One of the untapped opportunities for many ecommerce brands is international SEO.
That said, as with most SEO strategies, it’s not always the easiest to execute and takes time to see the value of your effort.
Whether you already have dedicated international sites or are looking to take an opportunity to expand, I’ll show you everything we did to take a small UK brand and take it truly global.
I’ll answer questions like:
- How to get started with international SEO?
- Whether to use subfolders or subdomains for international SEO?
- How we localised content across 9 international sites?
- How we tested markets to know what would work?
- What the hell are hreflang tags and how do I implement them?
- How to localise your link building?
It’s worth noting that the examples featured here were for an ecommerce brand, but the same tactics can be applied across all types of sites.
Another quick caveat, the site was a custom-built platform and we were very lucky to have incredible in-house developers tackling our requests so were not limited with traditional platform restrictions (although custom builds come with their own set of issues).
Your exact approach to international SEO will depend on the needs and goals of your business as well as various factors including:
- Available resources
- Technical structure (CMS platform)
- The ambition of the business
- And many more.
It goes without saying that your business will need to be able to cope with international growth logistically (that’s a story for another day).
How to get started with international SEO
Before getting stuck in with international SEO, you need to ensure you have a clear strategy in place or you could end up lost in a sea of unfinished projects which can end up causing more harm than good.
To help decide where to begin with your international SEO strategy, you need to conduct research to understand the potential of your efforts.
You’ll need to determine whether:
- There is a demand for your products in international markets?
- How much competition there is for your product in those markets?
- What are the language differences in the market?
- What are the cultural differences in the market?
If you are looking at markets where the main language is the same as yours (aka you are based in the UK and you are researching the USA – both use the English language)) then you can do this yourself.
For markets with different languages, you’ll likely be able to do some basic research but it would definitely be worth enlisting the help of a native speaker to support some additional support around cultural and language differences.
The first place to look is your own data.
Look at your Google Analytics data and see where people are finding your website from. These will likely be potential candidates for markets to pursue as they are clearly searching for your products.
It’s also worth noting if any of these countries have particularly high conversion rates, in this situation they are showing a clear intent for your products and should be considered a priority on your international SEO efforts.
There are additional tools you can use to explore the opportunity for your products in international markets.
The Global Market Finder from Google can give a top-level view of the opportunities for your category of products. The example below is for a UK brand selling home decor and furniture.
Now you have a list of potential markets to dive into further it’s time to scope out your competition in the local market.
The simplest way to do this is to use a VPN and search for the keywords you’ll be targeting in these markets.
Who is ranking? Are they local competitors or are they, like you, international retailers?
What is their offering and how do they market themselves? Why is your product better than theirs? Crucially, if it’s not, make it so. Look at what they’re doing, and do it better: your website, USPs, strategy etc. all of these need to exceed theirs as they potentially have the advantage of being local.
For us, for resource purposes, we chose to target the USA and Australia first. Our key reasons for this:
- We didn’t have the resource to handle non-English enquiries
- We didn’t have the budget to translate our entire site
- There are consistent differences between UK and US English that we can build into our site
- The cultural differences are minimal so our communication strategy across the sites won’t need much changing
- We were able to charge the same price effectively making more margin per sale due to no VAT needing to be charged, this enabled us to offer more competitive shipping rates
- Competition in the US was higher, but the market much larger
- Competition in Australia was lower, despite the market being smaller
- We already had a few sales from these markets despite high delivery charges – so our products resonated with the local market
Creating Your International SEO Strategy
Now you’ve decided on your target markets you need to create your international SEO strategy, a deeper look into the organic opportunity within the market.
International Keyword Research
As with any SEO strategy, international or otherwise, your keyword research is a crucial starting point.
Targeting the wrong keywords will put a halt to your SEO efforts and result in your rankings and visibility remaining stagnant. Understanding variations in terms is key.
Even if the keywords are the same, you’ll need to review the difficulty of each SERP to determine how much effort you’ll need to put in to see rankings in your new target market.
