7 Must-Check Factors when doing SEO for International Sites
Although you might not be focused on doing International SEO, if you work as an SEO with medium to large sized companies, you likely work or have worked in the past with sites that have international Web versions, targeting other languages or countries.
If this is the case, you also should take into consideration these International Websites in your analysis, mainly to:
- Make sure they’re not causing issues or suffering from problems that end-up impacting the overall SEO performance and have negative effects on the Websites you’re focusing on too.
- Identify opportunities to make the most out of them in any viable way for your current SEO project.
But how and where to start? Here are 7 factors that you should check next time you do an SEO audit for sites that also have international presence:
1. Language vs. country targeting validation
As it can be seen in this post (where I specifically wrote about International Web targeting and strategy), depending on the business, technical and content characteristics, restrictions and goals; the international Web presence can be targeted towards languages (Spanish, French, German, etc.) or countries (UK, Spain, Mexico, etc.).
It’s a must to identify whether the international Web versions are consistently targeting languages or countries, as this will drive your next steps in the analysis.
The targeting should be implemented in the international Web versions structure whether with ccTLDs, sub-directories or sub-domains for country targeted sites and with sub-directories or sub-domains for language targeted sites, avoiding URLs parameters and scripts or cookies to show the international Web content through the same URLs or pages that cannot be effectively indexed:
Besides the relevant Web structure, it’s also fundamental to optimize each of the versions Web content and elements to be consistent towards each language or country.
For example, if you’re targeting languages, then is not advisable that you feature flags along their options, as it can be seen in the following image, since you’re not only focusing on UK, Spain, Germany, France or Brazil visitors, but English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese speakers that can come from anywhere in the world (like an English speaker from the US or Australia, or a Spanish speaker from Chile or Mexico) that won’t feel welcomed if they don’t see their country flag featured.
This type of inconsistencies can also happen with other elements, like hreflang and meta content-language code annotations, as it can also be seen in the next image, where instead of only specifying the language code for each of the language versions in the hreflang annotations, a country code was also included; which shouldn’t be the case since it’s not a country targeted but a language targeted Website:
It’s then important to make sure and validate that all of the different Web elements and areas of the international sites are correctly targeted towards their relevant country or language.
2. International Web structure optimization
A key element that should be analyzed independently is the Web structure of each international version, to make sure it’s not only relevant, featuring the name of the URLs in the right language and with descriptive names, but that’s also not overly complex and deep, adding for example, unnecessary directories, like in the following image happens with the /fr_FR/ directory where the root domain is 301 redirected:
Keep in mind that what is important is to have a unique sub-directory, sub-domain or a specific ccTLD to show each of the International versions, but a combination of them is unlikely to be necessary for most of the cases, and if it’s required, for scenarios like one country featuring content in different languages; then it needs to be kept as flat and consistent as possible.
3. International Web versions crawling, indexing & alignments issues
The next step if to verify that each one of them are effectively crawled, indexed and are correctly ranking in the right international search result version and for the relevant language queries.
At this stage you need to check that you’re not blocking some of your language or country versions whether with the robots.txt, or by showing the content through non-indexable scripts or with cookies, or that you’re not always automatically redirecting search crawlers to only one version, for example.
Beyond the fundamental technical crawling and indexing validation, -for which you can use from Web crawlers, like Screaming Frog, DeepCrawl or Strucr to Google Webmaster Tools,- it’s also key to verify if there are search alignment issues, ranking and attracting organic search traffic from non-relevant countries or languages.
This can be identified by using again Google Webmaster Tools along Google Analytics and tools like SEMrush, SimilarWeb or SearchMetrics Essentials, to check which are the countries and languages bringing organic search visibility and traffic to each Web version; and which are the landing pages and keywords used.
In this case it’s important to validate that for example, that your Argentinian version is really bringing the relevant search visibility and traffic from Argentina and not from Mexico (that should be attracted to the relevant Mexican version):
If you identify that your international Web versions are shown to a non-relevant target, attracting not so relevant visitors that should go to another site version, is a must to verify which are the pages ranking, check their content and pages elements optimization with the used queries, to detect the cause of the issue and solve it.
4. Correct Hreflang annotation usage
One of the potential causes for a international search results or traffic misalignment is the lack of use or misuse of the hreflang annotations. From the usage of non-existing language or country code or not cross-referring with other pages featuring the same content for other countries or in other languages, it’s fundamental to verify its correct usage.
For example, in the following image the main US version shown in English is specified with the country code “us”, when only the specification of the country alone is not supported at the moment, only languages can be specified independently or the language along the country.
Make sure that you’re correctly specifying your hreflang annotations by generating them with this hreflang tool I created, check these examples and insights about the usage of the tag, shared by David Sottimano and check their correct usage in each of your pages by using Web crawlers or the hreflang validator by DejanSEO.
5. Correct webmaster tools geolocation settings
Something that will only take a minute but is a must, -since it’s unfortunately common to not use or to incorrectly use it-, is to verify the Geographic Target in Google Webmaster Tools in the case you’re featuring sub-directories or sub-domains and not ccTLDs for your country targeted sites:
Sometimes this option is not configured for country targeted Web versions or is incorrectly set to a specific country for Web versions that are really targeting the language, so please don’t assume that it has been correctly done, especially if search misalignments issues have been found.
6. Web pages content and elements localization
Besides the Web structure optimization it’s fundamental to check if the content of the page -especially, again, if you have found misalignment issues- is always shown in the relevant language and with the right terms.
Take a look at the following example, where the menu is shown in Spanish automatically but the rest of the content is still in English. This is confusing for the user and the only content that is indexed by search engines in this case is the default one in English, so this page is not helping to rank in Spanish:
Always verify that your content is correctly localized and shown to both, users and search engines crawlers in the same way and in the right localized content.
7. International Websites linking
Although we want to make sure that our users and search bots can correctly access to all of our different international Web versions, we need to be careful on cross-linking all of them, adding links to each one of them from each page, if they’re too many, as this might be seen as unnatural in case you’re not working with ccTLDs but gTLDs due to some type of restriction, as Matt Cutts mentions in this video:
Additionally, if at some point you’re not managing the SEO processes for the other international versions and some of these get penalized, the cross-linking might end-up hurting the site you’re focusing on too, so it’s also important that you also monitor this and avoid excessive cross-linking in this case to minimize the risk as much as possible or even, just to make sure that search bots discover your different international Web versions but without overlooking the crawling of your internal pages.
For this you can only directly link to the most important versions and create an internal page where you list and link to all of them, that is easily accessible to users and search bots or you can also show the international menu through a form that is not crawlable, if you’re really mindful and want to eliminate all the cross-linking from internal pages, just allowing them to be crawled from the main pages.
It’s time to start making the most out of your International Web presence…
With these 7 aspects although you might not be focused on an international SEO process you can make sure that the internationally targeted Web versions are not going to negatively affect your current SEO project. In case you’re interested on learning more about International SEO, take a look at this International SEO checklist and Guide.
Image under creative common taken from Flickr.