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International SEO Gone Wrong: 7 Assumptions Can Ruin Your Program

David Cato
by , Comments

We Shall Decide Your Level of Fail

Your domestic SEO program is progressing well. Your rankings are up, traffic is up, and conversions are looking good. But something is seriously amiss abroad.

Those optimizations you sent to the UK team still haven't been implemented. Your optimizations went live in Germany and increased rankings, but conversion rates have plummeted.

What gives? You may be operating with the following seven assumptions that are ruining your enterprise international program:

1. I can do some in-country training, perhaps some global seminars and everyone will be ready to help the SEO program succeed.

Wrong. All the training in the world is worth nothing if people don’t understand and value the importance of SEO. Not just the theoretical value either; they need to understand why they need it now.

Evangelism between teams and departments is far more important than training. Training is a process that follows easily once people are actually interested in what you are talking about, along with the ROI you can bring them.

2. I need a resource in each country in order to get my optimizations and technical fixes implemented.

Wrong. Do you enjoy playing 52-card pickup? Additional resources sound great in theory, but in practice every person you add to the team adds communications, training, and organizational overhead needed to operate.

Furthermore, most of these countries will only allow you perhaps 10-20 percent of a full-time employee. When deadlines are tight, which program is going to be delayed? Yours will.

Instead, focus on regional resources that can dedicate a significant portion of their work week to the SEO cause. It decreases overhead, and those regional resources can still work together with country-specific stakeholders to get things done.

3. I should only optimize for the dominant or official language in each country.

Wrong. This idea is great in theory, and there will even be times when this is the best option, but with many large and competitive markets this is a recipe for failure.

What product are you selling? Who is more likely to buy it? How much do you have to invest? Is the official language of a country its dominant language in search?

Official studies put the number of languages spoken in India somewhere around 325, with 22 of those being recognized as official languages by the government. Consequently optimization for India is often done in a non-official and non-native language, English. There could be significantly less competition using a secondary language or you may be able to more accurately target your customers by leveraging their most spoken tongue, and thereby lower your SEO costs.

In addition, there could be very large and under-served expat populations or people born in the country who still speak their ethnic language. In the U.S., according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 16 percent of Americans identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino, with that number expected to rise to 30 percent by 2050.

A 2007 US Census Bureau report put the number of Americans speaking Spanish “very well” in their homes at more than 18 million people with an additional 6 million or so speaking it “well,” while nearly 7 million Americans spoke an Indo-European language “very well” at home and more than 4 million spoke an Asian or Pacific Island language “very well” at home.

In the U.S., there are tens of millions of non-English speakers who represent a huge potential audience that may be underserved when it comes to organic search – meaning an inexpensive way to reach new consumers right here at home.

4. Search is search. We should take the strategy that worked domestically and roll it out to our additional countries.

Wrong. Different regions and cultures search dramatically differently.

Domestically, mobile search may not be a significant enough market to warrant investment, but if you’re expanding to India you had better consider mobile phones in your program. Even keyword usage differs greatly on the same device type. Some cultures search much more around features, comparisons, or price.

5. I should optimize country-by-country.

Wrong. Though we often divide up our projects by country because, let’s be honest, it’s an easy way to categorize things (not to mention budget allocations).

Limiting your optimizations to a country-by-country mentality is slightly myopic. Instead, remember that while countries have boundaries, cultures do not. A culturalpolicies.net compilation of Eurostat data shows the number of non-nationals residing in countries across Europe with some countries showing up to 35 percent of the population as non-nationals.

Focus more on the different cultures in a region when you’re localizing content and strategizing.

6. We have an effective link building strategy domestically. We can use it as a model as we expand our efforts across the globe.

Wrong. Often times what works at home is unlikely to work abroad. Each region will have its own unique ecosystem of blogs, publications, and resources.

In some areas, simply having good content is enough to get you results. In others, you are going to have to foster long-term relationships, partner with public relations firms, or simply ask for help from regional experts.

In many of these cases you may be able to leverage existing in-country relationships already developed by your PR or social media team, while in others you’ll need to pave your own way by using language-specific resources for writing and outreach.

Also consider the differences in search engines dominant in various countries. For example, you’ll find differences in how Yandex, Baidu, and Naver value content on and off of your site.

7. Let’s find the keywords with the highest local exact match volume and prioritize based on that.

Wrong. This may work well in some countries where searches are focused around a select few head terms, but even then you will be missing a massive portion of effective SEO – competition.

Different regions are going to have different competitors in different categories. One of your lines of business may have a steep hill to climb in EMEA, but virtually no barrier to entry in LATAM. Especially with a relatively new SEO program, it’s important to prioritize based on competition in conjunction with opportunity. On top of that, some cultures trend towards low search volumes in head terms, but massive volume for long-tail combinations. Research and react accordingly.

Even in the most organized enterprise businesses, coordinating an international SEO program can feel a lot like herding cats. Still, as common markets mature and competition increases, optimizing abroad may provide you with the highest return on your spend. Can you afford to assume too much?


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