"But can't I just optimize my U.S. site and then translate it?"
Sound familiar? I can't tell you how many times I've heard that from large global organizations. If only it was that easy. Unfortunately, it's not. The fact is, SEO presents unique challenges for global organizations, especially when the offering is essentially the same, but accessible worldwide.
Developing an SEO strategy for a global brand in one country is no easy task; but just thinking about launching that brand globally can be overwhelming for some. However, as daunting as the task may seem, if you have a strong international presence, you should start thinking about SEO globally from day one.
If you don't – depending on how your Web sites are managed and how your technology is setup – optimizing your site for just one country might create more challenges in the long run. Ultimately, when you eventually begin thinking about a global strategy, it may even cause you to go back and change what you've changed once already.
Quite simply, if you have a global presence, your SEO strategy should be global as well. Below are a few things to keep in mind when developing your strategy.
To begin, let's all agree that search is search and that relevancy is relevancy, and that it holds true all around the globe. Consequently, there is no reason for the core of an algorithm to act differently depending on where you are in the world. However, from a user's perspective, search needs to be relevant to their location. This is especially true in regard to language.
But when it comes to extending brand presence around the globe, some marketers think that all they need to do is hire a translation company and create some additional pages. Unfortunately, that approach won't suffice.
To be most effective, content needs be localized in many ways, whether it is an alternate spelling for a word, the vernacular used by the locals, or even the slang that is common for the region. For example, a hotel is a hotel regardless of its location in the world, but the site's content needs to speak to the locals – it needs to match how they search. Given that I'm Australian, I would never go on a "vacation," but instead a "holiday." I may also use language such as "get away" or "RDO weekend" to find a hotel for a long weekend. Can anyone guess what an "RDO" is?
The biggest challenge with adjusting content to reflect local language trends is the risk of excluding those who are searching from outside the area. For example, if a large travel entity such as Marriott or Hilton have a hotel in downtown Sydney, should they optimize their content for Australians, using language such as "holidays" and "get aways?" Or, should they instead focus on "vacations" because they're trying to attract visitors from the U.S.? Ultimately, they will either have to settle on language that speaks to a particular audience, or they will have multiple variations of the exact same property (which could raise concerns about duplicate content issues).
It's interesting to see the many ways that large organizations skin this cat. For example, Apple and Microsoft utilize subfolders to distinguish between various language versions of their Web site. Sites like Mercedes-Benz.com, Nokia, and Google use country domain extensions. And sites such as Yahoo and MSN mix it up a little and use either country domain extension or unique sub-domains for each country.
So, which strategy is better? While each approach has unique benefits, there are many factors that go into making the decision, such as technical constraints, content management systems, and even local business owners – all of which are usually outside the marketing department's control.
But beyond those elements, it is also equally important to keep in mind the specific audience you seek, which engines are key in any given country, and more importantly, how they work by default. Since results are favored by default to the country where the search takes place, you may want to exhaust the possibility of creating country domain extensions with country-specific content. For example, if I'm viewing Google in Australia and I conduct a search, by default the results are served from pages pertaining to Australia, unless I check the "search the Web" radio box before I click the search button. How many people do you think change the default setting? Therefore, if you don't have a local domain extension, you're at a disadvantage.
Management of a Global SEO Strategy
Managing a global brand is tough enough as it is; the last thing you need is a renegade that may threaten your search presence in any given market, or globally for that matter. Therefore, it is incredibly important that someone within the organization take the lead on your global SEO strategy. While individual stake holders within given countries can run their own local efforts, a centrally coordinated and managed strategy will be the most effective. Specifically, there should be rules of engagement, guidelines, and best practices that become institutionalized globally so that everyone involved is on the same page. Such an approach could prove instrumental, especially in countries where the management and ownership of the Web presence is an even bigger challenge because it is decentralized and so many people are involved.
I realize that this may sound easier than it actually is, especially considering that SEO rules differ around the globe. Also, the rules are often challenged by one individual or another, and can be viewed as corporate dictating. But ultimately, a centralized SEO strategy will be worth the effort. And while it should be centrally developed and managed, localized support is paramount. It will not only foster buy-in, it will also provide insight from local experts that will ensure you're always thinking like the locals.
Overall, developing a global SEO strategy is not an easy undertaking – not by a long shot. However, if you have a worldwide presence, you should be thinking about SEO globally...and sooner rather than later.