Any U.S. company looking to expand into foreign markets must first ask whether this is the best decision for their business. Laws, payment processing, and taxation are all questions for legal and your accountant, so let's instead focus on the pros and cons of foreign expansion from an SEO and marketing standpoint.
For anyone heading into foreign markets, the first consideration is the smaller market available in those areas. U.S. companies looking to market into Canada using SEO, for example, are marketing now to population roughly one-tenth the size.
On the other side of the coin, because of the smaller markets and the generally reduced interest in attaining them, the competition is almost always lower.
The big question is how much work will it be to increase your targeted traffic in the U.S. market against your current competition? If you compare that with the work required to expand into foreign markets and find that the balance is in your favor, then you know what to do. Answering this question can require in-depth keyword and competition analysis.
We all search differently. While there are significant differences in how various regions in the U.S. search, the differences are even larger when one bridges through larger cultural gaps such as marketing into the UK or Canada. From spelling differences and even word differences (“truck” in the U.S. vs. “lorry” in the UK) to tendencies – you need to be aware of what you're heading into and what it means.
We're all already aware of spelling differences such as color vs. colour, but when we look at sectors more closely you'll find there are a lot of other differences. In Canada, for example, people are more apt to look for reviews and include words like “review” or “compare” in many of their service and product searches. This tells us what we need to do for keywords and a lot about intent and desire.
When launching an SEO campaign into foreign markets, you need to know what these keyword targets should be and what your site needs to deliver. You may also need to look outside your central keywords.
If you’re a property management company should you be targeting “accommodations” or “lodgings”? That depends on who you're marketing to (and can sometimes even depend on what time of year you're marketing, depending on the place).
Is your website all wrong? A red, white, and blue website with a big “Made in America” logo works very well in the U.S. market and so it should. But if you're marketing to the UK, will it really have the same impact? It may not work against you per se, but if it's not helping then its real estate that can be better used.
You also need to understand the people you're marketing to. Read and review the ranking websites in that country and get an understating for the sensibilities they cater to.
What imagery appeals to that market, what spellings, and even what slang is used are all very useful. Make your foreign readers feel comfortable with what you're saying and it's likely they won't even question that you're geographically located away from them. You understand them and their needs – what more can they ask?
One vs. Multiple Sites
So if your site is all wrong what can you do about it? We end up asking whether it's better to optimize one site for multiple locations or host a different site for each geographical location.
To be clear: I'm not one to promote using multiple sites to rank multiple times for the same phrase, but there are advantages to hosting unique websites for each location. Major online giants such as Expedia, eBay, and even Google do just this.
The advantage to maintaining one site is clear – it's a lot easier to manage the content. That's also one of the biggest disadvantages simply because the same content isn't going to work for all audiences. Also, providing different content for different location on the same site (using IP detection for example) may well set you up for a cloaking penalty if not done exactly right.
Hosting multiple sites for different location gives you the opportunity to cater the content to that specific audience and make adjustments to the site based on the statistics pulled from just that segment.
If you hosted “yoursite.ca” to cater to the Canadian market and noticed visitors were bouncing away you'd know who they were and be able to analyze the site to determine why fairly easily. Furthermore, you wouldn't be limited in how you react to that data – worrying always about losing your US visitors in any changes.
A hosted site for each market also allows you to follow the semantics and spelling differences. You may want to have your copy written by someone in that country just to be sure you're truly covering the voice of that population.
Having multiple sites will further give you the opportunity to host your site in the country you wish to rank in and using the country-specific URL for that region. This will give you the double benefit of building trust with your targeted visitors and help in your SEO efforts.
There is some disagreement among SEOs on the value of country-based domains and on hosting location. I personally feel they do hold weight as factors and have seen cases to support this numerous times. If it doesn't matter then it's a zero-sum scenario; and if it does, you'll come out ahead. So why not?
Just to be very clear: I'm not supporting the use of multiple sites to rank multiple times for the same phrase on any one engine. This practice doesn't help the searcher and could cause you to suffer penalties, which won't help you in any way.
In-depth competitive analysis on ranking sites domestically vs. into foreign markets clearly illustrates the advantages of acquiring links from foreign website to point to your site. This seems to be the case whether you're trying to rank in foreign markets or not. We've seen:
- .com U.S. site rank highly in foreign markets with solid links from that geographical location.
- co.uk sites fare poorly in the UK market with the majority of their links being from U.S.-based websites.
- .co.uk sites faring better against .com domains even if the .com has more links from the UK.
When you're looking at your link building strategy, you’re going to need to focus it on links from that region. This isn't to say that you should refuse a solid link from outside the area, but when you're focusing your specific energies – they need to be focused where they'll get the most effect and that's from the region you're trying to rank well in.
You're going to have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Ranking one or multiple sites across multiple regions (or at least ranking well across them all) can be a large task, but the efforts can often prove highly fruitful as most foreign markets are less competitive than their U.S. counterparts. While it'll take time and effort, it may well take less time and effort than the amount of work required for the same overall traffic and ROI increases by focusing entirely on the U.S.
Diversity is security. The broader your marketing and client-base, the more secure you are from economic, currency, and even algorithm shifts.