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Thriving beyond borders is a big ambition, but it’s also a big challenge. For brands that don’t do their homework, international SEO is a potential minefield that could lead to poor results for online traffic, visibility and return on investment, as well as potentially damaging impacts on brand awareness and reputation.

Academic studies have shown (somewhat unsurprisingly) that just over 50% of consumers prefer to make online purchases in their own language (with the percentage increasing to over 60% in some countries like France or Japan) and the more important the purchase is, the more language becomes a critical decision factor. In financial services for example, that figure rises to 85%.

Today, approximately 50% of worldwide internet content is in English but with 400 million of the 7.4bn people on the planet people speaking English as their first language, getting multi-lingual and multi-territory SEO right offers a significant opportunity for brands – but only if they get it right.

Too many brands take the ‘cookie cutter’ approach to multi-territory search marketing. That is to say, in simple terms, that they are simply taking their approach in one market and translating it to another. It is an approach that is easy to implement, but one that fails to take into account the nuances of audience behaviour and culture, keyword research and context, localisation, geo-targeting and on-page technical best practice.

All those points greatly impact on your website performances and if implemented incorrectly, can potentially harm your brand image and rankings (no visibility, high bounce rate, and in some cases a Google penalty).

Understand your audience


There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ strategy. Before to start to work on your cross-border web presence, you have to understand each audience's key characteristics.

First of all, you need to identify the potential traffic and conversions which can come from developing your presence in the new territory. This starts with thorough keyword research in the official language (or lanugages) used in that market.

Linguistic and cultural profiles are the foundation of your international strategy. If your product offering doesn’t resonate with the audience, or you target the wrong keywords, the ROI will not work and your global operations are then at risk of becoming a cost centre, rather than an opportunity.

Home Depot learned this lesson the hard way in 2012 when it had to back off from the Chinese market, costing the brand $160 million. The Chinese housing market was booming and Home Depot saw this as the perfect opportunity to launch in the country. What they didn’t realise when trying to expand was that DIY was less popular with Chinese consumers that it was with North American consumers, as the relative cost of labour was much lower. Most homeowners would simply pay a contractor rather than attempt projects that European or American consumers would try to do on their own.

Keyword Research

It is paramount to get your keyword research right. Aiming for the wrong keywords could alter your rankings and your visibility or authority in the country might never take off. This is where linguistic understanding becomes crucial, because effective keyword research is not just about translating your English keyword set. The mantra to remember here is that localisation is more important that translation – you need to reflect how native people search for your products.

This is true even in markets that speak the same language. Whilst British consumers may search for ‘football boots’, an American looking for the very same product is likely to search for ‘soccer cleats’. You need to make sure that your keyword set reflects the local market.

For this reason, it is advisable to find native speakers for each market you are looking to expand to. As well as knowing the language, they will also understand the regional nuances of that language, local consumer behaviour and any emerging trends within that particular market. This can make the crucial difference.

Country Targeting

Having identified your keywords and produced content for the markets that you are looking to attract, you now need to consider how you are going to display that content from a technical perspective and structure your web presence accordingly. You have three options for this.

ccTLD (


A ccTLD (Top Level Domain) structure offers the best geo-targeting option, providing you with a domain to rank in each respective country. However, you will start from zero in terms of domain authority as it is a brand new site, and the maintenance can be quite heavy.

Folders (


The folder structure give you a head start in terms of authority, as you will benefit from the one from your main domain. Maintaining this is also less resource-intensive.

Subdomain (


A subdomain structure will also benefit from some the authority (to a much lower extent) that comes from the TLd, but can suffer from potential geo-targeting issues.

No matter which site structure seems the best fit for your business, you must ensure that you use the relevant geo-targeting option in Google Search Console.

It is also strongly advised to use a local IP address when possible (unless you use a ccTLD structure as it overrides the server location).

Language Targeting

Users have the ability to restrict search results to content written only in their native language. To be able to reach your target audience, you’ll be then forced to localise your website in their language. This is particularly important in multi-lingual countries, where different users within a search market may prefer one language to another. Using your keyword research, ensure that you localise your website content and structure (as well as making sure you use the appropriate currency for example) for those markets and the respective languages that users are likely to prefer.

Avoid automated translation, as these services are often inaccurate and can harm your brand image. Parker Pen found this out to their cost when a South American ad that was supposed to claim ‘it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’ mistakenly used the work “embarazar” (which means ‘to impregnate’). Whilst “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” may be a good selling point for a premium brand ballpoint pen, it perhaps wasn’t the message that they were going for.

There are a number of elements that need to be localised as they are crucial to rank well within local SERPs;

  • URL
  • Titles
  • Meta Descriptions
  • Headings
  • Body content

Optimising these elements will really help your website not only in terms of rankings and visibility, but also in terms of user experience. A website that is not localised can create really frustrated customers who will leave pretty quickly. Some brands, like John Lewis, have a subdomain structure for many different countries, yet all of their subdomains are in English. This affects performances outside of the UK (example of the French subdomain below).


Implementing Hreflang (rel=”alternate” Hreflang=x” annotation) will greatly support your website performance, as it ensures that the localised page ranks for the right country. If you have two pages in the same language targeting different countries and they are considered too similar by Google, it could consider them to be duplicates and that could result in one being penalised or delisted. Moreover, having an US website ranking in the UK or another country can lead to a poor user experience and really low chances of conversions.

Burberry US made this experience with its US and UK sites, where the US site was de-indexed because it was considered too similar to the site that was supposed to serve UK customers.


If you have a US site with a UK folder, the Homepage Hreflang should look as below:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="" />

You also need to add the attribute “x-default” to one page. The “x-default” attribute send the user to a specific page if he comes from an area which doesn’t match any of your Hreflangs settings (example below).

<link rel="alternate" href= hreflang="x-default" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es-ES" href="" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-FR" href="" />

The Hreflang html code need to be applied on every website URL and you need to make sure you’re using the right country or language code (for example using “en-gb” and not “en-uk”). According to Google Best Practice, the Hreflang needs to follow the ISO 639-1 format for the language and the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for the region.

While implementing the Hreflang mark-up one thing to no forget is the canonical tag. The Canonical tags must reflect the Hreflang in place or it will break the system you’re trying to put in place. As per the example below, the Hreflang must point to the canonical version of the page to work smoothly:

<link rel="canonical" href="" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="" />

International SEO can be really challenging for brands no matter their size or their budget, however, following these key points will help avoid many of the issues you can encounter.

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