7 tips for a successful international SEO strategy

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Reaching international markets through Search Engine Optimization – SEO, is one of the most cost-efficient ways to expand your business into new markets and countries. This task, however, might seem very complicated when you first dive into International SEO, but following the right guidelines and best industry practices will make it one of the most important tools in your online arsenal.

My career with RBBI has offered me the opportunity to work with diverse top regional brands and businesses that target global audience and require International SEO. This work helped our clients to achieve tremendous growth across chosen markets, and above all it was an experience rich of insights which we’ll share here with you.

Why International SEO is important?

SEO is the process of increasing your website visibility online in search results to help users find out about your business and reach your website, and International SEO is the branch that focuses on increasing your visibility in different international markets and target global users and not just local ones.

International SEO helps search engines like Google in showing users the correct content and the right language of the website for them according to the Google version they’re using.

For example, if users are located in the UAE, they would most likely use the UAE Google version (Google.ae). Our work as SEO specialists is to help Google show the pages of the website that are related to users in the UAE and targeting this specific audience.

Consequently, when other users elsewhere in the world like in Egypt, are searching for the same thing, then we would like Google to show them the correct pages that we developed to target our audience in Egypt. That’s why International SEO is very important: it helps your business reach the right audience using pages developed specifically for them, contributing in enhancing your online business performance.

Which search engines are used by your targeted audience?

If you are considering expanding your business to other markets, then you need to check what are the top search engines in these markets.

As you know Google is not the only search engine, however, it is the most popular one on a global level.

  • Users in Middle East use Google, Bing and Yahoo
  • Users in America, Africa and Europe use Google
  • Users in Asia use Baidu, Naver, Yahoo Japan
  • Users in Russia use Yandex

This article focuses more on the required implementations for “Google” as a search engine and we’ll cover other search engines in future articles.

How to target countries?

For country targeting, you can use one of the following methods

  1. Subfolders
    1. yourwebsite.com/ae/
    2. yourwebsite.com/fr/
  2. ccTLDs (Country-Code Top Level domain) – For example:
    1. yourwebsite.ae (for United Arab Emirates)
    2. yourwebsite.fr (for France)
    3. yourwebsite.co.uk (for United Kingdom)
  3. Subdomains
    1. ae.yourwebsite.com Or uae.website.com
    2. fr.yourwebsite.com Or france.website.com

How to target languages?

For language targeting, you can use one of the following methods

  1. Subfolders
    1. yourwebsite.com/ar/
    2. yourwebsite.com/en/
  2. Subdomains
    1. ar.yourwebsite.com
    2. fr.yourwebsite.com

What is the best website structure for International targeting?

This is the first question you should ask for your business when you start your international SEO journey.

As a matter of fact, the ideal website structure will vary based on the business model, resources and requirements which may be determined according to your current stage – are you still developing your website and haven’t established your online business yet?  Or you have all the structure down and you can only tweak a little bit in it?

For country targeting, ccTLDs is the strongest structure that sends indications to both users and search engines were your targeted audience should be located. However, it is not a ranking factor.

If you have a website with domain extension (.ae) like www.yourwebsite.ae, then users and search engines will recognize that this website is targeting people who live in the UAE. However, it doesn’t mean that your website won’t have a chance to rank or drive traffic from other countries.

And What if you decided to expand and target a new market like United Kingdom?

Are you going to use www.yourwebsite.co.uk?

If so, then you will start with zero domain authority as Google will differentiate the links www.yourwebsite.ae from www.yourwebsite.co.uk and would consider them as two separate domains.

Using many ccTLDs to target more than one market could work perfectly for the big brands having the following privilege:

  1. Huge potential users to target international markets.
  2. Offices in each of the targeted markets.
  3. Enough resources to develop localized content for each country.

Subfolders or Subdirectories would be the best structure for most of the cases. First of all, you will benefit from the domain authority of your domain and have the ability / opportunity to expand internationally at any time by adding the new country and language as subfolders to your main domain. Furthermore, you will have the ability to develop unique, localized content to target the new markets. Eventually, you will benefit from all the efforts consumed to build a strong backlink profile for your website.

