Want to read the full whitepaper? Download it here: International SEO Whitepaper [PDF]
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What is International SEO?
So to kick things off, what is international SEO and how does it differ from regular SEO? International SEO is the process of rolling out SEO campaigns to different countries, using a mix of different domain names, subdirectories or folders on the same domain, or using variants of the same, or different websites.
Some examples of this are as follows:
Different website (ccTLD):
There is also the option of having the same website design or different websites’ designs, which can add a layer of complexity ensuring that each is structured correctly and the traditional technical SEO items are addressed. Consolidating all the websites into one is generally the best option unless you have different brand names in different companies, in which you may consider the different website structure.
How to Choose a Domain Structure
There are advantageous and disadvantageous to each of the above that we will get in to, and it’s important to select based on on your brand and how you want to build your digital presence. Let’s take it from the top:
1- Subdomain: Subdomains, have in the past, been demonstrated to be treated as completely separate domains, which has changed the way that people have viewed this approach as it forces you to double up on marketing activities. Historical data and implementations suggest not utilising subdomains, showing increases upwards of 64% to 116% (based on our client results) on average when migrating away from this structure. An interesting case study can be found here supporting these findings: https://www.sistrix.com/blog/case-study-monsters-monster-growth-on-google/
For this reason, subdomains are rarely recommended even though Google states there is no major difference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MswMYk05tk
An exception to this rule may be a function such as a forum. Rolling out a forum on a website can often lead to a lot of technical considerations and often do more harm than good, so for this reason it is sometimes recommended to put this on a subdomain as opposed to doing it through a subdirectory unless you have a very technical team.
It is worth saying, however, that if you plan on exploiting this by having a subdomain that you use blackhat or deceptive SEO practices on, this will backfire as manual actions for subdomains can impact entire sites, as evidenced by our own findings and the following article: http://www.thesempost.com/manual-actions-on-subdomains-can-affect-entire-site/
2- Subdirectories: A subdirectory is a great use case for international clients when looking to leverage the preexisting equity built up in a domain. A subdirectory is also a great way of consolidating different websites under one umbrella, avoiding any duplicate content issues and allowing international entities to decrease the amount of website properties that they manage.
As an agency, we have seen some great results from this kind of strategy, and have seen clients go from somewhere out of the top 100, to being number 57, or in many cases higher. In some of the studies we have done we have seen this become a large factor in top SERP positions, with subdomains ~43% less like to appear in top 10 positions. In the SERPs simply by changing from a subdomain to a subdirectory. Everything else related to their site remained constant.
This evidence tells us that if you are an international entity that is expanding out or has previously expanded out and is now consolidating its properties, this is a good way to go, unless you have a lot of 3rd party software that is going to be a requirement (see forum example).
3- Seperate Domains (ccTLD): A ccTLD makes a lot of sense for entities operating in countries where only a singular common language is spoken (e.g. Israel, Scandinavian countries, Russia).
They also make a lot of sense if they are operating within the Asian market as leading search engines such as Baidu make it very hard to rank without a .cn TLD.
For countries that have multiple spoken languages, a ccTLD is often not worth the effort, they can be extremely technically challenging and rolling out new campaign strategies or websites to each ccTLD can be very expensive. There is also no guarantee that Google will show the correct version (see HREFLANG later in the piece to see how you can avoid this).
Another downside of ccTLD’s is that having all these new domains names will mean that SEO efforts such as link building and even technical website elements will need to be split off to a different property.
Having said that, if you have a team with the technical know how, and a talented link building team, then choosing a ccTLD can be advantageous as the customisation options are extreme. You could roll out entirely different websites and target completely different backlinks and audiences for different locales to boost results. It can also look better in local SERP’s for potential customers as they can see immediately that you operate in their country and can even be passed off as local.
In summary: In summary of the above, use subdomains if you have a lot of 3rd party services that need to be hosted (forum software, client vendor systems that need to be hosted online). Subdirectories if you are looking to consolidate assets and don’t have resources for lengthy investigations or teams to manage separate properties. Finally, consider ccTLD’s if you have the team and resources to manage multiple different campaigns and want a lot of flexibility and customizability in your strategies.
Now that you have picked a domain name, it’s time to set up the preferred country and understand the hreflang attribute.
Everything You Need to Know About the hreflang Attribute
hreflang attribute is a method used by search engines to differentiate between different versions of similar pages and serve the most appropriate version of the page to the visitor based on his browser language preferences and region. If you are an international website, knowing how to utilize the hreflang attribute is very important when it comes to SEO.
Many webmasters agree that hreflang tags can be very tough and implementing them can take a lot of time and effort. Here’s everything you need to know about them hreflang attributes – from their benefits to implementation.
What is the hreflang Attribute?
hreflang is an HTML <link> markup, or <link> tag attribute (for use in a .pdf). What it does is tell the search engine which version of the page to show in search results based on the users language and country preferences.
It looks something like this: rel=“alternate” hreflang=“en-au”
Also worth noting is that when implementing anything to do with hreflang tags it’s essential to make sure that everything is being documented so that the rules that were initially followed when establishing best practice can continuously be rolled out or revised as new markets are released. You should always take into consideration whenever localised sections are expanded on, pages of new localisations are published, or URLs are changed. Keeping hreflang tags updated and validated is an important factor and should be a priority.
Which Search Engines use this Attribute?
There are two search engines that can use hreflang as of now. Google Chrome and Yandex. Search engines like Bing and Baidu use a different attribute known as (Meta) content language attribute.
Why is a hreflang Tag so Important for a Website?
Imagine you run an online store that sells shoes worldwide. Your site is optimised for the different audiences and has pages in various languages but doesn’t have hreflang. When someone who speaks Russian visits your website, they will see the English version and not the Russian. This might drive them away. This is the problem hreflang was made to solve. Ensuring that visitors land on the page most appropriate from them.
Hreflang will help you drive up your conversions and drive down the bounce rate.
A common misconception of hreflang attribute is that it prevents Google from displaying your different pages as duplicates or spam, however that’s not true. You may have different pages for American English, British English and Australian English – the differences in each of these pages will be very minimal and thus are prone to being marked as duplicates. To overcome this problem, you can rewrite the base of the content, to make it more different. Use “specialization” for the US version and “specialisation” for the British version, to utilize subtle language differences. Previous work we have done suggests that this can impact the likelihood of Google using hreflang tags by up to 14%.
Dissecting the structure of hreflang
Take a look at this hreflang attribute:
|<link rel=“alternate” hreflang=“en” href=“https://www.example.com/” />|
Going through each component one by one:
- link rel=“alternate”
This part shows that there is another version (or alternative version) of the page. Other link relationships are present as well. For example: pagination, mobile variants, and AMP variants
This part tells us the about the target audience. In this example, all your users with English set as their preference will be taken to this page. You can select language or a combination of country and language.
This part shows the URL of the page that will be shown to the target audience.
Want to read the full whitepaper? Download it here: https://www.studiohawk.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/International-SEO-Whitepaper-StudioHawk-20-12-2018.pdf