The Ultimate Guide to International SEO
With over half the world’s population online (that’s 4.2 billion people!), there’s a huge opportunity for your business to grow internationally, especially if you have a good product or service to offer.
International SEO can go hand-in-hand with other marketing channels. It can:
- help you expand your business on new markets.
- ensure that users searching for your business in Google will get the proper version (English-speakers in the US should get the US version; German-speakers in Germany should get the German version, etc).
However, international SEO is error-prone and can be tricky. In this article, I will go through all the stuff related to hreflang attributes, choosing the right domain structure, and lots LOTS more.
NOTE: The article is intended for both SEOs and business owners/managers. For better navigation, I have marked every section of the article with special icons, informing you if a section is intended for
or business owners
Let’s start by taking a look at some famous international SEO fails.
Target.com fails to target Mexico
Target.com ships to three countries: USA, Canada, and Mexico.
However, there is no Mexican (Spanish) version.
With only a small fraction (11.6%) of Mexicans speaking English, that’s really surprising. This means that Target provides a really poor user experience for nine out of ten Mexicans.
Target should at least translate strategic areas of their website if they care about Mexican customers. This would let them be visible in Google Mexico.
For now, they are barely visible in Google’s search results in Mexico.
Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer is a popular online retailer (over 10 billion pounds in revenue in 2017) and has a dedicated version for German users.
However, people from Germany typing “Mark Spencer” in Google receive the English version.
Why does this happen? I’ll explain it later in the article.
Amazon suffers from similar issues. Users searching from the United Kingdom or Canada commonly get results from the American version of Amazon.
What do users do in such a case? I created a poll to find out.
— Tomek Rudzki (@TomekRudzki) January 24, 2019
It seems Amazon loses a lot of money – users may click on the ads which can cost an arm and a leg.
Of course, users from the UK can switch to the British version. But, things aren’t as clear as that. Let me show you something interesting.
When you’re British logged on your Amazon account on your mobile phone and you’re trying to buy an ebook from Amazon.com, you get information that the ebook is currently not available for purchase…
This is a real SEO + UX problem that definitely should be addressed.
You are losing money, Amazon.
In this article, I will be revealing many more international SEO fails to let you avoid them.
Multiple language versions
What do Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Harley, and Disney all have in common?
They all started in a garage. And all of them successfully managed to go global. They were managed by people with passion and vision of growth. And now they are some of the most recognizable brands in the world.
— Sᴀɴɪ Lᴇɪɴᴏ (@SaniLeino) October 2, 2016
Let’s imagine Microsoft selling Windows only to Americans. If it was the case, Bill Gates definitely wouldn’t become the richest man in the world.
Globalization is a huge opportunity for many businesses.
Please note: I don’t recommend you blindly targeting all possible languages and countries. Instead, you should do proper market research and then, backed with data, decide which markets are worth investing in.
SEO Advantages of a multilingual website
What is the main language spoken in the United States? Of course, it’s English. Over 230 million speakers.
However, did you know that 37 million people in the US speak Spanish as their primary language at home? That’s a really impressive number!
You might be thinking, “But they live in the United States, so they can speak English fluently.”
Well, the Google search engine strongly personalizes search results. Google tries to show you results relevant to your language and location.
Kinsta, a WordPress hosting website, observed that translating their blog into twelve different languages caused an 18% increase in the overall organic traffic.
Better User Experience
Another pro of having a multilingual website is a better UX experience. If you want to do a business expansion on, let’s say, the Spanish market, and people notice that you created a professionally translated, dedicated version for them and have a strong local presence (local shops etc.), it can increase:
- conversion rates.
- the time spent on the site and reduce the bounce rate.
- people’s trust.
Of course, you should do proper market research and analyze if entering a particular market will have a positive impact on ROI.
Let Google understand your international structure
I assume that you have a website with multiple languages versions.
How does Google determine which version to show English-speaking people in the UK? And which version to show Spanish people in the USA?
Well, Google takes many different factors into account, as shown in the graphic below (based on this info):
As you can see, Google attempts to “predict” which market you want to target based on factors like domain extension, local language and currency.
However, to avoid confusion, it’s possible to explicitly instruct Google which language/country you want to target by specifying hreflang tags.
“Note that even without taking action, Google might still find alternate language versions of your page, but it is usually best for you to explicitly indicate your language- or region-specific pages.” (Emphasis mine!)
Choosing the best domain structure
Now, it’s time to choose the proper domain structure for your SEO. This is a really important aspect of international SEO.
There are a lot of possible choices. You have to decide:
- if you want to use separate domains for different countries/regions (like Amazon and Google).
- if you want to use a single global domain (like Ikea or Nike).
- if you want to use subdomains (like Wikipedia).
Choosing the best structure is not always easy, but I hope the following summary will be helpful for you.
|Separate domains for every country|| Amazon.com|
|Multiple subdomains under a single global domain|| En.wikipedia.org|
|Subdirectories on a single global domain (TLD)|| Netflix.com/de|
|URL parameters|| instagram.com/?hl=en|
Which version do you choose?
There is no one-to-fit-all rule. As you can see, there are many successful companies around the world and they have implemented various structures.
