INTERNATIONAL SEO: BEST PRACTICES FOR DOMAIN STRATEGY & LANGUAGE TARGETING

Reach global search audiences with domain strategy and language targeting

Are you marketing your products and services internationally? If so, a strong international SEO strategy will help potential customers find you on the top search engines in their particular region.

And that starts with localizing your domain and language to connect with users no matter where they are in the world.

Here, let’s look at the international SEO best practices for domain name strategy and language targeting so that you can better connect with and convert customers around the globe.

WHAT IS INTERNATIONAL SEO?

International search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving your website’s searchability for users who live in different countries and/or speak different languages.

International SEO can be broken down into 2 subsets:

  • Multiregional SEO (Country-Based Targeting)
    • Multiregional SEO means optimizing your website content for different regions. For example, this may mean targeting users in Canada, France, and Italy using English, ensuring that your strategies meet the true search intent for each of those diverse markets.
  • Multilingual SEO (Language-Based Targeting)
    • Multilingual SEO means localizing your website content for a variety of languages. For example, this may mean targeting users in Singapore using Simplified Chinese and English.

By implementing international SEO—whether multiregional, multilingual, or both!—on your website, you essentially bridge the gap between your business and visitors—no matter where they are in the world.

The benefit of international SEO is clear: Imagine a French user searching for your products or services in Korea, for instance. He or she would be directed to the correct version of your website—i.e., the content for the Korean market (the right products, time zone, currency, etc.) but all in French language.

This would create a better user experience and, in turn, greater click-through rates and ultimately conversions.

DO YOU NEED INTERNATIONAL SEO?

The answer is (drum roll, please): Yes! If a significant portion of your website visitors are multiregional and/or speak different languages, it is a strong signal for you to optimize your website for international audiences.

This also applies if you are expanding your local business into overseas markets: You will need to implement effective international SEO best practices to reach potential customers around the world.

And although virtually every best practice for a local SEO campaign applies to an international SEO campaign, the biggest difference is localizing your website’s content across multiple regions and ensuring a few additional technical SEO aspects are in check.

In terms of domain name strategy and language targeting, here are the international SEO best practices to follow for success:

INTERNATIONAL SEO BEST PRACTICES

DOMAIN NAME STRATEGY

A domain name strategy refers to the URL structure of your international or multiregional website(s). This strategy will have a huge impact on your organic rankings, geo-targeting, and domain authority, so it’s critical to get it right.

There are 4 primary types of URL structures for international SEO, each with their own pros and cons:

  • Country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs)
  • Subdomains
  • Subdirectories/subfolders
  • Generic top-level domains (gTLD) with URL parameters

COUNTRY-CODE TOP-LEVEL DOMAIN (ccTLDs)

1. Example of a ccTLD targeting users in the UK

Example of a ccTLD targeting users in the UK

ccTLDs align with ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country codes to indicate in which country the website is registered. For example, .uk represents the United Kingdom and .au represents Australia.

When you apply a ccTLD to your site, search engines like Google will assume that all the content on the site is specifically relevant to that particular region and will therefore feature it on their search engine results pages (SERPs) for that region.

PROS OF ccTLDs
  • ccTLDs send strong geo-targeting signals to search engines.
  • ccTLDs improve your site’s click-through rate (CTR) due to higher locational relevancy.
  • ccTLDs are essential for websites targeting countries that are more centralized like China, where the #1 search engine—Baidu—only shows Chinese ccTLDs (.cn) on its SERPs.
CONS OF ccTLDs
  • ccTLDs incur higher domain registration costs. For example, if you want to target 32 regions, you must purchase 32 different ccTLD domains and hosting plans for each.
  • ccTLDs require more time, resources, and effort to maintain.
  • SEO efforts done on one ccTLD will not benefit other ccTLDs, as search engines view each ccTLD as a separate entity.

SUBDOMAINS

2. Example of a website subdomain targeting users in France

Example of a website subdomain targeting users in France

Subdomains include the country code before the domain name.

By using a subdomain, you can create a distinct subset of your website populated with localized content—without creating an entirely new website.

