International SEO 101: Becoming a Multi-National Brand

  • Felix Rose-Collins
  • 19 min read
International SEO 101: Becoming a Multi-National Brand

Table of Contents

Intro

When we were first strategizing this particular piece of content, the first thing that came to mind was the classic film, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

In the film, Austin Powers is a British spy and international cool guy who knows how to be the smoothest man in the room, no matter where he is. In a sense, running an international SEO campaign is somewhat similar!

Essentially, international SEO is the process of optimizing your site and your site’s content for an international market. It could be as simple as optimizing your US-based site for another English-speaking country, like the UK or Australia; or it could be as complex as optimizing your site for multiple foreign countries that speak and read completely different languages.

If you’ve considered spreading your brand to countries other than your own, then this is the guide for you!

Below, we’ll start by explaining some of the basics of international SEO and who should be concerned about it. Then, we’ll give you some vital tips to keep in mind when researching the market in other countries, as well as how to identify new international markets.

Finally, we’ll overview some of the most important tactics you’ll need to employ to ensure that your international SEO campaign runs smoothly. The good news is that as long as you’re using Ranktracker’s suite of SEO tools, the research phase will go far smoother.

International SEO (and What It Involves)

As we mentioned above, international SEO is the process of optimizing your website(s) for an international market. This means taking your site and creating international and/or multilingual versions of your site and its core content. Depending on the size of your site or your brand, this could be relatively simple; or, in some cases, it can be a mountainous task…

Think about a large, multi-national brand like Apple or Nike. Both brands sell their products internationally and have custom-tailored sites for each and every country where they do business. For them, this is a lot of places.

Each site has its own country-specific domain or website folder, where all of the content displayed to visitors from those countries is stored. In essence, international SEO often involves creating “clones” of your site and optimizing each site’s content, products, language, etc., to appeal to your market in each of those countries.

Multiregional vs. Multilingual Sites

When it comes to international SEO, there are two different types of sites that you’ll come across (or implement into your strategy):

  • Multiregional sites.

  • Multilingual sites.

So, what’s the difference?

Multilingual sites are, by far, a lot simpler. Basically, it’s the same exact website, just translated into a different language. This can either be accomplished using hreflang HTML tags to auto-translate the page, based on the visitor’s chosen browser language (lower quality), or by manually rewriting your entire website content (higher quality).

Multiregional sites, on the other hand, are versions of your main site that are specifically optimized for individual regions. This means that the content on one country’s site might be completely different than the content displayed to visitors on another country’s site.

For example, let’s say we’re dealing with an international clothing brand…

In Australia, the site might be customized for native English speakers and feature content geared towards surfing, beachwear, and other Aussie sports. In Switzerland, however, the site might be optimized for native German/French speakers and feature content geared towards hiking, skiing, and other mountain sports.

As you can see, a multiregional site can often be far more complex than a simple multilingual site. This is why multiregional sites are typically implemented by large multi-national corporations that have the time and money to spend on growing their brand internationally. Conversely, a multilingual site might just be customized for one country where two or three different languages are spoken. The content remains the same; it’s just translated into different languages.

Who Needs To Worry About International SEO?

If you have to ask yourself this question, then there’s a pretty solid chance that you don’t have to worry about creating a full-fledged multiregional site. However, almost any mid-sized brand can benefit from a multilingual site, especially if you live in a country where multiple languages are spoken.

Take the United States, for example, where 13% of the entire population speaks Spanish. Another good example would be Switzerland, where 66% of inhabitants speak German, while 23% speak French, and 9% speak Italian.

Creating a multilingual site gives you a chance to capitalize on a wider market and sell your products and services to more of your region’s inhabitants. This is why many Swiss-based sites have sites optimized for all 3 native languages and why many US-based sites have sites optimized for both English and Spanish.

In this article, we’ll be covering both aspects of international SEO and some of the key strategies you’ll need to look at implementing to achieve international business success.

Creating an International SEO Strategy: What You Need To Know

Alright, so now that we’ve had a chance to go over some of the basics of international SEO and what it involves, it’s time to jump off the ledge and give you a full crash course on international SEO strategy.

Below, we’ve divided our guide into five separate steps:

  1. Figure Out If International SEO Is Beneficial To Your Brand

  2. Setting Goals and Accounting For New Audience Behavior

  3. Developing Your International Site(s)

  4. Promoting Your International Site(s)

  5. Analyzing, Monitoring, and Adjusting Your International SEO Strategy

Each of these steps represents a crucial step that you’ll be taking towards expanding your online brand into new regions and implementing international SEO campaigns. So, if you think it’s finally time for your brand to go global, then let’s get into it!

