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?
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
- Is there scope to expand internationally?
- Who is your audience?
- Choosing your website structure
- Which option should you choose?
- HTML for international SEO
- Additional points to consider
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:
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:
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!
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:
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 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 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:
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!