First Steps on International SEO
Up until a few weeks ago, my first piece of advice to anyone looking to expand their site to an international audience would have been to just get your keywords right. In English, this is a no-brainer, and not that difficult. In other languages, keyword research and targeting can be quite difficult. Choosing correct keywords is even more important in non-English search simply because Google’s algorithm is not as robust, and you won’t benefit from synonym-matching and spelling correction.
It doesn’t do you any good just to grab a primary keyword from Google Translate or the Google Keyword Planner. If the suggested word isn’t one that a native speaker would naturally use, you will be unlikely to see the international search traffic you are expecting, and the users that would find the site wouldn’t think your content is very high quality.
My tune has changed. Now I would suggest that the most important thing for anyone looking to do international SEO to know is: Don’t make assumptions. There are multiple examples of companies that have gotten themselves into some pretty big PR disasters by using faulty assumptions in their global expansion. For example, KFC famously launched in China with a marketing slogan that meant, “Eat your fingers” in Chinese. In hindsight, it seems that some very basic research would have informed KFC that they were making a big mistake with their messaging.
It’s not that I didn’t think avoiding assumptions wasn’t important; it’s only that I thought faulty assumptions would be invalidated by keyword research. What changed for me were the surprising results from a survey I ran during the Mozinar I conducted on international keyword research.
I really enjoyed preparing for the Mozinar as it gave me a chance to step back from my daily international SEO practices and chronicle them for outsiders. Using my typical keyword research processes, I found what I thought to be interesting examples for the makeup of the audience I thought would be in attendance. However, in my preparation, I made a huge blunder that I realized would never have been corrected by just keyword research. Had this been an actual marketing campaign, my entire message would have fallen flat even if my keywords were solid.
I assumed that I would be speaking to primarily a US-based audience who was interested in learning more about marketing to non-English and non-US users.
In fact, as the results from the survey I ran during the Mozinar showed, this was probably not the case. More than half (55%) of the respondents were not based in the US. They weren’t just close-by in Canada and Mexico, but they were from as far away as Spain, India, Bulgaria, and Kosovo. In a follow-up question that asked respondents which countries they targeted with international SEO, some even answered the US alongside the other popular countries of Canada, France, and Italy.
My reasoning for assuming that the attendees would primarily be in the US was actually quite logical. Mozinars are held at a time that are quite convenient for anyone in the Alaskan through Eastern time zones but fall outside of working hours for almost everyone else. Additionally, Moz content is only available in English, which I thought would be fairly limiting to online marketers who live in non-English speaking countries.
Broad Assumptions Kill Campaigns
Yet, even with my solid logic, it seems that my assumption was dead wrong. Only 20% of the Mozinar attendees filled out my survey, and while this was not a large enough of a sample size to consider the results to be truly representative, the responses were convincing enough for me to toss my original assumptions and alter my advice for anyone looking to expand to a global audience since a faulty assumption can have far reaching impacts on any marketing effort.
A classic assumption you would make in targeting a global audience is to believe that because something works domestically it will also work globally. This could not be further from the truth. A stock image that you use on your US targeted webpage could be considered vastly over (or under) dressed in other cultures. People not familiar with US politics will likely misunderstand a reference to Red or Blue states.
Conservative Assumptions Make Marketing Boring
On the flipside, marketers might be overly cautious about what other cultures might understand and avoid using references that they could have used.
I am sure any marketer is well aware that a US holiday such as Thanksgiving isn’t going to make a lot of sense to a non-US audience and would avoid using it in marketing copy. As a result, you might also assume that the reference to the day after Thanksgiving of Black Friday wouldn’t make sense to someone outside the US. This would be an incorrect assumption. Black Friday has been successfully exported around the globe and last year there were even stores in the UK that had Black Friday riots.