However, subdomains are generally not the preferred URL structure type as their cons outweigh their pros:

PROS OF SUBDOMAINS
  • Subdomains are easy to implement via content management systems (CMS).
  • Since no additional domain or hosting is required, registration costs for subdomains are more affordable than ccTLDs.
  • Subdomains inherit some link equity from the root domain—though the extent is still widely debated in the SEO community.
CONS OF SUBDOMAINS
  • Compared to ccTLDs, subdomains send weaker geo-targeting signals since search engines do not automatically associate subdomains with a country or region.
  • Some users may not immediately recognize that a subdomain is targeted at them, thereby resulting in fewer clicks.
  • Hreflang tag implementation can be challenging on subdomains.

SUBDIRECTORIES/SUBFOLDERS

3. Example of a website subfolder targeting users in ChinaExample of a website subfolder targeting users in China

Subdirectories or subfolders utilize language or country codes that can be inserted at the end of the domain after a forward slash—i.e., .com/au. For this domain name strategy to work, your website requires a generic top-level domain (gTLD), such as “.com”, “.org”, “.net” or “.edu”.

Subfolders are also widely accepted as the most effective and straightforward way to organize information on your website for international visitors.

PROS OF SUBDIRECTORIES / SUBFOLDERS
  • Since they share the same domain, SEO efforts done on one subfolder are all-inclusive and will benefit all other subfolders.
  • Subfolders are the easiest to implement—it is as simple as creating another landing page on your website.
  • Subfolders can be effective for both language- and country-targeting. For example, “mydomain.com/en-sg” clearly indicates that the page is for English-speaking users in Singapore.
  • Subdirectories or subfolders are cost-effective for international SEO since they do not require additional domains or hosting.
CONS OF SUBDIRECTORIES / SUBFOLDERS
  • Compared to ccTLDs, subdirectories generate weaker geo-targeting signals to search engines, as there is no country-specific authority to the website.
  • Some users may not instantly recognize that the subfolder is targeted at them, which can result in fewer clicks.
  • Hreflang tag implementation can be challenging, particularly on some CMS.

gTLD WITH URL PARAMETERS

4. Example of a gTLD with URL parameters targeting users in Hong KongExample of a gTLD with URL parameters targeting users in Hong Kong

Also known as query strings or URL variables, URL parameters refer to the set of characters after a question mark (?), ampersand (&), equals sign (=) or other attributes in a URL.

However, we don’t recommend this domain strategy as URL parameters are often ignored by search engines.

PROS OF gTLD WITH URL PARAMETERS
  • gTLDs with URL parameters are easy to implement.
  • gTLDs with URL parameters inherit link equity from the root domain.
CONS OF gTLD WITH URL PARAMETERS
  • URL parameters create duplicated website content, which can lead to internal cannibalization.
  • Compared to ccTLDs, URL parameters generate weaker geo-targeting signals to search engines, as there is no country-specific authority to the website.
  • Google does not recommend URL parameters, so implementing them may prove futile.

Google sums up this point perfectly:

Overly complex URLs, especially those containing multiple parameters, can cause problems for crawlers by creating unnecessarily high numbers of URLs that point to identical or similar content on your site. As a result, Googlebot may consume much more bandwidth than necessary or may be unable to completely index all the content on your site.

Google’s documentation on URL parameters

After evaluating the pros and cons of each domain name strategy, you can see that there is no one strategy that is optimal for all circumstances.

Instead, you should consider your business’ budget, time constraints, CMS limitations, and technical support when selecting the domain name strategy that’s best for you.

LANGUAGE TARGETING

HREFLANG TAGS

Hreflang is an HTML language attribute that tells search engines which language or country a particular page is targeting.

You can think of hreflang tags in this way: When users in Japan search for your site in Japanese language, for example, the hreflang tag ensures that they see it in Japanese only—not in Korean or any other language.

6. Example of a hreflang tag (“en-us”)Example of a hreflang tag (“en-us”)

The hreflang tag above tells search engines that this is an English page that should feature on SERPs in the United States.

7. Example of a hreflang tag (“de-au”)Example of a hreflang tag (“de-au”)

And here, the hreflang tag signals to search engines that this is a German page that should feature on SERPs in Australia.

