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3 best practices for an international website and SEO strategy

By August 25, 2020No Comments

Trying to build an online presence in various global locations can be difficult work, and if you’re hoping to rank in the organic search results in multiple countries, your job just got even harder! 

Search engine optimization is complex business when managing one website in one language, so adding other languages or multi-site targeting can get complicated fast.

Before embarking on an international SEO journey, it’s important to pack the right tools for the trip. Consider these 3 best practices and contact us if you get lost. 

Best practices:

  1. Create a comprehensive website architecture roadmap
  2. Decide on the simplest way to deliver information to the right audience
  3. Tell search engines what you’re doing so there’s no room for confusion

Best practice #1: Create a comprehensive website architecture roadmap

You have to know where you’re headed before you can begin your journey. When considering your website architecture, I challenge you to not only think of your business as it stands today, but also how it could reasonably expand in the future. 

  • How many websites do you need to effectively communicate with your audience(s) today and in the future?
  • What will the information architecture look like on each site?
  • What offerings do you have today and how will that change in the future?
  • What industries do you serve today? In the future?
  • What locations do you service? Do you plan to expand? 
  • Do those locations speak the same language?
  • Does each location get the same offerings? The same messaging?

Look at least 5 to 10 years ahead during this strategic planning phase. Decisions you make today can impact how simple (or difficult) it will be to optimize for different countries or languages in the future. 

When planning for your web presence, keep this end goal in mind: You want each user to land on the most relevant page of your website, written in their language with messaging and offerings that make sense.

In other words, if I don’t sprechen sie deutsch or habla español, I don’t want to land on your German or Spanish language web pages.

Best practice #2: Decide on the simplest way to deliver information to the right audience

I often speak to companies with big plans to expand internationally and create websites for every country in which they could potentially do business. However, simple is almost always the best approach to ensure you don’t spread your web developers and digital marketers too thin.

So how can you keep your international web presence simple, yet effective?

Step 1: Decide how many websites you need to be successful 

Which markets are you serving (or going to serve)? Are your offerings different for each? 

Instead of creating multiple websites, can you get intelligent with web copy and UI/UX to guide visitors to the right content? Basic design strategy and creative copywriting may be enough, but there are also WordPress plug-ins available that can serve copy to visitors based on their language or location settings.

Step 2: Choose between multiple websites or one multilingual site 

If you need to serve content in different languages, you generally have two options:

1. Secure Top Level Domains (TLDs) for different countries (.com, .co.uk, .de, etc.)

While it’s smart to secure TLDs for each country you may do business in, it’s not wise to jump into using them without a solid strategy. It is extremely costly and time-intensive to develop and maintain multiple TLDs. This involves hosting, developing, and managing multiple websites, often in different languages. And if SEO is part of your marketing plan, then you need to build backlinks and create marketing content for each site.

Some businesses try to get around this effort by cloaking, which is a blackhat technique that can get your websites in serious trouble. This method essentially serves the .com version of a website “cloaked” as an international TLD (such as .co.uk) to make users think they are getting a true .co.uk website experience when in fact they are simply seeing the .com website masquerading as a .co.uk site. 

If you’re not ready to build dedicated international websites on your TLDs, simply redirect your unused TLDs to your .com website to avoid any Google penalties. You can always build the international sites in the future when you have the resources.  

.com is generally viewed as an international domain, so people will feel comfortable clicking on your site whether they are in the US or abroad. Plus, .com domains can rank just fine in other countries’ Google search engines.

2. Create language-specific pages on your one multilingual site (example.com/en, example.com/de, etc.)

If your audiences speak different languages, this is a smart way to develop language-specific content without developing and managing multiple websites. This is called the subdirectory method, which has the advantage of utilizing the same website and host to serve copy in multiple languages. 

Here is Google’s guide to locale-specific URL options:

google url guide

Whichever method you choose, you must perform best practice #3 to communicate your intent to Google.

Best practice #3: Tell search engines what you’re doing so there’s no room for confusion

Google recommends using hreflang annotations to tell the search engine that you have multiple pages or websites with the same or similar content, but targeting different languages or regions. This is a critical step that will help Google serve the best pages to users based on their language and location settings — and will keep you out of the Google SEO dog house. 

If the words “hreflang” or “annotations” scared you, a technical SEO expert can help.

Hreflang is a fairly straightforward concept, but there are many ways to go wrong if not handled properly. First, you must have full-functioning websites to implement hreflang annotations (i.e., not the cloaking method discussed above).

You can add hreflang to your website(s) to identify the same content written in different languages or content written in the same language intended for different regions (e.g., American English versus British English versus Australian English).

There are ways to add hreflang code to your web pages, but it can be time-consuming and slow down your site speed. We recommend adding hreflang via an XML sitemap. It’s a lot of work, especially if you have multiple languages or domains, but should not be overlooked if you value SEO. 

To avoid unnecessary work and headaches, circle back to best practice #1 to ensure you are going to market with the simplest website architecture possible.

Need an international SEO strategy?

Partner with an agency that has developed strategic marketing plans and executed digital marketing campaigns for global organizations. 

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Brian Shilling

Author Brian Shilling

Brian is a Branding & Digital Marketing Director with experience leading diverse teams of marketers and designers in strategic marketing, content creation, and crafting comprehensive messaging and positioning platforms for our healthcare and tech clients. To learn more about Brian's experiences and qualifications, visit our leadership team page.

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