Making your international expansion a success through SEO

Without laying the proper groundwork, building a plan to target a whole new country or region is not always a recipe for success, especially for unknown brands. With SEO being such a vital part of ecommerce, it’s vital that businesses understand the differences between SEO in different countries before beginning an international campaign. There are so many factors that come into play when implementing SEO in a new country that it’s hard to draw out the key considerations, but to boil it down as simply as possible we’ve picked out three points that we believe are the most important for businesses to remember. 

1. Web Domain Strategy 

We have analysed a sample of 30 brands and retailers that use Pricesearcher. This sample included a mixture of major high street retailers, pureplays, marketplaces and mid-sized businesses. By analysing these various retailers and their domain strategies, we were able to uncover some notable insights. 

In summary, for retailers using only a .co.uk site it is very difficult to rank prominently outside of the UK on keywords that aren’t your brand or product name. Retailers that choose not to compete internationally, including some of the UK’s largest, focus exclusively on the UK market and use the .co.uk domain to help them. The research we performed does show examples where companies do generate a significant percentage of their traffic from overseas with a .co.uk domain, but this typically occurs when an international marketplace footprint is complemented with a strong, localised content marketing strategy – something that is not always the easiest to achieve. 

The most common strategy used is a generic Top Level Domain (gTLD) – a .com or .net domain coupled with some level of internationalisation in terms of shipping and/or payments to increase conversion rates of shoppers. With this kind of strategy, internationalising shipping and currency or payment options are usually the first steps implemented and tend to occur before any sophisticated domain strategy. 

When utilising sub-directories, appropriate geo-targeting (.com/uk) is effective but is under-employed in practice, with only major global brands like Benefit cosmetics (LVMH group) or very sophisticated ecommerce businesses like GreenManGaming successfully managing the cost of translation, web development, etc. 

Investing in the country code Top Level Domain’s (ccTLD) like .fr and .de is utilised only by major international brands, such as Dyson and marketplaces like Amazon, because it helps in terms of ranking in those domestic markets, but it requires domain authority to be built from scratch and therefore is a much more costly process. It’s important to remember that even though Amazon ships to around 200 countries it still only operates 13 ccTLD’s, due to the investment and time required to build domain authority. 

2. International SEO considerations 

The standard and familiar SEO guidelines still apply abroad so it’s vital to remember that user and audience must remain at the forefront of your mind. If the required investment to generate quality local content, build links and domain authority aren’t already in place then there is little point undertaking the technical SEO elements – this may well explain why a lot of companies in our research don’t submit sub-folders to Google. 

Site architecture – Google Webmaster Tools 

Businesses should set up their geo-location using the sub-folder option and submit these via webmaster tools. If a move is made to a ccTLD in future, then new sites will have to be re-submitted, but in both cases you can designate a specific geographic region and language. Our research has shown that a lot of companies have a .com but don’t go down this route – however it does help SEO ranking outside of the UK. 

HTML code - hreflang 

Put simply hreflang is a snippet of code in the header (meta data) that tells Google which country and language the content is relevant to. Google has a special tag it suggests using for those targeting other languages. The “hreflang” tag can be used to tell Google which URLs it should index and display for searchers in different countries and means you don’t get hit with duplicate content penalties.   

IP addresses  

IP addresses can also affect ranking, as domains hosted within the targeted country will give Google more confidence in their relevance to users in that area.

When aiming for positive SEO internationally, it’s important to remember that whilst you and most of your customers may use Google, that won’t necessarily be true in every country. For example:  

  • China – Google does not operate in China where Baidu is the market leader with 55% of the search market. Alibaba and its different marketplaces (TaoBao, Tmall) is commonly used as a top of the funnel product search engine as Amazon is frequently used in the UK.
  • Russia – Google does have operations and is the 2nd largest player with 34% but Yandex, the domestic Russian company leads with 58% of the market.
  • South Korea – Naver (77%) and Daum (20%) dominate in this hyper connected country where ecommerce is highly sophisticated and the country is a trendsetter for countries throughout Asia.

3. International keyword research 

The vital consideration here is regarding machine translation and how dangerous it can be. You really need a native speaker who knows the slang, miss-spelling and colloquialisms with keywords. Sophisticated translation specialists like Translate Media use native speakers to translate product titles and descriptions with particular emphasis on the keywords that will improve the SEO of the product page and keyword research itself should be to an even higher level of understanding and research. 

The following are tools and websites that can help understand your keywords in foreign languages: 

  • Google Adwords Keywords Tool: By using the advanced option of Google’s Keyword Tool, it’s possible to select keywords by country and language. You enter an initial keyword, select a language and/or target countries, and Google will return a list of keyword ideas with the associated monthly volume for each which can then be used for content creation, ad-word spend, etc.
  • Trellians Keyword Discovery Tool: For an additional source of international keyword research, consider using Trellian’s Keyword Discovery tool. It includes data from many European countries and acts a good check of the Google AdWords tool to verify your research.
  • Google Insights for Search: Use Google Insights for Search to explore trends in keyword search demand over time and identify market opportunity / trends over time. Google insights is obviously more valuable in the countries where they dominate the market share and so will be less relevant for China, Russia, S.Korea as mentioned previously.
  • Use a Proxy server to get results from a FR / DE IP address: Search engine results are often tailored to a user’s location which is determined by their IP address. To understand how results differ from country to country, you can use a proxy server to search using an international IP address which can be very useful for competitive analysis. Try this site for a selection of international proxy servers
  • SEMrush / MOZ. the popular SEO tools can be used to research the keywords of your local competitors in the different international markets that are being considered.

The rules of SEO are constantly changing and can be difficult to keep on top of in any country, so expanding into another territory only complicates things further. However, by abiding as closely as possible to the points above businesses will stand in much better stead in their targeted country and maximise the chance of international success.

Ben Morgan, Head of Partnerships, Pricesearcher.com

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