When I was at SES London in February, I received lots of great questions from search engine optimization (SEO) practitioners around Europe at the International SEO session and Meet the Experts roundtable. Some of the questions were very specific, yet rather basic, such as, “Do I have to have a .de ccTLD to have a website for Germany?” or, “I don’t have a local address, so that is why I don’t rank well in Spain, right?” There are countless information resources available for SEO in general including International SEO. Perhaps people are confused, because there are too many “opinions” and “ideas” out there and not enough facts. It is probably time to organize our International SEO best practices, what they are, and how they work.
International SEO Best Practice
One of the key goals for International or multilingual SEO is to make each of your global website as local as possible. Below are well known SEO action items for global websites:
1. Localized content: Localizing the content and providing your products, services, and information in the local language is probably the first step, and the most important step of your International SEO workflow. Conduct the keyword research for each country and use popular words used in that country. By using local currency, local address, and phone numbers also help provide signals to identify the target country.
2. Local domain (ccTLD): The country code top level domains (ccTLDs) are reserved for each country except some, which have been recently used as generic domain such as “.tv”. By using a ccTLD, you immediately set the geo location for the website and the search engines understand that. Hindsight of this is that all content under ccTLD such as “.co.uk” are set for specific country even if you add localized content targeting other countries. Google Webmaster Tools doesn’t provide a way for you to set geo targeting for website using ccTLD’s only for subdirectories. (Google Webmaster Tools let you set geo targeting, if you have some of the generic ccTLDs such as “.tv.”)
3. Geo target setting (Google webmaster tools): If you have an International website with each country content placed under different directory such as “www.yourdomain.com/uk/” for U.K. site, you can set the geo targeting for your content by setting up profiles by directory and specifying the target country for each directory by selecting it in the interface. If Google is the dominant search engines in your target countries, this will help.
4. Link building: Having links from local websites also help especially from local language sites. Often times, International websites and pages have significantly fewer inbound links from each target country compared to your original website targeting your home country. Local websites that you are competing against probably have more inbound links from local websites than your website, too. Follow normal quality link building best practices to acquire links for each of your International website.
5. Local hosting: If you have ccTLD or set the geo targeting in Google webmaster tools, local hosting does not have much of an incremental impact in most countries as a geo signal. However, it still helps hugely in some countries especially China.
Google says in Webmaster Help Forum,
“Q: Is the server location important for geotargeting?
A: If you can use one of the other means to set geotargeting (ccTLD or Webmaster Tools’ geotargeting tool), you don’t need to worry about the server’s location. We do, however, recommend making sure that your website is hosted in a way that will give your users fast access to it (which is often done by choosing hosting near your users).”
6. “HrefLang” XML sitemap: Many websites have problem with a different country page ranking in a country. It may be caused by the fact that your International website is using ccTLD and cannot set the geo targeting or the local site not having enough links from local websites. “HrefLang” XML sitemap was created to help those website owners. Basically, it maps the URL of the page ranking with the URL of the page you want to rank instead. It even works across domains. Once you match the pages one to one for each of the country/language combinations, and indexed by Google, you will quickly see the right pages replace the old ones in each market.
7. Metadata – language and country code: You should place “content-language” meta tag indicating the language and country in the <head> section of webpages. It tells engines the target audience by language and country of the created page. The code looks like this: <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”> You change “en-us” for other language and country such as “en-uk” for U.K. English and “de-at” for Austrian German. While Google doesn’t weigh this signal as heavily as geo targeting, it still helps with other search engines.
So, which one is the game changer?
There is not one action that is a game-changing factor. There’s no magic potion or fairy dust that makes you jump to the #1 in the local market search results from nowhere. In general, you don’t have to check off all items on the International SEO best practice checklist. However, you should localize content but not having a local address or not having a country domain should not stop you from reaching searchers in the target country.
There are times that one or more of these items could become a game changer. Let’s say you have optimized your website and content very well, and the ranking has improved. However, your page just cannot go above 5th in the search results. You know that you checked off all SEO items for International SEO except local domain. In this case, you may be able to improve the ranking by switching domain from “.com” to ccTLD, especially if the pages ranking above you have ccTLD. What becomes the game changer is case by case, depends on what you are not doing, and what your competitors are doing.
Some items have more impact on certain markets
Market specific search engines such as Yandex, Baidu, and Naver are designed to serve specific markets, it’s like a bigger local search engines. They put more weight on signals such as local domain and local hosting more than Google and Bing do. Because of the infamous “Great Firewall of China,” a website hosted outside China may or may not be viewed by people in China. I have seen many websites, which have had this problem. Also, there are additional signals that they consider. For example, Baidu looks for an ICP registration number on Chinese website in the footer. All websites hosted on server in China must register to obtain ICP number and a failure to display will immediately drop you from the search index.
You can read more about Internationalization of your website from the following resources:
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