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International SEO: How To Create A Successful Global Search Strategy

International SEO Strategy

If you’re a business that can help serve customers from around the world, then you’ve probably asked yourself, “How can I reach new international customers online?” Or “How can I get my content to rank in different countries?”

From these questions comes a relatively simple answer of providing users localized content with a great UX, depending on their language or region.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and translate every bit of our content into other languages.

International SEO can be challenging, with complex steps to consider when planning an international campaign for your business or product. 

Fortunately, this is still a good problem to have. It would feel like a missed opportunity if your website wasn’t optimized for a particular country’s local audience, leaving your website off search engine results pages (SERPs).

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of international SEO, how to determine which international markets to go after, and the five main fundamentals of global SEO.

Let’s get started!

What is International SEO?

International SEO is the practice of optimizing your search engine presence for those who live in different countries or speak different languages.

Remember that Google’s algorithm has to return the best result for a searcher’s query. It also has to factor which sections of your website make sense when layering on location and language.

And since there are 192 Google search engines listed by country and region, it’s probably a good idea to make it easy for Google to crawl your site.

Why is International SEO Important?

By investing in a plan for international SEO, you are taking the first step in improving your brand‘s visibility.  

This means that when someone from another country searches for something related to your product offering in their native language on Google or Bing, they’ll see your content’s local version. 

Also, increasing your exposure in other markets means potentially connecting with customers globally who would have otherwise not known or been able to understand how you can help them.

SEO content is a crucial aspect of any website. With an effective international SEO strategy, you can explore what parts of your content are not connecting with your audience and ultimately discover new ways to convert them.

Learning how different markets consume and act on particular content pieces could improve overall site performance globally and move your website even higher on the SERPs locally. 

How To Determine If You Should Do Global SEO

Before you begin creating great content for your target market, it’s best to determine what’s valuable to go after first. It might be useful to prioritize certain countries/markets over others.

For our clients at Omniscient, we highly recommend segmenting site visits and conversions in Google Analytics by country or by language to see what might be coming in already.

Depending on the market and the industry you’re in, it could also be useful to look at industry reports or even your competitors’ international search volume to gauge your potential as well.

From there, we suggest creating language versions for your business by focusing on new markets with the highest impact.

As with most SEO implementations, make site changes slowly to avoid any missteps that could cause drops in ranking.

The 5 fundamentals of a global SEO strategy

One of the toughest things about International SEO is that there’s a lot of ground to cover.

But with the fundamentals below and a few simple adjustments for different cultures, your business will have access to an entirely new market with unique needs:

  1. Creating International SEO-Friendly URL Structure
  2. Geotargeting with Hreflang Tags
  3. Taking Cultural Factors into Account in International Content
  4. Finding Localized Content Opportunities
  5. Investing in Localized Link Building

1. Creating International SEO-Friendly URL Structure 

One might notice that some websites include different languages while others create separate websites for each region or country they are targeting.

Determining your international setup is a crucial step and largely depends on the size of your company. But we believe the most important thing here is to remember that a clean URL structure helps Google crawl your website quickly and easily so that it can show the right pages to the right audiences.  

This structure becomes especially important when it focuses on geo-targeting. There are three main ways to go about achieving this: subdirectories, subdomains, or ccTLDs.

Using A Separate Website Per Country Using a ccTLD

Some companies opt to use an entirely separate website targeted by country using a local country code top-level domain (ccTLD). You might be familiar with them as having the country code appended to the end such as for Italy, for Canada, or for the UK.

The ccTLD is important because it instantly establishes relevancy. It shows Google that you’re serving customers specific to that country and you’re committed to growing your presence there. 

Growing a separate website can be expensive because of the time and effort needed to succeed successfully on search. 

It’s important to remember that you’re essentially starting a new website from scratch when it comes to ranking. And you’ll need to build links from other domains within that targeted country.

It’s fair to say that the types of companies that pursue this are usually those with large budgets and resources.

Creating A Subdomain or Subdirectory Structure Per Language On The Primary Site

It’s easier to maintain a subdirectory or subdomain structure compared to creating a new website which is why many companies opt for it.

The companies that opt for these structures do it because the domain authority built up for one generic domain (gTLD) applies across the whole site.  This gives the section of your site a head start in ranking which means you save a lot on time and resources. 

However, a subfolder or subdomain structure still have their drawbacks.  Although it does leverage the primary site’s domain authority, the signal to rank internationally for SEO is much weaker. Over time, the ccTLD option can potentially outrank subdomain or subdirectory pages.

2. Geotargeting with Hreflang Tags

Another key practice for international multi-language SEO is the proper use and placement of the Hreflang attribute.

Without getting too deep into technical SEO and the associated HTML, Hreflang tags simply tell search engines which URL to show to a user based on their language and country settings.

You may see this in the source code when visiting a page from another country. The URL will have a country code or language code after the site like for Australia or for Germany.

According to Roberto Torres, the hreflang “attribute is important for SEO because it first addresses the audience by providing content for a specific geographic area and language. It is also important for search because it is treated as a separate page from the English version and will need to be indexed just like the English version but not be considered duplicate content.”

It is especially important to note even when web pages have similar content but have small regional variation, the use of the hreflang tag will help point out the correct nuanced version to the right user.

