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How to avoid SEO issues when taking your business website international

Having had the privilege of working in the UK, UAE and Singapore – where businesses set up regional HQs and operation – I’ve had the opportunity to work on many regionally and internationally-targeted websites.

However, in most cases, when the website is brought to the SEO team, foundational and structural decisions have already been made, with little to no SEO consideration. This results in sub-optimal websites not being able to fully localise and target geographically.

You don’t have to fall into this trap. If you’re in charge of taking your business and your website beyond borders, then this post is aimed at you. Below are some tips on how to avoid these issues so you can make the most of taking your business international.

The first step is to ensure there is business sense in taking your products or services international. This post assumes you have done your feasibility studies and have set your mind on regional or global expansions. So, what are the SEO implications of expanding and how do you ensure your website is optimised to support your global aspirations?

Overall there are two types of targeting considerations you need to keep in mind when building or redesigning your website:

  • Geographic: Which country are you targeting?
  • Language: What language are you targeting?

Therefore, whatever structure you choose, it is important to keep in mind that your website needs to be scalable and aligned with your current, and future geographic and language expansion aspirations.

Website structure

This is one of the most important decisions you’ll make which requires strategic thought and consideration. The structure you choose will have an impact on the level of SEO activity, overall scalability and ultimately your overall cost over time. There is no one correct answer, so I’ve provided you with the three main methods to deploy your site’s internationalisation structure, and the pros and cons.

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1. Pros of cc-TLDs pros 

This is the most obvious structure that informs both bots and humans that the website is targeting a geography. So, from a branding perspective, if you want to position yourself as a truly local business, nothing beats a country code-top level domain (cc-TLD).

2. Cons of cc-TLDs  

You can’t share link equity across all your website properties. For example, if you run link building activity on your example.com.sg website it won’t have a positive impact on your example.co.th website. Each of these websites behave as independent entities. Therefore, you will need to invest more in SEO — more specifically in outreach and engagement activity — to build link equity for each of the websites separately.

A good way to gauge the effort required to build link equity for your website is to identify competitors within those geographic locations who rank within the top 3-4 positions for your generic keyword terms. If you notice that the landscape is extremely competitive, i.e. your top 3-4 competitors have a domain authority of over 70, then that’s a good indication that you will have to invest in SEO for at least 12-24 months in order to build and grow your domain authority to match the competition.

3. Pros of sub-domains  

This gives a lot of flexibility in targeting different languages and geographies simultaneously. If you use sub-domains, you can also host these on different servers to the main www site. Google will then pick up on the fact that this sub-domain is hosted in a specific country.

Personally, I think the biggest advantage of using sub-domains is if you have a website with multiple different geographic and language targets. For example, if I have a website that targets the following countries and delivers content in the following languages, sub-domains would give you the most flexibility to do so.

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4. Cons of sub-domains

Although Google has changed how sub-domains are treated, with them no longer being viewed as a separate site, anecdotally SEOs have seen huge traffic growth by converting its sub-domain structure to a sub-folder structure. Although I’ve never tested this theory myself, I avoid recommending this structure to my clients due to the conflicting reports.

Also, I’ve never come across an article or blog post recording increases in traffic by switching from a sub-folder structure to a sub-domain structure although the opposite has been recorded by many SEOs. If you have experienced positive traffic growth by switching to sub-domains from sub-folders I am interested in hearing from you, so please do share your experience within the comments below.

5. Pros of sub-folder structure

When you set up a sub-folder structure, essentially each section of the site remains a part of the overall website. If you build link equity in one country, it benefits the overall website’s link equity and in the grand scheme of things requires less link building effort than if you were to use cc-TLDs.

6. Cons of sub-folder structure

If you choose this option it’s important to ensure you have a generic domain like .com, .net or .org. If you have local content on a country-specific domain you will only be able to geo-target that single country. For example, you won’t be able to geo-target www.domain.ae/bh. Sounds obvious, but I have seen this done before. Also you will need to be careful with structuring your URLs when targeting both geographies and languages.

So, what do you have to do in order to mitigate any SEO drops if you choose one of the above solutions?

