Your website has finally made it on a national scale, congratulations! Optimizing isn’t over yet though, because you could choose to branch out internationally with your website. This guide will show you how to get yourself out there on an international level. Join us in a journey through URL structures, hreflang tags, translation, Content Delivery Networks and international search engines in order to arrive at the destination of international success.

Deciding which URL structure to use

The URL structure you use is something that is often underestimated for international websites, while it’s an incredibly important factor. In order to understand this, allow me to explain the different URL structure options and their pros and cons.

Use a Top Level Domain (TLD)

A Top Level Domain is the last bit of a website’s domain name and pertains to a specific purpose, area or country. Several example of a TLD are as follows:

  • .com
  • .org
  • .ru
  • .de
  • .eu
  • .info

A multitude of different TLD’s exist, ccTLD being a shortened version for ‘country code Top Level Domain’ and gTLD meaning ‘generic Top Level Domain’, and as such pertaining to everything not related to country code.

ccTLD

A ccTLD is most useful for increasing the user experience in the targeted country, since it’s been proven that potential visitors in certain countries are more liable to click on search results with their specific ccTLD. For example:

In the example above, people In The Netherlands would sooner click on a .nl website than an .eu website, meaning verhuisbedrijfdraagkracht.nl would be more likely to gain visitors than another ccTLD or gTLD if they were equal in all other aspects. This could mean that a ccTLD can be more effective than a gTLD but it really depends on the country you are targeting and the positions you already have in the search engine of your targeted country.

ccTLD pros and cons

Pros:

  • Good for gaining business locally
  • More trust in ccTLD’s in the localized country
  • A localized search engine could help improve ccTLD rankings

Cons:

  • Limited international range (subfolders or subdomains on a ccTLD (www.example.es/en) are kind of weird)
  • Can be pricy if the company decides to have unique ccTLD’s for each specific country
  • Every ccTLD will rank separately (will need to build up authority separately)

gTLD

Generic Top Level Domains are widely used and can be anything from a .com/.net TLD to a .pizza or a .vodka. In the early development of the internet, most of these TLD’s weren’t in use yet. It started off with the following TLD’s:

  • .com
  • .net
  • .org
  • .mil
  • .int
  • .edu
  • .gov
  • .arpa – the first ever used TLD

gTLD’s in general aren’t good or bad but there are a few exceptions. For one, .info and .biz domains have a bad reputation because of spammers and are less likely to be clicked on by people who are aware of this reputation. Since Google has been steadily increasing the correlation between SEO and user experience, this can actually decrease your ranking opportunities. Likewise, .com, .org and .net domains are often more trusted than alternatives and can help increase the user experience.

gTLD pros and cons

Pros:

  • Good for websites targeting on a worldwide scale
  • You can always add a country-specific subdomain or subdirectory
  • .com,.net, .org TLD’s are well trusted
  • gTLD’s give more opportunity to branch out

Cons:

  • Local browsing is preferred
  • Less availability in .com/.net/.org domain names due to popularity

Subdomain

Subdomains are separate domains connected to a main domain. If, for example, you have a website that’s all about various insurances and you want to go international,you will have to use a ccTLD, a subdirectory or a subdomain. The website with just its gTLD would look like this:

-example.com

When creating a country-specific subdomain for an insurance website for Belgian visitors, it would look something like this:

-belgium.insurancecompany.com

Or:

-be.insurancecompany.com

Subdomains can also be used to categorize if you sell different products under the same company. This could look as following (in the case of a book store):

-fiction.example.com

-ebooks.example.com

-schoolbooks.example.com

This is a good way to differentiate between the different categories but this is only really necessary when you want to be sure that the links your different categories gain are as relevant as possible.

Subdomain pros and cons

Pros:

  • Allows for accurate and clear targeting
  • Easier than ccTLDs to sustain

Cons:

  • Will be seen as a different domain
  • Will most likely rank separately from main website
  • Users prefer local domains

Subdirectory

Subdirectories are domains, often with a gTLD, that have a subfolder pertaining to location or language, or both. Subdirectories would look like this:

-example.com/en/
-example.com/de/
-example.com/fr/

Subdirectories are probably the most widely used way of country/language specific targeting, it is, conveniently, also the easiest and (arguably) the most effective way of targeting.

