Developing an SEO strategy to tackle different demographics is difficult. When those demographics are scattered across different regions, the situation gets even harder as you're no longer just looking at user behavior, but also at different ranking signals that need to be sent.
Let's explore some of the core considerations that every SEO professional and business owner needs to make when looking to gain traction internationally.
One area this post won't get into is conversion optimization and conversion tracking, as that's its own discipline. What we're going to look at are the nuts-and-bolts of some of the core factors that have a significant impact on a site's ability to rank internationally.
Understand the Environment
Before we head into discussing some of the areas that need to be addressed to rank internationally, let's take a moment to consider what you're up against.
Let's say you're a U.S.-based company selling blue widgets. You've built a good business base in the US and now you're looking to expand your reach into, for example, Canada.
You're going to be up against Canadian firms with established businesses in the country and have sites already geared to rank there. Essentially, you'll be looking to extend your reach into an area where there are companies focused on just this one country.
I liken this to running in "Amazing Race". When the racers hit a country no one has been to, everyone is even. However, when they're running and one team has a better understanding of the language, culture, and how to get around, they tend to break away from the pack more easily. It's not that they can't be beaten, they simply have a significant advantage. That's where you'll find yourself when entering a new market.
Be prepared to be up against websites with inherent advantages. Generally it will take more effort for you to take a position that it will take them to keep it. The reasons for this will become clear as we go through some of the key areas you need to consider in your efforts.
One of the first areas you'll need to consider is what domain(s) you are using and where they are hosted. Domain hosting location is a factor.
Essentially, if you're hosting in Germany, you get a stronger association with Germany. Add to that a .de domain name and you've further reinforced your association with the country.
So that leads to the question, "Why wouldn't I just build a site for every country?" To answer this is easiest with another question, "To get ranking in your native country, did you just throw up a site and suddenly you were ranking in the top 10?" The answer is undoubtedly a "No" and so you need to consider the effort that's going to be required to rank each site on its own merits and the work required to provide quality content and trustable links to each.
Essentially it comes down to this: will it be more work to rank a different domain from scratch and keep it maintained, or to overcome the limitations in not being able to take advantage of hosting and domain perks but have the strength of a linked-to and populated site to hit the ground running. This will depend on the resources and deployment you plan on putting in. Here is an example of scenarios where I would recommend each of the different options:
You have staff on the ground and an office in each country you want to focus on. Providing a steady stream of content relevant to that demographic is doable and desirable and the market is large enough to warrant such. Essentially, you're considering a scenario where the full user experience would be tailored to a specific region and its needs (google.de for example).
In this environment, you should create a site around the country-specific domain and hosting that site in the target nation (as you probably guessed). It's going to be a lot of work, but having people on the ground you'll have access to regular copy as well as link and social opportunities.
You're selling blue widgets in your home country successfully and want to sell abroad. You don't have a sales or support team in different locations as your orders come online. You've got a limited budget and need to make the most of it.
Almost always in this instance, you should build a single site. Focus your energies and take advantage of the non-domain factors as much as possible. The work required to build, rank, and maintain multiple websites outweighs any advantage the domain factors may lend. There are exceptions to this, but they are the minority.
Each scenario is unique and there isn't a global rule as to whether to use country-based TLDs or a single site. Hopefully you know what your resources are and where your own individual strength and limitations are. If not, however, you're welcome to list your scenario in the comments below for additional advice. SEW readers and writers tend to be a pretty helpful group and I'll be monitoring them as well.
Letting Google know that you're geographically tied to a region isn't necessary, but it's definitely helpful. If you have a physical location in the country you're expanding into, be sure to list it on Google Places and connect it to either your website (if you have one specific to that region) or to a page within that site dedicated to the region.
To further the cause, you'll want to tie other aspects of your Google profile to your location (and fortunately tying your site your Google profile is pretty much always a good thing) and so you'll want to do the following:
- If you have folks on the ground in the target region, having them write blog posts as well as articles or guest posts for third-party sites and tying those, using the author attribute, to the author's Google profile (which in turn is tied to the website) is always a good idea.
- Verify your subfolders in Google Webmaster Tools and assign the appropriate regions to those folders. To do this you simple have to add the subfolder as a site (for example, www.mybluewidgets.com/de/) and associate it with the country it targets.
Google gathers additional signals on a website's regional relevancy by the location of the links to it. This happens in a similar fashion to the association given by hosting location and TLD, except by association as opposed to direct. In short, if your website's Japanese page has a link from a .jp domain hosted in Japan, Google derives from this that the site is relevant in Japan.
What this functionally means is that to your region-based domain/sub-domain/sub-folder should have links developed to it from the target region. Tools such as Majestic SEO allow for the filtering of site backlinks by location and/or TLD. These can be very helpful in getting a start, though it's obviously beneficial to simply develop marketing strategies targeting these countries that will, in turn, result in citations and links from domains in the region.
Should you select to host the multiple regional sections on the same domain, one of the benefits you'll gain here is that the links will pass weight that then cascades throughout the site.
Language and Definitions
Clearly one of the major purposes of hosting different sites/sections is to provide information to different countries/languages. Nothing will irritate a consumer more than poorly translated copy (or why wouldn't they just be using a translation tool). You'll need to have a copywriter who speaks the target language intimately to capture the nuances.
Further, you'll need to redo your keyword research. Just because someone may search "blue widgets online" in the U.S., doesn't mean that those in other countries search the same way. A simple straight-across translation may not capture the keyword focus being used in different countries. This should be done prior to the translation obviously.
And of course, it's always wise to define the language using the meta tag. A definition for German would appear as:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Language" content="de">
This simply sends one more signal that the pages of content on your site are designed for German speakers further adding intent and relevancy.
English To English
There's also the problem of English to English. What if you're simply a U.S. company wanting to expand the market into Canada or the UK where English is the dominant language?
A full translation of the site would seem an unnecessary task. While some could argue for regional subtleties (color vs. colour for example) overall, you'd end up with a massive amount of duplicated content unless you wanted to rewrite the entire site. Even then, it would be hard to justify under manual review (and it's always wise to avoid strategies that wouldn't stand up to such a review.
In these events, and they're common, it's smart to rely on the factors that can be controlled and focus energies on tying regional signals via links and social considerations as well as including specific regional conveniences (and signal reinforcers) such as currency alternatives.
While expanding one's market is generally a good thing, what people often forget is that you still have to maintain what you have, so make sure you have the resources. Many wars have been lost simply by trying to fight them on too many fronts.
If you have just enough resources to dedicate to a successful SEO strategy in your own country, it doesn't make sense to expand in that you'll be drawing resources away from the strategy that's keeping the lights on. You need to make sure it's the right decision for your business and if it is, make sure that you're picking the right strategies to maximize your odds of success in the shortest period of time.
For those of you in this process presently, good luck. And to those of you who've been there and done that – feel free to share your tales below.