The internet is global. For the most part, anyone with internet access, can visit any site from anywhere in the world. However, the real world has regional differences that affect how we interact with the internet, such as different languages, product offerings, and policies.
When brands create different versions of their websites to reflect these regional differences, they are localizing, or internationalizing, their online presence. To do this effectively, brands need to consider international search engine optimization (SEO).
What is international SEO?
International SEO is a set of practices to communicate to search engines the intended local audience of your website. The two main ways to optimize your site for international audiences are to specify the country and use a local language.
Why do you need international SEO?
If your site has multiple languages or different product offerings for different areas of the world, you should consider implementing international SEO. In these cases, it is an important tool to ensure the right version of your website shows up at the right time in search engines. Without international SEO, users could see the wrong version of your site, or worse, the different sites could confuse search engines and hurt your rankings.
The goal of international SEO is to clarify the intended country and languageaudience for each version of your website.
If your website is in a single language, you likely don’t need to implement international SEO practices. Search engines will automatically understand the language your content is in and serve it to speakers of that local language, when relevant, anywhere in the world. (For example, an informational website in Portuguese may show up on search engine results pages in countries including Portugal, Brazil, and Mozambique.)
In ecommerce, just because your site ships to multiple countries doesn’t mean you need international SEO either. If you serve the same products in a single language around the world, a simple multicurrency setup might be enough.
How to host an international version of your site
There are three ways businesses can host international versions of their site: on separate domains, in a subfolder, or on a subdomain.
1. New domain
Top-level domains (TLDs) are the end section of a domain, such as .com or .ca. There are two types of TLDs:
- Generic top-level domains (gTLD). These are TLDs that don’t communicate any information about the location of the website. For example, .com, .net, or .jobs. These domains are best for websites that have a single version for all countries and regions.
- Country code top-level domains (ccTLD). These TLDs are country-specific—for example, .ca for Canada, .co.uk for Britain and .it for Italy—and require proof that a business has a presence in that country. By using a ccTLD for an international version of your site, you send a strong signal to search engines that this country is your main audience for this content. This can lead to higher rankings for localized Google searches in that country but lower rankings elsewhere.
If you are internationalizing your site, you should consider a ccTLD for your international versions. The domains don’t have to be identical. For example, the denim apparel brand DUER uses shopduer.com for its generic/American site, and duer.ca for its Canadian site.
Hosting another version of your website on another ccTLD has additional implications. It often means having separate content management systems (or CMSs) for your different sites, increasing the number of resources you need to manage (although Shopify Plus unifies them in one dashboard). It also means, to an extent, splitting your website’s domain authority across multiple domains.
An alternative way to serve an international version of your site is on a subfolder on your original gTLD domain. International SEO best practices recommend naming the subfolder with a combination of the ISO 639-1 language code, followed by the Alpha-2 country code. For example, if DUER wanted to use a subfolder to host its English-Canadian store instead of a ccTLD (duer.ca), it would use shopduer.com/en-ca/.
Although a subfolder structure can help retain domain authority and a single CMS, it can also be less clear to users and search engines that it’s actually a different version of the site. For this reason, it is extra important for subfolder-based international sites to implement proper hreflang tags, which tell search engines which language you have used to write your content.
The final option for where to host the site is a subdomain. In this case, for example, DUER could host its Canadian site on ca.shopduer.com instead of duer.ca or shopduer.com/ca-en/. Subdomains don’t have any restrictions on naming, but SEO best practice recommends using a subdomain that’s descriptive of its region, such as ca.domain.com, canada.domain.com, or french.domain.com.
Using subdomains is a “middle-of-the-road” option. It doesn’t make the target region as clear as a ccTLD, but it’s more clear than a subfolder. It doesn’t retain domain authority quite as well as a subfolder, but it retains more than a ccTLD. It is often the easiest option to manage technically, since it doesn’t require buying additional domains or configuring new subfolders in your CMS.
Ultimately, all three options (new domain, subfolder, and subdomain) are effective ways to host international versions of your site. The right method for you depends on your resources, capability to grow your domain authority, and technical/CMS limitations.
How to use hreflang tags for international SEO
Regardless of how you host them, all international sites should include hreflang tags. Hreflang tags are lines of code in the header of your website that indicate the intended region of that page and what the alternate regional versions are.
Every website’s hreflang tags should name a “default” (non-regionalized) version and all alternate versions of that page. For example, DUER has two versions of its men’s jeans collection:
The hreflang tags on each page read:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-US" href="https://shopduer.com/collections/mens-stretch-jeans"/>
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-CA" href="https://duer.ca/collections/mens-stretch-jeans"/>
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="https://shopduer.com/collections/mens-stretch-jeans"/>
The first two lines describe the right version for different regions (first for English speakers in the United States, second for English speakers in Canada). The last line describes the default version of the page, meaning the version for visitors from any other region, or if the visitor’s region is unclear.
These tags aren’t visible to someone viewing the page, but you can see them within the <head> tag of the page’s source code.
Tips for implementing an international SEO strategy
International SEO is primarily a technical SEO challenge: ensuring that search engines properly categorize your website’s different international versions. However, there are several additional ways you can set up your international sites for SEO success:
- Develop regional backlinks. Google looks at the locations of the backlinks your site receives. If your French site has backlinks from French publications, it will rank better for French searches.
- Follow localized dialects. Visitors in different countries will expect their content to reflect the way they read. For example, if you create a Canadian version of your site, visitors will expect the filter to say “colour” instead of “color.” Perform keyword research as part of your local SEO efforts; this ensures that your pages are optimized for the local language.
- Include a site switching toggle. Website visitors should have an easy way to self-select to another region. Companies typically include this option in either the header or the footer.
- Avoid outdated country targeting settings. Google used to offer a tool in Google Search Console to explicitly name your website’s target region. This tool is now deprecated, so businesses must leverage hreflangs and/or ccTLDs to indicate their target region instead.
International SEO FAQ
How much does international SEO cost?
The costs of implementing international SEO vary widely, depending on the number of international sites you need to have, the extent to which those sites are different, and the technical capabilities of your CMS and team. The largest costs in international SEO are translation, web development, and SEO analysis.
Can I use the same content for multiple countries and expect good SEO results?
If your content is the exact same on different international versions of your site, don’t expect good SEO results, even if you apply hreflang tags. Search engines want to see differentiated content, so they can understand the need for the different purposes of that site. That being said, you can retain some content across sites. For example, if your product FAQs are the same in Canada and the US, you can keep them the same on both sites.
Which metrics should I use to monitor the success of my international SEO efforts?
Pages indexed: Aim to have Google and other search engines fully index the international versions of your site.
International rankings: Although search volume in different target countries may differ from your home country, try to replicate the rankings of your default site in international markets.
Should I translate all my content for international audiences?
If you are creating a translated version of your site, you should have all content on the new site translated—it might be confusing to have some content in English and some in French, for example. But you don’t need to bring over all content on your site. For example, some sites start by translating their store but hold off on translating their blog pages.