Step 1: Figure Out If International SEO Is Beneficial, In The First Place

As we discussed earlier, international SEO isn’t for everyone. For example, if you’re based in a local US or UK city, and 95% of your business comes from there, then international SEO might probably isn’t worth the time and money you’ll invest into a conclusive campaign.

That being said, though, we would say that it’s worth it to at least make your site available in another language (like the multilingual sites we discussed above). Thankfully, multilingual sites are incredibly easy to create using some simple HTML implementation. Today’s modern web browsers are designed to automatically translate almost any webpage into any language, and translation tools are more accurate than they’ve ever been in the past.

At the end of the day, any investment you make into your company needs to pay off. Creating a full multiregional brand often requires having large amounts of capital to enter an existing niche in another region. You also need to consider marketing costs, upkeep costs, and the costs of creating new content for your multiregional sites.

Managing several sites for your multiregional brand can easily become an expense that can cost thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars per month, depending on how large your marketing budget is. To put things in perspective, megalithic companies like Apple invest around $2 billion per year in marketing alone, which doesn’t include paying developers to update their sites, content creation, etc.

So, with all of that in mind, here are some tips to help you and your team figure out if an international SEO campaign is worth the investment.

Analyze Your Existing Site Traffic

Firstly, you’ll want to see if there’s any global interest in your company, to begin with. This can easily be accessed by checking your existing site’s traffic and examining where the majority of your visitors come from.

If you notice that there’s a higher-than-normal percentage of site visitors that are coming from foreign countries, then this could be a good indication that it’d be worth your time to expand your brand there. Conversely, if less than 5% of your total site traffic is visiting from different regions, then it’s probably not worth your time.

So, how does one go about analyzing their existing site traffic?

Well, there’s the old-school method of using Google Analytics. Simply embed your Analytics code into your site’s main pages, and then give it a month or two to generate relevant data on where your site’s visitors are coming from.

The only downfall of Google Analytics is that you’ll need to manually embed your code into each and every webpage that you want to track (which can be a hefty task if you own a larger site). Additionally, Google Analytics has certain limitations when it comes to how much data you’ll be shown.

If you’re looking to analyze your existing site traffic quicker and more efficiently, then we strongly recommend using Ranktracker’s premier Rank Tracker tool. Rank Tracker comes as part of a complete SEO tool kit (that comes with a Keyword Finder, SERP Checker, Web Audit tool, and an Actionable Insights tool to show you the best areas of improvement.

Once you connect your site to the Rank Tracker tool, you’ll be able to quickly analyze how your site is performing in almost any global market and analyze where your traffic is coming from.

Using this data, you should be able to tell whether or not the percentage of out-of-country visitors is worth launching an international SEO campaign there or not.

Analyze Global Keywords

So, let’s just say that you did notice some unusually high levels of traffic coming from one country or another. This is a good indication that your brand has growing awareness there and that it could be worth investing in expanding there.

Before you jump the gun, though, we recommend analyzing some of your top niche keywords and how they perform in that country. For this, you can use Ranktracker’s Keyword Finder tool.

Assuming that you’ve kept good records on your existing site, you should already have a list of primary, secondary, and support keywords that you’re trying to rank for. Now, take this list and search for them in the Keyword Finder.

However, instead of searching for these keywords in your home country, you’ll want to change the country to the one where you’re thinking of expanding. Although you may find that some of your keywords rank similarly in other countries, you’ll also likely notice some differences.

In some cases, this can work to your benefit. Maybe your primary keywords aren’t as competitive, which means that your advertising costs may be lower. On the other hand, you could find that keywords you easily rank for in your home country are much more competitive in another country.

All of this means that you may have to significantly recreate some of your existing website content to rank for these new keywords. In some cases, you may have to rewrite entire articles, optimizing them for specific new keywords in your new country.

Analyze Global Competitors (Very Important)

The final step of this process you want to consider is how the global competition looks. Just because you’ve carved out a nice niche for yourself in your current country, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to do so as easily in a brand new country.
The best way to check for competitors in the new country you’re analyzing is to enter your niche keyword into Ranktracker’s SERP Checker. Here, you’ll be able to see all of the top-ranking sites that are ranking for that specific keyword.

In addition to showing you how much traffic each site has, SERP Checker will also show you other key metrics about your competitors, such as:

  • How many backlinks they have.

  • Overall link profile strength.

  • Social media presence.

  • ...and more!

If you’re lucky, then your competition won’t have very strong sites, and you’ll be able to easily outrank them with a bit of promotional work and a good international SEO strategy. If you’re not so lucky, then your top competitors may have very strong sites, which you’ll have to work hard to compete with.

