International SEO Strategy – setting up your website to rank in other countries
We often find that we’re working with clients at a pivotal and crucial point in the growth of their organisation. Expansion, diversification, repositioning, streamlining, or a combination of those often require a new digital tool or experience to support and drive them.
Something that’s cropped up quite a lot recently in conversations we’ve had with clients and prospective clients is approaching digital across multiple geographies. How can growing organisations ensure that their website or digital product is discoverable, usable and accessible in the countries and languages they’re looking to work with?
It’s a fairly simple concept. You need people all over the world to find you and understand what you’re offering. But there are a few considerations in terms of how you achieve this in practice – particularly when it comes to SEO.
In this post, we’ll look at the factors you should consider around your international SEO strategy when it comes to planning a new website project, including:
- The wider impact of your international SEO strategy
- Targeting languages and countries and how to do this in practice
- Technical and structural considerations
International SEO and your website – the big picture
Working with multiple countries is primarily a strategic decision – led by your industry and the opportunities within it, rather than being a marketing-led decision. For most organisations, it’s assumedly unlikely that you did an SEO keyword research project and for example, found that a lot of people were searching for your core product in the Netherlands and decided to expand there based on that. There are clearly a lot of other factors at play when it comes to deciding to expand internationally.
That being said, it’s really important to consider the wider context rather than just setting up your website and other digital experiences to cater for those target countries as a bare minimum. You need to consider the bigger picture SEO-wise to ensure:
a) You’re not losing opportunities to grow visibility and traffic in the countries you want to target
b) You’re creating the right structure and foundation for growth in current target countries and future ones
When it comes to developing a multi-geography website, you could be in one of two positions – already working in a particular geography and wanting to expand or increase visibility, or you’re new to working in that location and want to establish a presence. Either way, bringing in organic traffic (traffic from search engines) from those target countries and serving them the right content in the appropriate language should be a vital part of your digital strategy.
International SEO – the basics
International SEO enables you to make your website’s content visible and discoverable to search engines in other countries, and target the relevant country with the appropriate version of your content.
Just as there is with any SEO strategy, there are multiple facets to international SEO – what keywords you’re targeting, off-site work (link building, etc), and content. But at the most basic level, when embarking on a website project, there are some important things to consider around how you’ll be set up to present your website’s content in other languages and countries.
Language and country – how they relate
This is probably the most fundamental thing to understand when it comes to international SEO and how this should inform the setup of your website. It can get a little complex, but with the right technical planning in advance, you can ensure you’re ticking all the boxes.
At a basic level, search engines like Google are intelligent enough to interpret user intent and tailor search results based on the language they’ve searched in, and serve the most “helpful” content – i.e. content that’s in the same language as the search query. This means from your perspective, if you’re only targeting one country and one language (e.g. UK and English), you don’t need to specifically signal to search engines that’s what you’re targeting.
Where it requires a little more forethought is if you’re looking to target multiple countries and languages with identical or similar content, or different content hosted within the same website or digital ecosystem.
Technical considerations for international SEO
Now we’ve set the scene, let’s get into the nitty gritty – what are the technical considerations at the project planning point when it comes to getting the right set up for international SEO?
Top-level domains, sub-domains and sub-folders
This consideration is all about how you “point to” the content aimed at different countries and regions. A top-level domain is the highest level in the hierarchical structure of your website – an example would be “.com” or “.co.uk”. A sub-domain is the next level in the hierarchy, and sits before the TLD in your URL, e.g. “www.” or “blog.”. A sub-folder or sub-directory, is the next level on the hierarchy, usually used to point at specific categories or pages within your site.
You can use either of the three to distinguish between different versions of your website for different countries and languages. For example, three different ways of approaching serving a French version of your website might look like:
Option 1 – Top Level Domain – yourwebsite.fr
Option 2 – Sub-domain – fr.yourwebsite.com
Option 3 – Sub-folder – yourwebsite.com/fr/
The main advantage of using a country-specific top-level domain (e.g. .co.uk for UK, .fr for France, .de for Germany) is that it is a very clear signal to a search engine which country you’re targeting, and that can make the process of understanding and displaying your content slightly easier. A disadvantage of this approach would be if you already had an existing domain with established authority and rankings. Creating a new domain means you’re essentially starting from square one, having to build up authority and link equity on a brand new domain.
