With all the hype around global growth of search engines and so many companies looking outside their borders for their next round of revenue, it's no wonder a flurry of articles have been written on globalizing your search marketing programs. Unfortunately, some of these recommendations have been incorrect, confusing, or not focused on some of the biggest mistakes people make.
Top-Level Domains & Local Hosting
Everyone says the most foolproof method of signaling to a search engine your content is unique to a country is to get a top-level domain (TLD) and host it locally. The problem? You don't always need to, and should evaluate the need on a market-by-market basis.
I've worked on business case justifications with companies where they estimated the additional funding necessary to manage a multi-domain/local host deployment ranged from $25,000 to $500,000 per country per year. This estimated expense has made it nearly impossible to justify this strategy despite the most optimistic of traffic increases. What can you do if, like most companies, you don't have the resources to adopt a local TLD or even host locally?
Start by segmenting the problems and the opportunity for each market. If it's a language unique to a country (e.g., Japanese, Korean or Thai) or you're targeting one of the language-specific engines (e.g., Yandex or Naver), then don't worry about local domains because no location variable is necessary.
However, you will have a problem if you plan to target the U.K., Australia, or Singapore, because the search engines rely on the common location signals of TLD and/or local hosting to designate content in these markets.
Rather than going the TLD/hosting route, simply set your site correctly in Google's geographical tool, which eliminates the need for local hosting or even a TLD.
I've used this approach very successfully for some of the largest sites in the world. It doesn't help you in Yahoo or Bing in these key markets where Google is the dominant engine, but this offers a free solution to help build the business case for investment in local hosting to grab traffic from the other engines.
Regional Content Isn't Local Content
Many companies have created regional sites for Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East to showcase their regional presence in a market until they can build out the appropriate levels of content. The problem is corporate executives now want this content to rank well in all of the local markets, even though this isn't possible.
The solution to this problem is not to spin out 20-odd versions of a single Spanish translation of the site and let it be good enough for all for these markets. One poor soul told me after my global session at SES San Jose that his "global SEO agency" told him to do just that.
As any high school Spanish student can tell you, this plan won't work. Beyond the obvious linguistics and cultural problems, the content is an exact copy. Search engines simply see this as 20 versions of the same content, resulting in 19 variations being pushed to the supplemental index -- never to be seen again.
Beyond putting the content in nifty subdomains or directories, you also need to send local signals (e.g., local currency, phone numbers) that make content unique to a country. However, if all the versions refer to the Euro for pricing or the same phone number in Mexico City, it's highly likely it will be flagged for duplicate content.
For more tips check out Matt Cutts' timely video covering how Google is handling the issue of global Web site duplicate content.
Additionally, the single most effective method for ensuring you don't get hit with duplicate content penalties is to use their geographical designator tool. And to be clear: even this magical tool doesn't completely absolve you of the sin of spinning off multiple duplicate content pages as unique.
Did They Localize Everything?
Don't expect your localizer to use keyword research best practices or even know where to integrate popular phases into key locations on your pages. I've seen cases where the title tags and meta descriptions are still in English, or even in Russian, on a French content page. It's critical that your localization partner understands the key areas that you must ensure get translated, as well as contain keywords.
In addition to the usual suspects, "noscript" content and other critical content maintained in XML files are often left out of the localization process. This problem will grow more acute with so many developers leveraging gradual degradation methodologies to optimize for search engines and mobile users.
Improvise, Overcome, Adapt for Success
Before you jump into buying domains and negotiations with multiple hosting providers, make sure the basics are covered, free options are leveraged, and think out of the box for less traditional approaches to these problems.
Develop a matrix of the country and language issues, inventory your assets and the search demand, and make a decision on the traffic potential of each market and the degree of difficulty reaching it. In many cases, it may make sense to spend your time increasing performance of multiple non-English markets, rather than overhauling your whole operation to reach a single English-language market.