The Business Strategy That Wins For International SEO

by Tom Critchlow July 6th, 2009 

Hi Folks,

Ruud kindly invited me to write a guest post for Search Engine People on how to approach international SEO and to share some tips and tricks on performing SEO across multiple countries.

The problems of geolocation and international SEO are many and varied however, so in this post I'm going to focus on how to scale a business across multiple languages and countries in an SEO friendly manner. The important thing is to make sure that your international SEO strategy uses the strengths of your business strategy to achieve success.

international seo graphic

First, the basics of SEO for geolocation

Whichever strategy you choose to employ here are some of the basic factors which the search engines use to determine where a particular site (or page) is based and which searches it should show up against. In an ideal world you'd follow all of these points to target a particular region most effectively:

1. Language

This is one of the most important factors for ranking for your target market, how often is it that Google returns a search result for a web-page written in a different language to your search query? Hardly ever. This becomes even rarer if we look at individual language Google versions. When searching in Google.es in Spanish you very rarely encounter a page written in English or French or any other language for that matter. So to ensure you rank for international queries, make sure that you write your web-pages in the language you're targeting. This might seem trivial but it's important to note that you shouldn't present both language versions of a page on the same URL, for example, since this will easily confuse the search engines. Make sure that each URL only has only language on it.

2. Hosting Location

Hosting location is an important geolocation factor. Even if you have a site with a local CC tld (e.g. www.domain.fr) you'll see a ranking benefit from hosting the site in the local country and if you have a generic domain (e.g. www.domain.com) then hosting in the right country can make the difference between being found by searches in that country or not.

If you do have the CC tld for the country you're targeting then the benefit can be marginal, especially if you have perfected the other geotargeting techniques outlined in the post. This marginal benefit isn't always worth it if your budget isn't large but if you have a large site and large budget then I'd definitely recommend hosting the site in the country you're targeting. (Tip: this doesn't necessarily need to mean massive development work, see this post on proxy caching for a clever work around).

3. CC tld

As mentioned above, having the CC tld for the region you're targeting really helps the search engines identify which region you're relevant for and which queries you should show up against. You're not going to try and target australia with a .co.uk after all…

4. Put an address on every page

This might seem like a trivial factor but it really isn't. All the search engines, but especially Google, use this factor to identify where a site is located. By adding an address onto every page (tip: remember to include the country in the address, not just the street address) you're sending a strong signal to the search engines that you're based in a specific region and that's the region that you should rank in. The best way to implement this is in the footer of the site (footers have to be useful for something right?!). Tip: if you have more than one address for a particular company, try and only use one in your footer. This makes things less confusing for the search engines.

5. Local links

Using the above techniques, Google knows quite a lot about where a site is located and which region/language it's targeting. So Google can see where most of the sites that link to you are located. And that's another factor on how well you rank. Getting local links can really help a site rank for that location so don't underestimate the power of linkbuilding (the answer to any SEO question is almost always "more linkbuilding!").

The complications

So the above tactics might seem quite simple on the surface but they start to become more complex as you try to actually apply them to your business. The most troublesome one to implement in practice is the process of hosting content on separate CC tlds. What about all the domain trust and authority that you've built up on your main site? Won't you have to start from scratch when entering a new market? The answer is maybe.

If you don't want to use separate CC tlds then there is another valid option which is using sub-folders. But how do you know when to choose between these two strategies? The key is too make sure that you align your international SEO strategy with your businesses strengths. Broadly speaking business will fall into these two categories:

Strategy #1 – Be the 800-lb gorilla.

800-lb gorilla

If your main site has a lot of trust and authority and especially if you don't have a business with local offices then you should strongly think about using this strategy. Your business is the 800-lb gorilla in the room and you should use this strength. The strategy revolves around the following core principles:

1. Host all your content on one generic domain (typically www.domain.com). This best conserves the trust and authority that you've built up for your main site.

2. Use separate sub-folders (e.g. www.domain.com/fr/) for each language/region that you're targeting. This ensures that all content in a specific language is in it's own sub-folder.

The concept behind this strategy is that while your targeting isn't the most effective (you don't have a CC tld and you're not hosting in the right country) these factors are out-weighed by the strength of the site. This aligns with your business strategy since without local business locations you'll find it difficult to maintain a separate website, perform linkbuilding individually for that site and give it the attention it deserves. This way, your central office can worry about the overall SEO for all the different languages and any linkbuilding benefits the domain as a whole.

Tips for this strategy:

  • Use Google Webmaster Central to register your sub-folders as individual accounts and use the geotargeting tool to set the geographic location for each one to the correct location.
  • Remember to still purchase the relevant CC tlds where possible but redirect them to the correct folder rather than hosting content on them

Note that following this strategy doesn't necessarily mean you need to have a large business. Quite the opposite in fact, most small businesses are best off following this strategy as they don't have the local resource (see below). Being a dominating 800-lb gorilla in your market is relative to your competition, so if you're in a niche market you could easily adopt this strategy while still being a small business.

Strategy #2 – Be the local guerilla.

guerilla seo marketing

If your business strategy involves creating local teams working in the individual regions then this strategy will most likely work best for you. The guerilla strategy revolves around these core principles:

1. Create separate sites on regionally targeted CC tlds for each of your target markets (e.g. www.domain.co.uk, www.domain.es). This allows your local teams to work more autonomously and allows them to be agile and flexible to react to subtleties unique to their market.

