Search engine optimization is a powerful tool for ecommerce business owners—especially when you’re selling products all around the world. When you launch an international SEO strategy, you’ll need to account for language and cultural differences, increased competition, and the technical challenge of hosting multiple versions of your site for different countries.
The payoff, however, can be huge—a successful international SEO strategy can serve a massive audience with content specifically tailored to their needs. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the process of optimizing your website’s content and structure to improve its performance in search engine rankings in countries other than your business’s home country.
You can use international search engine optimization (SEO) tactics to tell search engines that your content is designed for audiences who speak a specific language or are located in a particular country. You can also optimize site content (or on-page SEO) based on specific international audience needs—for instance, by creating pages targeting the most popular relevant keywords in a given country.
8 key steps for building an international SEO strategy
- Use current performance to identify target countries
- Conduct market research
- Tailor your strategy to each country's most popular search engine
- Create localized content
- Conduct keyword research
- Create dedicated URLs
- Build local backlinks
- Use hreflang tags
The main difference between local and international SEO strategies is local SEO focuses on one country or geographic region, while international SEO focuses on multiple countries or regions.
For this reason, international SEO best practices include all local SEO best practices in addition to factors relevant to targeting multiple international audiences. Here’s an overview of the steps you need to take to be successful in your international SEO efforts.
1. Use current performance to identify target countries
The first step in launching an international SEO strategy is deciding which countries you’ll target. Many business owners develop an initial list of countries based on current international sales, anticipated market needs, and the logistical considerations of increasing sales in particular regions.
You can use Google Analytics and Google Search Console to gain insights into your current international ecommerce audiences. To view data about your international performance, sign in to Google Analytics and navigate to Audience, then Geo, and then Location. The dashboard will display a color-coded map indicating the countries where the greatest number of user sessions on your website originated.
Once you’ve identified the countries generating site traffic, use Google Search Console to vet the quality of traffic from each one. Log in to the platform, navigate to Search Performance Report, and use the country filter to select a country that generated significant traffic. The report will display the top 1,000 search queries that resulted in a click to your site. If popular queries indicate site visitors are converting (or have the potential to convert) to customers, you might decide to target that country.
2. Conduct market research
Market research involves gathering information about target audiences, competitors, and relevant trends within a particular market. To successfully expand internationally, business owners need to conduct market research in every country (or region) where they intend to do business.
Your international market research findings will help you identify competitors and build marketing, sales, and SEO strategies around each local audience’s needs, preferences, and decision drivers. For example, you might identify which search engine is most popular with a particular local audience, what percentage of searches come from mobile devices, and what demographic factors are common to users of products like yours.
3. Tailor your strategy to each country’s most popular search engine
SEO marketing success depends on how well a site performs on its audience’s preferred search engine, and different search engines are popular in different countries. For example, while Google is the most commonly used search engine in the US, South Korea uses Naver, China has Baidu, and Russia’s most popular search engine is Yandex.
International SEO strategy involves identifying the most popular search engine in a targeted region and tailoring content and technical setup accordingly. For example, businesses planning to target users in China might pay careful attention to image alt tags. Baidu’s image AI is different from Google’s and relies more on alt tags and image metadata to identify images.
4. Create localized content
Creating localized content involves using localized keywords, local language and idioms, and local currencies, time zones, phone numbers, and addresses, if applicable.
If you plan to target customers who speak different languages, you’ll need to translate your content into one or more foreign languages. Because translations aren’t literal, most businesses hire human translators instead of using automated translation functions.
You can also customize your content based on your market research findings. For example, if you sell pre-made meal kits, you might emphasize their time-saving benefits in countries where people work a particularly high number of hours per week.
5. Conduct keyword research
Literal keyword translations are unlikely to correspond with search queries in an international market. This may even be the case for overseas markets that share your home language, such as Canada or Australia for US-based businesses. Although English is a primary language in all three countries, differences in local culture and idiom will affect the terms your customers use to search for your products. For example, while people in the US use the term “cotton candy,” people in the UK refer to the same treat as “candy floss.”
You can use keyword research tools like Google Keyword Planner, Moz, and Semrush to conduct location-based keyword research. These tools allow you to view keyword search volumes and difficulty by country. They can help you select new keywords for each region and rework your SEO content using popular local search terms.
6. Create dedicated URLs
In order to target multiple markets, you’ll need to have a dedicated URL for each one. There are multiple ways to create region-specific URLs. Here’s an overview of popular options.
Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)
Some businesses use each country’s unique code as the final section of the relevant site’s domain name, which is also known as its top-level domain. For example, you might use www.feltedsheep.us for your US site, www.feltedsheep.fr for your French site, and www.feltedsheep.de for your German site. This strategy creates an intuitive user experience, but it also requires you to purchase and maintain multiple domains.
To create dedicated URLs using subdirectories (also called subfolders), simply change your URL path for each market—your French site, for example, might live at www.feltedsheep.com/fr. Using this URL structure will allow you to keep all of your content within a single domain. You have one universal website, which allows you to build domain authority while still targeting regional markets.
Subdomains are an extension of an existing domain that appears at the beginning of a website’s domain name, such as the “fr” in www.fr.feltedsheep.com. Subdomains are customizable, and businesses can use them to target specific languages or specific regions within a country. The main drawback to this approach is search engines view each subdomain as a separate website, which prevents the subdomains from benefiting from the root domain’s SEO authority.
7. Build local backlinks
Local backlinks have a greater effect on search results than links from other markets do, so many businesses invest in local link-building strategies like reaching out to journalists, guest posting, or soliciting product reviews in each market.
Content marketing, the process of creating and distributing content of value to your target audiences, can also help you earn local backlinks in international markets. To maximize your results, customize your domestic content marketing strategy to meet the specific needs of your local audience in each market.
8. Use hreflang tags
An hreflang tag is a piece of HTML code that tells search engines that a page’s content is aimed at a particular local audience. Using this enables language targeting and country targeting, so the search engine shows the appropriate language page to users from different countries or regions.
Search engines penalize duplicate content. To avoid penalties on two or more pages of content written in the same language (for example, pages in English for the UK, the US, and Australia), apply an hreflang tag to differentiate each for the search engine. For example, you might apply the hreflang tag “en-gb” to a US product page edited to appeal to readers in the UK.
Here’s a sample of hreflang tags in action:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="https://www.shopify.com/uk/website/builder” >
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International SEO strategy FAQ
How do I identify potential international markets for my ecommerce business?
You can use Google Analytics and Google Search Console to measure your current performance in international markets and evaluate the quality of traffic from individual countries. Countries generating a significant amount of relevant traffic may represent promising expansion opportunities.
How can I adapt keywords for local audiences?
Instead of translating keywords, conduct keyword research and select new keywords for each market. You can also enlist the help of an international SEO agency to adapt keywords for local audiences.
How can I optimize my ecommerce website for search engines like Baidu and Yandex?
To optimize your site content for a specific search engine, create localized content targeted to regions where the search engine is popular and tailored to perform well under its algorithm. Use research tools that are recommended specifically for search engines like Baidu, Yandex, and Naver.