Penetrating international markets goes deeper than simple language translation. An international SEO strategy is what gets those users to land on your page in the first place. It acts as a guide to help search engines direct users to the right webpage for users in a specific country or who speak a particular language. 


If you serve customers in multiple countries or who speak different languages, international SEO implementation is a crucial step in attracting more traffic, building your brand and offering customers an optimum user experience with localized content that adapts to cultural differences. 


This article will familiarize you with the best practices to follow to execute successful international SEO, including how to structure and manage multiple global sites and languages.


What Is International SEO?

To generate traffic and serve relevant results in multiple countries, search engines must be able to understand which countries you’re targeting and which languages you do business in. Google does its best to provide the most relevant search results based on a searcher’s location and language.


It’s up to you to define and communicate those signals, starting with the approach you take to international SEO. Begin by connecting the dots between your company’s goals and the desired user experience. Then you can consider whether to optimize results by language, location or both.


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If the language your users speak is the most important factor in their user experience, language targeting might be the best approach. If the user’s country or region is the most relevant piece of the puzzle, you may choose to prioritize international SEO by country targeting, or geotargeting


For some companies, both factors play a role in delivering the most relevant content. They incorporate both language targeting and geotargeting. Ebay, for example, offers individual marketplaces in 23 different countries, so the ideal search results deliver the site that displays items available in the searcher’s area and in their local language.


International Technical SEO vs. International Content (Localization) SEO

Both international technical SEO and international content SEO are instrumental in telling the search engines which content is the most relevant for any given searcher.


International technical SEO manages how your site is crawled and indexed, which involves translating things like keywords, tags and meta descriptions to make sure all your domains, subdomains and languages rank appropriately in search engines. 


International content SEO, or localization SEO, is the process of translating your content for a specific location, going deeper than shifting from one language to another to ensure that you’re providing the language- and region-specific content that will resonate with your market. 


In addition to the cultural references and social norms you need to understand in these markets, you also need to learn the nuances of how they search for products or services and what search terms they use. In the U.S., for example, the term “auto” is the go-to search term in the automotive industry, whereas “cars” is used more frequently in the U.K. Time zones and currencies may come into play, particularly for e-commerce sites. Even color and image choices can elicit different responses in different markets. 


International SEO Structures

Consider not just who you’d like to target internationally, but what unique needs each of those targets brings to the table when they interact with your content to determine whether you want to prioritize location, language or both with your international SEO strategy.


The direction you choose will help determine the URL structure to adopt. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Some are better at targeting users in a defined region (all users in Italy), others are better for reaching speakers of a particular language (Italian speakers worldwide) or even a combination of factors (Italian speakers in France). These are the ones webmasters use frequently:


Country code top-level domain (ccTLD)

Two-letter codes tell search engines what country, state or territory a website is registered in. A top choice for targeting a specific country, not recommended for language targeting only.




International content goes in a specific subdirectory or subfolder of the root domain. This is currently the best practice for language targeting. 




International content goes on a “third-level domain” that can draw link equity from its root domain. A less effective choice, sometimes said to dilute the authority of root domains.



gTLD with language parameters

An appended URL parameter targets speakers of a particular language within a top-level domain like .com, .net or .org.



Unique domain

International content goes on its own root domain



A ccTLD structure could be the best option when you’re targeting a particular country, but you’ll need to use a different technique such as subfolders, subdomains or hreflang—either on their own or in conjunction with ccTLD—if language targeting is your priority.


Hreflangs, or language tags, are code snippets that indicate the relationships among your domains or among the pages on your site that are published in various languages. They’re typically used for organizing content by different languages, different regions that use the same language or multiple languages within a single region. Google uses hreflang attributes from page headers, HTTP headers and XML sitemaps to serve the right regional or language URLs in results based on users’ country and language preferences.


The hreflang tags may specify that another version of the content is available in Italian at the link you provide in the language tag. Remember that when you offer content in another language, you’ll need to ensure that everything from site navigation and content to support is available in the correct language. And keep in mind that location isn’t enough of a trigger to send a user to another site without asking first. There are plenty of reasons an English speaker might access your site from another country. 


International SEO Best Practices

Simply cloning your original site into multiple languages isn’t going to do you any favors, either with your international SEO or with the end user experience. That means you need to invest time and thought into how you develop and organize the content for each of your global sites. 


Incorporate transcreation rather than word-for-word translation of content, which often falls short for users. That means factoring in the intent, style, tone and context to convey your message as intended in the target language. This concept extends to imagery in addition to the text and is best left to native language speakers with a deep understanding of language and cultural nuances. 


For each of your sites, compare local calendars and timelines. You can’t take for granted that “back to school” season is the same in Japan as it is in France or that every country follows the same fiscal calendar. Are your busy seasons and purchasing cycles the same in each country? Do they celebrate different holidays, or celebrate the same holidays differently? Accommodate the differences and make sure you’re promoting the products and services that are most relevant to local buyers.


The same goes for understanding local buyers. A little digging might uncover that the people who purchase your products in one country have completely different demographics than those in another. The more you know about your target market, the better job you can do creating a site experience that resonates with them. That includes an awareness of where and how they search for your business. Google dominates internet search in the U.S. and many other countries, but users in other countries prefer different search engines and platforms to search for content. Do your research and watch your analytics for important trends to stay on top of international SEO.


Even as you develop the initial sites, plan for how you’ll manage content updates. Edits to your parent site in many content management systems can have a ripple effect that wipe out the content from localized sites–right down to the last title tag and meta description. And some content management systems automatically push new content from a parent site out to its offshoots, regardless of relevance. 


Empower your local teams to remove these extraneous pages with authorized CMS access that will also enable them to edit title tags, meta descriptions, links and site copy in a timely manner.


Content Cannibalization and Poor UX

Any time you’re managing multiple versions of site content, you need to pay careful attention to the risks of content cannibalization—presenting the same or similar content across multiple webpages. The consequence is that your site competes with itself across multiple pages for attention with the same keyword, leaving Google unable to determine which page offers the relevant content.


If search engines can’t differentiate between your geotargeted pages—a consequence of keyword and content cannibalization—those region-specific user experiences suffer. Unclear language and country distinctions send search engines the wrong signals, which can send searchers to the wrong content for their region. 


Proper hreflangs on your landing pages allow you to duplicate content across regions without cannibalizing your SEO. Many experts recommend that you localize keyword research and content according to intent. That applies to headers, metatags, image descriptions and all the key components of your landing page.


User experience (UX) matters–and it will begin to matter even more to your SEO when Google implements its page experience update in 2021. The new algorithm will rank sites on factors that determine UX using metrics it calls Core Web Values that include speed and usability metrics. Keep these impending updates on your radar as you consider how to direct users to the most relevant content as seamlessly as possible.


Partnering for International SEO Success

With international SEO relying on so many of these factors, it can be much easier and more cost-effective to enlist a partner who’s already mastered its intricacies. Conductor partners with Adapt Worldwide, a multilingual digital marketing agency that helps clients with the cultural adaptation of content across digital channels in more than 200 languages. Their digital and language services cover SEO, app store optimization, copywriting, transcreation, mobile, web and paid amplification. Conductor clients can access Adapt Worldwide services with request credits.


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