Growth. Revenue. Conversions. These are things that all businesses want to see an increase in. This can be achieved through international expansion – allowing the business to target a new audience.

If you’re a UK business and want to expand to the USA or Australia because they speak the same language – scaling your website to target these countries should be a piece of cake, right?

NOPE.

Website international expansion is FULL of pitfalls. Especially if you don’t know your hreflang from your ?lang=

Also, don’t just copy what the big multinational companies are doing! You would be surprised at how many big companies get this wrong, simply due to the confusing nature of international SEO.

Navigate this article:

International SEO glossary

Before we dive any deeper, let’s define some commonly used words describing international SEO:

  • ccTLD – Country code top-level domain. These are your .co.uk, .es, .it and so on. ccTLDs don’t need to be geo-targeted within Google Search Console.
  • gTLD – Generic top-level domain. These are commonly .com, .net, .org and DO need to be geo-targeted within Google Search Console.
  • Subdirectory – Often referred to as a subfolder. Examples include www.domain.com/subfolder, or in the context of this guide, www.domain.com/en.
  • Subdomain – This is an additional part to your main domain, often used to organise and navigate to different sections of your website. Examples of subdomains include es.domain.com and it.domain.com.
  • Parameters – This is a modified URL that will change the content based on the parameters within the URL. These are sometimes used to indicate a preferred language of a page, such as www.domain.com/page?lang=es.
  • Hreflang – This HTML tag is used to indicate to Google that a page has copy in another language – including those that may have changes to regional dialects between the same language.

Is there scope to expand internationally?

Firstly, ask yourself, is there a need to expand internationally? Many businesses will rush to form an international SEO strategy without first analysing the data on hand.

Sometimes you need to take a step back and think rationally, “have we put any resources or effort into targeting other countries?” or “does our website get any traffic from other countries?”.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to check with Google Analytics:

screenshot of Google Analytics showing international audiences

As the example shows, this website is receiving traffic from multiple countries which is a positive indication that an international SEO strategy would be beneficial.

This can also be cross-referenced with Google Search Console:

screenshot of Google Search Console showing international sites

It is definitely worth analysing the data from Google Search Console, as you can see Clicks, Impressions, Average CTR and Average Position sorted by specific countries.

Through analysis of this data, trends can emerge – perhaps the website has received an increasing number of impressions from France, or certain search queries performing better in certain countries.

This will help you to prioritise countries within your strategy.

Who is your audience?

Now that you have decided where your target audience is, it is time to decide WHO your target audience is.

It is crucial for international SEO that you understand who you wish to target as the implementation of required tags for targeting French speakers worldwide and French speakers just in Switzerland can vary dramatically.

An example issue of this would be that your business delivers to Europe, so you have your hreflang tags targeting French speakers. Soon, you may find that you are receiving orders from Canada, another country with a high population of French speakers – yet you don’t deliver your products outside of Europe.

You now must deal with the logistics of informing these customers that they won’t receive the product they have ordered, issue refunds and so on. Logistical nightmare! Simply because of poorly implemented HTML.

Therefore, targeting the right audience, and being as specific as possible, is extremely important when forming an international SEO strategy.

As a side note, ensure that you are targeting the right search engines for your target audience. Although Google may dominate the search engine market share worldwide, it is basically non-existent in China!

Search engine market share worldwide statistics
Source: https://gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share/all/worldwide/2019

Choosing your website structure

No matter what website structure you choose, it is critical that you don’t mix and match these options and choose the structure that best fits your business structure and client base.

There are three main options that Google advocates when undergoing internationalisation:

Subdirectories

The simplest and most effective method of structuring your website to target international audiences is with subdirectories. Examples of brands using subdirectories include:

There are some huge benefits to using subdirectories for international SEO – with the main one being that all links point to one domain. This allows for all country coded subdirectories to benefit – and contribute to – from a greater domain authority.

Other methods do not benefit from this. And as a significant ranking factor, this is a huge aspect to lose out on!

As well as being great for the link side of SEO, subdirectories are also considerably easier to set up and allow to not only target countries but to easily target multiple languages in a single country.

