International SEO 101

So is SEO different for non-English sites? With roughly 63 percent of the world’s online population being languages other than English, international SEO, otherwise known as global SEO or multilingual SEO, is an important component to an effective global Internet marketing strategy.

Most standard search engines and directories have a local version for different countries. Search Engine Colossus has a nice international directory of search engines.

As you would guess, some search engines are better than others and work differently, too. They also have different criteria for inclusion. Some may demand that the site be in the local language, others demand a local URL, and still others expect the company to be incorporated locally. These are some of the challenges you’ll face as you conduct SEO for different country sites.

Another important point: Google results, for instance, may differ from country to country. Just because you’ve achieved a certain rank for targeted keywords for the U.S. doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the same results for France, for instance.

Know Your Audience

One of the first steps for international SEO is to research whether the target audience uses local search engines and, if so, which ones.

Global Internet Usage Statistics is a good resource to get a pulse on the local population of Internet users by country. This is helpful if you’re planning a strategy to begin marketing in countries outside the U.S. Whether this is your strategy or you already have an existing operation in another company, you need to consider some of these SEO best practices.

Search Engine Friendly Design: Web Page Code

One of the first places to start is looking at your Web page code. Most traditional SEO best practices still apply for international site development. One addition will be to add the native language within each page of HTML code.

Another consideration for SEO-friendly design is developing multiple sites in different languages. There might be some concerns that this may be a duplicate content issue. If, however, you distinguish content using the appropriate country code top-level domain or a subdomain, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Domain Extensions

It’s also important that you use the domain extensions of each country you have a Web presence in. For instance, if you’re trying to optimize for, having a domain with an .it extension will be to your advantage.

Some countries demand that you have a physical company operating in the same country as the domain extension you use. Search engines try to provide the most relevant information to its searchers. Enforcing these rules helps them achieve better results.


Another objective is to host the site in the country where the site resides. Again, the same principle as with domains, if possible you should host your Web site in the targeted country (Germany, U.K., Spain, etc). You will likely get better and more relevant results.

See Mark Jackson‘s article on hosting and domain challenges for more information.

Use the Native Language

It’s often worthwhile to develop content using the native language where the site resides. This again helps provide more relevant results and provides a richer user experience.

If you have similar languages (e.g., American English and British English), you might want to consider spelling certain words accordingly, such as “soccer” or “football.” These little changes can make a lot of difference.

Also, include addresses on your site that have the local addresses. This will help with relevance and can help you with ranking and driving visitors to a local storefront. It’s also a good practice to increase inbound links from other sites in the same country.

Developing a Keyword Strategy

One of the challenges with keyword research is to truly identify the language of the customer so we can include this language on our Web site and in our search marketing efforts. With international SEO, this challenge is magnified by localization, different languages, and cultures.

Keywords that might be popular in one language may not be in another, even through translation. Even if an experienced translator has translated correctly, it doesn’t mean it’s always the most popular. For example, more than 20 character combinations can be used for “anti virus” in Mandarin Chinese, with one or two being the most popular by searchers.

The overall objective of your keyword strategy is to identify and prioritize a set of keywords that best matches the core objectives of the site you’re optimizing. Remember, it’s all about understanding and addressing the needs and wants of the local consumer, not about you and your company.

Carefully think through your overall strategy. Take the time to learn all you can about the local consumer. There are a number of steps to reach this objective.

Keyword Research Steps

The main steps for developing your keyword list are similar to keyword research that you might do in your primary language:

  1. Mine all possible keyword candidates (don’t leave anything out at this point).
  2. Filter and rate keywords by things like business relevance, popularity, competition, etc.
  3. Narrow this list further through researching keywords and testing them.
  4. Prioritize your keyword list.

Open your mind to all of the possibilities of keywords that exist. Don’t second-guess yourself. Put everything you come up with in the list. You may even use keyword tools to help you expand your list even further.

Once you have a full list, start narrowing the list down. You can do this by rating them based on how popular they are, or how relevant they are to your site’s objectives, etc. Then score them and sort to help you see which ones rank higher.

Next, research and test your “short list” to see how they might perform. If you have the budget, a great way to test is to do some short PPC campaigns to see how your keywords perform. Once you have the results, you should then prioritize them. Work the list and set up benchmarks and measurement parameters to check progress.

Keyword Research Tools

There are many keyword-related tools, but there aren’t too many for doing language research. You might want to consider ones that have language-specific capabilities, including Google Keyword Suggestion Tool, Google SK Tool, and Keyword Discovery.

Many of the tools are designed to be just for a local market like Baidu for keywords in China. Motoko Hunt has posted about Yahoo Japan’s new keyword assist tool, as well as other great tips for localization.

Cultural Considerations

As you conduct your keyword research and develop a campaign, also consider your message and tone. We’ve all heard of horror stories where someone spoke a different language, and what they intended to say and what was said were two very different things.

Hire localization and language experts to help you when you’re researching keywords. They will understand the culture and attitudes better, and can bring you closer to getting the right words that resonate with your target audience.

Different Languages

It’s one thing to work with a different language that is somewhat similar using characters that are almost the same. What about Asian, Arabic, Japanese, and others where the symbols are completely different?

From a computer programming perspective, a text language called Unicode was developed as a standard for all languages. The standard Unicode for Web sites is UTF-8, which should be contained in the language meta tags. Browsers and Web servers are able to understand this standard.

Getting the keywords right can be an arduous task, but it will pay dividends if it’s done correctly. Skip this part and you might pay the price, especially with dealing with researching keywords in different countries.

Also, translation alone won’t get the job done. Don’t take this shortcut. Get help from local linguistic experts and filter through local search engines for the best results.

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