Entering and thriving in new international markets can be a challenge for small start-ups and established multinationals alike. For 10 years Red Hot Penny have worked with watchmakers in Scandinavia, swim shorts in Sydney and flash memory in France whilst going through international expansion of our own to Chicago and Ireland. Ensuring sites are following best practice for each location and that we keep on top of international developments and algorithm changes is a full-time job. So to help cut down on the headaches and hold ups of international SEO here are our key lessons for anyone thinking about, or involved in, a global SEO campaign.
Starting your overall international strategy
If you’re looking to expand globally, it’s crucial to make sure that you’re ready organisationally before looking at your online set up. There are a number of challenges to each different country and you should treat your international expansion as you treated your first steps into your home market, with plenty to think about and lessons to learn. You should have a strategy for:
Currencies – What you will sell your products in, how differences in exchange rate will affect your profit margins and also how you will pay for localised services such as warehousing and marketing.
Languages – As well as day to day requirements, products’ operating manuals and marketing material will need translation or at least checking for regional differences
Product Range – Expect a difference in regional trends, seasonal trends and stock availability
Logistics – Handling Payment and Tax Processing, Shipping, Warehousing, Returns, Warranties
Customer Services – Other regions may have a preferred method of contact such as live chat in China or through a third party. Time zones will also make a difference here
Legal and Regulatory Compliance – These also include online regulations, such as the EU cookie laws and requiring an official registered company number to register domains in certain regions, such as Australia (.au domain) or Ireland (.ie domain)
You may find that working through these questions helps you decide which countries to expand to, or help qualify your selected countries if you already had targets in mind. By beginning with countries which are geographically, culturally or linguistically close to your existing business and manufacturing / development set up, it should be a smaller gap to traverse.
If you feel overwhelmed by the barriers to entry for international expansion, it may be worth looking at other options such as working with a third party reseller, an experienced international partner or a crowdfunding platform to increase your chances of success. You may decide to focus on growth in your home market through channels such as PR, social or Pay Per Click advertising, or launching new products and services aimed at a different segment of the market.
Starting your international strategy
Once your overall strategy has been thought out it is time to detail your site plan. This splits into 3 stages:
As a starting point you should identify the search potential in each of the regions you have chosen to target. This should cover keyword research, global trends, competitor analysis and consumer behaviour. You should also look at customer acquisition in each country as prevalence of social networks and search engines are varied between countries and age groups. Some great free tools are available to get you started including:
- Google Keyword Planner (part of Google AdWords) to evaluate traffic levels, keyword competition levels and top performing searches
- Google Trends to give you an insight into where and when interest in a particular topic have increased, and which regions have highest demand for products
- Answer the Public to find what searchers are asking about your products and services. This is currently available for most Western European countries and the USA
- Google Alerts to monitor the web for new content based on a particular topic or product, which can be filtered by Language and Region. It can also help you keep on top of key shopping dates in other regions such as Diwali and Singles Day to both promote and ensure you have sufficient site infrastructure to cope with high levels of demand
The results of this analysis will give you a great insight into the kind of content to produce for your new site and the user experience offered by similar sites already in your target region.
Although it can be tempting to just create a localised offshoot of your current site, or simply use the existing site as it is and add an international shipping option, there are a number of customer and SEO benefits to creating country-specific sites. Customers prefer to buy local as it removes barriers such as currency conversion, shipping times and costs, the true location of the business, import duties and simple questions of trust. To build a region specific site you will require the following:
- Localised Domain Name – we recommend a Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) such as www.shop.co.uk, www.shop.fr, www.shop.de – This helps users and search engines to identify the correct site for their location / language. Localised domains rank higher and give out a geolocalisation signal, while also being useful for other marketing channels. This separate domain is also protected from any penalties affecting your original website or any negative SEO carried out by competitors in any less regulated markets such as Russia. Domains often have a habit of being unavailable just as you look to purchase them so do reserve your domains early in advance of any international activity.
- Hosting – This is not a ranking factor in itself but having your site content available from a closer source via a CDN can improve the performance of your website and reduce page loading speed, which is a factor in its own right and especially important for mobile users.