This is where the sub-domain or sub-folder approach would come in. Housing your alternate language/location versions on sub-domains or sub-folders as part of your existing domain helps you to leverage existing authority whilst clearly indicating which country and language you’re targeting with which content.
Auto-translation vs multi-site
This next consideration is around the behind-the-scenes technical structure of your website (or websites – we’ll get to that shortly) and how this relates to the different regional versions.
More often than not, when you’re looking to target your website at different regions and/or languages, you’re either looking to present the exact same content but in a different language, or you’re looking to present slightly different content targeted at each location, but within the exact same frontend user experience (i.e. the same user interface with consistent styling, navigation, etc).
Depending on what you want/need to do, there are two possible approaches.
In this approach, you use a tool or a plugin to auto-translate your content into your other target languages, and you simply point to the relevant versions in the frontend.
You can see this approach in practice here. The user switches between French and English in the frontend, and the same content is served but in the selected language.
This is the most “hands-off” approach – it enables you to effectively target another language and/or region without having to do any manual setting up or translation of content. On the other hand, it doesn’t allow you for much customisation between different versions of the site. That’s where the other possible approach comes in.
In this approach, you have multiple sites set up to deliver different versions of your website, but they’re all manageable via the same CMS instance (i.e. WordPress). This enables you to create completely different content for each regional version of your website, but makes it much easier to replicate the same styles, and enables you to manage everything from the same place without logging in to different systems.
You can see this approach in practice here. The user can select which country they’re browsing from on the front-end (e.g. “Czech Republic”) and are served with a different version of the site with different content. They can also switch between languages within that region’s version of the site.
This solution requires more setup and more management from a technical and content perspective, but does offer more customisation and expansion options later on. In this approach you can create entirely different pages and content aimed at different locations, but it’s all managed within the same ecosystem and presented with the same stylesheet. This approach is most likely the right one if you’re looking to develop country or region-specific marketing and SEO strategies.
No matter which technical approach you’re using to display different versions of your website for different regions and languages, getting hreflang tags in place and referencing the right content is vital to getting search engines to understand your content and the locations and languages you want to target.
A hreflang tag is a HTML tag that sits within the backend code of your website, indicating the language and regional targeting of that page.
Here are a couple of examples of hreflang tags and what they look like in practice.
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”https://www.yourwebste.com/page1″ />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr” href=”https://www.youwebsite.com/fr/page1″ />
The first element tells the search engine what version of the page is targeted at English speakers, and the second element tells it what version of the page is targeted at French speakers.
You can narrow this down further and target specific regions/countries by adding more information to your hreflang tags:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-GB” href=”https://www.example.com/page1″ />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-FR” href=”https://www.example.com/fr/page1″ />
Again the first element indicates the language is English, and then adding a country code tells the search engine the target country is Great Britain. And for the second, the language is French, targeting the location of France.
You can of course have multiple hreflang tags for the same language, targeting different countries. For example:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-FR” href=”https://www.example.com/fr/page1″ />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-CH” href=”https://www.example.com/ch/page1″ />
The second element here indicates what version of the page is in French but targeted at Switzerland.
These tags must refer to each other on every page on your website served in a different language in order to enable search engines to properly understand how your content is structured and exactly which locations it’s targeted at. Getting this right and keeping track of all the tags is tricky but doable, and a digital partner like Adaptable can help make sure you’ve set all this up correctly.
Selecting the right approach to international SEO
As we’ve mentioned, thinking carefully about where you are now and where you want to get to with the international targeting and your website is vital at the planning stage of your project. How you need and want to approach international SEO can significantly impact the timelines, scope and investment of your time needed to create and upload content.
Considering a multi-geography or multi-language website project? Get in touch and let’s talk about how we could help.