Subdirectory pros and cons

Pros:

  • Everything is on one domain
  • Easiest and cheapest to maintain internationally
  • Shares link equity with the root domain

Cons:

  • Users prefer local domains

Conclusion

A gTLD with a subdirectory is the most manageable URL structure however a ccTLD can help improve your rankings in the country or countries you’re targeting. Despite this being obviously good, it’s hampered by the fact that your domains rank separately and all have separate domain costs and hosting costs. Subdomains are rarely viable options and should, in most cases, be discarded.

Try to decide if you think it’s worth it to build up separate ccTLD domains in order to get the best local experience, make sure it’s within your budget though, as dozens of domains can be expensive if you don’t immediately gain profit out of it.

Implementing your language indicators

Since search engine crawlers aren’t great at identifying languages by themselves, they require some indicators. John Mueller from Google has been recorded to say that Google ignores the HTML lang attribute completely. The hreflang attribute is the right attribute for indicating the language and country of your domain, subdomain or subdirectory. ccTLD’s don’t necessarily need a hreflang tag in order to indicate language, seeing as they’re mostly single-language and have a country code in the URL. Some other search engines, like Bing and the Chinese search engine Baidu don’t recognize the hreflang attribute and rely on language meta.

When do I need to implement language indicators?

For a lot of SEOs, it’s not quite clear when they need to implement the hreflang tag or language metadata, making the whole subject quite confusing. This leads to many SEOs implementing it the wrong way. You require language/area indicators when you have website versions in the following:

  1. In the same language for multiple countries or continents
  2. In different languages
  3. For multiple countries, with some of those countries having multiple language versions (like Belgium containing French and Dutch speaking people)

Implementing hreflang tags

The hreflangtags themselves are quite clear in their function but the implementation often gets confusing, that’s because there’s a couple of basic rules, and the hreflang attribute can be placed in different locations on your website.

When implementing the hreflang attributes, you need to make sure that it’s not just implemented for the homepage, but all pages that have a translated counterpart. A page about mortgages in Dutch would need to link the hreflang to their counterpart in English, or any other language, and that page would have to link back through the hreflang as well.

The 3 basic rules of hreflang:

  1. The hreflang attribute needs the correct language and region code
  2. Every hreflang attribute needs a return attribute on the alternate website version
  3. Every hreflang attribute needs to link to itself

This way, you basically tell the search engines “This website version is in this language,but I also have the same website in a different language, you can find ithere”. A website with 2 languages will need to implement both their hreflangattributes on both sites. For example, this website about stairlifts has both a .nl and a .be version in the samelanguage. This requires a hreflang tag on both websites, both self-referencingand referencing the alternate website.

Implementing the hreflang attribute in <head> attribute

This way of implementing the hreflang attribute is probably the most common way of doing it. However, just like the most expensive product isn’t always the best there is something to be said about this implementation. This is because, depending on the amount of alternate language or region code, the amount of code can be quite extensive, which isn’t good for your page speed, however minimal the impact. The implementation of hreflang in a <head> attribute would look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/” hreflang=”en” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/es-es/” hreflang=”es-es” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/es-br/” hreflang=”es-br” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/es-br/” hreflang=”es-br” />

OR:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/” hreflang=”en” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/es/” hreflang=”es” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/ru/” hreflang=”ru” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/cn/” hreflang=”cn” />

Implementing the hreflang attribute in your XML sitemap

Another choice is to implement the attribute into your XML sitemap to avoid the amount of code in your <head> attribute. The XML sitemap markup looks quite complicated, but that’s mostly because it looks very different than the code for the<head> attribute. Implementing the code into your XML sitemap (for 2language versions) would look like this:

<url>  <loc>http://www.example.com/</loc>

  <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en”  href=”http://www.example.com/” />

  <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de”  href=”http://www.example.com/de/” /> </url>

<url>  <loc>http://www.example.com/de/</loc>

  <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en”  href=”http://www.example.com/” />

  <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de”  href=”http://www.example.com/de/” /> </url>

Implementing the hreflang attribute into HTTP headers

HTTP headers are used for any non-HTML content you have, but have the same problems as the hreflang implementation into the <head> attribute. Namely, the code in the head elements. The hreflang would look as follows in a HTTP header:

Link: <http://example.com/es/document.pdf>;

rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”es”,

<http://example.com/en/document.pdf>;

rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”en”,

<http://example.com/de/document.pdf>;

rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”de”

Language metadata for many other search engines

Google and the Russian search engine Yandex both recognize the hreflang attribute but other big search engines like Bing and Yahoo (mostly in the US) and Baidu (China) won’t accept this as a language indicator. They disregard the hreflang altogether and instead look at the content-language meta tag.