- Ecommerce platform – Some platforms, such as Magento and Woocommerce offer a multistore option out of the box or by using free or paid plugins, however one platform which frequently brings up issues is Shopify. Although quick and easy to set up, limitations arise when trying to support multi-currency and multi-language storefronts and the lack of technical access makes it impossible to implement hreflang tags and other code changes required to set up multiple regions of a website. We would recommend making sure that the platform you use is scalable and technical change possibilities are not restricted, with flexibility built in such as Red Hot Penny’s own Metacommerce platform. Using the same structure for each localised site should help you and your employees manage the site and users to easily switch between versions of the same page.
- Content – Your traffic and sales rely on proper translation of keywords, site functionality and unique localised features. Translation into some languages is complex and one translation of a word may take up far more space in a banner or text box, so design accordingly. Also be aware of non-Latin character sets such as Russian, Chinese and Japanese which can break URLs, website menus and layouts, particularly on mobile. We’ll take an in depth look at multi-region content in a future blog.
Content should never be directly copied from your existing site no matter how tempting that seems as this makes your site vulnerable to duplicate content penalties. You can overcome this with canonical and/or hreflang tags, but although this stops your site being penalised, it also stops it from being fully ranked by Google in its own right. The best approach is to have unique product descriptions for each site. You should also take into account the regional preference for visitors to your site, do they use detailed data and statistics to make a purchase decision, trust reviews or prefer photo and video product demonstrations. It takes more than just words to speak someone’s language.
After spending time and money developing a new website it’s crucial to get a return on your investment by increasing your search visibility and getting the correct localisation of the site showing on the correct search engine results pages.
To do this there are a few quick starting points:
- Check your translations – The word with the biggest search volume in English (UK) may not be the same word literally translated in another language, for example “Pen” could mean the writing implement, a pig enclosure, or to pen a novel.
- Create individual properties / profiles for each site in Google Analytics, Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools.
- Use the meta content language tag. Identify the language of the page and your intended country target, for example <head> <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-gb” /> </head>
- Use the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”www.shop.co.uk” annotations.
The Hreflang tag helps you to tell Google which version of the website should be shown in which country. This makes sure that the correct language version of the site is shown to the right user in the correct country, which creates a better user experience.
Hreflang implementation – an example
Hreflang tags tell search engines that you are creating duplicate content (which is bad for search engine optimisation), but for the specific purpose of providing information in another language. In the case of targeting Spanish speakers within the United Kingdom, your Hreflang tag should look like:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”es-gb” />
In this example, the tag would be placed in the head of every page in your .es domain or /es/ subdirectory
The reason for Hreflang implementation
If the code is not implemented correctly, then you risk having other international territory results being displayed in foreign territories.
In many common ecommerce cases, the USA subdomain result for keywords periodically display in the UK search results. This does not create a good user experience for UK users who may be searching for a UK result. To give the clearest possible indication to Google and to avoid any duplication issues, it is always a good idea to implement the Hreflang code where appropriate.
The following code needs to be added to the head section the UK site
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.shop.co.uk/” hreflang=”en-gb” />
The following code needs to be added to the head section of the USA site
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.shop.com/” hreflang=”en-us” />
Testing the implementation
The following tool http://flang.dejanseo.com.au/ can be used to test Hreflang implementation to check that it is correctly implemented.
Ecommerce sites are fortunate enough to have a vast amount of data to help understand, analyse, measure and test your site’s performance from Google Analytics and other sources. It’s vitally important to understand your customers and visitors, so ask the following questions which all impact on user experience and on SEO metrics:
- Where are visitors coming from?
- What is driving them to your site?
- Are there issues with site and product visibility?
- How many are buying?
- Where are the rest dropping off?
- Review actual user sessions (using session recording systems)
- What is the ROI of your marketing spend? (per channel)
- What is the percentage of cart abandons?
- Are there key trends in shipment destinations?
- What is the average shipping time from order receipt and can it be improved?
- Are questions/issues being dealt with in a reasonable time?
- What is the average returns processing time?
- Are there any gaps in supply? How are these communicated?
To improve your localised SEO visibility you can also promote your business through a number of channels.
- Gain Local Reviews
- Register for social networks relevant to your audience
- Promote your site through international friends, contacts and websites to improve your local popularity and link profile
For more information on our international SEO and ecommerce work, take a look at our solutions here.