International SEO: 5 Things to Get Right

Zeph Snapp

You know the signs.  Maybe your company has started opening branches in other countries, you’ve seen an uptick in traffic from es-419 (Latin America), or maybe internationalization has become your CEO’s pet project.  No matter the reason, as an SEO your job becomes much more complicated (and interesting) when your company or client decides to go international.  Here are a few tips to make sure that your international venture is a success.

1)           Have a Plan



In Mexico, we have a saying: “Hombre prevenido, vale por dos”. Loosely translated it means, “A man who plans ahead is worth two”.  So before you do anything else, start with creating your action plan.  First, write out as much of the work that will need to be done as possible.  Prioritize the tasks, and secure the internal support you will need in order to get everything done.  Be sure to give yourself at least a 25% cushion when asking for resources, because it always takes longer/costs more than you initially think.

Then consider what will happen once the international site is completed.   What if someone actually contacts you through your foreign country sites?  Do you have distributors set up?  Who is going to answer emails?  Are you going to need a call center? You shouldn’t make huge investment before you get started, but be ready.

For SMB’s who are just venturing into the international sphere, we answer their phones for the first three months.  That is because the person who translated their website and is creating their marketing program is most qualified to help people at the beginning of the process.  This won’t work for everyone, but the point is that there are solutions that don’t involve spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Response times are very important internationally.  No matter the culture, the faster you respond, the more trust capital you will have gained.

2)           Do Your Keyword Research

This is probably the most challenging part of creating an international website, because it doesn’t depend on you.  Yes, you can use translation services to give you localized versions of your keywords, but how can you be sure that deliverables actually match searcher intent?  Considering that this will be one of the main building blocks of your international site (it will help determine your URL map, as well as metadata and content plans), you shouldn’t skimp.

First create a series of steps and filters like we did in this blog post about Spanish keyword research.  Then hire a local SEO company to follow your instructions.  Then hire a second company to verify the work.   Since we do a lot of keyword translation the review is something we do internally (shameless self-promotion), but most companies don’t go that extra mile.

If you are on a really tight budget, then use Elance or oDesk, but remember “lo barato te puede salir caro” (going cheap can be expensive).

3)           Subdirectories not Subdomains

For many companies, when you are brainstorming about ways to grow in the next quarter, decision-makers start out excited, but when you bring them cost, this is their reaction:



If you have a good sized budget, it is always best to purchase the TLD’s for the countries you plan to target and create great, unique content for each site.  But companies that don’t have the resources (or the C-level support) have to choose from between subdomains and subdirectories.

If you have a good sized budget, it is always best to purchase the TLD’s for the countries you plan to target and create great, unique content for each site.  But companies that don’t have the resources (or the C-level support) have to choose from between subdomains and subdirectories.

Aleyda Solis wrote a great article detailing the advantages and disadvantages of all three options so there is no need to go into great detail about the pros and cons, but suffice to say that we always recommend subdirectories.  They leverage the authority of your existing site, are easy for users (and programmers) to understand, and you can change the URL’s if necessary.

4)           Hreflang and Canonical

Getting this right is one of the more complicated aspects of international SEO.  If your international website is going to serve the exact same content to multiple countries (and therefore multiple search engines), then you need to implement the Hreflang tag to indicate to Google that this is not actually duplicate content.

We always advise that you localize content as much as possible, but for example if you are going to serve the same Spanish language content to all Latin American countries, but with a unique URL for each.  This is when you would want to implement the Hreflang tag.

In these cases it is best not to use the Canonical tag. As Dejan SEO states:

It’s best to utilise rel=”canonical” if the two pages are truly the same thing. If there are differences, even subtle, which may be relevant to region/language then it’s best not to canonisalise it in order to help Google serve the best content to the right type of audience.

Note: After writing this section I found an article that proposes an excellent solution to this problem.  Basically you can implement the =Hreflang from the sitemap.  Doing a happy dance!

5)           Translate The URL’s

Keeping your URL’s in English when translating the website can seem like the easiest way to go, but if you do you are missing out on one of the easiest ways to rank for your keywords.  Yes, exact match domains are losing ground, but one of the first lessons I learned in SEO was that you can’t rank for a keyword if it’s not on the page.  The URL is part of the content on our site, so why not signal to search engines that the keyword is important to you?

And if your keyword research is as good as it should be, you already have the source information that you need in order to create excellent localized URL’s.

These are just a few of the basics that need to be considered when starting an International SEO project.  Do you have any tactics that have worked for you in the past?  Also feel free to ask questions in the comments below, I’m always ready to help.

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