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If you decide to go with individual cc-TLDs and sub-domain structures, you will have to:

  • Ensure you have annotated your website with hreflang tags so that you inform Googlebot that there are versions of this page in other languages.
  • Ensure that you run localised outreach and engagement activity for each individual website separately.

If you decide to go down the sub-folder route:

  • Ensure hreflang tags are implemented correctly.
  • Ensure your subfolder naming conventions are in line with both geographic and language tag syntaxes.

Best practice international SEO implementations

Once you’ve finalised your top level website structure. Here are some more SEO best practices to keep in mind.

1. Content localisation and optimisation – It’s tempting to reuse the same copy of a language for all your target geographies. However, to be truly local, we recommend that each local country nuance and market specific need is considered.

Also ensure that you’re using the most appropriate language for the relevant geography. For example, do you have content in simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese and what geographies are they targeting? Have you considered the differences in Spanish that are spoken in South American countries as opposed to Spain?

Also to ensure relevance, make sure you’ve marked up all your prices, local addresses (including postcodes) and telephone numbers to bear the relevant local country symbols. Also don’t forget to localise content through markup using the HTML Doctype declaration on the page.

2. Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools – If you choose either the sub-folder or sub-domain structures and you have a generic cc-TLD, you can let Google and Bing know which websites or sub-domains are targeting specific geo-locations. For Bing, not only can you geo-target by domain, sub-domain or directory levels, you can also geo-target at page level. So, if you have a promotion that’s targeting a specific country using just one page, you can do so using Bing Webmaster Tools.

3. Local IP – Google says this is becoming less important, since most websites use CDNs. However, in order to increase geo-relevance within hyper competitive industries, it doesn’t hurt to use a local IP address of the server if it isn’t too much of a hassle and doesn’t break the bank.

4. IP Delivery – Some web owners decide to force users on to local websites using IP detection (i.e. based on your IP’s location the local country content will be rendered to you). Some businesses need to do this to protect local pricing.

For example, if you’re a travel company, you may have different prices for the New Zealand and the Australia markets. To stop Australian users from taking advantage of the cheaper prices in New Zealand, the website might decide to force users to their local Australia website preventing them from accessing the New Zealand website.

We would caution you from using this technique, as it could potentially hamper Google’s ability to crawl and index all your different country content efficiently. If you choose to implement IP Delivery, ensure that Googlebot sees the same content a typical user from the same IP address would see. So a big ‘no-no’ is to serve users different content while allowing Googlebot to see different content on the site. This is the very definition of ‘cloaking.’

Also, when implementing IP Delivery, make sure you take into account the user’s browser language preferences. You can do this by using the ‘Accept-Language’ request HTTP header. You want to implement this, as an English language user on a business trip to Thailand might not necessarily want your website’s Thai language content.

If you don’t decide to use IP Delivery, you could potentially solve the relevancy issue by prompting users with a pop-up or a lightbox. These inform users that they are on the wrong content section of the site while giving them an option to stay on the same section or to redirect to the content that’s most relevant to their geo and language requirements.

5. China –  For most of the world, you might be able to get away with optimising purely for Google, but if you’re targeting China you’re forced to optimise for Baidu, too. A good starting point is to use China’s country code TLDs (so example.cn).

We also recommend that you get V1/V2/V3 Reputation to achieve verified status within the Baidu SERPs, as well as the Official Website verification. ICP License (Internet Content Provider) is also recommended as a significant weighting is placed on this within Baidu.

Similar to optimising for Google’s universal search, we recommend that you optimise other Baidu properties such as Zhidao, Image and Baike, where significant organic search traffic is sent.

Also, as you would optimise your social presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you will also need to optimise your content for local popular social platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. It would also be useful to investigate implementing Baidu Analytics and other available monitoring tools.

Expanding into a new market or deploying an additional language section on your website can be exciting and help expand into bigger markets, thereby helping to increase your business reach and revenue. By following the above guidelines, we hope that this exciting venture will prove successful in achieving revenue and branding goals.

The writer is Shaad Hamid, regional head of SEO, APD Singapore.

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