Subdomains don’t have the same advantage as ccTLDs or subfolders.

What is the Hreflang tag?

Now, let us assume that you decided which one of the above structures you will be applying for your SEO International targeting. Is it enough for Google to show the correct version of your website to the targeted users

For example, if you decided to use a subdomain to target users in Saudi Arabia and you named it “ksa” (ksa.yourwebsite.com), this will not give a signal to the search engine that this subdomain is built to target users in KSA even if the subdomain’s name is “KSA”. The same concept applies for the subfolders.

Therefore, the next step would be to implement the international SEO technically on your website by using the Hreflang tags that were introduced by Google in 2010 which aims to help Google show the correct results.

Hreflang tags will tell Google which version of your website should appear in each targeted country to help serve the correct content, and the correct language for the right users in each country.

What are the steps to implement the Hreflang tags?

1- Creating the correct hreflang code for each version of your website using the correct language code, country code with the live URL of your page. You can use the Hreflang tag generator tool developed by Aleyda Solis to be rest assured using the right hreflang code.

For example, the hreflang tag for a page “page-a” written in French and is targeting users in Canada would be:

  • <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-a” hreflang=”fr-ca” />

2- Implement the hreflang code on your website: Google communicated three technical ways

  1. At page level in the HTML code
  2. Sitemap: optimal for the large websites
  3. HTTP header: for the non-HTML pages like PDFs

One of the most common issues that you might encounter while implementing the hreflang tags is “no return tags” error.

Let us assume that you have two English pages, one is targeting users in UK and the other page is targeting users in USA.  Ideally, you need to use the correct hreflang tags to help Google know that there are two versions of this page, one for users in UK and one version for users in USA.

So first you create the following hreflang tags using Aleyda Solis hreflang generator tool:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-uk” hreflang=”en-gb” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-usa” hreflang=”en-us” />

Second, you add both of the following hreflang tags (including the hreflang tag of the page itself) to the first page that is targeting UK which is “page-for-uk” in the HTML code or the sitemap.

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-uk” hreflang=”en-gb” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-usa” hreflang=”en-us” />

Third, you need to add both of them as well to the second page which is “page-for-usa”

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-uk” hreflang=”en-gb” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/page-for-usa” hreflang=”en-us” />

By doing the above, you assure the right implementation which will prevent getting no return tag error, as the page “page-for-usa” is pointing to “page-for-uk” and the page “page-for-uk” is pointing back to “page-for-usa” as well.

In case you did not implement the practice as demonstrated above by not adding the hreflang tags to “page-for-uk”, this will result in getting a no return tag error, as “page-for-usa” is pointing to “page-for-uk” but “page-for-uk” is not pointing back as a consequence of not adding the hreflang tags to it as well.

Implementing the hreflang tags is one of the main challenges huge websites may encounter while targeting many countries and languages. And this is mainly due to the fact that they have many pages that require adding hreflang tags, and sometimes may result from technical limitations on the website that could make the process more complicated and difficult in addition to the lack of the required CMS features.

However, implementing the hreflang correctly would help the correct page or version of your website to rank in each Google version, and users would find the relevant link of your website on SERP according to their country and language. This will drive relevant and valuable traffic to your website, and enhance the engagement of the users as well.

These are the most common questions that people would ask when they consider expanding their online business to international markets.  I hope you found the article useful and has answered some of your questions.

Basma Abou Assaf
Basma has a bachelor degree in computer engineering, she found a passion in how search engines work. Currently, Basma manages multiple SEO projects for top Middle East brands in various industries including Tourism, Travel, Finance and car rental. She has successfully developed International SEO strategies to reach an international audience by targeting multiples countries and languages.

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Willliam

Thanks for great tips of international seo, it’s really useful for me as a beginner.
Great source of information about international seo strategies you described here..
Keep it up…!!!
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