But it’s not all plain sailing for subdirectories, as it can make it harder for users to recognise the geotargeting just from the URL. Furthermore, having all files on the same server means there is a missed geotargeting opportunity regarding server location.

Subdomains

Subdomains are another method that Google advocates. It is critical to remember that gTLDs with different subdomains are effectively separate websites in Google’s eyes – this essentially means that the subdomains do not carry the same authority as the domain without subdomains.

There are a couple of big brands that use subdomains – however this isn’t as common as subdirectories:

Subdomains benefit from being easy to set up, and unlike subdirectories, have the ability to be hosted on different servers in different countries.

Crucially, as previously mentioned, subdomains are separate from the main domain. This has both pros and cons, as these websites can have separate identities, but will need their own separate link building campaign.

Even though subdomains are easy to set up, we see more and more companies moving away from this method, often migrating to subdirectories as these are more effective in terms of SEO and easier to manage.

ccTLDs

ccTLDs are a bit different to the other two methods – as these are extremely effective at targeting searchers by location (especially on scale) rather than by language. This method requires a huge amount of resource and infrastructure to be set up.

The best example of a website using ccTLDs for internationalisation is Amazon. Each website allows Amazon to offer different products, pricing strategies and, of course, languages and currencies. Here are just a couple of examples from Amazon:

There are a huge number of benefits for choosing ccTLDs as for one, users trust a site that is bearing their country domain as this is easily recognisable. ccTLDs are also one of the strongest geotargeting signals used by Google.

Like subdomains, ccTLDs are separate websites. This means each one will need its own resources, link building campaigns and more. However, for companies with enough resources, this can allow you to build your brand presence in each target country.

Obviously, all these infrastructural changes and separate campaigns come at a serious cost, with this being by far the most expensive method on this list.

Although being an extremely effective method of international SEO, we would only recommend brands with a substantial amount of cash and resource to allocate to ccTLDs.

Which option should you choose?

Each option has its own pros and cons. Matt Howells-Barby neatly summarised these in the table below:

Table showing the pros and cons of each type of international SEO

No matter what you choose, it is paramount that separate URLs are used for targeted content. Cookies to show translated or localised versions were often used; however, we strongly recommend you avoid this method, as it has historically caused duplicate content issues with these added international parameters.

When picking a structure, the decision depends on the business requirements and capability. Although ccTLDs are extremely effective, this isn’t a viable option for the majority of businesses. In general, subdirectories offer the best of both worlds in terms of effectiveness and resource when compared against subdomains – however, this isn’t a one rule fits all case!

HTML for international SEO

Google knows how to serve the correct local page to the user by reading HTML. Without it, we would struggle to internationalise a website.

By adding the following tags, we will be giving a website the competitive advantage it needs to rank highly on an international stage.

Hreflang

Hreflang tags are a piece of HTML that goes within your web pages’ source code. The purpose of this is to tell Google that these group of pages are similar in meaning but are aimed at different languages and/or regions.

Hreflang in the <head>

Although there are multiple methods of implementing the hreflang tag, you will often see it implemented into the <head> of a web page like so:

<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/" 
  hreflang="en" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-gb/" 
  hreflang="en-gb" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en-au/" 
  hreflang="en-au" />

Each variation needs to link to its respective page variation. For websites that have many language/country combinations to choose from, this can become cumbersome and eventually slow the page down.

Having 20 link elements adds an additional 1.5KB to every page load. Even though this is a small amount, it is likely that your CMS will have to check this against the database to generate these links, adding further overhead.

For smaller websites, this isn’t an issue. However, this could become problematic for larger websites.

Hreflang in HTTP headers

Adding hreflang tags to HTTP headers should only be used for PDFs and non-HTML content that you may wish to optimise.

An example of an optimised HTTP header would look like this:

<http://example.com/es/document1.pdf>; 
rel="alternate"; hreflang="es", 
<http://example.com/fr/document2.pdf>; 
rel="alternate"; hreflang="fr", 
<http://example.com/us/document3.pdf>; 
rel="alternate"; hreflang="us"

However, HTTP headers suffer from the same scaling issues as hreflang in the <head> with increased overhead on each request.

