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Furthering the Discussion Beyond the Basic International SEO Talking Heads

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I just listened to a webinar recently about technical international SEO. It taught me absolutely nothing new. I thought at first, “oh cool, Technical International SEO! Maybe they will share interesting technical stuff like ways to solve dynamic serving of content, locale-adaptive pages, cross-domain cookies, or how international search engines cope with JavaScript.” But no, this “technical” webinar focused on the 3 types of website structures for international SEO, how hreflang tags work, and yada yada yada. I understand that this sort of thing is super important and necessary for people who are just beginning and who want to learn more about international SEO, but then in that case, the webinar should have been about the basics of international SEO. “Technical,” by definition, precludes basic talking points. “Technical” should be reserved for the underlying structure and crawlability of a website.

International SEO is definitely an unwieldy subject; that’s why it’s so important for international SEO consultants to be precise, actionable, and further the discussion beyond the basics. Just about anyone who does a few Google searches can find the Google Webmaster help articles about best practices for multilingual and multi-regional content. So then why do some international SEO consultants simply re-hash this advice over and over in conferences and blogs, and not really contribute to the conversation in a meaningful and helpful way?

Let’s dig into a specific example.

One international SEO expert recently mentioned how you should geo-target on a language not a country level, if your content is exactly the same from country to country. No duh. But this expert didn’t touch on the fact that there are more considerations to keep in mind. There are tons of business reasons why a company might want to target on a country level rather than a language level, here are some:

  • Separation of currencies and/or payment systems –– Payment systems vary from country to country; credit cards are not globally accepted, and PayPal is not dominant in a lot of countries. In the Netherlands, it’s iDeal. In Brazil, e-commerce sites have to follow a complicated set of rules centering around the Boleto Bancario triplicate paper system. In India, 80% of e-commerce transactions are done in cash with cash-on-delivery. So, if you want to do business in lots of countries, you may need different conversion funnels with different Pricing pages and/or purchase paths. Also, note that some websites may only change the currency displayed based on the country you are in (your IP address), so even if you are viewing the German website, for example, you may still see USD if you are in the US. You would need to use a VPN or a proxy set to Germany in order to view the German site with Euros.
  • Use of ccTLDs for stronger geo-targeting — ccTLDs are hands-down the best way to go when you want clear geo-targeting on a country level. If your company has ccTLDs, then it wouldn’t make much sense to use that ccTLD to rank globally. You can expect better results in that country’s version of Google, but not necessarily outside of that country. The Guardian newspaper, for example, used to have the domain theguardian.co.uk, but they switched to the more universal theguardian.com. They didn’t want to be limited to UK readers; they wanted global reach. In the same vein, it doesn’t make sense to use ccTLDs for broad language targeting.
  • Separation of site versions in analytics — If you want to get a country-level understanding of how your site is performing, splitting your sites into multiple ccTLDs, multiple sub-folders, or multiple sub-domains allows you to compare visits to each URL type side-by-side in analytics. If you are using language targeting instead of country targeting, you can’t see country-level data at the URL visits level; you can only see how many visits per country came to a URL as defined by the users’ IP address captured in your web analytics software.
  • Separation of product offerings — if you have different products per country, then it only makes sense to use country-level targeting.
  • Separate search vocabulary that captures the differences in dialects — If you have an internal site search system, you may have it setup to interpret keywords by language, and maybe even show different results depending on the country the user is in. So for example, you may want to set up your internal search result pages differently for users in Portugal vs. Brazil.
  • Different marketing messaging per country, and/or featured content — You may want to feature different marketing messages on your home page or other key pages, such as Summer fashion in Australia at the same time as Winter fashion in North America.
  • Geo-targeting by country within Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools — these only allow for only country not language targeting.
  • Certain page types may be very different from country to country, while other page types are exactly the same across languages. Even if you know some page types are going to be identical across multiple countries, you may have other page types that are different, so that could warrant country-level targeting.

The SEO expert had mentioned how if you use the exact same content on multiple country sites, then you risk having the wrong content show up in the wrong version of Google. But if there are legitimate business reasons for needing country-level targeting, then the risk of having some pages rank in the wrong version of Google is smaller than the reward of having the flexibility to geo-target by country.

Let’s be clear about what the “risk” really means: for any pages that are essentially duplicate, that is, in the same language but targeting different countries, even when you have hreflang correctly implemented and when you have other geo-targeting signals correctly set up, there is still the likelihood that search engines will rank the incorrect country version of the page. This is particularly true when using sub-domains and sub-folders; they struggle much more than ccTLDs with getting the right page to show up in the right version of Google.

Googlebot can get confused with your duplicate international content, even when you have hreflang and geotargeting set up correctly.

Googlebot can get confused with your duplicate international content, even when you have hreflang and geotargeting set up correctly.

In most cases, the legacy version of the page will outrank your new country version of the page. This is because the legacy page has more trust signals (domain age, date page was first detected, Page Authority, inbound links from external and internal pages, etc) than your new country-targeted page. So for example, your EN-US page, created 10 years ago, may outrank your EN-ZA page, created 10 weeks ago, even though a user is searching from South Africa on google.co.za. *Sigh.*

One way to solve this problem, beyond getting the basics correct (which absolutely should be done first), is to use IP geo-redirects, but only in a sophisticated and limited fashion. I definitely don’t like IP redirection in almost all scenarios, because it can be really destructive for SEO when done incorrectly, and really annoying for users too. But one way to solve the problem where your legacy page outranks your weaker localized content, is to redirect users who land on your legacy URLs. For example, if you have a default EN-US version on example.com, and new localized versions at example.com/za, then you could 302 redirect users with IP addresses in South Africa (their ISO country code is ZA) who land on example.com to example.com/za. The 302 redirect would not happen if you land on example.com/za. That should never be the case, because you want those URLs, and all your other international URLs, to be available to users and bots if they specifically land on those URLs. Google crawls mostly from the US, so you do not want to redirect users or bots if they are trying to access your non-US content.

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International link-building Mozinar by Aleyda Solis.

Another important way to solve this problem is to get local inbound links from relevant ccTLDs that point to your international content. For example, if your EN-ZA content keeps getting out-ranked by your EN-US site, you should make efforts to get backlinks from .za websites to point to your EN-ZA content. Reach out to bloggers and website owners who have .za ccTLDs that are authoritative and relevant to your industry, and ask if they would like to work with you on featuring your content. There are tons of link-building tactics that you could use, and you just need to add this “international twist” to your link building efforts. Aleyda Solis presented a Mozinar a while back on this very topic. Also, as I recommend to anyone pursuing link-building, it’s best to work with social media and PR experts to spread the word and garner links.

The real takeaway should not be “Avoid country targeting if it means you’ll have duplicate pages;” it should be, “Are there valid reasons for why you want to target on a country basis, and do you have the resources to meet the challenges that country-level targeting poses?”

That’s the kind of thing that truly helps marketers do international SEO better. That’s the kind of thing that furthers the discussion.

You might also be interested in this blog post: My Listicle of International SEO Tools.