Depending on the situation, I usually recommend one of these two variants:
- one strong global domain for all languages.
- separate domains for every country.
But it’s not a golden rule. There may be some valid cases for using different variants, like subdomains.
If you’re interested in choosing the best domain structure, I recommend you watching Aleyda Solis’ Crawling Monday:
What I don’t recommend is using a single country-code top-level (ccTLD) domain across all the markets.
Why? Let’s say you have a very successful restaurant chain in the UK. You already have the restaurant.co.uk domain and want to expand to Germany.
It may be natural for you to take advantage of this domain and simply create restaurant.co.uk/de, which is intended for people located in Germany.
But hold on! That’s not the best idea:
- People living in Germany will simply think that restaurant.co.uk/de is not intended for them. Chances are great that they will classify it as the GERMAN language version of the British restaurant. You would lose a lot of clients.
- It’s bad for your SEO efforts. You will simply miss the opportunity to have a ranking boost in Germany through Geotargeting in GSC.
Basics of hreflang tags
Let’s get straight to business and discuss hreflang tags.
Let’s assume you have a website with multiple language versions:
- German (example.com/de)
- American English (example.com/us)
- British English (example.com/gb)
How do you ensure that users from different countries or people speaking different languages get the proper version in Google?
To do so, it’s recommended to explicitly inform Google about multiple language versions by specifying hreflang tags.
Many people feel that hreflang tags are one of the most difficult topics in SEO. But don’t worry, I will try my best to explain it in plain words so that everyone can understand it.
As a bonus, I will show you the common issues related to it.
Let’s do it!
OK, let’s start with something basic.
One of the easiest ways to tell Google about your language versions is inserting hreflang attributes to the head section of your page:
For instance, if you want to target English-speaking people in Canada (most Canadian citizens), you can place the following code in the head section of your page:
Let’s talk about the values of hreflang attributes. They consist of two parts:
- Language (required!). It should follow the ISO 639-1 format.
- Country (optional); it should comply with the ISO 3166-1 format.
Using hreflang attributes, you can target all English speaking users (hreflang=”en”). But, of course, if you have a dedicated version for English-speaking people living in Australia, you can target them by using hreflang “en-au”.
Examples of hreflang implementation
| You’re targeting English and Spanish languages.|
It’s a strong hint for Google that /en contains the content intended for English-speaking people (doesn’t matter if they are in the UK, US, or Canada.
Similarly, you can target /es for all the Spanish-speaking people.
| Indicates that |
However, if you offer services to English-speaking people from countries like Canada, Australia, this setup doesn’t cover it.
| Indicates that: |
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/”
|“Catch all” for all non-matches|
Catching all speakers of a particular language
Let’s imagine you have two versions of your website:
- example.com/us for the English-speaking people living in the US.
- example.com/uk for English-speaking people living in the UK.
What about English-speaking people living in Canada, Australia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Spain and the other 188 countries in the world?
If you want to target them, you can add a generic “en” hreflang:
Catch them all
What if your hreflang implementation doesn’t cover ALL languages and countries?
Then you can use an x-default hreflang.
Here is a sample implementation:
Where to implement hreflang tags
The head section of a page is not the only place where you can implement hreflang attributes. Alternatively, you can add them to:
- HTTP headers, or
Which type of hreflang implementation should I use?
It’s arbitrary. Google claims all of these methods are created equal.
(If your experience proves otherwise, share it via Twitter or in the comments. I would be happy to hear your feedback!)
Everything depends on what is the easiest to implement and maintain for you and your developers.
I created a Twitter poll. It seems implementing it in the head section of HTML page is the easiest to accomplish for developers.
Which method of implementation of hreflang tags the developers find the easiest?
— Tomek Rudzki (@TomekRudzki) December 27, 2018
Of course, you should use just one method at a time. Using more methods is not recommended, as it can lead to unexpected and difficult to debug errors.
Note: Yandex and Google are currently the only search engines supporting hreflang tags. Yandex accepts only hreflang tags implemented in HTTP headers and head section. For more information, visit the section The world beyond Google.
Hreflang nuances: how to implement hreflang attributes in the mobile-first world
Google switching to mobile-first indexing added more complexity to SEO setups. I can see a lot of questions asked by SEOs and webmasters about the proper implementation of hreflang tags on the mobile versions of their websites.
As Google’s John Mueller recommends, you should implement hreflang attributes between the pages in the same format (AMP-AMP, desktop-desktop, mobile-mobile):
“In general, the hreflang tags should be between the same format pages. So if you have separate AMP pages, then the hreflang links would be between those AMP pages. If you have separate mobile pages, the hreflang links would be between those mobile pages.”
If it still doesn’t make sense to you, AmpByExample.com created a straightforward diagram that will help you understand it.
Most common issues with hreflang tags
Mistake: missing… hreflang tags
As discussed previously, hreflang tags are a strong hint for Google on which language version to show in Google search results.
Everything points to KFC.com having some issues with language targeting due to missing hreflang tags. Their United States branch has their website in two languages: English and Spanish.
