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International SEO for Beginners

International SEO for Beginners


Every company dreams of becoming a ‘Global Number 1 brand’ – a goal that SEO teams in-house and agency-side have probably heard many times. Imagine being the top-ranking brand worldwide, dominating the SERPs across multiple markets and therefore driving more organic traffic and revenue globally. A (pretty unrealistic) dream, right? While it’s tempting to jump straight into translating your keyword sets from English to Spanish, Italian, Japanese or German, it’s crucial to pause and consider a broader strategy.

Ask the right questions – and there are many right questions!

Before diving headfirst into your International SEO approach, it’s essential to ask the right questions – and believe me, there are plenty of them! Crafting an effective International SEO strategy demands thorough planning, analysis and understanding. By asking the right questions upfront, you gain valuable insights into a business’s needs, goals and foundations. If you’re on the agency side, research into your client’s international efforts is key: Which markets does your client currently operate in? What products or services are offered in each market, and how do these offerings vary?

The briefing stage is crucial, and it’s more important than in any other stage to ask the right questions here: what is it your brand is looking for – is it simple keyword translations or is the brand eager to tap into the search potential of new markets? Which markets take precedence at the moment, and why? What SEO strategies have been implemented previously?

And let’s not forget about uncovering new opportunities – where can we, as SEOs, help unlock untapped potential? Is the brand interested in exploring the search potential of emerging markets?

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The technical requirements – and they might be more basic than you think!

Once you have tackled the initial questions, pinpointed your priority markets, and geared up for optimising your website, it’s time to delve into the technical aspects of International SEO. First things first: you need to understand which search engines are the preferred ones for your local target audience. This might seem like an obvious choice, but Google is not the market leader in all parts of the world – other markets may have their own search engine giants. Naver dominates in South Korea with its unique search experience, Yandex takes the lead in Russia, and Baidu reigns in Chinese-speaking territories. Each of these search engines comes with their own set of technical requirements and ranking factors, meaning a one-size-fits-all SEO strategy won’t cut it and it’s more than important to familiarise yourself with these search engines.

Furthermore, selecting the right domain type for your website is crucial. While ccTLDs (Country Code Top-Level Domains) are a necessity in certain markets, they don’t inherently indicate the language of a page. Opting for a subfolder or subdirectory structure might offer more clarity in this regard. Alternatively, creating a subdomain allows for customised domain naming and the utilisation of a local IP address, although this URL structure may not be as familiar and clear to your users.

Understand your target audience

I know I sound like a broken record, but grasping your target audience is absolutely key in International SEO, and here’s why: Let’s say you’re an up-and-coming beer brand aiming to optimise your website across the USA, UK and Germany. Your goal? Attracting young folks who love hitting the pubs or clubs with your brew. Now, consider this: Legal drinking ages for beer vary widely across the globe. In Germany, it’s 16, in the UK, 18 and in the USA, 21. That means while your target audience may still be hitting the school books in Germany, in the US, they may already have started into their professional careers. Pretty different stages in life, right?

The same principle applies for more intricate product offerings. Take home insurance, for example. In the UK, your target audience might consist of homeowners or first-time buyers. However, the scenario is completely different in Germany, where renters might be required to sign up for home insurance, too. This not only alters your target audience but also influences the keywords you need to focus on and can make or break your SEO efforts.

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Keyword research – or just translations?

And finally, the moment we have all been waiting for: keyword research! But hold your horses – dropping your English keywords into Google Translate isn’t the way to go. I know, it’s not what you want to hear right now, but hear me out: The ideal keyword research process? It’s best handled by native-speaking experts.

As the home insurance example has shown, target groups and their corresponding keywords can vary wildly from market to market. And get this – keywords might not only differ across languages, but even within the same language. Differences can appear between regions, too!

Picture this: You’re selling whipped cream in the German-speaking market. Google Translate tells you the German word for ‘whipped cream’ is ‘Schlagsahne’ – but here’s the catch. While ‘Schlagsahne’ might be the go-to term in Germany, Austrians prefer ‘Schlagobers’, and the Swiss opt for ‘Schlagrahm’. Three different words for the same thing in the same language!

While it might seem simpler to just translate word for word, truly grasping the language, the target audience, and the cultural nuances will likely lead to a broader coverage of relevant keywords. And as you’ve probably figured out by now, this principle doesn’t just apply to keywords – it extends to the content you are writing as well.


Content is King – everywhere in the world

Ever since Google’s E-A-T, and later E-E-A-T updates, it’s crystal clear: There’s no skirting around the need for top-notch content, no matter where you’re targeting. Sure, those speedy machine translations might seem like the easiest and cheapest fix, but trust me, they won’t get you the results you’re after. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for carefully reviewed and edited machine translated content. But ask yourself: How much will your target audience really connect with it? And how on earth do you plan to outshine local competitors armed with native speakers, especially when it comes to really understanding and covering local trends?

While machine translation might be helpful for word-for-word product translations, they often miss the mark when it comes to capturing cultural nuances like sayings and slang. Let’s face it – Spanglish, Denglish, and all those other language blends are real. It’s crucial to understand the language your target audience ACTUALLY speaks. Not every word might need direct translation, and you might even miss out on key keyword placements if you solely rely on machines. Dependending on the industry you’re in, English words might hold higher search volumes than the actual translation – think Beauty, Fashion or Tech!

Moreover, what constitutes ‘quality’ content can vary widely from one market to another. What information truly matters to the user, and therefore search engines? What legal regulations must you adhere to, especially in YMYL (Your Money Your Life) topics? Are there specific trends you absolutely need to jump on? And let’s not forget about the big topic of trust – how is it defined in each market? These questions are worthy of their own dedicated article, but let’s discuss this another time.

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Patience is King, too!

So, you’ve poured your heart and soul into crafting exceptional, unique, and helpful content for each market, and now you’re eagerly awaiting Google’s nod of approval, and your rankings to lift off into space. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment: it might take longer than you think. Why? Because in international SEO, rule number one is simple: patience is king!

While Google might swiftly pick up English-language content, the same can’t always be said for other languages. It might take Google a bit more time to suss out the intent of your pages in languages like German or Dutch. So, buckle up to embrace the waiting game. Give your optimisations the time they need – which is potentially more than in English speaking markets.

But – what if I don’t speak the language?

While having a native-speaking expert onboard is the golden ticket to SEO success in international markets, not every brand has that resource. There are steps you can take to maximise your efforts if you don’t have native speakers in your team:

  1. Scope out SERPs and competitors in relevant markets to identify keywords – Amazon SERPs can be a treasure trove for foreign keywords, if you need inspiration
  2. Use a relevant seed keyword list to spur growth, preferably taken from SEO tools that capture your language best
  3. Translate keywords in language groups, if possible. For instance, if you have Spanish and German speakers but lack an Italian or Dutch speaker, translate from Spanish to Italian or from German to Dutch, rather than translating everything from English
  4. If feasible, share your translated keyword list with an external native speaker for approval

To conclude

While having a native-speaking expert is ideal for International SEO success, it’s not always feasible for every brand and website. By following the steps outlined above, brands can still optimise their strategies efficiently. Ultimately, it is about being proactive and connecting with your local target audience, ensuring your efforts drive meaningful results.

If you need help with your International SEO efforts, get in touch with us today!

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Vicky Wilkes

Vicky Wilkes is an International SEO Strategist at Kaizen and works on our biggest accounts including Lego.

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