Basics Of International SEO

Most companies based in the United States focus on SEO on one or more of three levels: global, regional and local. At each level geographically specific keywords can be added to a company’s focus in order to optimize a website for terms that are more relevant to one’s business. A dentist in Chicago, for example, would be wasting time and money optimizing her website for a generic term like “dentist” because it’s hyper-competitive, and even if she could rank well for that term and drive traffic to her site, most of the traffic would be useless, as only people in the Chicago area would be willing to use her services. Even a regional campaign focusing on “dentists in the Midwest” wouldn’t make sense. This dentist would maximize her return on investment by focusing on keywords that are as specific as possible to the area immediately surrounding her office, where her patients are most likely to live and work. That probably means that even a keywords like “chicago dentist” is too broad, and she would instead focus on the specific suburb or neighborhood where her office is located, as well as those within easy travel distance. SEO for a dentist like this would be a perfect example of what we call “local SEO.”

For a business with wider geographical reach, the focus might be on multiple metro areas, or multiple states. Within the U.S., targeting customers who live a few hours distances from each other in states is a fairly straightforward matter. But outside the U.S., with its relatively homogenous population, targeting customers who live a few hours travel from each other can become a more complicated matter because instead of living in different states, these customers live in different countries, with different languages, cultures, and infrastructure. While international SEO can become quite complicated, here are some basics to take into consideration.



Everything is Different, Everything is the Same

Before going any further, it’s important to understand that SEO, regardless of where you do it, is made up primarily of four activities: making technical adjustments to your website, creating useful content, building high quality inbound links and analyzing results. No matter what country, language, or search engine you are targeting, you will focus on these four activities to one degree or another. The devil, as they say, is in the details.


It might seem obvious that one needs to communicate with customers in their native language, but it can sometimes be challenging to know how to best go about this. Whatever you do, don’t put your website’s text into Google Translate and then slap that up on your foreign language website. The results will be bad for your visitors, not to mention your SEO efforts. Hiring your nephew who participated in a study abroad program in Peru for a summer and “learned some Spanish” isn’t good enough either. One can find professional language translators on websites like oDesk, but quality and price can vary greatly.

“Use hreflang annotations to specify your language, and alternatively, the country targeting of your pages,” says international SEO consultant and founder of Orainti, Aleyda Solis,”This is key in order to avoid country or language misalignment in search results.”

Search Engine Preferences

Know which search engines are being used by the audience you’re targeting. In Hong Kong Google is the most popular search engine…if you’re targeting the English speaking population. If you’re targeting the Chinese population in Hong Kong you’ll want to focus on Yahoo. Same goes for Taiwan. But in mainland China Baidu is the leader, and Google is blocked.

Domain Name

It’s easier to manage one website rather than 10. But having separate domain names for each country is the best way to go when it comes to international SEO. Think of it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. The fact it’s difficult gives you an advantage if you go this direction. Solis provides us with more detail:

Each of your language or country versions need their own specific Web structure, don’t show all of your versions through the same URLs:

All of these options have pros and cons and the decision to choose one should be taken based on the business and site characteristics, flexibility and resources.


Hosting your website on the opposite side of the world from the country you’re targeting can have negative effects. Not only can it impact SEO results, but nobody wants to wait while your website is traveling 12,000 miles instead of loading instantly. Ideally, find a web hosting company that has a datacenter within the country you are targeting. The second best option is to find a web hosting company in a neighboring country.

Social Signals and Social Media Preferences

As my fellow contributor Jayson DeMers recently summarized and has been explored by Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen of Stone Temple Consulting in this piece by Brent Carnduff, social signals from websites like Facebook and Twitter do not directly influence rankings when it comes to Google (Google+ may be a different matter). But effective social media integration on a website can lead to great sharing of content, which may lead to increased linking, and this most likely will impact rankings. However, since Google is not the #1 search engine in all markets, it’s important to understand how the dominant search engines in your market incorporate social signals. For China, Baidu has stated that “social signal in Baidu is picked up based on relevancy, time and the content of the search query. Baidu’s algorithm will determine if any social content should be inserted in the SERP after analyzing the search intent of the query.”

Most importantly, it’s important to recognize what social networks are used in a particular market so that these channels can be incorporated into your website and used in promotional efforts that will generate traffic and links. Whereas Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ might be recommended for a U.S. audience, in China it is Sina Weibo.

The Big Picture

With 300 million inhabitants the U.S. is a large consumer market, but companies that only target a U.S. audience are missing the larger opportunity. Asia-Pacific’s middle class stands at roughly 550 million today, and is expected to grow to over 3 billion by 2030 when it will represent two thirds of the world’s middle class population. This, combined with the introduction of low cost smartphones, will give billions access to the Internet. SEO results take time. If you want a piece of the ever growing pie represented by this new middle class, you’re better off engaging in international SEO sooner, rather than later.

Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

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