The first time I was faced with an international SEO challenge, I remember being completely baffled and having no idea where to start. I had plenty of SEO experience, but absolutely no background in doing SEO in languages I did not understand. As I started to dig into the SEO potential of the sites I was working with, I discovered that given the lack of optimization to foreign markets the largest area of growth was going to be international SEO.
As a result, I dove in blind and came up with the following process which allowed me to build global SEO campaigns – even for languages I did not understand. If you have suddenly landed an international SEO project and don’t know where to start, this guide is for you. As always, if there is anyway I can help please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Have you done your research?
As a first step: Don’t make assumptions. There are multiple examples of companies that have gotten themselves into some pretty big PR disasters by using faulty assumptions in their global expansion. For example, KFC famously launched in China with a marketing slogan that meant, “Eat your fingers” in Chinese. In hindsight, it seems that some very basic research would have informed KFC that they were making a big mistake with their messaging.
Are you sure that your product or service is wanted in other regions or languages? It’s vital that you do your homework before you decide what your game plan is. A good starting place is to look at the Location and Language tabs under Geo in Google Analytics.
Choosing correct keywords is even more important in non-English search simply because Google’s algorithm is not as robust, and you won’t benefit from synonym-matching and spelling correction.
It doesn’t do you any good just to grab a primary keyword from Google Translate or the Google Keyword Planner. If the suggested word isn’t one that a native speaker would naturally use, you will be unlikely to see the international search traffic you are expecting, and the users that would find the site wouldn’t think your content is very high quality.
Here’s my process for international keyword research:
- Use Google Translate or another tool to search all of your primary keywords. Gather ALL of the translation possibilities into a spreadsheet. Be sure to search single words as well as phrases as translations will change.
- Put all of your keywords from your spreadsheet into a keyword volume tool like Google’s Keyword Tool or Ahrefs.
- Take the highest volume keywords and manually search them in Google.
- Take note of any and all sites that seem to be in your competitive set
- Add all of these sites into another worksheet in your spreadsheet
- Now for the fun part start perusing all of your competitor sites
- Use a two tab approach in Chrome with one tab being the site as it is written in its original language and the second tab translated by Google Translate
- Start noting all the important words used in title tags, menus, calls to action and add them to a third workbook in your spreadsheet.
- Do this for every site INCLUDING WIKIPEDIA
- Now that you have a spreadsheet with lots of words, it’s time to pick winners. Take the highest volume words that have been used on competitor sites. These will become your target keywords.
- Implement the keywords on a staged version of your site
- Make sure you are using the exact spelling and accents as you discovered from your research
- Hire someone on Craigslist or Freelancer to proofread and give feedback
- Launch live into the world
- Begin tracking the rankings on these keywords in Google Search Console or Ahrefs
- Iterate as necessary!
I have done a number of conference presentations on this topic which walk through this a bit more visually:
Conservative Assumptions Make Marketing Boring
I am sure any marketer is well aware that a US holiday such as Thanksgiving isn’t going to make a lot of sense to a non-US audience and would avoid using it in marketing copy. As a result, you might also assume that the reference to the day after Thanksgiving of Black Friday wouldn’t make sense to someone outside the US. This would be an incorrect assumption. Black Friday has been successfully exported around the globe and last year there were even stores in the UK that had Black Friday riots.
Along the same lines, you also want to avoid stereotyping cultures and languages. There are no countries called LatAm, Europe, and APAC. These names might be convenient buckets for allocating marketing dollars, but by no means will the same marketing message work across an entire region. Aside from the differing languages, a user in the UK has very different characteristics from someone in Germany. There are even significant differences between a user in Mexico and a user in Colombia both in the kinds of keywords they use, and in the types of messaging that they will respond to.
Use Data When It’s Available
As anyone who has been working in online marketing for a while knows, there isn’t always data to prove or disprove every decision that has to be made, and many times it will make sense to implement and then only analyze after the fact. In this reality, assumptions certainly have their place, but you should certainly try to validate global assumptions first.
Basic International SEO is Not that Hard
Expanding your SEO efforts globally does not have to be prohibitively expensive or technically difficult. For example, you can make small changes as simple as explaining your primary product offering in another language can help. Say your site sells books written in English about Blue Widgets. If your entire site content is in English, your only non-English search traffic will be from users who conduct a search in English. However, if you translated your marketing content into Spanish, you can now draw in users who conduct their searches in Spanish. These users will still have to buy a book in English, but they will at least know that the book exists if they want it.
With just a few pages written in another language, your site can take a significant step towards acquiring a global audience. If you really want to take your global SEO efforts further, there is a lot more you are going to need to do, but just having new content is a great start.
There really are baby steps that can be taken towards international SEO without getting in over your head. You can have just a handful of your marketing pages translated into languages where you are already seeing visitors. There will be a bit of work that has to go into translating and optimizing for a new language, but you should see a significant return on your investment. Just remember: If you are going to try to internationalize you site and product, do your research and don’t make assumptions.