Trying to achieve better global visibility for your business? It’s no secret that international search engine optimisation (SEO) is hard to get right, and the consequences of not doing it right include everything from a sharp decline in traffic and conversions, through to full on de-indexation. We’ve seen – and fixed – it all…
Before you go any further, let me give you the heads up on the most common – and critical – errors that we see businesses make when trying to internationalise their websites, and how to avoid them.
Critical Error #1 – skipping the research phase
Before you rush head long into the technicalities of ranking in foreign territories and in other languages, be sure to do your research.
You would be surprised at how many businesses assume that their customers use either identical, near-identical or directly translated keywords, across the globe to find their product.
For instance, the term ’Adidas Trainers’ commands 135,000 searches each month, on average, in the UK:
Whereas the keyword ’Adidas Sneakers’ realises only a fraction of that, with 2,400 searches each month, on average, in the UK:
Conversely, the US market flips this on its head, seeing far more searches for ‘sneakers’:
And far fewer searches for ‘trainers’:
Aside from differing search volumes between countries, there are also cultural differences in the way terms are used.
Critical Error #2 – ‘sense checking’ your choice of targets
An almost universal tactic in SEO is to optimise better what’s doing well already. It’s almost second nature to us to look at internationalising our product/service for the territories where there’s already some good visibility, traffic and hopefully some sales or enquiries first.
Google Analytics will give you an idea of where your traffic is coming from, and how it’s interacting with your site.
Often, we’ll hear of businesses that want to avoid targeting a country where actually there’s a lot of unrealised potential. Don’t be put off by a poor bounce rate or too few conversions – this could just be down to the sales messaging not being tailored to their language and cultural norms.
This UK/US business were looking at expanding into Europe (France and Germany) but the data shows us that there’s potentially an Indian market that’s already more receptive!
Critical Error #3 – getting your HREFLANG in a muddle
Getting your hreflang tags right is vital.
If you’re not sure what hreflang tags are – in a nutshell, these lines of code ’tie’ groups of different language-specific pages together, helping to prevent a massive headache of a duplicate content issue. Google then uses the language information collected from search and browser settings to help serve the right language content in the search results, to the right end-user (to an extent, this is independent of the end-user’s location).
There are some key things to remember with hreflang, which we’ll break down in more detail:
- Every page should include a self-referential hreflang link.
- ’Confirmation links’ must be present on every version of the page.
- Every page should have an x-default.
- Each page can/should be canonicalised independently.
Every page using hreflang needs a link pointing to itself in the code, as well as the other versions of itself. It’s very common to miss out the self-referential link.
As well as a self-referential hreflang link, every page using hreflang needs to have the correct confirmation links in code of each version.
This means that, if page A has hreflang tags referencing pages B and C, then both B and C should have tags back to A, as well as to each other.
The example below shows the code from the freshfields.com website:
And, if you visit the source code, you’ll notice that each version of the /about-us/ page has the same block of hreflang attributes – in other words they all reference each other:
The x-default tells a search engine which version to return in search when it cannot determine the language the end-user is browsing in. Without an x-default, your hreflang code won’t be taken into account by search engines.
Your x-default can be an already listed language version, but it should be consistent on each page within the group.
Again, an example from freshfields.com shows the x-default referencing the UK English (en-gb) page – which is also the default for those whose language they can’t identify.
Canonical tags can be used along with a hreflang tag to separately canonicalise each language version to itself.
The most common error is that a site choses one canonical URL, and in doing so, overrides the hreflang tagging.
Scoring a hat trick for proper internationalisation, the freshfields.com site has each version of their /about-us/ page canonicalised, which means that each language version can rank independently:
Luckily, Search Console, as well as tools like Screaming Frog are useful in uncovering errors very quickly:
Critical Error #4 – neglecting Search Console/Webmaster Tools
Search Console and Webmaster Tools (WMT) has some useful geo-targeting tools.
Once you’ve sectioned off parts of your site, either by building a version on a new country specific top level domain (ccTLD) or setting up country specific subdomains or folders within your generic TLD, you can set each of these up in their own Search Console/WMT profile, and target them accordingly.
Country targeting options available in search console
PLEASE NOTE: if you’re already on a ccTLD, you’ll need to purchase and build your international versions on other ccTLDs, or a generic TLD with multiple country specific directories or sub-domains. ccTLDs can’t have sub-directories and sub-domains targeting other countries.
Critical Error #5 – Your IP based redirects are sending search engines off in all directions
Geo-based redirects are commonly used, but rarely correctly.
The most common issue we encounter is when redirects are set up to forward traffic based on identifying the geo-location of the IP address.
For search engines, IP addresses can be numerous, and from a variety of locations.
You’ll need to make sure that your redirect handling plugin or module ignores robots, or you could start to see serious indexation issues, as search engines are always forwarded to one version of the site at a time (rather than being able to see all versions in all languages and territories at all times).
Another common error with IP based redirects is the use of a 301 in conjunction with the above. The impact on the index when the redirect is cached can be tricky and time-consuming to undo.
There’s a lot that can potentially go wrong with implementing international SEO, but hopefully our experience and expertise in helping businesses move into international markets seamlessly will see you avoid the most common pitfalls.
Do share with us your experiences of international SEO in the comments below, and of course, if you’d like a second pair of eyes to look over your SEO, or for us to handle the process for you from start to finish, then let us know using the contact form.