The Internet has become so integrated into our daily lives that we rarely reflect upon how drastically the world has changed. Now more than ever, companies and individuals have access to tools to achieve beyond what would have been thought possible compared to the world just two decades ago.
For B2B organizations who take their global expansion efforts seriously, using search engines to reach clients half-way across the world can be extremely effective. Often I talk about how to use paid search for export marketing because of how quick and inexpensive it can be to test out different markets. In this article, I want to focus on the other half of search engine marketing: search engine marketing (SEO).
B2B International SEO & The Impact of Search
For all the coverage social media gets, search engines remain the top way to drive demand around the world. Yet international SEO remains one tactic that businesses often fail to execute correctly.
The primary reason for this is simply because of how difficult it can be to optimize a site in multiple countries and languages outside of gigantic, universally recognized multinational corporations.
For example, a site selling shoes might be able to reach prospects with organic rankings in its own country. Yet unless it makes a concerted, well-executed effort, it will probably have a difficult time ranking highly for similar phrases in another country even if the preferred language is the same. (Insert standard caveat here about differences across industries and competition levels among keywords.) International SEO can be tough. That’s why we put together some steps you can take to leverage your reach more prospects through search engines in foreign markets without having to pay for clicks.
Understand Your Target Markets Thoroughly
Before thinking about how to reach new prospects internationally, it’s important to truly understand your business inside and from the perspective of your target buyers. For example: how do they talk about what you’re selling and why do they choose you over your competition. Now it’s time to dig in on research.
Target Acquired: Countries, Regions, Cultures, & Dialects
Start by identifying which countries would benefit most from what you provide*. Don’t be surprised if you find multiple opportunities or if none of your initial targets are worth your time. For SEO purposes, you’ll be able to tell which markets show the greatest potential later on once you’ve conducted some in-depth keyword research.
* If you can afford to go for the really long play, you can enter into a market before it fully develops for what you sell. It takes great organization and patience, as well as in-market presence. But if you read your trends well and are confident the market is a solid long-term play, SEO is an excellent fit. Plus the competition is a lot less steep, making achieving rankings much easier.
One of the ways you can do this market research ahead of digging into keywords is by reaching out to your friendly neighborhood U.S. Commercial Service agent. They offer a variety of services in conjunction with officers stationed all around the globe to help you assess demand all the way up to helping you drive it through in-market visits. The costs range from free to very affordable, making the Commercial Service the best value in government.
After compiling an initial list of markets to pursue, try to truly understand how these people would define your business. If a country has more than one preferred language (for example in India with Hindi, English, Urdu, Punjabi and many more), try to focus on the one your ideal client speaks. Researching dialects is also critical as a language spoken in one country may be different from another. For example, Spanish spoken in Argentina varies dramatically versus Spanish spoken in Mexico. Knowing these differences can provide context to reaching prospective clients as well as [foreshadowing alert] making sure you’re optimizing content for the best keywords.
Speaking Their Language Through Keyword Research
Learning about your audience will help lay the groundwork for what will be the most important step in an international SEO strategy: keyword research.
The reason finding the best keywords is so important is because your list of keywords will shape how you create content and optimize your site to compete in organic search results. If you’re targeting poorly translated / localized keywords, you’ll waste a ton of time, money, and effort.
Get it right the first time* and have your keywords translated by professionals. Common ways to ensure good translation is by using local translators or by firms that can guarantee dialect specific translations. You can even use distributors or partners in your target marketings; just don’t be tempted to use free translator tools for any heavy lifting. You can definitely use something like Google Translate to get you in the ballpark or help for less important markets (especially for large ecommerce sites), but don’t rely on these translations as part of your core strategy.
* I said this article won’t be about paid search and it won’t…mostly. I’m a huge proponent of using paid search for keyword data even if you have no long term plans for the tactic. Finding out what keywords produce volume and – most important – conversions in each market can be extremely quick with paid search. You can then use this information to shape your organic targeting and content strategy.
Plan For The Future & Prepare to Scale
With the most important research out of the way, it’s important to keep in mind factors that will either help or hurt your efforts if you want to expand the scope of your international SEO strategy. While you may only focus on one market to target at first, you want to make sure that your decisions don’t inhibit you from targeting newer markets down the road.