But when Spanish-speaking people type the query “KFC” in Google, they only get the English version.
- First of all, to the best of my knowledge, KFC.com doesn’t use hreflang tags.
- Secondly, Google may treat espanol.kfc.com as a separate entity. In general, Google tries to be reserved when it comes to subdomains. That’s because they can be managed separately by different ventures.
Things get weirder when a Spanish user searches for “KFC” in San Jose, California. They get…KFC from other countries.
Without access to Google Search Console, no one can be 100% sure that a website has no implemented hreflang tags. There is a small possibility that a website implemented hreflang attributes on non-publicly listed sitemaps.
When it comes to KFC, they have no hreflang tags in any publicly available sources, including their sitemap: http://www.kfc.com/sitemap.xml.
Mistake: missing return links
Let me quote Google’s documentation on localized versions: “If page X links to page Y, page Y must link back to page X. If this is not the case for all pages that use hreflang annotations, those annotations may be ignored or not interpreted correctly.”
Remember, hreflang tags should be bidirectional.
Do you want an example of a website suffering from missing return hreflang tags?
Remember my Marks & Spencer example from the beginning of this article? They don’t use bidirectional hreflang links to distinguish their English and German readers.
Germans are presented with the English version when they should, of course, be getting the German version.
Mistake: using only the country code (without specifying language)
Actually, you can target a language only, but you can’t target a country without specifying a language.
|It’s OK||It’s not OK|
| hreflang=”En” (language)|
hreflang=”en-GB” (language – country)
hreflang=”en-US” (language – country)
| hreflang=”GB” (country)|
Side note: If you want to have a boost in a particular country, you can set geotargeting in Google Search Console.
Mistake: Trying to catch whole regions (like Latin America with the hreflang attribute es-la)
For the most part, Google doesn’t support regions in hreflang attributes.
- Not providing links to other language versions. Users should be able to switch language versions when Google leads them to the wrong version.
- Pointing to non-canonical pages via hreflang tags. For the most part, Google will simply ignore hreflang tags pointing to a non-canonical page.
- Using an improper language/country code. Hreflang attributes should follow strict rules.
False friends while implementing hreflang tags
Hreflang tags are very tricky and error-prone. It’s very easy to make a mistake.
Let’s talk about one of the most misunderstood: the “es-la” attribute of hreflang.
Sounds legit. Spanish in Latin America, right?
Well, not exactly.
By specifying hreflang=”es-la” you are targeting Spanish-speaking people in…Laos. I’d guess this isn’t what you set out to achieve.
It’s the subject of many SEO jokes:
Let me show you an example of a website making this mistake: Seagate.com.
However, when the users type in Google “Seagate”, they get the English version when they should be seeing the Spanish version.
Why? That’s because they use the “es-la” attribute of hreflang.
But there are many more false friends you can “meet” while defining values of hreflang attributes:
|Hreflang attribute||What you think it is||What it actually is|
|es-pa||Spanish in Paraguay||Spanish in Panama|
|es-pr||Spanish in Paraguay||Spanish in Puerto Rico|
|eu||Europe||“Eu” is Euskara-Basque Language|
|kr-kr||Korean in Korea||Kanuri in Korea|
|cz-cz||Czech in Czechia||–|
|ru-be||Russian in Belarus||Russian in Belgium|
|cr-cr||Croatian in Croatia||Cree in Costa Rica|
|EN-IR||English in Ireland||English in Iraq|
|fr-Mo||French in Monaco||French in Macau|
|ne-NE||Nepali in Nepal||Nepali in Niger|
|sr-SR||Serbian in Serbia||Serbian in Suriname|
|en-UK||English in Great Britain||Nothing. Google tries to treat it as “English in Great Britain”, but it’s not guaranteed.|
You see, it can be really tricky 🙂
Remember: before implementing hreflang tags, always check if the implementation is valid.
As a reminder: please keep in mind that the hreflang value consists of two parts:
- Language (required field, in ISO 639-1 format)
- Country (non-obligatory, should follow the 3166-1 Alpha 2 format).
The order of these values matter! “En-gb” is fine, but “gb-en” isn’t.
How to remember all of the possible values of hreflang tags
You can do something similar to Booking.com. They simply add an additional annotation to hreflang attributes, clearly indicating their purpose.
Google will simply ignore these attributes, but I bet they heavily help the SEOs of Booking.com.
To ensure you use the correct language/country codes, you can use the spreadsheet I prepared. Feel free to copy it.
Not every search engine support hreflang tags
I think now you have a good understanding of the basics of international SEO for Google.
Some search engines don’t support hreflang attributes. Instead, they require you to use HTML meta language tags.
You should be aware of it if Bing or Baidu are responsible for the majority of your traffic.
Correct hreflang implementation
When you’re dealing with international SEO, you have to ensure that your hreflang implementation is correct.
Of course, you don’t need to check it by hand, there are dedicated tools available, such as:
- International Targeting report in Google Search Console
- Google Analytics
- Hreflang Checker by Merkle
- SEO crawlers
Let’s look at these tools in more detail.
International Targeting report
The first tool that can show you if you have any issues with hreflang attributes is the International Targeting report in Google Search Console.