2. Create unique content for each site rather than simply translating content. This allows you to create the best content possible for each region. It also allows you to focus on particular strengths or weaknesses of local markets.

The concept behind this strategy is to create the most effective targeting for each region you're optimising for. You do lose the benefit of the trust and authority built up by your main site (if you have one!) but this is outweighed by the potential advantage you can gain from having local teams working independently on your different sites. Remember that if you're competing against a Gorilla-style business in your niche then your competitive advantage is your local teams. Rely on them to reach out and create relationships with bloggers and sites in the local market and encourage them to perform linkbuilding and optimisation of their own. You'll be able to adapt to regional trends/quirks much quicker and more effectively than the Gorillas so make sure you make the most of this.

Tips for this strategy:

  • It's ok to link between your sites but try and do so sparingly. Don't over-optimise your internal linking.
  • The benefits of being a guerilla are bigger than just SEO – think about running individual conversion rate optimisation test as different markets have different buying behaviour.

Further reading

One thing I haven't touched on in this post is local SEO, though there is significant cross-over it's not super relevant for this post. If you're interested in it, look no further than David Mihm's recent local ranking factors.

For some finer detail on international SEO take a look at these geolocation FAQ on the SEOmoz blog.

Tom Critchlow teardrop imageAbout Me: my name's Tom Critchlow and I work for Distilled, a London-based SEO, PPC and reputation management agency. If you liked what you saw here, I regularly write on the Distilled blog and the SEOmoz blog. My hobbies include poker, chess, wing chun, basketball and jazz. Sometimes all at once. Follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/tomcritchlow

The International SEO series graphic was made with the African Animals vector graphics preview image. Qvector provides quality vector graphics. An icon from the Milky vector icon set was used. IconEden has amazingly free and premium icons

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15 Responses to “The Business Strategy That Wins For International SEO”

  1. Interesting post, Tom (found it via your tweet).
    We are going for strategy 2 (so have multiple domains with in country TLDs – currently: http://www.arenaflowers.com/, http://www.arenabloemen.nl/, http://www.arenabloemen.be/, http://www.arenablumen.de/ and http://www.arenaflowers.ie/) but there's an added complication that on, for example, our UK site you can also send nearly all the countries in the world using our international relay service so there are pages for all the countries of the world). Makes our brain hurt sometimes and our development team curse us non techies. :)

    The other thing is that, the more of these localised sites you have, the more upkeep there is and the more labour intensive the whole thing becomes. But then I guess, if you do it right, as you say, you can take on those 800 lb gorillas and offer a more tailored, relevant local offer.

    All good fun though!

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for the opportunity for the guest post Ruud.

    Also – thanks for the awesome international seo logo which makes it look like a safari, if only SEO was actually that much fun! :-p

  3. Blimey. Did you know Sir Matt was going to tweet this today?! http://www.youtube.com/GoogleWebmasterHelp#play/all/uploads-all/0/JD0y0Jk-zzQ :) Nice timing.

  4. [...] See original here: The Business Strategy That Wins For International SEO | Search … [...]

  5. Tom says:

    Ha, that's perfect timing isn't it Will! Thanks for pointing that out :-)

  6. Interesting post. We use multiple domains for international business in each country and the sites are hosted in the relevant country.

  7. Hey Tom,

    Excellent post! I've never done any international multi language SEO but I shall file this one away for when that special days comes.

    Plus anything with a monkey/gorilla in it is a winner for me ;)

  8. I found this post very informative and helpful in targeting a specific country in promoting a particular kind of business. This is a good international seo strategy to follow.

  9. [...] The Business Strategy That Wins For International SEO, Search Engine People [...]

  10. Ref comment from @whyprojectsfail and from Tom in the main post I've remember something else.

    Our UK & intenational sites are all built as an integrated app. IE it serves all our different sites from co-located servers. We could split it and host bits all on local IP addresses but it would be a load of work and would be highly inefficient ref duplication of server costs, support etc. We just didn't see the point, esp if using the correct TLD and other measures would mean that search engines could work out where the site was supposed to be well enough.

    I know from my time at eBay that all servers were located in San Jose CA and not in each country they had a site in. They did have other server farms on the other side of the world, but that's to do with redundancy and loading speed etc for users on different sides of the world, not IP addresses. I know eBay didn't used to care much about SEO, but they still did pretty well. Still, they do get rather a lot of inbound links.

    Be interested in any further thoughts on the point though: efficient and cost effective web architecture vs local IP address but multiple servers and complex tech set up.

  11. Tom says:

    @Will – take a look at the proxy caching solution I linked to. That can make the installation a lot cheaper.

    Measuring impact of these kinds of changes is very difficult – how do you quantify the benefit to having a UK server when you're already on a .co.uk domain and ranking well in the UK? It's hard. But I know we've seen good results from it and I know other SEOs have too. I think it's certainly worth considering.

  12. SEO Mumbai says:

    Thanks for sharing informative seo strategy, specially how to create sub folder for every country and listed on Google webmaster.

  13. [...] Business strategy that you should have for international SEO In connection with the blog that was discussed previously, this article tackles certain business strategies that you can undertake if you want to break into international SEO. This article also tackles geotargetting wherein you specify which areas your SEO campaign will be visible in. Geotargetting is extremely helpful especially if you have a certain market for your products or services. [...]

  14. Kamal Patel says:

    Thanks Tom
    for sharing this info….
    must needed information sharing for professional SEO….
    Regards,
    Kamal Patel (SEO Expert India)