Another possible solution is to change up the long-tail keywords your main pages rank for, so the competition won’t be as fierce.

Step 2: Set Goals and Account For New Audience Behavior

If you’ve done your research, as outlined above, and you're sure that expanding your business into another country is a smart move, then the next step is to set goals and start creating your strategy. This is the fun part, where you’ll get to take full advantage of your creativity and start learning about the culture/region where you’ll be expanding your brand.

Before we begin anything, though, then we strongly suggest a word of advice:

Don’t try to work on expanding your brand in more than one country at a time.

When it comes to international SEO strategy, the name of the game is to go deeper, not wider. Otherwise, you’ll invest a lot of capital into building sites and creating content only to be disappointed when it doesn’t rank the way you had hoped.

Another important tip that we’ll give you is to separate each of your international SEO campaigns by country. Don’t try to lump multiple regions or languages together, as this will result in muddled analytics and poor, inaccurate data metrics.

With those two tips aside, here’s how to start setting international SEO goals and account for the behavior of your new audience.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Before anything else, you need to analyze the languages spoken in said country. In some cases, this might be simple (i.e., South Africa primarily speaks French and English, or the UK primarily speaks English). In larger countries where more languages are spoken, though, this can become significantly more tedious.

For example, nearly 20,000 languages are spoken in India and over 300 languages are spoken in China. Even smaller countries like Switzerland, for instance, speak 4 languages (German, French, Italian, Romanian).

If you’re trying to expand into a new country where multiple languages are spoken, then your first step is to do some demographic research into what the leading languages are. In India, this will most likely be Hindi. In countries that are more divided, then you may need to make your website available in two or more languages (just as many US sites offer Spanish versions of their main sites).

In almost all cases, you’ll want to hire or work with a marketing or linguistics expert from the country you’re expanding in. They’ll be able to provide invaluable insight as to how to overcome language barriers and grow your brand faster.

Account For Price Differences

Another thing you may want to account for is the difference in prices for said products and services that your brand offers. This can be done by performing deeper research on some of your competitors that you identified earlier with the SERP Checker tool.

Look at some of their top-selling products and services and see how they compare to your own. Obviously, you’ll also need to account for inflation in their country and foreign exchange rates. This could work in your favor or could result in you having to lower your prices to compete.

… As Well As Customs and Local Laws

In addition to adjusting your pricing model, you should also take a look at local customs fees, which is very important if you plan on shipping products across borders. You’ll also need to consider local tax rates, which could be higher or lower than you’re used to paying in your home country.

Last but not least, look into local laws and regulations that may apply to the products or services you’re offering. For example, if your company sells herbal medicine, nicotine products, batteries, electronics, or any other product that fits into a “grey area,” then you may need to adjust your product/service or change the way that it’s promoted.

The last thing you’d want is to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit or legal fine as a result of not complying with local laws and regulations!

Keep The Local Culture In Mind

In addition to the local taxes and product regulations, you’ll also need to examine the local culture. What are their beliefs? What are their core values as a society? What products are more popular (or less popular) in the country? Do people spend a lot on consumer goods and services, or are they more frugal?

All of these are very important questions to ask yourself as you think of expanding into a new country. For example, if you’re expanding a clothing brand into a region that values modest appearances, you might want to avoid selling bikinis and lingerie and stick to more “kosher” items.

Niche Competitor Research

Again, competitor research is key! Above we recommended comparing your existing pricing model to the competitors found with the SERP Checker tool. However, you should also look below the surface level to see what else makes them successful.

Sure, viewing their site’s metrics is a great place to start, but you should also go deeper…

What’s their approach to customer service? What do they do to stand apart from their competitors? What values do they embody as a whole? Are they marketing on social media? Create short, detailed profiles on all of your top competitors in the region as you answer these questions.

Step 3: Start Developing Your International Site(s)

Now that you’ve got a full view of the bigger picture, it’s time to start developing your international site. This is the more technical part that you’ll want to work with a skilled web designer for.

After the site itself has been designed, you’ll also need to work on a content creation plan for your new international site. This could involve rewriting existing content or even creating new content to appeal to your new audience.

Understanding Domain Structures

First, let’s start with domain structures. This is the first important decision you’ll make when trying to create a true multiregional site. Here are the most common domain structures that are used by international brands.

  1. ccTLD: If you’re creating a completely different site, then it may be worth investing into a country code Top-Level-Domain. This is when you’ll substitute your .com domain for a .fr, .co.uk, .in, or any other country’s domain code.