Variations of keywords even across the same languages need to be considered, for example, pants in the US means underwear in the UK. Another example would be British consumers may search for the phrase “football boots,” an American looking for the same product may search for “soccer cleats.”
You need to do everything possible to ensure your keywords reflect the local market.
You will also need to keep in mind that simply translating your keywords, there are grammar considerations as well as some countries combine languages in popular searches.
Subdomains vs Subfolders vs ccTLDs
The URL structure of your international sites can have a big impact on the success of your international SEO strategy.
There are a few core methods such as:
- Using a country code top-level domain (ccTLD) – e.g. brand.fr
- Using subdomains off of your main domain – e.g. fr.brand.com
- Using subfolders on your main domain – e.g. brand.com/fr/
Each structure has its own pros and cons and the ideal solution for your business may depend on many factors such as the technical set up of your CMS and the cost of acquiring additional ccTLD domains.
We were originally on a ccTLD (.co.uk) as we were only targeting the UK market.
Most ccTLD’s were already taken for our brand name, so that wasn’t an option for us.
To expand globally we knew we needed to secure the .com of our domain name (brand.com).
We managed to purchase the domain and thus began our international journey.
Initially, we migrated the site from brand.co.uk to brand.com – I won’t go through the exact steps of this process in this guide. But we gave that a month, so any effects of the migration would settle before launching our international sites.
Due to technical limitations at the time, we had to launch on subdomains. So we had:
- www.brand.com – targeting the UK
- us.brand.com – targetting the USA
- au.brand.com – targeting Australia
When they first launched we didn’t have the capabilities to edit URLs, but we could edit category names, on-site copy and localise pages on-site to each market.
A few years later we changed from subdomains to subfolders which increased traffic by approximately 20%, I cover this later in the guide.
International Technical SEO & Geo-Targeting
Perhaps the best way to indicate which of your websites (whether using ccTLDs, subdomains or subfolders) is targeting what countries or languages is by using hreflang tags.
What are hreflang tags and how to use them?
These tags allow you to cross-reference pages with similar content for different audiences. As an example, hreflang tags will tell search engines that although the content is almost identical, one page or set of pages are for English in the USA, while others are for English speakers in the UK and other ones are to be served to English speakers in Australia.
There are some specific rules around setting up hreflang tags (see Google’s guide for full information), for example, each page on each site needs to have returning hreflang tags – so the homepage for each of our international sites need to have the same hreflang tags.
Now you obviously won’t have a dedicated site for every country in the world, so search engines introduced an extra hreflang tag called ‘x-default’. You use this to highlight which version of your site should be used in markets that aren’t included explicitly within the rest of your hreflang tags.
Additionally, within Google Search Console you can indicate which country your site should be targeting. This is currently within the legacy tools which haven’t made it over to the new feature set yet so it’s unclear whether this is a long term solution but in the man time definitely something to utilise.
Update September 2022. It is no longer possible to geo-target your site through Google Search Console.
If you have the ability to host each site on a server in its respective target market, you may see a slight boost in your chances of ranking within that market.
We were not able to do this and still saw impressive growth within international markets so it’s not a must-have but will likely benefit you if you can.
Translating & Localising Your Website
During my research for taking the brand international, one of my favourite quotes was:
Think GLOBAL. Act LOCAL
And this is something you need to consider throughout the localisation of your site. You have to remember that a user will land on your site and they won’t know (or care) where you are in the world, they just want your product.
As an ecommerce site, we had key pages we wanted to localise, with some presenting more difficulty than others.
Product pages and category pages were relatively straightforward, we had specific content areas where we could review and localised by site.
Some pages needed additional thought into them, customer service type pages such as returns, shipping, terms and conditions, etc all needed to have extra attention as we had different policies and prices in place so further work required to keep these all in line.
Our International SEO Journey
So I’ve taken you initially throughout the first steps of our international SEO strategy so far.
And the first 12 months, went pretty well…
With over 130% increase in traffic and 150% increase in sales.
Following these initial promising results, we doubled down and looked where else we could expand.
We followed very similar steps to determine which markets to pursue as outlined within the guide while taking learnings throughout.
