How to ensure international customers can find you online

How to ensure international customers can find you online

1 Overview

The challenge

When you create multilingual or multi-regional websites, how can you make sure they’re being found by all relevant users in your target countries and languages, and optimise your ranking?

Your aim

To ensure your target users arrive at the right version of your site on a Google search.

How to go about it

Your key aim in international SEO is not only to ensure the most relevant searchers in each country are landing on the right country or language page of your site, but also to optimise your ranking in every Google search. Here are the steps to take to help achieve those goals.

2 How Google crawls, indexes and serves up web pages

In simple terms, searching the web is like looking in a huge book with a mammoth index telling you exactly where everything is located. So, when a potential customer performs a Google search, our programs check our index to determine the most relevant search results to be served to them. The three key processes are:

Crawling

Crawling is the process by which new and updated pages are added to the Google index. We use a huge set of computers to fetch (crawl) billions of web pages. The program that does the fetching is called Googlebot (also known as a robot, bot, or spider). Googlebot uses an algorithmic process to determine which sites to crawl, how often, and how many pages to fetch from each site. Google doesn't accept payment to crawl a site more frequently, and the search side of our business is separate from our AdWords service.

Indexing

Googlebot processes each of the pages it crawls to compile a massive index of all the words it sees and their location on each page. In addition, we process information included in key content tags and attributes, such as Title tags and ALT attributes. Googlebot can process many, but not all, content types. For example, we cannot process the content of some rich media files or dynamic pages.

Serving results

When a user starts a search, our machines search the index for matching pages and return the most relevant results. Relevancy is determined by over 200 factors, only one of which is PageRank — the measure of the importance of a page based on the incoming links from other pages. Each link to a page on your site from another site also adds to your site's PageRank. But not all links are equal: Google works hard to identify spam links and other practices that negatively impact search results. Powerful links are those given based on the quality of your content.

In order for your site to rank well in search results pages, it's important to make sure that Google can crawl and index your site correctly. Our Webmaster Guidelines outline best practices to improve your site's ranking.

Google's Did you mean and Autocomplete features are designed to help users save time by displaying related terms, common misspellings, and popular queries. The keywords used by these features are automatically generated by our web crawlers and search algorithms. We display these predictions only when we think they might save the user time. If a site ranks well for a keyword, it's because we've algorithmically determined that its content is more relevant to the user's query.

3 Make each language version easily discoverable

One language, one page

If you offer your website in multiple languages, use a single language for content and navigation on each page, and avoid side-by-side translations.

Flag language in your URL

Keep content for each language on separate URLs and flag language in the URL. For instance, an URL ‘www.mysite.com/de/’ would tell a user the pages are in German.

Language target

Show Google which language(s) you're targeting through hreflang — or language — meta tags. (In HTML, ‘href’ stands for ‘hypertext reference’ and is used to code all HTML links, while ‘lang’ is short for language.)

Cross-link

Display a gateway button on the top right of all pages for customers to select their region or language of choice , whichever version of your site they originally land on.

Dynamic content

Although Google recommends using separate URLs for content in different languages, we have adapted to deal with dynamic, personalised content, where a website recognises where a user’s IP address is located, and automatically displays relevant content and language. So, if your site uses a dynamic structure, don’t worry about rewriting it. It will be found in online searches, and dynamic content providers won’t be disadvantaged.


Habits to avoid

Boilerplate-only translation

Don’t translate only the boilerplate text of your website while keeping the rest of your content in a single language (as often happens on pages featuring user-generated content such as forums). It may create a negative user experience, if the same content appears multiple times in search results with various boilerplate languages.

Automatic translation

Automated translations don’t always make sense and could harm customers’ perceptions of your site. Block search engines from crawling automatically translated pages on your site by using robots.txt.

No cookies

Don’t use cookies or scripts to show translated versions of the page. Google can't crawl that type of dynamic content to index your site’s content correctly, and users may not be able to see it either.

4 Understand your user intent

At the heart of every Google search, there’s a user with an purchase-related intention, whatever that might be — to find reviews, products to buy, price comparisons — the list is pretty well endless.

One of the best ways to discover more about your users’ intent is to look at your own marketing analytics. Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner lets you see which keywords (don’t forget the valuable long-tail keywords too) that are being used to find your website. Through analysing these, you can more deeply understand what your site’s audience is looking for, and then develop a content strategy to meet and fulfil them.

Long-tail keywords are more specific 3—5 word phrases that searchers use when they’re getting closer to making a purchase. For example, say someone starts searching for the term ‘dining chair’. After visiting various websites, looking at styles and comparison shopping; as they narrow down their choices, they might begin searching for ‘Eames style contemporary dining chair’.

Content crafted and tailored in this responsive way will connect with the user immediately, and that’s an effective way to increase traffic, clickthroughs, leads, sales and conversions.

5 On-page and off-page SEO

When Google assesses your website in comparison to others, we look at precisely what you rank for (on-page), and how high you rank in search results (off-page).

