SEO News
Guillaume Bouchard

SEO on a Global Scale: Ranking Internationally

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When you target consumers in different countries, you often need a separate marketing strategy for each target market; this includes distinct branding, packaging, and messaging.

Online marketing is no exception. When it comes to ranking in search results in different countries, you should have a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy for each country you're targeting.

A number of factors affect your rankings in any given country. Some are more crucial than others, and developing a comprehensive international SEO strategy requires both technical and content elements.

How comprehensive your international SEO strategy is should depend on your budget, internal resources, and the actual market opportunities that exist abroad.

The Different Versions of Google

Google geo-targets its search results in two different ways.

First, Google has its country specific versions, such as Google.co.uk for the UK and Google.ca for Canada. Each of these deliver search results that are more appropriate for users from the relevant country.

Then there are the different versions of Google.com. Basically, there is Google.com in the U.S. and Google.com abroad. What this means is that when users abroad go to Google.com, they don't get "American," "international," or "objective" search results. Rather, they get a blend of "international" results and results targeted for their geo-location.

So if you want to target multiple countries, you'll need to focus on your rankings on several different search engine result pages (SERPs). First and foremost, you'll want to rank on certain country-specific versions of Google, but you'll also want to rank in the SERPs of Google.com for searches done from your target countries.

So what exactly influences whether a site or page ranks within a specific country? Well, there are four key factors, both onsite and off.

1. Top Level Domains: TLD vs ccTLD

One of the first indications that Google considers in determining the geographic relevance of a site is its Top Level Domain (TLD). Simply put, this is the extension that appears at the end of a domain name, such as .com, .edu., etc.

There are two kinds of TLDs: general TLDs and country specific TLDs (ccTLDs). The more relevant a TLD is to specific country, the more likely that that site will rank in the SERPs for that country.

General TLDs tend to be the oldest and most common ones, .com, .net, .org, etc. These don't really indicate any country and are better for ranking internationally -- such as when you have a parent site of a multinational brand.

Then there are ccTLDs, such as co.uk for the UK, .de for Germany and .ca for Canada. These are more suited for ranking within a specific country. However, they can limit your ability to rank internationally.

So if you're targeting multiple countries, you should consider obtaining the relevant ccTLDs. Keep in mind, however, that some countries require you have some kind of presence in that country to register a ccTLD, so you may need to budget for administrative costs, such as registering a business or address in those countries.

2. IP Address

The IP address of a website is another factor that Google considers in determining a site's geographic relevance. It's not a huge factor, but it can make a difference.

The IP address of a site is determined by the server that the site is hosted on. This means that if you're building a geo-targeted site, you might want to host it in the country it's targeting.

At this point, you might need to shop around for hosting providers. For starters, if your company has its own in-house servers, you might need to rent additional rackspace in the countries you're targeting.

Similarly, if your web hosting is outsourced to a hosting provider, you need to verify whether your web host can provide different geo-targeted IP addresses for each of your country specific sites.

3. Onsite Content

They say that "content is king" for a lot of reasons, but one of those is SEO. Basically, one of the most fundamental factors of SEO is onsite content. This includes page copy, page titles, and meta descriptions.

So if you're targeting specific country, you should develop optimized onsite content for that country. This is particularly true for targeting different linguistic markets. You'll need landing pages with page titles, meta descriptions, and page copy (e.g. product descriptions) in the relevant languages.

4. Backlink Profile

No SEO strategy is complete without some offsite SEO, and this is why any geo-targeted site will also need targeted backlinks from relevant and related sites. To begin, the more backlinks you have, the better your site will rank. But you also need backlinks with targeted anchor text from pages/sites with related content and that rank in the SERPs on related keywords.

Now, just as Google considers the TLD, IP address, and onsite content of your own site, it will also consider the TLD, IP address, and onsite content of the sites linking back to you. What this means is that you'll need a link building strategy for each of your country specific properties.

For example, if you're trying to rank in the UK, it's much more effective to have links from .co.uk sites (hosted in the UK) linking to your UK property than it would be to have links from .com or .org sites.

Building Country Specific Sites that Rank

Generally, there are three different ways you can approach building a country specific site that ranks in the SERPs: you can create separate sites on separate TLDs/ccTLDs; you can use country specific subdomains on your main TLD; or you can create country specific subdirectories on your TLD.

Each of these approaches has their advantages and disadvantages, and each represents varying levels of investment and maintenance. The one that's right for you will depend on several factors, such as budget and available IT resources.

1. Separate Sites on Separate Domains

The most targeted option for ranking in a specific country is to have a unique site with the relevant ccTLDs. However, while this option is ideal for SEO purposes, it's also the most expensive, both from a set-up and maintenance perspective.

This option, then, is best suited for enterprise level e-commerce operations that depend on maximizing sales in several markets at once, and have sufficient marketing budgets to do so.

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2. Subdomains for Each Target Market

A cost-effective alternative to having separate sites for each country is to set up country specific subdomains (e.g. uk.domain.com, etc.). It will be more challenging to rank a subdomain locally than it would a ccTLD, but subdomains do offer some attractive economies of scope:

  1. Site maintenance becomes more straightforward.

  2. Each subdomain can still have its own country specific IP address.

  3. Every link pointing to a subdomain will also contribute to the overall ranking of the parent TLD.

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3. Subdirectories for Each Target Market

Lastly, there is the option of having country specific subdirectories (e.g. domain.com/uk) on your main TLD. While this route is, by far, the least SEO friendly, it's also the cheapest to maintain, and might make a lot more sense for smaller e-commerce portals that don't have the resources to invest in managing different sites and inventories of products and services.

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Worldwide Rankings

The reality of marketing abroad is that while some markets represent a potential source of revenue, they can't offer a sufficient volume of business to warrant a major investment. For example, Canada is only 10 percent the size of the U.S., but because of its proximity to the U.S. and the cultural similarities, it represents low-hanging fruit (i.e., a 10 percent increase in sales).

The point is that you might choose to build country specific sites for some marketing, but opt for subdomains or subdirectories for others. It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.

So in the end, you should approach international SEO the same you would any other global marketing effort. Each market should be carefully weighed for the opportunity it offers, and your SEO resources should be invested proportionally.

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