The Rest of the International SEO Journey
Our international SEO journey expanded across many years and continued to grow and flourish.
From around 4% of sales coming from overseas, to over 60% coming from international sites within a few years.
How we continued to grow our international SEO…
Tested Different Markets through Google Ads
Through keyword research we undertook as part of the initial research phase of launching our international sites we were able to run small, targeted experiment campaigns in Google Ads to determine whether there was sufficient demand within potential markets.
We limited these to markets we had websites in the same language for. So to start with we run small campaigns across English speaking markets.
This allowed us to see if it would be worth investing a dedicated website a fuller SEO strategy behind these markets.
Launched Translated French Site
Distributing all our orders from the UK, shipping orders to France is relatively straightforward so following some localised research we decided to pursue this market.
We hired a dedicated native French-speaking Website Administrator, who handled everything from checking translations, customer service enquiries and supporting marketing campaigns within the market.
We used an API connection with Gengo (check out our case study here) which translated key parts of the site, product page copy, category page copy, etc. Additionally, we localised key pages such as delivery & returns ourselves to ensure a consistent brand voice.
Launched Translated German Site
Following the success of the French website, we looked to expand within Europe and tackle the largest opportunity of Germany.
Again we hired a dedicated German-speaking website administrator who essentially owned the experience of the site and also utilised Gengo to translate core parts of the site.
Germany also had a few extra cultural differences compared to markets we had launched in before, these included:
- A whole new look at payment methods. Within the UK and other markets we’d launched in credit cards were the overwhelmingly top payment method. However in Germany, this was not the case, instead they preferred invoice or direct debit based payments using SOFORT (acquired by Klarna).
- They also need additional clarification over your business details and look for an ‘Impressum’ which purely needs to disclose your real business name, address, contact information and CEO/Founder’s name.
We also realised after we’d launched the French site that there was potential PR opportunities in the UK from businesses growing internationally. I can’t currently find any coverage from our German launch, but here are some from our Belgium website launch.
Launched English-UAE targeted site
During the research phase, we discovered that a lot of Google searches within UAE were conducted in English, with it being spoken commonly as well as a lack of Arabic websites was the likely cause of this.
A quick duplication of the UK site, with some specific product restrictions and tailored content and we were up and running. We saw an almost immediate boost in traffic, revenue and conversion rate.
Launched English sites in New Zealand, Canada and Ireland
With the USA and Australian sites flying with year on year growth of over 200% for the first two years we thought we would attempt to tackle the smaller English speaking sites of New Zealand, Canada and Ireland.
Shipping wise these were very similar to locations we already shipped (Australia, USA, UK) so feasibility wise this was easy to set up.
With a few additional localisations we were live within a month and again saw some decent results.
Launched a French site targeting Belgium
The latest experiment we took from an international growth perspective was to utilise our French site targeting France to target French-speaking Belgians.
Now French is not the main language spoken in Belgium but is spoken by over 40% of the country. So this experiment was a risk to some degree as it has the potential to alienate the Dutch (Flemish) speaking majority of the country.
Early results were promising with only a couple of negative responses from visitors on-site who also wanted it in Flemish. Something to expand on in future.
Changed from subdomains to subfolders
The subdomain vs subfolder debate is pretty conclusive these days, with subfolders generally being perceived as the better option.
However, in almost every case study they show the moving of a blog from a subdomain to a subfolder and never an international site setup migration.
We moved all of our sites from a subdomain structure (e.g. au.brand.com) to a subfolder structure (brand.com/au/). We performed the standard migration checklist including mapping redirects, minimising any other changes going on at the same time.
There were no other changes made at the same time as the migration and almost immediately we saw an 20% bump in organic traffic, almost entirely from our international markets but also a slight bump in our core market of the UK as well.
International SEO does not need to be overcomplicated, often it means you roll out your existing strategy in new markets with the addition of a few additional aspects across the different pillars of SEO (hreflang in technical, translations within content, etc).
Are you in need of help with your international SEO strategy? Get in touch and start expanding your global SEO traffic today.