Implementing content-language meta tags

The content-language meta tags can be implemented into the <head> attribute of your website code and looks something like this:

<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-gb”>
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-ca”>

Not so different from the hreflang attribute, so if you had no troubles implementing the hreflang then you should not have any problems implementing this one either.

Local hosting

Local hosting can, in some cases, boost your SEO efforts. This is mostly true for optimizing for the Chinese search engine Baidu, seeing as a local IP address can actually boost your rankings. The importance of local hosting really depends on the countries and languages your website reaches. If you are only localized in Europe, local hosting for different areas in Europe is excessive.

When deciding on using local hosting or not, you should think of the following:

“Where do I currently gain most of my business from?”

The answer to this question is also the answer to where you should focus your main server hosting on. If, for example, most of your traffic is coming in from The Netherlands, you should look into Dutch web hosting in order to give your most important traffic the best service.

Google has been changing their ranking algorithm based on user experience, of which your page speed are incredibly important. A local hosting service will increase the speed with which your pages load, which can directly influence your SEO opportunities.

Content Delivery Network (CDN)

In order to increase local page speed you also have the option of using a CDN which is a network of servers with the purpose of providing faster service for international websites. What a CDN does is essentially this: Static content gets spread throughout the CDN locations, visitors your website access the nearest CDN sever then load a copy of the static content from the CDN followed by loading the non-static content off your web hosting sever.

This improves not only your page speed, it also makes for lower pricing, since you don’t need to go for local hosting.

What’s the difference between local hosting and a CDN? 

Unless you’ve got a low-quality CDN, using a CDN is never a bad option but you will have to make a choice between a CDN and local hosting as local hosting will always provide better service. However this comes at the cost of higher pricing however a CDN is shared with any others that make use of the same CDN provider, meaning the available servers are not just for you, which it would be when choosing for local hosting. Local hosting also sends 100% of your content, static or dynamic, to the recipient, whereas a CDN would send all the static content, but limited amounts of dynamic content. Local hosting has an added benefit of a local IP address, which is quite important for some search engines.

Local hosting or a CDN; it all really depends on if the costs outweigh the benefits for your situation.

International search engines

Google dominates the search engine usage in a lot of countries. This, however, does not mean that other search engines should at all be disregarded. In the United States, both Yahoo and Bing have around 6% search engine market share. In China, Baidu dominates the market. When optimizing for these search engines, you stand to gain quite a lot of business.

These other search engines all have different algorithms, so when trying to optimize for one of the other popular search engines, keep the following in mind.

Bing and Yahoo SEO

Bing and Yahoo both have similar ranking factors to Google, and Yahoo even uses Bing’s local business listings, using Yext. In order to optimize for Bing and Yahoo you need to keep the following in mind:

  • Claim your business via Bing ‘Places for Business’
  • Submit your website in Bing’s webmaster tools
  • Use the right tags and categories for your website
  • Make sure your sitemap is absolutely clean
  • Use straightforward keywords
  • Make sure Bing and Yahoo crawlers aren’t blocked or delayed
  • Meta Keywords can actually still do something in Bing and Yahoo
  • Including the main keyword in your anchors is really important

Bing and Yahoo are all in all quite simple to rank for, so take your chances to optimize for these search engines!

Baidu SEO

Since the Chinese government has outlawed not only Google, but also Gmail, Google Maps and virtually all Google services. Next to that, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Blogspot, Instagram and both the Japanese and German version of Amazon are all blocked in China. They even blocked NASA for a while.

