International SEO Challenges and Tips

Over the course of the past year, many companies with international Web sites have approached my company. They were looking for the "easy" way to optimize their sites for each country. You might be surprised by the issues that many of these large companies face.

When I hear people comment that "SEO isn't that difficult...just build a Web site that is search engine friendly and that's pretty much it," these are the kinds of issues that tell me, "No, it's not that easy." There are little things, here and there, that if you weren't a practicing SEO, you may not take into account.

Here are a few challenges that companies with an international Web presence face, and some advice for how to create an optimal Web presence that can do well in international search engines.

Domains

When it comes to doing things "the right way" for SEO, it all begins with domain selection. That's true whether it's for one Web site to be promoted in the United States, or for a group of Web sites you're optimizing to promote your business internationally.

For international SEO, you really should have a TLD (top level domain) for each country you're targeting. This is more complicated than you might think. Many countries mandate that you have an actual physical business location in that country before you can obtain a TLD. To gain a German (.de) top-level-domain, for example, you must operate an office in Germany.

This is a valid consideration for search engines, as they're trying to rank the most relevant search result for the searcher. If you were searching while in Canada, on google.ca, Google figures that domains with .ca might be a better result for you than .com. The top three rankings for "travel" on Google.ca are Expedia.ca, Expedia.com, and Yahoo Canada Travel.

Pretty interesting that Expedia.ca ranks better than Expedia.com. When you look at how many pages Expedia.ca has indexed on Google.ca, you'll see that there are "only" 132,000 pages. When you look at how many pages are indexed for Expedia.com, on Google.ca, you'll see that there are 1,630,000. You would typically expect expedia.com to outrank .ca, based upon these fundamentals -- especially because Expedia.com's title tag is better optimized for the keyword "travel."

When you look at the backlinks indexed on Google.ca for these Web sites, you'll see that Expedia.ca has fewer (730) than Expedia.com's 7,150. Again, you would expect (from a very high level) that .com would outrank .ca. Not on Google.ca, however. The domain matters.

Hosting

More often than not, large corporations have a mandate that their Web sites be hosted in one facility, serving the globe. Search engines are looking at the host location (IP) of Web sites to try and deliver the most relevant results for the searcher.

Ideally, you'd have the ability to host your unique TLDs in-country. So, if you're targeting Germany, you need a .de Web site and host this within Germany.

If you operate in 19 countries, take this same principle and roll it out globally. There are some things that you can do to help get your site properly indexed in Google, if you absolutely can't get around this.

Content

This may be the single largest issue I come across. If you're going to truly operate globally, then doesn't it make sense to take the time and effort to localize your content for each country that you operate in?

In many instances, companies told me, "Well, we're only interested in English-speaking audiences, anyhow." This is their rationale for running duplicate content globally.

If you're going through the time and expense of operating globally, shouldn't you give equal consideration to your Web presence? Too often, the Web site gets short-changed, and companies take the quickest and easiest path to operate internationally.

This quick and easy path could actually cost the company untold amounts of money, in terms of lost opportunity. Take the time. Spend the money. Do it right and see where it takes you in the long run.

Localization of content is a premise that's going to stick for the foreseeable future. Search engines want to deliver the most relevant results that they can, and their method of determining relevant extends beyond just the "basics" of how many pages you have indexed and how many (and what quality) of backlinks you have indexed.

Certainly, this column doesn't cover everything that you have to do to successfully optimize your Web site for multiple countries (haven't even discussed linking strategies), but it does provide you with some of the basic foundation for ensuring that you're setting up your efforts for success.

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About the author

Mark Jackson, President and CEO of Vizion Interactive, a search engine optimization company. Mark joined the interactive marketing fray in early 2000. His journey began with Lycos/Wired Digital and then AOL/Time Warner. After having witnessed the bubble burst and its lingering effects on stability on the job front (learning that working for a "large company" does not guarantee you a position, no matter your job performance), Mark established an interactive marketing agency and has cultivated it into one of the most respected search engine optimization firms in the United States.

Vizion Interactive was founded on the premise that honesty, integrity, and transparency forge the pillars that strong partnerships should be based upon. Vizion Interactive is a full service interactive marketing agency, specializing in search engine optimization, search engine marketing/PPC management, SEO friendly Web design/development, social media marketing, and other leading edge interactive marketing services, including being one of the first 50 beta testers of Google TV.

Mark is a board member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM) and a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Interactive Marketing Association (DFWIMA) and is a regular speaker at the SES and Pubcon conferences.

Mark received a BA in Journalism/Advertising from The University of Texas at Arlington in 1993 and spent several years in traditional marketing (radio, television, and print) prior to venturing into all things "Web."

Read more of Mark Jackson's columns at ClickZ.