International SEO: Ranking At Home and Abroad

When a company targets different national markets offline, they often have separate strategies for each market. This will include distinct branding, packaging, and messaging for each market.

Well, the online world is no exception. When it comes to ranking in the SERPs in different languages and countries, you need a separate SEO strategy for each of the countries you’re targeting.

Google’s Global Faces

It’s no secret that Google strives to personalize and localize search results. And when it comes to national or linguistic markets, Google geo-targets search results at two levels.

First, there are the country specific version of Google, such as Google.ca and Google.co.uk. These are the default engines for users from their respective countries, and will serve up search results that are more localized.

For example, just as SERPs from Google.com are different from Google.co.uk, French results on Google.fr will be different than on the French version of Gooogle.ca.

Then, there is the US and International versions of Google.com. Basically, if you’re in Canada and manually navigate to Google.com, you’ll be forwarded to Google.ca. But you can then choose to click through to Google.com if you want.

But this doesn’t mean that you’ll get “US” or “International” or “objective” search results. Instead, you’ll get a blend of results from abroad and the country you’re in.

So if you’re targeting multiple countries, you need to monitor your rankings in several places. First, you’ll have to rank on the versions of Google specific to the countries you’re targeting. Secondly, you’ll also have to rank on Google.com for searches done from those countries.

The Elements of Ranking Abroad

There are several criteria that Google looks at to determine how relevant a site/page is to a specific national market. The more of them that you can meet, the better your site will rank in your targeted markets.

Site Domain: TLD vs ccTLD

One of the first places that search engines look to determine a site’s national relevance is its Top Level Domain (TLD). A TLD is simply the extension that appears at the end of a domain, such as .com, .net, etc. If your TLD is more relevant to a national market, the more likely it is that your site will rank on searches from that country.

There are two kinds of TLDs to choose from: general TLDs and country specific TLDs. General TLDs include .com, .org, .net, .edu, etc. These are better for ranking a site internationally, such as your parent brand or a multinational site.

Then there are Country Code TLDs (ccTLD), such as .ca for Canada, .co.uk for the UK, and .de for Germany. These are ideal for ranking within a specific country (but will limit your ranking potential abroad).

Site IP Address

Another factor that search engines use to determine the national relevance of a site is its IP address. All websites are hosted on a server somewhere, and all servers have an IP address which indicates where that server is located. So if ranking in a specific country is important to you, you should consider hosting your country specific site within that country.

Onsite Content (is King)

So we’ve all hear that content is king. Well, in SEO, content is king, queen, and pope all rolled into one.

Onsite content is the most fundamental part of SEO. And this goes beyond just page copy. It also includes page titles and meta descriptions. So if you’re targeting different linguistic markets, you will need page titles, meta descriptions, and page copy (such as product descriptions) in each of those languages.

Backlink Profile

Getting targeted backlinks to your site is also a big part of ranking well. The more backlinks you have, the better your site will rank overall. And when it comes to ranking on targeted terms, it helps to get links feature targeted anchor text.

Well, just as Google judges your site, it also judges the sites linking back to you, and looks at the TLD, IP address, and onsite content of those sites linking back to you. For example, getting a backlink from a .co.uk site that’s hosted in the UK will boost your rankings in the UK more than a link from a .com or a .co.uk that’s hosted in the US.

So for every market you target, you’re also going to need a separate linkbuilding/link-baiting campaign. This will involve obtaining backlinks from sites that have TLDs, IP addresses, and onsite content that all correspond to the country you’re trying to rank in.

Building a Site that Rank Internationally

So now it’s time to build different sites for different countries. But you don’t have bottomless pockets. Well, you have three general options for each country you’re targeting:

  • separate sites on separate TLDs and ccTLDs,
  • country specific subdomains under a primary TLD,
  • country specific subdirectories on a primary TLD.

Each of these has their pros and cons, and the one that’s right for your business will depend on factors such budget, available IT resources, and just how valuable any given market is to your business.

Separate Sites with Separate Domains

The optimal option for ranking in any given country is to build a unique site with relevant ccTLDs just for that country. Granted, this path is also requires the biggest investment – both to set-up and to maintain.

So, this option is probably best for large ecommerce entities that are targeting several large national markets at once (i.e. the return will justify the investment) and have sufficient marketing budgets to do so.

Pros

  • ccTLD – best chance for ranking locally.
  • IP Address – can host each site in target country.
  • Conversions – users confident they found local business.
  • Linkbuilding – local sites will be more willing to link to your local ccTLD.
  • Interlinking – can interlink each separate site to one another.

Cons

  • Maintenance – multiple sites to develop & maintain.
  • Investment – as many times SEO work as you have sites/ccTLDs.

Subdomains for Each Target Market

One cost-effective alternative to maintaining a separate sites with their own of ccTLD and on separate server is to have country specific subdomains (e.g. uk.domain.com, etc.). It can be a more challenging to get a subdomain to rank locally than it is a ccTLD, but there are some economies of scope to be had.

For starters, site maintenance is much simpler. Aslo, each subdomain can have a country specific IP address. Lastly, every link pointing to each subdomain will also increase the overall ranking of the parent TLD.

Pros

  • Maintenance – only one site to develop, host, and maintain .
  • IP Address – each site can be hosted in the country you’re targeting.
  • Backlinks – every backlink to each subdomain benefits entire TLD as a whole.
  • Interlinking – can interlinking each country subdomain to one another.
  • Usability – can group content by language instead of country.

Cons

  • Domain – your TLD must compete against ccTLDs in local SERPs.
  • Conversions – users will not have as much confidence as they would in a ccTLD.
  • Linkbuilding – more difficult to get links from local sites.

Subdirectories for Each Target Market

Finally, the least SEO friendly option (but most cost-effective one), is having country specific subdirectories (e.g. domain.com/uk). This option probably might make sense for (1) targeting smaller markets that can’t justify a bigger investment, or (2) smaller ecommerce portals that must remain focused on their products and services rather than their IT infrastructure.

Pros

  • Maintenance – only one site to develop, host, and maintain.
  • Backlinks – every backlink benefits entire TLD.
  • Usability – can group content by language instead of country.

Cons

  • Domain – your TLD must compete against ccTLDs in local SERPs.
  • Conversions – users will not have as much confidence as they would in a ccTLD.
  • Linkbuilding – more difficult to get links from local sites.
  • IP Address – entire site will be hosted in just one country.

Different Sites for Different Markets

Of course, before choosing what kind of site architecture you’re going go with, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis, and ask yourself question, such as: How valuable are the different markets you’re targeting? What is your budget per market? Is the priority order in which you should optimize your different sites?

While some markets will represent a source of revenue, they won’t necessarily generate enough to warrant a significant investment. So you might end up choosing to develop comprehensive ccTLD sites to target the US, Canada, and the UK, but opt for subdomains or subdirectories (on your .com site) to target other countries.

Essentially, you should approach international SEO just like you would any other international marketing effort. Start by examining the market opportunity that’s there, the value it offers your business, and then invest your IT and marketing resources in a way that makes good business sense.

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