The chart above shows that Google encountered some hreflang errors in the case of one of our clients. This allowed us to see the problem and quickly fix it.
Hreflang Tag Checker (Chrome extension)
I strongly recommend using Hreflang Tag Checker (Chrome extension). It can quickly show you information about the hreflang attributes used on a page. As a bonus, it will inform you if the hreflang attributes are bidirectional. If they aren’t, Google may simply ignore them (as discussed in this article).
Hreflang Checker by Merkle
If you want to quickly ensure that hreflang attributes are implemented properly on a given page, you can also use a tool created by the folks from Merkle.
The tools above work fine with a single page.
However, if you want to ensure that hreflang implementation is proper on a bigger sample, you have to use SEO crawlers. Make sure the SEO crawler of you choice supports hreflang tags.
Simulating search results
It’s not a mystery that Google strongly personalizes the search results, based on factors such as location, language and user history.
So users from the UK will simply get different results than users from the US.
What if you want to simulate search results from the US or any other country?
The easiest method is to simply edit the search parameters for your Google query.
The “hl” parameter in Google.com is for language, while “gl” is responsible for location.
How do you use it?
Type https://www.google.com/?hl=es&gl=us and simply change “es” for your language and “us” for your country. There you go!
Alternatively, you can use VPNs like NordVPN or ExpressVPN.
To ensure the simulation is done properly, please use incognito mode in your browser 🙂
Another way of simulating search results in a different location is to use Network sensors built in Chrome Dev Tools.
It is the only tool that allows you to simulate ANY location.
Google Ad preview
In addition, you can use Google Ad Preview.
Using this tool, you can emulate a combination of:
- Any location
- Any language
Be careful though! I noticed a few bugs, like Google Ad Preview sometimes showing the search results for your REAL localization. Click here to see the evidence If you are working on something important, make sure you combine Google Ad Preview with more reliable tools.
To let you easily understand the differences between these tools, I created a comparison table.
| Editing search parameters|
|Google Ad Preview||limited|
International targeting report in Google Search Console to boost ranking
In addition to implementing hreflang tags, you can set International Targeting in Google Search Console.
But what’s the point in using it if there are hreflang attributes implemented? Well, they are supplementary.
This was explained quite well by John Mueller from Google:
“Generally, what happens with geotargeting is that we promote the site (or part of the site — it needs to be clearly separated through a subdomain or subdirectory) when users in that country search for local content. With hreflang there’s no promotion or demotion involved, it just takes the rankings as they’d normally appear, and tries to swap out the URLs according the the [sic] best-matching hreflang version.”
So setting geotargeting (in the Google Search Console’s International Report) can give you an additional boost.
However, Google claims you shouldn’t use this tool if you want to target users in different locations.
Things to avoid in international SEO
Forgetting about the users
What do KFC and McDonald’s in countries like Italy, Spain, Germany and France have in common?
The answer is simple. They don’t offer their websites in English.
When I am an English-speaking tourist in Germany and I want to order online, McDonald’s and KFC require me to know German.
I believe that English is a standard these days, but it doesn’t appear to be the case in the fast food industry. That’s weird.
Avoid GEO-based redirection
If you have a website intended for three languages like English, French, and German, and if you redirect by IP, Googlebot will be able to reach only the English version (because it crawls mainly from the US). In such a case, the French and German versions will simply be invisible for Google.
Although you can add an exception and redirect everybody except Googlebot, technically it’s cloaking, at least according to Matt Cutts, former Head of Spam at Google.
For those who are not familiar what cloaking is, here is an excerpt from the official Google documentation:
You can also think about detecting the user browser language by checking the Accept-Language HTTP header. But, again, Google’s language is English, so it would be impossible to serve Googlebot non-English content without the risk of being penalized.
Additionally, Geo redirecting users makes it really difficult for debugging.
If all users are being redirected, it’s more difficult for developers to access various language versions and spotting errors. Also, it’s more difficult for SEOs to ensure that the implementation works fine.
Besides, it seems that unjustified automatic redirects are illegal in the European Union as of the 3rd of December 2018.
Last November I reported that the EU will soon make forced geoIP redirects illegal https://t.co/7x0uJujjZk
Soon = 3rd December 2018 https://t.co/Jqlgws64zj
— Stephen Kenwright (@stekenwright) June 4, 2018
TL;DR: Google suggests they can crawl outside of the United States. But it’s not entirely true.
In Google’s documentation, there is a suggestion that Google crawls from outside of the United States.
It suggests that you can block Googlebot from the US, but allow Googlebot from Australia.
No, you can’t.
I’ve been collecting Googlebot’s IP and it turned out that all the IPs (5K+) come from the US.
If you block Googlebot appearing from the US, Google will simply not be able to access your content.
It’s as simple as that.
Recently, there was an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit with Gary Illyes, a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst. As far as he knows, Google doesn’t crawl from Australia.
Don’t serve multiple languages on the same URL
The first rule you should follow: use separate URLs for every language/regional version.
The reason is simple: if you don’t, Google will pick only one language.
As you probably know, Canada has two official languages:
- English – (spoken by 58% of Canada’s population).