An interesting example regarding language-specific product pages was covered in Google’s Search Off The Record podcast. Search Developer Martin Splitt asked: “if hreflang tags made sense even if product pages were identical in the case for German and Swiss-German variations.” The specific regional variation was the currency being used and John Muller confirmed that hreflang tags will help show the proper URL.

An example of the hreflang tag is shown below for French and Portuguese:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href=""> 
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-fr" href="" /> 
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="pt-pt" href="" />

Simply add this bit of code to the HTTP header, on-page markup, or the sitemap. Place it in one of the locations.

Lastly, It’s important to note the “x-default” tag in the example above. If the page has an x-default tag, it is not targeted to any language or country. 

If you want an easy way to avoid typos while using this tag, you can use this hreflang tag generator

3. Taking Cultural Factors into Account in International Content

Cultural and colloquial differences are big considerations when creating content for an international audience.  

An example is the differences in the Spanish language when it comes to people living in Spain versus Mexico.

Or even how stores in America can call an item “pants” while stores in the UK call them “trousers.”

While many believe that simply translating content to the desired language will be a simple solution, it might not be the most effective and could hurt the user experience.  

Brendan Hufford, Growth Content Marketer at Active Campaign, shares that he hasn’t found raw translations to convey the nuance of the product and industry so all of their content pieces were re-written.

And since “the Brazilian market views tech adoption differently than the US so it was important to focus on different levels of awareness.” Active Campaign Brazil achieving numbers close to their US site traffic using a regional marketing manager to get content written.

4. Finding Localized Content Opportunities

Now that we’ve covered structuring, technical, and some cultural nuances, it’s time to take it one step further. Let’s uncover trade secrets surrounding international SEO research.

For many, figuring out what to write about can be accomplished through keyword research.  However, Rob Poplizo, an SEO Specialist, argues that “SEO localization seems to be more about search intent than keyword research.”  

Finding content localization opportunities requires patience, market research, and an understanding of local competition. 

Here’s how you get started:

Define primary use cases of your product or service:

Along with defining use cases, finding specific keyword variations will help expand your research and search intent analysis. 

Search on Google to pick up on country-specific competitors and intent: 

Figure out who are the main players in the local search landscape, what’s being written about, and what Google deems valuable. Just like there can be cultural nuances in the body of the copy, there can be nuances in the SERPs that you can leverage to help improve your content.

Identify what missing elements are being mentioned:

The top results of SERPs should guide and inform you of country-specific trends. They can even reveal specific bits of information that you might have missed. For example: at vpnMentor, Rob Popolizio noticed that competing VPN services were mentioning something that his service did not. In Rob’s case, it was a country-specific torrent site that was getting tons of traffic compared to other major torrents.

Figure out the type of content you need to publish:

Take the time to figure out the search intent and how the top articles are delivering their content. This will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to content planning.  And it doesn’t end with planning the primary piece.  This exercise also leads to figuring out how to develop content regarding alternatives, benefits, and challenges. 

We all know that building links internally can be a great way to improve your website’s search engine ranking.  So the same attention and effort to link new localized content pieces is crucial if we want to get the most out of our international SEO efforts as we lead new users to localized product pages.

By strategically finding localized content opportunities, creating relevant content, and building internal links to several product-led pages, you can rank for thousands of keywords.

As most of us know, link building is one of the most powerful ways to add authority to your website. 

Grabbing links from high authority, highly relevant sources is what makes the difference in modern SEO content.  Recently, the quality of links has become more valuable than the quantity of them.

You can easily execute a “link reclamation” strategy using one of our favorite SEO tools, Ahrefs. Find mentions of your company online without a backlink to grab link opportunities.

When building authority to localized content, you have to be strategic in your process. It’s not enough to simply attract backlinks from any high DR website. And because there’s more work involved to build links to a localized subdirectory, marketers never add it into their strategy.

Luke Fitzgerald of RightFitz argues that “there’s no real ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to international link building, as some tactics work well for certain brands in certain spaces where others would fail miserably!”

A good place to start is by looking into your network of existing partners.  Finding ways to grab a link from your local partnerships are quick wins. 

From there, you can start exploring ways to build your local network. The more local and relevant your network, the stronger your backlink profile is to your specific subdirectory.

Based on your client’s budget, you can suggest sponsorship opportunities or local events in your niche to create new partnerships.

Luke accomplished this by “associating his client’s brand with relevant publications, and key influencers within the industry and targeted geolocation.”

Putting this into practice, Luke Fitzgerald managed to help his e-commerce client outrank Amazon UK for several localized search terms. Localized links from relevant UK publishers led to a 30% YoY organic e-commerce revenue lift.

Wrapping up

International SEO is an important step that can boost your brand’s authority and adoption. However, having the research, content strategy, native translators, budget, and most importantly time to dedicate to this process is crucial.

We’d love to help take your company’s SEO content strategy to the next level!  Feel free to set up a free strategy call and we can explore the opportunity together.

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Glenn Bona

Glenn is an SEO & Content Strategy Manager at Omniscient Digital. When he's not helping clients grow their traffic and revenue, you can find him training for his next ultramarathon or exploring the world of DeFi.