HOW TO IMPLEMENT HREFLANG TAGS

There are 3 ways to implement hreflang tags:

HTML link element in <head> section

Add a link element to the HTML <head> section to direct search engines towards a specific language or country.

For example, if your page is for Spanish-speaking users in the United Kingdom, you should include this string of code within the <head> section of the page:

8. Example of a hreflang tag (“es-uk”)Example of a hreflang tag (“es-uk”)

HTTP headers

If you have PDFs or non-HTML content, you can use HTTP headers to implement an hreflang tag.

For example, if you are translating a PDF from Spanish to English and German, you would add this string of code into the HTTP header of the file:

9. Example of hreflang tags implemented via HTTP headersExample of hreflang tags implemented via HTTP headers

XML sitemap

The third option uses the xhtml:link attribute to annotate URLs in the XML sitemap.

With this method, each URL in the XML sitemap has a self-referencing hreflang attribute and return links to other URLs.

Here, the <loc> elements indicate the page’s URL. For example, if you are translating a page from English to German, French, and Chinese, you would add this string of code into your XML sitemap:

10. Example of hreflang tags implemented via XML sitemap Example of hreflang tags implemented via XML sitemap

 For more information, you can also check out Google’s documentation on hreflang tags.

THE HREF X-DEFAULT TAG

The x-default tag is used when no other language or region matches the user’s browser settings. Although this is an optional value to include, it is great way to control which pages show up when no languages or regions match. In a link element, it will look like this:

11. Example of an href x-default tagExample of an href x-default tag

OTHER INTERNATIONAL SEO BEST PRACTICES

DEFINE GEO-TARGETING IN GOOGLE SEARCH CONSOLE

In addition to the hreflang tag, you can define your language or country preferences in Google’s International Targeting Report.

In this report, there are 2 tabs that will help you monitor and identify errors relating to your hreflang tags:

12. Defining geo-targeting preferences on Google's International Targeting ReportDefining geo-targeting preferences on Google’s International Targeting Report

Language tab

This tab helps monitor the usage and errors of up to 1,000 hreflang tags on your site.

Country tab

This tab lets you set a country for your entire site to target. Do note that this setting only applies to geographic data.

For example, if you sell products and services within France only, then you would setup your site’s country target as “France”.

Alternatively, if you have a French website that you want users in Germany, Denmark, and Singapore to visit, you would not use this country-targeting tool.

LOCALIZED CONTENT & KEYWORD STRATEGY

Before expanding to other countries, you must understand which keywords diverse regional audiences use to search as this varies drastically across different regional markets. This will allow you to understand and match true search intent and behavior based on the search volume of particular keywords in a particular market and the existing competition.

To execute international keyword research with such nuance, you can work with local agencies that have native SEOs who are deeply rooted in your target country’s culture. This will help you to not just translate your content, but more importantly, tailor it to the local audience.

Which brings us to our final–and perhaps most critical!–point:

DO NOT SIMPLY TRANSLATE CONTENT INTO OTHER LANGUAGES

Keep in mind that different regions have different cultures, jargon, and preferences. Simply translating your content into different languages without considering these nuances will produce different meanings and cause confusion.

Instead, you must localize your content by using the right vernacular, time zone, currency, addresses, and other region-specific information.

Again, you can work with local agencies who have native SEOs (like ours!) familiar with the cultural nuances of your target country.

Some elements to optimize when localizing include:

  • URLs
  • Meta titles and descriptions
  • Structured data
  • Site navigation
  • Content headings and text copies
  • Image alt texts
  • Live chat support services
  • Video subtitles
  • And much, much more!

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INTERNATIONAL SEO IN A NUTSHELL

Successful international SEO hinges on understanding the needs of vastly diverse audiences around the world, localizing content with high-volume and relevant keywords, and ensuring that search engines deliver the correct pages for users in your target country.

Following these best practices for international SEO, you will provide an optimal search experience for international audiences.

Ultimately, however, the actionable tips highlighted in this article cover only the fundamentals—effectively executing a holistic international SEO strategy calls for content, technical, and marketing teams working in tandem to ensure a successful international SEO expansion.

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