This makes Google unusable in China, leading to Chinese search engines dominating the market. Baidu being used by 80% of the populace, with their second most popular search engine being Sogou. Baidu, however, is very different from Google, and it requires you to adapt to these differences in order to start ranking well. Keep the following in mind when doing Baidu SEO:

  • You absolutely need a human translator, machine translating will be very obvious
  • Mobile even more important for Baidu than for Google
  • Use simplified Chinese characters instead of traditional characters
  • HTTPS versions allow for easier indexing
  • Be incredibly careful of content-stealing (some black-hat tactics still work)
  • Minimalize JavaScript and CSS
  • Use Pinyin for URLs when possible
  • Meta keywords and meta descriptions are a ranking factor
  • Alt tags are important
  • Quality backlinks more important than quantity (focus on
  • Local IP address is a big ranking factor
  • Use accTLD (.cn) or the new Baidu gTLD (.baidu) OR a .com (general) domain
    • This requires Chinese citizenship though, consider asking a local
  • Purchasing a V-label certification is recommended for trustworthiness

All in all, Baidu can loosely be considered a ‘behind the times’ version of Google. With an ever-changing algorithm you should always keep yourself up-to-date on the latest developments of the Chinese search engine though.

Yandex SEO

Yandex is Russia’s biggest search engine, more than 50% of the country choosing it as their go-to search engine. Google comes in at a close second, with a market share just above 40%.

Next to its search engine, Yandex also provides their own browser, advertising system, translation system, and many other services. In order to rank for Yandex, try to implement the following advice:

  • Having your keyword in your URL is a pretty big ranking factor
  • SSL isn’t a ranking factor, but can still be useful for authentication
  • Hreflang is recognized (but only in <head>)
  • Using the robots.txt file for noindex/nofollow is advised
  • Internal links are a ranking factor (use relevant keywords but vary in anchors)
  • Nofollow links are not relevant at all
  • Do not make A-B (direct) link exchanges
  • Use a mobile doctype for mobile subdomain pages
  • Meta keyword tags are important
  • Do not use pop-up windows
  • Local targeting is different because of Russia’s size
  • Submitting sitemaps is important for efficient indexing

Yandex’s ranking factors are quite different from Google but ranking for one of the search engines will not obstruct you from ranking for the other search engine. Yandex isn’t only popular in Russia, it’s also used in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkey and regions of Alaska. So while the search engine might be slightly localized, its usage extends past Russia as well.

Local content and keywords

Local content can be a great way to improve the user experience, even for other English-speaking countries. This is especially important because the terminology for each English-speaking country can be very different, especially with keywords and content. Using American-style English for an Australian website will probably stand out, and not in a good way. The best way of making sure your content is written as if a native has written it is by actually letting a native write it.

Likewise, where ‘restaurant equipment’ would be the most popular keyword in your English-speaking country, another could have much more volume on ‘catering equipment’. Be sure to do thorough keyword research for the country or countries you’re looking to branch out to.

International keyword research

Despite it being quite hard, but not impossible (requires knowledge of culture and language structure, quite complicated) to do thorough keyword research for a language you’re not proficient in, there are some pointers for keyword research for the different international search engines. Yandex (Russia) has their own keyword research tool, called Wordstat (or keyword statistics). This is the same for Baidu (China) and Naver (South-Korea), which have the Baidu keyword planner and Naver keyword tool respectively.

Make sure to use these different keyword planners when focusing keyword research on that specific country, as they all work differently and either do or don’t take misspelling, accent dropping, dialects, nouns and local data into account.

Translation

A very important part of international SEO is translation, seeing as Google (and pretty much any other search engine) takes user experience very seriously. When something is not translated the right way, it will be glaringly obvious to the natives.

This is especially true for using machine translation, as it’s not advanced enough yet to emulate a native speaker. Google has actually shown some indications of viewing automatically translated content as spam. So be very careful with this, you should probably consider hiring a native speaker to do the translation for you. Make sure they know the language that has to be translated as well though!

International SEO concluded

There’s a lot of important points you need to consider before starting your international SEO journey. You need to make a choice for hosting, hreflang implementation, URL structure and many other things while optimizing for the different local search engines, which are very much like Google but at the same time have key differences to keep in mind. Good translation is incredibly important and machine translating is not up to standard as of yet.

Where will you start your international SEO adventure?


If you want to read further into SEO, we have a selection of articles for you to read:

How to outrank competitors and dominate difficult SEO markets in 2018

How PageRank Really Works: Understanding Google

Google’s updated guidelines – what’s changed?

Koen Ras

Koen Ras

My name is Koen Ras, a Dutch SEO-specialist at Online Marketing Agency LEQUAL in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

I have a passion for both writing and staying on top of recent developments in the world of SEO and I like to think out of the box in order to come up with creative solutions to common problems.
Koen Ras

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