International SEO stands for targeting several markets with one site or brand in the search engines while using the right technical, on-page and off-page strategies on both – global and local – levels. The difference between global, local and international SEO lies mainly in the scope of optimization.
International SEO – Targeting multiple markets within one site, usually based on various language and cultural distinctions.
Local SEO – Activities focusing on search queries related to a specific locality (e.g. countries, regions, or cities) and queries containing “near me” extension.
Global SEO – Overall optimization unified for all language versions regardless of the target market. Global SEO usually includes complex technical and on-page settings on the website as a whole.
Why international SEO is Important
Addressing international SEO is important not only before expanding into new markets, but also for an already launched website containing several language versions. Without the right technical setup, knowledge of the market and local copywriting based on cultural nuances, international SEO can be very demanding.
It is therefore not enough just to simply translate the pages (with Google Translator) and hope that the website ranks high in the search engines, for example in the Swiss version of Google with the generic German language. It is therefore necessary to tackle some of the following topics first.
Domain and URL structure
Firstly, it is important to decide the URL structure that would fit the needs of the particular project. Taking the time to properly evaluate the following examples before the site launch or the market expansion will save a lot of time and headache.
1) Unique ccTLD for individual markets – zalando.de
This solution is suitable mainly for sites with global potential and unique brand names in the domain. Having a unique name because most of the best generic domains are already taken, especially throughout multiple ccTLDs.
On the other hand, it might be a good idea to avoid this solution for primarily local players in the specific markets and instead build a new brand as part of the expansion. Therefore, rather than going for a global extension of .com in combination with either subdomain or subfolder, it is advisable to go straight for the local ccTLD.
One example might be knuspr.de, gurkerl.at and kifli.hu which are all the same service owned by one company and all originated from rohlik.cz in the Czech Republic. Each of the sites have their own localized brand name and their own ccTLD highly targeted at local customers.
Another example is of course Google, which at the part was a unique brand and therefore could register all the ccTLDs needed.
2) Local subdomains on one domain – es.wikipedia.org
This solution is suitable for global services that operate mostly online and having a unique brand name in specific markets would not help with the overall marketing strategy.
The main advantage of subdomains over subfolders is separate analytics and complete possibility of localization on a technical basis, as Google views subdomains as individual websites.
Another advantage is the ability to test different SEO strategies regardless of the risk of losing performance on the main domain. However, subdomains are not usually recommended for small businesses due to the need for complex analytical implementation and management of the entire ecosystem.
3) Subfolders as part of one ccTLD – pokemon.com/es/
Subfolders are a good choice for global brands which need a unified technical setup and want to preserve the backlink profile strength for the whole domain. This solution however limits the testing opportunities and local adjustments for a specific market from the technical and on-page SEO perspective. It is usually recommended for smaller sites due to the straightforward implementation and overall domain management.
4) Parameters within a single domain – play.google.com/store/?hl=de
Since parameters often result in duplicates and therefore need canonicalization, this solution is not very suitable from the SEO point of view. Based on the official Google Webmaster Guidelines, even the big G is not a fan of this solution for multilingual websites.
However, it is ironically Google Play that is still using the parameters in its URLs:
?hl= [localization code for language] and ?gl= [localization code for country].
Hreflang tags can be found in the HTML code in the header section <head> and also in the sitemap files. Even though it’s usually recommended to implement hreflang on all pages throughout the web, it’s usually not the case. Many webmasters focus only on the most important content, which is sometimes a valid prioritization strategy.
A properly implemented hreflang should look like this:
Canonical tags are crucial in managing duplicates and nearly identical pages. An example is English in the UK, USA, NZ and IE, where it is necessary to use hreflang and possibly deploy canonicals leading to the main target country.
In addition to language targeting, it is advisable to use canonicalization in case of filtering duplications in e-commerce, such as for example “color” or “material” parameters in the fashion industry. Although the filtered pages are technically different URLs, they are almost identical content wise and require the duplication treatment.
Content essentials and local SEO
As mentioned above, it is not enough to simply translate the already existing content and create a new language version, but it is also important to pay attention to the cultural requirements and language nuances.
Even though the situation is simple for countries having a unique language, there are not that many of them in the global context. When targeting for example Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, or Brazil, the language is usually different from Spanish, German, English, French, or Portuguese in the other countries speaking the same language.
Consulting the new language version with a local agency is therefore always a good idea in order to identify any contextual gaps.
Besides the global topics mentioned above, it is also important to implement local SEO strategies, such as for example adding contact details into Google My Business, building backlinks from local magazines and regional catalogs, using local hosting for faster page loading and optimizing for queries containing geographical location and “near me” extension.