The main advantage of using a ccTLD is that you’ll establish more trust within that country as it looks more organic and natural than the other domain structures below. The main disadvantage of this method is that you’ll be managing two completely different sites, which means more payroll and effort on your part.

  1. International Website Subfolders: Another common method used by smaller global businesses is to create alternate versions of your existing site and store them within the subfolders of your website. For instance, a French version of your US-based site might look like www.example.com/fr, or an Australian version of your site might look like www.example.com/au.

This method is very easy, which makes it a popular choice for many. Basically, your website’s host server will redirect visitors to the various subfolders where the international sites are stored based on their IP address.

The main advantage of this method is that you’ll be able to manage everything easier, as it will all be included within one master website folder. The main disadvantage is that it will make you appear less relevant in the country you’re targeting (since you won’t have an official country-code domain).

  1. Subdomain + Standard gTLD: Lastly, a less common domain structure that’s used is a subdomain with a standard global Top-Level-Domain (gTLD). This is where you’ll create a subdomain of your existing site that contains a country code (i.e., www.fr.example.com or www.au.example.com).

This method is very similar to the subfolders domain structure described above in the fact that it’s relatively simple. However, the disadvantage is that your domain authority likely won’t translate to the subdomain. So, even though your main site is ranking well in your existing country, your subdomain may rank very poorly in the new country you’re targeting.

Which One Is Best?

If you’re a smaller or mid-sized company, then we would likely recommend using international subfolders. It’s a simple, easy way to manage all your sites together and you won’t have the technical headache involved with creating a ccTLD.

That being said, if your international site plans on offering completely different products and services (or is just significantly different, other than the language), then a ccTLD may be a better solution. Sure, it may be more pricey and require a larger team to manage, but it will help you achieve greater authority within that country and set you apart from your main domain.

SEO Content Strategy For International Sites

Once you’ve designed and built your website skeleton, it’s time to move on to developing your content strategy for your new international site. If you’re just doing a multilingual site, then you can skip down to number 7, which talks about using hreflang HTML tags to translate your site for foreign browsers. However, if you’re developing a complete multiregional site, then you’ll want to look over all of these.

  1. Local Keyword Research: From your pillar content down to blog content, each webpage should target local keywords within your niche. Depending on the research data you saw using Ranktracker’s Keyword Finder tool above, you may be able to reuse certain articles, or you may have to rewrite certain articles/sections to compliment your new, updated keywords.

  2. Local Backlink Research: SEO isn’t just about keyword optimization; you also need to build a strong link structure with backlinks to authority sites within the new country you’re expanding into. Backlinks may be purchased or may require trading and contribution between your content team and the webmaster of the backlink you wish to acquire.

First, you’ll need to make a list of the top backlinks that your local competition is using. For this, use Ranktracker’s SERP Checker to identify the top 5 competitors for your niche keywords in said country. Then, take each of those site URLs and run them through another nifty tool called Backlink Finder (comming soon!).

Backlink Finder (comming soon!) will scan each URL and provide you with a complete backlink profile on them. This allows you to see behind-the-scenes data and view each and every backlink that your competitors within the region are using.

Now, all you have to do is make a conclusive list of the top backlink sites used by your competition and reach out to them with a business proposition. It’s reverse engineering at its finest!

  1. Content Translation: If you’re reusing some of your existing content, then you’ll need to get it translated into the primary language(s) spoken by that country (if they’re different from your own, that is). If you’re going from the UK to Australia, this isn’t really an issue; however, if you’re going from the US to Colombia, it’s a different story.

Here, we strongly recommend doing full rewrites of the website content, using copywriters who speak the native language fluently.

While today’s translators are fairly accurate, you’re bound to end up with some grammatical and technical errors that can reduce trust in your brand. Poor language and grammar can also cause local search engines to down-rank your site within SERPs results.

  1. Content Creation: In addition to translating existing content to your new site, you’ll also want to create some new content that’s specifically optimized for your new audience. Here, again, you’ll want to use native copywriters who know how to write in the local dialect and sound natural. New content could also be more centered around local news and trends, which could vary significantly from your home country’s trends and preferences.

  2. Get Cultural: While you don’t want to “fake it,” you do want to give the appearance of being genuinely interested in the new country’s culture, customs, and history. Trust us when we say this is one area where you don’t want to be an outsider.

For example, Mcdonald’s sells smaller portions of healthier, more organic food in France, where those values are more prevalent. Conversely, in the United States, McDonald’s offers extra-large meals that contain extra sugar (two things that American fast food consumers love).

  1. Consider Image/Video Content: One of the best ways to get cultural is to create new image and video content for your international site. Instead of reusing old images and videos from your home country’s site, film local models in local settings that will be easily recognizable by the country’s inhabitants.