- French (spoken by 21% of the population).
21% is kind of a big deal so many websites try to translate their content to French.
The same could be said for Costco ($129 billion revenue in 2017). Can you believe that Google cannot see their content written in French?
That’s because they have English and French content living on the same URL.
Google accesses it and gets only the English version.
But of course, Costco isn’t the only company which makes such a mistake.
|Can users find the French version in Google?||Why?|
|Costco.ca has two languages: French and English||Users can’t find the French version in Google.||Costco makes the mistake of serving multiple languages on a single URL. In such a case, Google can access only one language.|
|Kayak.com/ca has two languages: French and English||Users can’t find the French version in Google.||The same as above.|
|Kia.ca has two language versions: French and English||Users can’t find the French version in Google.||The same as above.|
The takeaway is clear: if you have multiple language versions, let Google access them by using separate URLs for each version.
Is Google geotargeting working fine? Checking misaligned languages
- German users want to get the German version in Google.
- French users want to get the French version.
- English users want to get the English version.
That’s the simplest and most important rule of international SEO.
If users don’t receive the proper version you can lose a lot of money (for instance, users can visit your competitors’ website instead of yours).
Sometimes it happens that Google misaligns your language versions. How can you detect it then? Well, you have a few possibilities…
Audience analysis in Google Analytics
In order to check if you’re reaching the proper audience, it’s a good idea to check The Language/Location reports in Google Analytics.
Below, I am presenting some screenshots from this tool to get familiarized with it.
The Language report:
The Location report:
If I was to choose just one tool to check misaligned languages, I would go with Google Analytics, but there are other options worth exploring, like:
- Ahrefs organic traffic report – top countries
- URL changes report in Sistrix
- Google Search Console
A summary table:
|Geo reports in Google Analytics|| Check: ||Google Analytics is free of charge.|
|Ahrefs||Check which countries are “responsible” for most of the organic search traffic.||You have to have an active subscription for Ahrefs.|
|URL Changes report in Sistrix||Use this tool to check if Google switches language versions of your website.||You have to have an active subscription for Sistrix.|
|Google Search Console||Check in which countries your website has a lot of impressions, but high bounce rate, or very low CTR.||Free.|
Let users easily change the language
Having an international website means you will have to deal with an international audience living in various countries, speaking different languages.
It may happen that Google will present the users the wrong language version. In such a case, you shouldn’t let your potential clients get lost on your website. Instead, you should let your users easily change the language.
Bad practice: having “invisible” language/region switcher
In Europe, websites have to inform users about the usage of cookies, just like SevillaFC.es does.
However, their information about cookies covers up the language settings. Oops 🙂
Another example of a website making it really difficult to change the language is AT&T.
You have to scroll down the website and find the proper link and it’s easy to overlook it.
Feels like a game of Capture the Flag.
Examples of good practices
Fortunately, there are many websites that allow users to easily change the language.
Wikipedia is a good example. When you visit Wikipedia.org, you can easily choose the language that suits you:
They even go deeper; for tons of articles, you can quickly switch their language version.
When Apple detects you’re probably accessing the wrong version, they recommend you switching to the proper one, as presented in the screenshot below.
Bonus: How big companies deal with international SEO!
I was curious about how internal teams of big brands deal with International SEO.
So I asked the SEO Managers of Khan Academy, Omio, and Mozilla.
For me, it’s a vault of information. Please note, all emphasized answers in bold are by me.
Contributor: Anthony D. Nelson
Role: Senior SEO Manager, Khan Academy
- What is the role of SEO in your business? How has SEO helped in the global expansion?
SEO allows Khan Academy to help millions of learners. We want to be visible at the top of the search results when a moment of curiosity strikes, you are completing an assignment from your teacher, or studying for a test. Having high search visibility is important for Khan Academy because it allows us to build our brand and build trust through familiarity. In turn, brand awareness and trust help us thrive as nonprofit. We are a 501c3 that relies upon donations from foundations, corporations and individuals around the world.
- What issues has your company faced while expanding globally? How did you manage them (it can be SEO or business-related)?
Our site architecture is currently set-up to support language targeting in search through using subdomains for each language. As we continue to grow internationally and expand our content offering, we will need to make improvements to better target both language and country and ensure learners land on the best possible piece of content for them. We continue to invest in tools to make it possible for Khan Academy to be localized for learners and teachers globally. Outside the US, we’re particularly focused on growing Khan Academy’s reach and impact in India, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru.
As we grow, localizing content for international audiences will require additional resources. There are technical hurdles to further support localized content; from small stuff with our CMS (e.g. properly handling different math formatting in different locales) to larger site architecture changes to better support the crawling and targeting of localized content.
- What opportunities did you take advantage of while expanding globally? How did SEO help to increase your company’s chance of success?
The majority of our users discover Khan Academy from the search results. We’ve had users from all over the world discover Khan Academy and want to support our mission to provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere. They want to get involved in helping us make this content available globally. As a result, we have a fantastic team of international volunteers who help make our content accessible in dozens of languages. Today we’re available in 36 languages and 190 countries. Khan Academy would not have its existing level of global reach without the efforts of these valued volunteers.