Your aim is to enable Google to clearly understand what your site is about, easily index your pages, and smoothly navigate its structure and content, in order to rank it accurately. Your aim, of course, is to build your ranking, especially when you’re competing at a national or international level, with a world of online content and competition.

On-page SEO

Your goal with international on-page SEO is to optimise your pages to make it easier for Google to geo-locate them and identify their relevance. So, make sure to organise your global URLs in a rational, repeatable way, so that localised content can be geo-targeted by subdirectory, subdomain, or domain.

It’s vital to localise your site for each target country while presenting a consistent brand presence globally. Localising your design reduces the risk of duplicate content and enhances user engagement

For effective on-page SEO, it’s essential to localise:

  • URLs
  • Title tags, with localised targeted keywords
  • Headings (H1)
  • Body content
  • Alt attributes, including image file names
  • Meta titles and descriptions
  • Navigation labels
  • Address details
  • Fast upload speeds
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Internal links e.g. link to internal blog, also both help both user and Google

Off-page SEO

This focuses on increasing the authority of your site through building links from other websites, and basically, through all optimisation that happens off-site. The more links your website has, the higher it ranks in Google search. Ways you can build these links include:

  • Creating amazing, relevant, engaging and localised site content

  • Social media marketing — encouraging sharing of your content

  • Genuine reviews on third party sites

  • Article sharing — submitting interesting, high quality articles to well-regarded PR article submission directory, with links to your website

  • Image and/or video submission — on image and video submission sites, including title, description, tags and links

  • Document sharing — unique and valuable content in pdf or ppt format, on document sharing sites

6 How we determine a website’s targeted country

Country-code top-level domain names (ccTLDs)

Multiple, separate websites for each target region and language — for instance .de for Germany, .cn for China — are a strong signal to both users and search engines that your site is explicitly intended for a certain country. Some countries have restrictions on who can use ccTLDs, so be sure to do your research.

Tip

We treat some vanity ccTLDs — .tv, .me — as generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs), as we've found that users and webmasters frequently see these as being more generic than country-targeted. See a full list of domains Google treats as generic.

Geotargeting settings

If you’re creating a single multi-regional/multilingual website, you’ll need a generic (gTLD) domain. One domain has the advantage of meaning only one SEO campaign. So, you’d have a single generic (gTLD) domain, and then separate each language into a folder. For instance, myamazingsite.com/en/ and myamazingsite.com/de/ and myamazingsite.com/es/. Building authority to your original English site will have a positive impact on other language folders too.

For content specific to a certain country, geotargeting tells Google certain pages are relevant to users. If your site has a gTLD — for example .com, org, or .net — you can use the Country Targeting Tool in Search Console to tell Google your site is targeted at a specific country. However, don’t use this tool if your site targets more than a single country.

Tip

As regional top-level domains such as .eu or .asia are not specific to a single country, Google treats them as generic top-level domains.

Server location

The server location (through the IP address of the server) is often physically near your users and can be a signal about your site’s intended audience. But some websites use distributed content delivery networks (CDNs) or are hosted in a different country with better web server infrastructure, so it’s not a definitive signal.

Other signals

Other clues as to the intended audience of your site can include local addresses and phone numbers on the site pages, the use of local language and currency, links from other local sites, and/or the use of Google My Business (where available). Google does not use locational meta tags (like geo.position or distribution) or HTML attributes for geotargeting.

7 URL structures

It’s difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis, so it makes sense to consider using a URL structure that makes it easy to segment parts of the website for geotargeting. Here are the pros and cons of all your options:

URL structure Example Pros Cons
Country-specific example.ie Clear geotargeting

Server location irrelevant

Easy separation of sites
Expensive (can have limited availability)

Requires more infrastructure

Strict ccTLD requirements (sometimes)
Subdomains with gTLDS de.example.com Easy to set up

Can use Search Console geotargeting

Allows different server locations

Easy separation of sites
Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone (is "de" the language or country?)
Subdirectories with gTLDs example.com/de/ Easy to set up

Can use Search Console geotargeting

Low maintenance (same host)
Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone

Single server location

Separation of sites harder
URL parameters site.com?loc=de Not recommended. URL-based segmentation difficult

Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone

Geotargeting in Search Console is not possible

Whichever structure you choose, organise your hierarchy in the same way for each language folder of your website so it's intuitive and crawlable.

8 Duplicate content and international sites

Duplicate content issues can arise when you provide the same content translated into different languages, but available on different URLs. This is generally not a problem as long as the content is for different users in different countries. While we strongly recommend that you provide unique content and avoid changing the meaning of your content from one language to another, we know that’s not always possible.

To differentiate between the different language versions of the page and serve the correct language or regional URL to searchers, follow the guidelines on rel-alternate-hreflang. Without using hreflang your content may lose value and make it harder to pull traffic.

If you disallow crawling in a robots.txt file or by using a ‘noindex’ robots meta tag, there’s no need to hide the duplicates. However, if you're providing the same content to the same users on different URLs (for instance, if both example.de/ and example.com/de/ show German language content for users in Germany), you should pick a preferred version and redirect (or use the rel=canonical link).