Technical Considerations With International SEO
Search engines want to serve users with highly relevant results to help answer their questions as quickly as possible. Content and contextual relevance matter, but search engines also look at several technical factors to determine how relevant a web page is for a specific search phrase.
ccTLDs vs. Subdomains vs. Subdirectories
Most domain names will have an extension on the end like .com, .org, .net, .edu, or .gov. Domains can also have a region specific extension (e.g. .ca for Canada, .pl for Poland) which is typical of sites hosted in their country of origin outside of the U.S. For example, Google.com is the search giant’s primary domain, but users in the United Kingdom will visit or be served Google.co.uk. Using a specific country’s ccTLD will typically be the strongest technical factor for relevance, but you’ll need to maintain each of these domains as separate entities. Because of this, using multiple ccTLDs can be more costly and time intensive.
In addition to the extra resources required to maintain a ccTLD, several countries are very restrictive in how they sell ccTLDs. In some cases, an exporter will need to have a legal entity in the target country or utilize a third party to purchase (and the exporter may not be able to own it, period).
Alternatively, exporters can use a country specific subdomain. A subdomain is simply another version of a site’s root domain that often looks like the main site. In practice, a site looking to target Japan would look like this:
A subdomain is considered less impactful and authoritative than a ccTLD would be, but it may be easier and less expensive to implement.
Another option to consider is adding subdirectories to your site’s URL structure. If you have a developer or resources that can alter or add subdirectories, you can create subdirectories for your target country. For example:
The above example would be a perfectly suitable way to segment content on your site for users in the United Kingdom. Similar to using a subdomain, this tactic doesn’t have quite as much impact as using a ccTLD, but it’s definitely a good alternative. Additionally, a site configuration may allow this to be implemented with greater ease than it would be to use a subdomain. Even if you don’t want to create country subdirectories, it’s still a good idea to segment language subdirectories or subdomains when serving content in multiple languages.
Using Hreflang Markup
Another way to tell search engines what language your content is written in is implementing Hreflang tags. These tags are snippets of code that make it easier for search engines to understand who the content is intended for. You can insert them into on-page markup, the sitemap, or directly into the HTTP header. Keep in mind that using these tags can only help search engines understand your content as they may choose to ignore them.
When Worlds Collide: High Quality Content & Link Building
To truly succeed with SEO on any level, it’s important to prioritize and really think about how to approach content as part of your strategy. Providing upfront value will go a long way when trying to capture the attention of your prospective customers. Creation of content is just the beginning as you’ll also need to work in a link building strategy as well.
Meaningful, Contextually Relevant Content
If content is King, context is Queen.
Understanding your audience isn’t just about understanding relevant keywords in their native tongue. It’s also understanding the intent behind your keywords and what types of content will satisfy different organic search users. With this in mind, it’s your job to figure how to create that content and always shoot for high standards once it’s time to create.
If you have great content that you know will be useful to your audience, don’t expect to kick your feet up just yet. Great content is important, but link building is where you can develop your brand’s authority.
Establishing Authority Through Link Building
Despite what some believe to have lower importance in comparison to the early days of SEO, links are still one of the most important factors for search engine rankings. The more external links a website has from industry or topically relevant sites, the more authoritative that site is in the eyes of search engines.
While some of the tactics for link building have changed, it’s still just as important to consider a link building strategy to leverage your content. From an international perspective, there should be a focus on where a site is building their links. Keeping consistent with providing search engines regional relevance, link building for international SEO should aim to obtain links from the country they are trying to target.
For example, if you wanted to improve organic search visibility in Germany, you would want to build up your link profile to include backlinks from news outlets and other industry relevant sites located in Germany.
Weighing Risks & Rewards of International SEO
Without putting in the work and serious thought necessary for a comprehensive strategy, any efforts for international SEO are very unlikely to yield any positive results. Reaching customers across the globe through organic search will be an immense challenge and results won’t happen overnight, but when done correctly, the rewards can be tremendous. If you’re serious about global expansion by utilizing search engines, these tools will help you reach your goals.