Omio (formerly GoEuro)
Contributor: Nitin Manchanda
Role: Global Head of SEO, Omio
- What is the role of SEO in your business? How has SEO helped in the global expansion?
SEO is one of the key traffic drivers for us. It’s a demand based channel and goes hand in hand with global expansion strategy. We plan to enter in new markets where we see some demand and then SEO helps us capture that. Also, if we’re not present in a market but see people finding us somehow on search engines and finding our product useful, this gradually builds the business expansion case for us with the local touch 🙂
- What issues has your company faced while expanding globally? How did you manage them (it can be SEO or business-related)?
Localisation is the biggest ask. If you plan to enter in a new market, make sure you’re supporting local language, currencies etc. Without the local touch, you can never think about winning that market. That’s where we’re learning with time and trying to improve ourselves.
There can also be some country specific guidelines, like we have a lot of them for Chinese market for examples which can sometimes block you for an indefinite time.
- What opportunities did you take advantage of while expanding globally? How did SEO help to increase your company’s chance of success?
SEO is definitely the most crucial channel to define any product’s success story, as you can just put money all the time to generate more traffic. We are actually in a not-so-easy battlefield as we support multiple transport modes and almost everything that makes your travel easy, but that on the other hand helps us learn a lot from different local competitors on what’s working for them in the market and what not.
A company moves quicker to success if their unit economics is right, and SEO provides a lovely balance there with all other marketing channels to promote the product in new market.
Mozilla – head of SEO
Contributor: Raphael Raue
Role: Global Head of SEO, Mozilla
First of all I have to say that Mozilla is not an ordinary company and therefore some things are a bit different here. Mozilla is the not-for-profit behind browsers like Firefox, apps, code and tools that put people before profit. It’s all in service of our mission which is to keep the internet open and accessible to all.
The breadth of that mission can be overwhelming. Making it easy for as many people around the world to discover a superior browser experience with Firefox is a big part of my job, but Mozilla provides best in class products for Developers and even drives critical policy conversations. The puzzle that I’m constantly trying to solve is how I connect all those audiences to the larger idea and promise of Mozilla; how do I help us tell our story at every customer touchpoint?
Firefox, our best-known product and one of the most popular browsers worldwide, is available in over 90 languages and anyone who has ever been involved with international SEO knows this adds complexity. We still operate on a very decentralized model, too, and I’m always working with our global open source community to make local content understandable for crawlers.
But with every difficulty comes great opportunity and so I’m lucky to be working with so many contributors worldwide. Whenever something in our hreflang is broken or incorrectly implemented, it’s not uncommon for someone in the community to submit a bug before one of my tools has brought it to my attention. We still have a lot of work to do but we are quite happy with our international SEO. Of course, it helps to have some strong domains that really have inlinks from almost every country in the world. Properly managed this is a dream for every SEO.
Now it’s time to cover business-related matters related to translation and local differences.
Don’t go crazy with separate versions for every language/location
Having multiple language versions can bring you a few advantages.
However, it increases the complexity of your project and the cost of maintenance, etc.
Gearbest.com offers shipping to 250 countries, so having a website in every possible language would be overkill for them.
I noticed that Swedish people can buy from Gearbest, but there is no Swedish version of the interface.
Should Gearbest offer a Swedish version? I don’t think so.
- Sweden is an economically advanced country. They most likely don’t frequently visit websites like Gearbest (Maybe?).
- More importantly, most Swedish people speak English perfectly.
It’s clear that Gearbest doesn’t need to have a Swedish language version. Of course, they can offer their services to Swedish, but they simply don’t need to create a separate language version for them. Instead, they can focus on translating their content for more strategic markets.
As a business owner/business manager, you have to do proper market research and decide which markets are worth investing in.
I asked Robin Rozhon, a SEO Strategist at Electronic Arts, how they deal with prioritizing markets. He replied:
“Translating all editorial content to a large number of languages is not always the most efficient usage of localization budget so creating guidelines to when and how to localize can positively impact ROI.”
You have to know when to localize and when to fold together
Let’s go a little bit deeper and look at the SEO aspects.
Let’s imagine you have a successful business in the United States. And now, you’re thinking about expanding to European countries, offering your services only in English. Then you need to decide whether to
- have a separate version of your website for each country.
- create only one version of your website, intended for European users.
If you don’t differentiate your services across countries in Europe, I would go with a single region version.
Why? Because it can bring you SEO benefits.
Every language/region version works on its own. As confirmed by Gary IIIyes, ranking signals aren’t passed within the hreflang cluster.
Let me show you an example of a website going crazy with all the language versions. It’s AllBeauty.com. Can you imagine they have…1200 hreflang attributes?
Keep in mind that all of these language variations work on their own and don’t share any signals to the strongest version in the hreflang cluster. AllBeauty may be losing their SEO potential.
As John Mueller said, you have to know when to localize and when to fold together 🙂
Be careful about local-specific things
Summer in the USA? It’s winter in Australia
Imagine you want to start a summer promo.