Hreflang in XML sitemaps

Finally, you can implement hreflang using XML sitemap markup.

This method can appear challenging and complicated; however, by using the xhtml:link attribute, you are essentially marking up the page like you would with the <head> and <link> elements.

Here’s how it would look:

<url>
  <loc>http://www.example.com/</loc> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" 
 href="http://www.example.com/" /> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-au" 
 href="http://www.example.com/au/" /> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" 
 href="http://www.example.com/uk/" />
</url>
<url>
<url>
  <loc>http://www.example.com/au/</loc> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" 
 href="http://www.example.com/" /> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-au" 
 href="http://www.example.com/au/" /> 
  <xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" 
 href="http://www.example.com/uk/" />
</url>

These will vary slightly depending on the website structure chosen – check out this guide for examples. Or cheat and use this hreflang generator!

Changes can be done quickly using this method, as only the URLs within the <loc> element needs to change. This way, each URL has self-referencing hreflang attributes and returns to the other URLs.

The benefit of adding hreflang through XML sitemaps is that you won’t be adding extra page weight or requiring a lot of database calls. Plus this method means it is a lot easier to change the sitemap rather than changing all pages required on the website.

Hreflang x-default

The x-default tag assigns a default version to serve to people who don’t match any of the available language or location tags. This is often described as a final “catch-all” of hreflang statements.

For example, you may have hreflang tags set up for en-gb and en-us, but an English speaker from Canada wouldn’t fall into any of these brackets. This is where you’d use x-default:

<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/" 
  hreflang="x-default" />

Hreflang and canonicals

hreflang and canonicals should be used together, as every language should have a self-referencing rel=”canonical” link.

It is important that the canonical is pointing to the correct page; otherwise this could break the implementation of hreflang. For example, the http://example.com/en-gb page should canonicalise to the http://example.com/en-gb page rather than http://example.com.

Content-language

The content-language tag is Bing’s equivalent of the hreflang tag. Like the hreflang tag, this can be implemented into the source code or the HTTP headers. You will often find it coded like:

<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-gb">

Additional points to consider

Now that we’ve got past the code, here are a few additional things to consider.

Ensure your content is localised

Even within English speaking countries, dialects, phrases and spellings will vary. It is important that the content is localised no matter which country your website is targeting. This goes for URLs, titles, meta descriptions, currency and more.

It is a good idea to identify the local search volume for relevant keywords in the target country and language using the most used search engine for that location. For example, Baidu should be used when identifying volume in China, Yandex in Russia, and so on.

Also, DO NOT USE MACHINE TRANSLATIONS.

These often fail to pick up subtle regional differences within languages. When translating content, be sure to dedicate resources on translation as this will ensure the best user experience and return users.

Geo-targeting in Google Search Console

Geo-targeting is a tool within Google Search Console (GSC) that allows you to target specific countries. There are many methods of targeting specific countries such as website structure and using local IP addresses, but GSC gives you the greatest flexibility as webmasters can specify on a subdomain or subdirectory level.

For this to work effectively Google Analytics and Search Console properties are needed for each version of the site.

Below you can see how to set a country as a Geographic target in GSC:

Screenshot of Google Search Console geographic targeting

Tracking

By this point, your website should be internationalised!

However, there is still another step before completion, measuring and tracking your international web properties. As previously mentioned, these should be separated within GSC for each version.

Navigating to the “International Targeting” section in GSC will bring up a graph that shows if you have any issues with your implementation.

GSC international implementation graph

It is important that this is closely monitored, as any issues within hreflang tags can cripple a website’s chances of ranking internationally.

In summary

To summarise, we have covered:

  • Terminology
  • Methods of site structure
  • HTML implementation
  • Further considerations

By now, you should have a robust international website! To take this further, you will need to consider individual international strategies such as earning links with local content, optimising for country-specific queries and so on.

Is your website struggling to target international visitors? Let the SEO team here at Salience take a look!