Before we dive into international SEO specifically, it’s important to have a good understanding of international marketing as a whole. After all, international SEO is simply a tool you will use to achieve these broader international marketing goals.
What is international marketing?
Put simply, international marketing is the strategic process of marketing a product or service in more than one country, either overseas or across national borders. It is a key tool for driving a company’s global growth and development.
There are huge advantages to expanding a business internationally, not least the ability to market to a significantly increased target market. When done right, international expansion can open companies up to the following benefits:
- Access new revenue streams
- Reaching more consumers in new territories
- Gaining a competitive advantage over purely domestic providers
- The potential for investment by foreign parties
- Diversifying assets across multiple markets mitigates economic risk
However, international expansion also comes with risks. Some of the obstacles that an international marketing strategy needs to hurdle are:
- Compliance risk with country-specific regulations
- Cultural differences for consumers and business practices
- Financial resources required to expand globally
- Local competition and demand
Due to these risks and challenges of international marketing, a thorough research phase is needed before launching into a global marketing strategy. The more intel you have going into your initial discussions, the more headaches you’ll be able to avoid further down the line.
How and why does international marketing differ from domestic marketing?
Whilst international marketing is a specialism all on its own, it can be viewed as an extension of a company’s domestic marketing strategy that has a greater focus on the international consequences of decision making. This involves gaining an understanding of the new environments, contexts, and ways of thinking that will impact consumers, competitors and suppliers in the new market. Essentially, understanding the fundamental similarities and differences between markets that will affect the global marketing strategy.
As far as the traditional international marketing mix is concerned, there are 4 key points to bear in mind that will drive the global marketing strategy – product, pricing, placement, and promotion. Naturally these are also applicable for an international digital marketing strategy, but international expansion in the digital realm comes with additional considerations that need to be made. We’ll come onto these shortly.
Where does SEO sit in your international marketing strategy?
There are three key elements that need to be considered when looking to execute a successful international SEO strategy.
- Technical excellence
- Global market understanding
- Innovation & creativity
Market entry analysis
The first step of any international SEO strategy should be to establish the scope of the opportunity in your potential target markets. Not only do you need to consider the opportunity in terms of the target audience, you also need to take into account the profitability of each market to ensure the international expansion plans have a realistic level of ambition.
You may already have an idea of which regions you want to operate in, but we strongly recommend reviewing the current performance of your website that is occurring naturally in international markets. This gives you an idea of the demand for your product offering, and your ability to establish a search presence to meet that demand.
You can view your current international performance in Google Analytics by navigating to Audience > Geo > Location. If this is your first foray into any kind of international presence, you’ll likely see higher traffic from other countries which speak your primary language, which in this case is English. You’ll also be able to see if you are already getting conversions in different markets, which can be another indicator of demand level and possibly lower competition in the region.
You can also get an idea of performance by reviewing your data in Google Search Console.
If you have access to third party tools, these can also give you some insight into your international presence. For example, Searchmetrics gives you a top level overview of your top countries by SEO Visibility, and ahrefs shows a breakdown of your rankings keywords by country.
Benchmarking and competitor analysis
Carrying out a benchmarking exercise allows you to see where you are currently positioned within your target market before investing any resource into an international SEO strategy. You may not have any presence yet, but identifying any visibility via things such as news coverage or any press features will give you an insight into how familiar the audience may be with your brand.
You should also conduct a competitor analysis to identify the current players in your target market. These may be the same as your domestic market (particularly if you regularly compete with global brands) but it’s likely that you will have different competitors to take into account. Establishing this early on is key, as it allows you to analyse their presence for your key commercial terms as well as understanding what kind of strategy and content has allowed them to establish themselves within the market.
SERPs review and analysis
Alongside reviewing your SERP presence, you should also carry out an analysis of the SERP landscape in your target market. This will allow you to get an overview into the market maturity by reviewing things such as the types of SERP features present, as well as establishing transactional vs informational search intent and the types of competitors that are able to rank for these terms.
Technical SEO setup and performance
Technical SEO is the foundation of any website’s ability to perform well organically, and becomes even more important if you are considering international expansion. You’ll need to make sure your international sites are set up correctly to be crawled and indexed in your target market, whilst also making sure that your sites do not end up competing with one another.
If your setup is incorrect you could end up with, for example, your US site ranking in the UK and your UK site ranking in the US, meaning users are more likely to bounce off the site and not convert. Here are some of the main considerations you’ll need to cover from a technical standpoint.
Choosing the right international setup for your website
There are 3 main options for organising your international setup:
- International subdomains
- Separate country-code Top- Level Domains (ccTLDs)
Each approach has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting into from the outset as it can be difficult to switch setups further down the line. We recommend checking out our article on choosing a website setup for international SEO for advice on the best setup for your site.
Having a correct hreflang setup in place is crucial to avoid cannibalisation between international sites. Hreflang is an HTML attribute required to be able to specify what the language and geo targeting of a webpage should be. Having hreflang tags in place is a way to tell search engines which version of a page is relevant for which users, helping to ensure the correct version is shown to the correct target audience.
Tools such as this hreflang Tags Generator and this hreflang Tags Testing Tool are really useful for creating the correct hreflang setup for your site, and validating that it is operating as intended. It is really important to check your setup once you have added the tags to your site, as there are several ways for implementation to go awry. We recommend following this guide to Hreflang implementation for a step-by-step walkthrough.
Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)
If your international expansion plans include markets that are geographically located far away from your domestic market, then you may want to consider using a content delivery network (CDN). A CDN is basically a network of servers that are geographically distributed, with the aim being to provide better performance due to being located closer to the end users.
We would also recommend reviewing your tracking setup when expanding to additional markets, to ensure your data is as clean and comprehensive as it can be. See the upcoming Measuring International SEO Performance section for more details.
Conducting international keyword research
Keyword research is the foundation of any successful search marketing campaign, and it’s no different for an international marketing strategy. Whatever your product, whatever your service, it’s key to make sure you have reliable international keyword research for the markets you would like to go into.
Creating a global keyword list
Coming up with a list of keywords that are applicable to all the markets you want to operate in is a crucial first step for international expansion. This should differ from your domestic keyword list in that it should not be localised to your original market, instead it should encompass all source language keyword variants so it can be used as a base for translation into your target languages.
For example, a footwear brand based in the UK may have an original keyword list that includes things like this:
- High heels
- Ankle boots
- Court shoes
- Football boots
- Flip flops
However, if they are considering expanding to markets such as the United States, then this list will need to expand to include variants such as:
- Tennis shoes
- Soccer cleats
- Soccer shoes
- Soccer boots
It’s unlikely that they would be focusing on these terms in the UK-focused strategy (particularly that last one!), but these keywords are all perfectly valid American terms for their product offering and therefore should be included. This global list can then easily be translated into any other languages needed and will form the basis of foreign language international keyword research.
Transactional keyword research
Once you have translated your global keyword list into your target language, it’s important to conduct localised keyword research for your key transactional terms. There is often a difference in how products and services are referred to across different markets, whether at a country or even a regional level, so this stage is crucial for identifying colloquialisms and nuances that would be missed if you simply relied on your translated global keywords. Preferred terminology and any branding guidelines should also be taken into account at this point.
Informational keyword research
From an organic perspective, ensuring you have a strong informational content strategy in place for new market entry is crucial, as you cannot rely on the target audience being aware of your brand or even your product offering. Depending on the level of awareness present, you may need to start with blog articles and evergreen content that addresses the questions your target audience is searching for. If there is more familiarity with the product offering, then supplementing your transactional content with buying guides and FAQ-type content will be important for demonstrating your expertise, authority and trustworthiness in a market where you will be perceived as a new player.
Content translation and localisation
As with keyword research, making sure your content is translated and localised accurately to fit the target market is crucial. Not only will this help with your organic rankings, but ensuring your text reads naturally in the target language is key for building user trust and demonstrating that you are a legitimate company.
We always recommend getting content translated by a native speaker, so as to ensure your copy flows well in your target language and avoids any jarring phrasing. You should ensure that your translation partner has a specialism in your industry and is comfortable with the writing style you need.
At Impression, we partner with a network of native SEOs and copywriters to support our international SEO specialists. By working together in this way, we ensure that content reads well for native speakers of the target language and that the translated content is optimised to rank well in the search results of the country you want to reach.
International SEO isn’t just part of a checklist to be completed when first expanding into new markets – it’s an ongoing mechanism by which to continue growing and expanding your presence in these markets beyond the initial launch.
Optimising translated content
Simply translating content into your target language doesn’t automatically mean it will rank well in your target market. What performs well in one country doesn’t always do well in another, so adapting content to meet the needs of different markets is key to ensure your pages match the right search intent. It’s important to make sure that you have a good understanding of the kind of content which is already ranking well for your target keywords in different markets. Optimisation in the target language is then crucial to give search engines the best chance of correctly matching your content to the most appropriate keywords, which you should target based on localised search volumes and search intent.
Informational content strategy
As with your commercial keywords, search volumes and intent can differ wildly between markets. Whilst many of your customers’ questions and concerns may be similar regardless of which country they are in, the ways in which they search for information can significantly affect the performance of your longer-tail content. We strongly recommend doing informational keyword research using your translated commercial keywords as a base, which will allow you to get a comprehensive overview of the kind of content that your target audience is looking for, and how they are looking for it. You can then craft keyword-targeted content to meet this demand, and scale up your brand awareness in new markets to become a go-to source of information in your industry.
Measuring international SEO performance
Once you’ve gone to all the trouble of researching, implementing, and launching your international SEO strategy, the last piece of the puzzle is to ensure you have a robust tracking setup in place. This will ensure you are able to measure performance accurately to learn what’s working and what needs improving, so you can continue to gather learnings over time to further grow your organic visibility abroad.
It is best practice to set up a unique Google Analytics view for each country that you have a site for, making sure to create a filter to ensure only relevant traffic is included in the dataset. Setting up a filter will make sure that the traffic tracked is only traffic to the relevant regional site, although you should still keep an eye on the Audience > Geo reports as traffic may still reach these sites from other countries. Be sure to leave one unfiltered view in your account, however, as you should always have a raw dataset available to refer back to.
Google Search Console
When setting up your international site in Google Search console, we strongly recommend setting up a Domain property to ensure that all subdomains are included in the data collection. If you are using a subfolder approach, it can be beneficial to also have an amalgamated profile where you can see the overall performance of your .com site. Alternatively, you can collate your GSC data from your individual profiles into a Google Data Studio Dashboard.
International SEO should always be a key consideration if you are growing your website internationally. Market entry can be challenging but by understanding your SERPs landscape, working collaboratively with other departments in your business to gain audience insights, and working with developers from the get-go, you can ensure that your site is in the best position to be crawled and indexed effectively in your target markets.