So you start the promo in June, announcing “Summer offer – deals 50%!” in all English-speaking countries. Did you know that it’s winter in Australia?
Next. Valentine’s Day is on February 14, isn’t it?
But not in Brazil.
New Year’s is on the 1st of January, right?
Russians use the Julian Calendar. When it’s the 7th of January in the European calendar, they start celebrating the New Year. In addition, the Chinese New Year is on February 5.
Different sizes of clothes
Australia, Japan, the US, the UK and the EU all have different sizes for clothes and shoes.
Differences between American English and British English
There are some obvious differences between American English and British English.
|American English||British English|
Also, there are some cultural differences you have to know before entering a particular market.
- There are over 500 million vegetarians in India. It dramatically impacts local restaurants.
- Even a universal sign such as thumbs-up (“Okay” or “I agree” can be interpreted in the opposite way in countries or regions like Afghanistan, South America, the Middle East and even in parts of Italy and Greece).
- Russians believe that odd numbers bear misfortune.
- In the US and Europe, when stocks go up, it’s marked green. When it goes down, it’s marked red. Whereas it’s the opposite in China.
- Speaking of confusing color symbols: If you wrap a box in white in Japan, it means death.
- Chinese people like drinking coffee in the afternoon. It’s different from Europeans who prefer to drink it in the morning.
- Arabic people read from right to left.
Consider that last point.
That’s over 280 million people! What does that mean for you?
Well, if you have a massive Arabic audience, you should consider reorganizing your UX for them.
European and Americans expect the most important content to be on the left side. In contrary, Arabic users expect it to be on the right side.
But, it’s not as easy as that. For more info, read Designing for the Arab User — Basic Arabic UX for Business.
Let me share the story of eBay.com, an undisputed global leader in the E-commerce market.
They entered the Chinese market by acquiring EachNet.com in 2002. eBay had huge aspirations. “Ten to 15 years from now, I think China can be eBay’s largest market on a global basis,” said Meg Whitman, eBay’s CEO.
But eBay failed to conquer China. It was simply outperformed by a local competitor, Taobao.com.
I may be oversimplifying it, but for me, it’s the perfect case of a global company that simply didn’t respond to the local users needs.
- First of all, Taobao.com designed its categories in the typical friendly structure of a Chinese department store. eBay didn’t make any adjustments and relied on the global category structure.
- Taobao offered live chat between customers and sellers (this was 2002, seventeen years ago!)
- Taobao didn’t charge for transactions, so people simply started moving from eBay to Taobao. In that time, Taobao didn’t intend to be profitable. It was intended to force eBay to leave the China market.
- Taobao offered buyers insurance in the case of fraud.
- eBay wasn’t successful in introducing online payments to their platform in China.
But, needless to say, eBay had a really tough competitor. It was not Taobao though, but rather Alibaba, the owner of Taobao and Aliexpress.
“eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River,” said Jack Ma, the CEO of the Alibaba Group. “If we fight in the ocean, we lose – but if we fight in the river, we win.”
It was not only eBay who failed in China. In fact, many successful international brands often fell in markets like China.
Definitely, SEO can help you gain traffic from search engine users, but to be successful in the international market, you need to do your best on the business level.
“Localisation is the biggest ask. If you plan to enter in a new market, make sure you’re supporting local language, currencies etc. Without the local touch, you can never think about winning that market.” – Nitin Manchanda, Global Head of SEO at Trivago.
Can I use automatic translation services to rank in Google?
That’s a really tricky (and frequently asked) question.
Since 2010 Google warns:
“It could also be used by sites that are legitimately providing translations on a website and they just start with like the auto-translated version and then they improve those translations over time.”
“So that’s something where I wouldn’t necessarily say that using translated content like that would be completely problematic but it’s more a matter of the intent and kind of the bigger picture what they’re doing. If they’re essentially just spinning content and hoping that it ranks, then that would be more of a problem for us.”
Apart from how Google treats it: ask yourself if your business can afford automatically translated content without human review or curation.
Of course Google Translate is getting better, but would you let it talk to your clients?
The choice is yours 🙂
My mother tongue is Polish and I have seen many international websites with terribly translated Polish.
Usually, I quit such websites because I don’t feel I can trust them. And I am not the only one.
At Onely, we operate on the global market. For our small but humble team, we have one full-time native speaker. He works in-house to ensure that he isn’t just a random proofreader who doesn’t understand our business.
This way, we can ensure that the documents we prepare are free (hopefully!) of English errors.
But, for many businesses, it would be overkill. If you just need to translate your static website into another language, you can outsource it to a specialized company.
Don’t just copy the content across multiple markets – Google may eventually treat them as duplicates
Let’s say you have a website in the US and in the UK. The language is ~the same, so why not just copy the content from the UK version to the US?
Well, Google is officially fine with this, if you use hreflang attributes.
But in practice, even when hreflang attributes are in place, Google may classify it as duplicate content and simply fold two or more versions together.
Mixing up the British version with the American version may not be catastrophic.
However, we had some cases where Google was showing an African version for British users. The conversions dropped massively.