Not only does this show support for local artists but it makes your brand appear more cultural and appreciative.

  1. Hreflang-Optimized Content: Last but certainly not least, you should create content that’s optimized with hreflang HTML tags. These can be inserted into the HTML code of your pages and will automatically translate website content into another language, based on the language settings of the visitor’s browser.

This is the simplest way to create a multilingual site without creating an entirely new website.

That being said, you should never always rely on hreflang code, as the automatic translation can often be wrong, sound choppy, or may not translate slang terms.

Step 4: Promote Your International Site(s)

Once you’ve fully created your new international site, optimized existing content, and created new content, it’s time to develop a full-fledged promotional SEO campaign. Most of the time, when you’re expanding your site into a new region, your domain authority won’t transfer over into the new country.

This means that you’ll need to treat your new international site the same way that you treated your existing site in your home country when you were first building your brand. From influencer/social media marketing to search engine ads, you’ll want to target as many areas as you can!

Search Engine Advertising

The most basic (although more expensive) method is search engine advertising. This just involves running plain old-fashioned Google Ads. If the country you’re targeting also uses another local-based search engine, then it may be worth running some ads there as well.

Due to the higher cost of CPC and PPC ads, you need to make sure that all of your keyword research is highly targeted and relevant to the local geographic market. Ranktracker’s Keyword Finder tool has a really neat feature that also shows you how trendy certain keywords are, which can really help you identify niche keywords.

Social Media Advertising

Social media advertising is likely going to be your best outlet in terms of overall value. In addition to advertising on large social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, though, we also recommend looking into any national social media platforms that have widespread usage. This can massively increase your organic local following.

Also, keep in mind certain restrictions on social media platforms within the country. For example, TikTok is already banned in several countries and Facebook is facing possible bans as well.

Traditional Media Advertising

Traditional media advertising is probably the most expensive. However, depending on the local market and how much attention they pay to traditional advertising, platforms such as radio, television, magazine/newspaper ads, etc., might be worth a shot.

Local Brand Partnerships

One key area where you can really grow quickly is to form local brand partnerships and collaborations. Perhaps you’re collaborating with a local artist or another widely-acclaimed business within a different industry…

For example, Nike and major shoe brands do this all of the time to promote their shoes in foreign countries. They work with top athletes and shoe distribution companies to create custom shoes that not only drive up brand awareness but gain a cult following in the geographical location.

Step 5: Analyze, Adjust, and Rank Higher With SEO Tools

You may have thought that Step 4 was the last step, right?

Think again.

Just because you created a fully optimized and well-advertised international site doesn't mean that the work ends. From here, you’ll need to focus on constantly monitoring and improving your site; otherwise, you’ll quickly fall back to the bottom of the digital pond.

Use Ranktracker’s Tools To Track Each Site’s SEO Metrics

Monitoring your site’s SEO metrics is as important as keeping up with your own health vitals. Your SEO metrics will show you how your site is performing on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. This data will show you when you’re doing well and when you aren’t.

The easiest way to monitor your site’s SEO metrics is to use Ranktracker’s full suite of SEO tools.

For a full view of your site, perform regular tests with the Web Audit tool. This will show you all of the key areas of your site (both technical and SEO-related) where improvements can be made.

To monitor how your individual SEO campaigns are going, use the Rank Tracker tool to monitor your site as it moves up and down SERP results, based on certain keywords you’re targeting.

You should also keep an eye on your competitors by using the SERP Checker tool to see how their sites are performing as a whole.

Last but not least, you should continue to grow your backlink profile by using the Backlink Finder (comming soon!) to analyze the latest backlinks used by top competitors in your niche. Keep in mind that the competition never stops; it just gets better. Just because you’re on top today doesn't mean you’ll stay there for more than a couple of weeks.

Constantly monitoring and improving your international site(s) is the only way to ensure that you remain relevant.

Final Tips

Well, there you have it! Our complete guide to planning and running an international SEO campaign. If you’ve made it this far, then you should have all of the information and resources you need to help your site rank as quickly as possible when moving into another region.

Until next time, we wish you the best of luck in your future online endeavors! With the right tools, data, and a good team, anything is possible.

Sources:

  1. https://www.reuters.com/technology/apple-spend-over-500-mln-marketing-apple-tv-this-year-the-information-2021-09-10/#:~:text=Apple%20to%20spend%20over%20%24500%20mln%20on%20marketing%20Apple%20TV%2B%20%2DThe%20Information,-Reuters

  2. https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/countries_by_languages.htm

  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308596100000392

  4. https://globaledge.msu.edu/global-resources/trade_law

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