Youre about to create the international strategy for your company/client, the first thing you might do is research successful international companies. STOP right there!
The point of search engines has always been to supply the user with what they are looking for, all of which is done by highly sophisticated algorithms (mathematical equations) in literally no time at all. But sometimes the search engines knows* that what the user is looking for is not going to be on the first few pages of a results page. It might be that the site that the user is looking for is American but they are making the search from Montreal, and the site owner hasnt created a specific version of their site to target the French speaking Canadian audience. In this instance the search engine knows that the term the user is searching for is highly associated with this big brand and more often than not ends up becoming a visit on the brands site anyway. The search engine might then strongly associate the big brands site with this term and unfairly give them an advantage because of the majority of searches intent. This in itself is annoying for any smaller brands competing in that result, BUT the real problem and where you get the domino effect, is that other brands might think that its something that the big brand has done to their website that makes them rank highly for this term. See where I am going with this? DO NOT assume the big brands know better than you when it comes to SEO! They might be leading you down the wrong path.
*I havent got space to go into exactly how they know right now, just pretend the search engine has a womans intuition and just knows for now.
Hopefully I have now eradicated your instinct to think Ill just do what the BIG brands do when it comes to SEO. Now, I would like to be specific and teach you something about a subject I believe the big brands are useless at: GEO TARGETING!
If you are targeting an international audience, the chances are you want to rank in more than one search engine index. Yes of course they have several indexes! Google.ca (Canada) is different to Google.com (American) for example. There are an estimated 8.26 billion web pages indexed at this point, obviously the search engines cant index them all in one great big chunk. There are loads of variables that tell the search engines in which index a website should be indexed but the most important ones are:
This might seem like an obvious one but you will be amazed how many sites are trying to target a country but not in their native language. Come on, this is just lazy. To quote Yoda: Do, or do not, there is no try, meaning either you speak to them in their own language or you dont speak to them at all. This is the pillar of geo targeting, and although some might argue that a lot of countries make some searches in English, this is not a good enough excuse. If you have built a brand in Canada and then decide to set up an office in Germany, youre likely to hire local people right? Hiring people that know their industry sector locally AND that understand the culture and most of all LANGUAGE is 101 business. This is also 101 search engine targeting, not only for traffic but also for conversions! So if you are opening that office in Germany, your first port of call to build a web presence in Germany should be to create a German version of your website. Hire some good translators, better yet, hire a few good German SEOs that can translate and optimise your German content.
Links & Citations Its Like A Friend Saying Yeah They Live There
Closely associated with the importance of Language comes incoming Links and citations to a website. Having other websites linking to your website is another good indicator for the search engines to what country you are targeting. This is also a very big part of how well you rank of course. Incoming links to your site from other geo specific TLDs such as .de (if you are targeting Germany) as well as reviews and directory submissions can help the engines pin point your desired target country. Its logical, all these other sites are linking to this site and they are all in German and also hosted in Germany, ergo it helps validate your virtual location and therefore where to index your site.
TLD (Top Level Domain) The Little House On The...internet
The by far most important factor for geo targeting and having your website rank highly within the search engines local results, i.e. Google.de (Germany) is buying a country code TLD (ccTLD). This is basically a country specific Top Level Domain (TLD) that indicates where a website is targeting. In essence your ccTLD is your actual virtual office in that country, its a bit like opening an actual office in Germany as you want to target the German market. In my opinion this is the strongest indication to the search engines that you are targeting a specific country, its like your building. Having a .de domain is a very strong indicator that you are targeting Germany, obviously the language and actual SEO is crucial for getting you ranked highly in Google.de but having that ccTLD is a very good start to make sure that your German site is indexed (and ultimately ranked) in the correct Google index. Therefore, I always advise my clients to buy all the ccTLDs that they are likely to ever want to target a country in the future.
There are however some TLDs that are virtually impossible to get unless you can prove that you have a physical address in the specific country, like for example France (.fr) and Norway (.no). If this is the case, you have to find another way of telling the search engines that your site is relevant for a specific country.
Hosting/IP Your Postcode Online
Another way for the search engine to analyse which country your website is most relevant for, is association with the country of hosting. Your hosting IP is basically your postcode online, although not every IP is associated with a country a lot of them are. You can easily look up the IP and location of a website by using tools or plugins. It is worth mentioning that the hosting location isnt really important if you already have country specific TLD as this would override the hosting location. Its a bit like the engines going...of course they are based in the UK they have a house there, we dont need to see the postcode as well! BUT if you dont have a country specific TLD the hosting location will definitely help the search engines in their quest to analyse which country your website is associated with and therefore which index it should be listed in.
When You Cant Get The CCtld And Your Tech Team Insist The Hosting Stays In Timbuktu
There are times when you for whatever reason cant buy the country specific TLD and your tech team insist on keeping all the hosting in one place. Dont worry; there are other ways of helping the search engines figure out where you want your website to be indexed in terms of country specific search engine.
Using Webmaster Tools
If you have a non geo specific domain (also called generic TLD) such as com, info, net and org, you CAN tell the search engines where you are targeting within Webmaster Tools. In fact its a 5 min job. In Google Webmaster Tools all you do is upload your sitemap and go to settings and simply chose your Geographic target from the drop down menu. You might think this seems like the easiest option but I do believe a country specific TLD is a stronger sign and would always recommend this first.
Often you will also have the added problem of sites wanting to target several countries within the same domain; again I blame the big brands for this. There is however a way that you can target several countries on the same domain within webmaster tools. What you would need to do is create several sitemaps for the country specific sections of your site, for example one sitemap for samplesite.com/fr and one for samplesite.com/de etc, you then upload these sitemaps separately and chose the geographic target for each sitemap.
Geo Targeting By IP Detection
This is usually my very last resort but it is often the most used form of geo targeting. In essence this is when you have one website (usually a .com) that targets several countries and you serve different content based on where the user is located (based on their IP address). To me this is a very bad long term strategy and often highly inaccurate. Again, big brands often use this method, why is completely beyond me. So Im not going to say any more, avoid it if you can, dont do what they do!
So to sum up, the best advice I can give you is; do it properly straight away. Ideally you will have a website in the appropriate language, with incoming links that are also from that country, hosting in the specific country, and last but certainly not least, get that ccTLD!
SEP's International SEO Expert's Series:
Lisa Myers is CEO and Owner of SEO & Social Media Agency; Verve Search in the UK. Lisa is heavily involved in the global Search community and respected by peers and search engines alike. She is a regular contributor to the online marketing press and SEO whitepapers as well as a regular speaker at industry conferences worldwide. Lisa is founder of SEOChicks.com and co-founder of the International Search Blog; StateofSearch.com. She has also won a row of prestigious awards, most recently; “Search Personality of the year” at the UK Search Awards 2011 where Verve Search also won “Best SEO Campaign”.