Maria Cieślak, our Head of Technical SEO, covered this topic in her article published on Search Engine Land:
“If you decide to publish the same content on both the German and Austrian versions of your site, Google may have problems with understanding what the relationship between them is. Even hreflang markup may not help, and Google will combine these URLs together.”
We strongly recommend you localizing your content, at least for strategic markets.
Remember: localize, and not translating or copying the content across different versions.
To make the article even more valuable for both SEOs, business owners and managers, I tried to collect the most important questions in one place and answer them in a sentence of two, referring to the proper sections of the article.
Here you go!
What are the advantages of having multiple language/region versions?
It should be obvious. You can get a wider audience (through SEO or other channels). Can you imagine that KFC and McDonald’s don’t have English versions in countries like Italy, Spain, Germany, and France? I was shocked too.
How do you ensure Google can understand your international structure?
Google tries to determine it independently based on a few factors. As Google states, it’s usually best to implicitly indicate the language versions by using hreflang tags. I covered this concept in detail in the article, with the basics of hreflang attributes, examples of hreflang usage, as well as more business-related stuff.
Can I use automatic translations, i.e Google Translate?
It may not be the best idea. There are two main reasons:
- Google can punish you for using automatic translations without proper editing
- Users can notice the copy seems artificial; it can diminish their trust of your website.
Whenever possible, and backed with the ROI calculations, I recommend hiring professional translators. Alternatively, in some cases, you may benefit from using a mix of automatic + human translations (i.e. using Weglot).
Is it difficult to implement multiple languages on a website?
Everything depends on your Content Management System. For WordPress, there is a plugin called “Polylang” that does most of the work for you. I know that other popular e-commerce systems have plugins dedicated for that purpose.
Can I automatically redirect users to the proper language versions? I.e. German users to the German version, English users to the English version?
Well, it’s tricky.
- If you redirect both Googlebot and users, Google will be able to index only the English version. More information: Google suggests they can crawl outside of the United States. But it’s not entirely true.
- If you redirect all but Googlebot, it’s cloaking.
I strongly recommend you jump to the Avoid GEO-based redirection section to read more about this matter.
Is it enough to have one URL for all language versions?
In such a case Google will be able to index just one version of the website.
Google had plans in 2015 to crawl local-adaptive pages, but it seems the project has since been abandoned. For more info, go to the Don’t serve the multiple languages on the same URL section.
What will happen when users get the wrong language version in Google? Is this a real issue?
- They can click on your ads instead of the organic search results (which eventually can cost you a lot of money)
- They can simply resign and go to your competitors.
How to check if users are shown the proper language version of your website in the Google search results?
In the article, I describe multiple tools which can be helpful for this task.
However, if I was to choose just one tool, I would recommend using Google Analytics, especially its geotargeting report.
If you use the British version of your website and you see 50% of the version’s visitors are from the US and they usually bounce, you know you should fix your international SEO.
Should content be translated word-for-word?
1) It’s the opposite; content SHOULDN’T be translated word-for-word. Instead, you should localize your content to local audiences, to fit their needs and customs.
2) It’s totally fine that you offer different services in country X than in country Y. And thus, it’s natural that some URLs don’t have their equivalent in different languages.
What if I block users from Europe because of GDPR?
Technically, everything is fine. Google crawls mainly from the USA, so it will get the proper content and won’t consider it as cloaking; your content will rank just fine.
However, your website may be harmed indirectly. Apart from losing some potential clients, if you cut down on European users, they will stop linking to your site, which can have a negative impact on your rankings in the long run.
While there are many websites that didn’t successfully comply with the new GDPR law (here’s a list of 1100 of them), fortunately, most US websites did.
Time.com is a good example.
Should I adjust my international SEO strategy to rank in other search engines like Bing or Baidu?
Yes. For more info, jump to The world beyond Google section.
What is the best domain structure? Global domain vs subdomains vs separate domains for each country?
There is no one-to-fit-all rule. In the Choosing the best domain structure section you will find some tips on that.
How do I get to know which countries my competitors are active and get most of their SEO traffic?
There are some tools which can help you determine which countries your competitors get most of their organic traffic: to name a couple: SEMRush, Ahrefs.
To learn more, go to the Competition research section.
If you’ve made it this far, you now have a pretty decent knowledge about international SEO.
You should now understand that international SEO is not only about the proper implementation of hreflang attributes.
I prepared eight steps you can follow in order to be successful on the international SEO market.
- Identify what new markets can bring you more profit. Do proper market research; don’t blindly target random markets.
- Find the proper people that can make the expansion happen: content editors, SEOs, global managers, consumer service assistants etc.
- Choose the proper domain structure. Should you operate with a .com domain? Or should you create multiple Country-Code domains? It should be planned in advance.
- Don’t just translate the content. Localize. Be aware of local differences (different currencies, different customs). Think globally, act locally.
- Implement hreflang attributes (this will help Google show the proper version to particular users).
- Prioritize markets with issues.
- Make sure that, overall, you’re doing SEO properly. There may be a lot of issues that are not related strictly to international SEO that can harm your website’s organic traffic.
- Make sure you diversify the channels. SEO done properly can be the growth engine of an international business.