How international SEO is different, and how to do it right

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Effective search engine optimization requires close attention to details.

Any digital marketer or SEO (search engine optimization) specialist can tell you that SEO on an international scale requires a different mindset and techniques, in comparison to what may be effective for a business in a more localized market. Failing to recognize the differences and adjust your approach accordingly can easily make a campaign ineffective... and can often produce disastrous negative results.

In today's increasingly global market, many businesses are expanding their reach into new multilingual or multicultural markets. For businesses that have been working for years in a single language or culture, adapting their approach can be very challenging. To survive and thrive, each market should be addressed in a fashion that is sensitive to a number of factors. Since many established businesses have built their entire organization around a single environment, this adaptation can be extremely difficult for them.

The advantage of startups

These days, many, if not most, startups are driven by people that have been faced with globalized marketing for as long as they've been active online. They understand that marketing to customers in different cultures requires a deep understanding of cultural differences, including such aspects as basic language, localized colloquialisms, religious and political considerations, cultural mores, legal restrictions and more. It's a small step to realize that all those will also affect the way people search, what they'll respond to (and how) and how they expect a business and its website to work.

Just as SEO needs to be a pivotal part of any online business's business plan, it stands to reason that it must be tailored to each individual market segment. Those segments may be distinguished by geographic location, language, religion, or any number of demographic differences... but each must be considered individually.

New startups have a very significant advantage over long-established businesses, in that they don't have to unlearn old ways. They can construct their business model, marketing plan and optimization strategies around their intended international markets, from the outset.

Don't underestimate that advantage - anyone that has ever helped a company make the transition to an international market can tell you how treacherous, difficult and costly it can be to rethink and rework an entire organization from the ground up.

How to exploit that advantage

Marketing and SEO are closely integrated, so any SEO campaign must incorporate various marketing considerations. But here, we're going to focus more on the technical aspects. Just ensure that your SEO campaign also gives proper consideration to the other items mentioned above. Here are the three most critical technical considerations for an international SEO campaign:


Know your target market.

1. Geographic location

There are actually a number of facets to the geographic category. They can range from very basic, such as: what portion of the target market can be reached online? to the more complex how should your website determine which version of a page to display?

Other technical aspects to consider may include:

What search engine is most employed in the region you're targeting? Optimizing solely for Google will do you little good in Russia or Japan, where Yandex and Yahoo are dominant. That doesn't necessarily imply though that you should ignore Google there... just distribute your efforts according to the potential benefits.

  • Are there any unique legal requirements or limitations that demand specific functions or features on your website in specific jurisdictions?
     
  • Will your site serve different pages, depending upon the IP address of the user?
  • Does your business have a physical presence in the target region, allowing for local optimization?
  • Will you be implementing hreflang tags on your pages?
     
  • Will you want to use country-specific TLDs (top level domains, such as .com.au, .co.uk, etc.), sub-domains or folders in your site architecture?

2. Language

Using the proper base language is obviously important, but even then, local usages can vary considerably. For example, there are a number of different languages and dialects spoken within Italy, Europe, the Middle East or Asia. Consequently, different meanings may exist for some common terms; a failure to use the proper vernacular will make your content less effective and can even alienate potential customers.

3. Keyword

Considering language differences doesn't only come into play when producing content or serving pages, but also in the search terms that users will employ to locate your website. Subtle differences can, at best, degrade  your campaign's efficiency, at worst, create serious trust and confidence issues for your brand.

Bear in mind when performing your keyword research how critical it is to use tools that focus on the specific region which you'll be targeting. Also, don't neglect to laser-focus your meta descriptions on your target users.

Hire a professional or do your SEO yourself?

Even in a local market with which you're intimately familiar, it can be dangerous to opt to design your own SEO campaign. Search engine algorithms are constantly evolving and which techniques are effective or high-risk can change from one day to the next. Staying abreast of all the changes is a full-time task, so the assistance of an SEO is often advisable.

However, you may have an advantage over an SEO pro, if you are intimately familiar with your local market's linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies. If so, you should work closely with them to ensure they put your valuable knowledge of your target market to use.


Phrases and idioms that are acceptable in one culture may prove disastrous in another.

What about other regions?

This may be the single most important aspect discussed here, both in terms of marketing and of search engine optimization. While preliminary keyword research for a region can be performed by anyone that knows how to do it properly, only someone that is totally familiar with the language and culture of that region can safely determine which keywords should be avoided. There are many terms that are innocuous in one region, but may carry a connotation that is offensive in another, even though they share a common language.

Similarly, cultural differences can often be a minefield, unless someone that knows the culture has input, screening or editing your content, letting you know if your technique is too aggressive or too subtle to be effective in their market. Ideally, you can find someone with the technical knowledge and marketing experience that is embedded in the target region - they will be best prepared to help you navigate that minefield.

It's worth mentioning that tools like Google Translate aren't up to the task of helping you adapt content for use in another language. Someone who is fluent in the specific language or dialect you want to target is better, but still not necessarily sufficient, if they've not lived there. Whether you're optimizing for the region you've lived in your entire life, or for a small developing nation on the other side of the globe, the same basics still apply... they simply need to be fine-tuned before launching.

As mentioned, a startup has a definitive advantage over many larger operations. Play to that advantage to the greatest extent possible - enable your business to fit seamlessly into each individual market you go after. If you do it well, you may soon grow to be one of those large operations.

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