Along the same lines, you also want to avoid stereotyping cultures and languages. There are no countries called LatAm, Europe, and APAC. These names might be convenient buckets for allocating marketing dollars, but by no means will the same marketing message work across an entire region. Aside from the differing languages, a user in the UK has very different characteristics from someone in Germany. There are even significant differences between a user in Mexico and a user in Colombia both in the kinds of keywords they use, and in the types of messaging that they will respond to.Use
Data When It’s Available
As anyone who has been working in online marketing for a while knows, there isn’t always data to prove or disprove every decision that has to be made, and many times it will make sense to implement and then only analyze after the fact. In this reality, assumptions certainly have their place, but you should certainly try to validate global assumptions first.
Had I had a way to survey potential Mozinar attendees before I began gathering my material, I would have had a better idea of who exactly the target audience would be and tailored my content appropriately.
The other responses to my Mozinar survey were also interesting but not nearly as shocking as the discovery that potentially half of the attendees were outside the US.
- There was an even split between in-house and outside marketers. A majority of marketers in the US worked in-house while it was the opposite for those outside the US.
- Company sizes ranged from one employee all the way up to 900 employees. The majority of respondents were at companies with more than 10 employees.
- Respondents were asked to rank marketing activities in the order that they prioritize the time, and this is the list in weighted order:
- Content creation
- Keyword research
- Brand strategy
- Link building
- Content curation
- Public relations
- Reputation management
- The majority of attendees had been in the field of online marketing for 3 years or less, and of those who answered that they currently focus on international SEO, 45% had been doing it less than 1 year.
The most common reason shared in the survey for not focusing on international SEO is employee resources. This is quite understandable, as it is more than a full-time job to focus on SEO just for a domestic market; adding additional markets and languages can make the SEO job infinitely harder.
International SEO is a MUST
If you didn’t already know it, the potential customers for your online business or website includes every person in the entire world. While you might think of your competitors as the handful of companies in your local market that offer similar products and services to you, your most formidable competitor might actually be thousands of miles–or even a continent–away. In today’s globalized state of search, a US-based web company is just as likely to lose market share to a startup in Sao Paolo or Moscow, as it is to lose to one in New York or Chicago.
Competing on a global scale means that it becomes a race for who can internationalize first and start grabbing market share. Even companies like Amazon that have a dominant share of the ecommerce market are in a race to open up their site to new countries and languages before they find themselves too distracted by foreign competitors on their home turf.
For example, Japan’s largest ecommerce company Rakuten has already gained a foothold in the US ecommerce market with their acquisition of Buy.com, and China’s Alibaba, arguably the world largest ecommerce company, is about to be flush with cash from a huge IPO that could be used for marketing campaigns.
So, jump into your analytics package and see how many visitors you have coming from countries and languages you have not targeted. What you will find is that you are most likely receiving visitors from the entire world, and these visitors are probably a lot less engaged than visitors from your focus markets. Since you’re receiving this traffic already, why not try a little bit harder to target international customers with just a little bit of SEO effort?
Basic International SEO is Not that Hard
Expanding your SEO efforts globally does not have to be prohibitively expensive or technically difficult. For example, you can make small changes as simple as explaining your primary product offering in another language can help. Say your site sells books written in English about Blue Widgets. If your entire site content is in English, your only non-English search traffic will be from users who conduct a search in English. However, if you translated your marketing content into Spanish, you can now draw in users who conduct their searches in Spanish. These users will still have to buy a book in English, but they will at least know that the book exists if they want it.
With just a few pages written in another language, your site can take a significant step towards acquiring a global audience. If you really want to take your global SEO efforts further, there is a lot more you are going to need to do, but just having new content is a great start.
There really are baby steps that can be taken towards international SEO without getting in over your head. You can have just a handful of your marketing pages translated into languages where you are already seeing visitors. There will be a bit of work that has to go into translating and optimizing for a new language, but you should see a significant return on your investment. Just remember: If you are going to try to internationalize you site and product, do your research and don’t make assumptions.