to reinforce those local signals with search engines.

In the era of globalization, the boundaries between countries are disappearing a little more each day. It’s more important than ever for global brands to consider regional and cultural differences as a core part of their SEO strategies. You simply can’t look at international SEO through the lens of translation and technical implementation. It needs to be a user-driven exercise that reinforces local signals and provides value to each unique market.

Written by Stephanie Wallace on February 23, 2015


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Written by
Stephanie Wallace
Vice President, Marketing