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International SEO: How to be Effective in Languages You’re not Fluent in

18 June 2013 BY

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There’s no denying it, the world is getting smaller. Not in the sense of population, or even the amount of Internet users (in fact, in that case it’s quite the opposite!). However, geographical borders or familiarities online are arising at an increasing rate.

To many respects, the Internet is the one global business place, a shop front that can be accessed by anyone (with an Internet connection) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This presents a fantastic level of opportunity for digital marketers. A rate of Internet penetration now reaching 34.3% (38.1% in the top 20 world countries) shows this level of opportunity is only going to grow…

Top 20 Internet Countries Penetration

The Personalisation & Localisation of Search Engine Results

One thing that has been seen [rightly] as a barrier to this, is the lack of one globally recognised language. Many of the recent changes by search engines to provide personally relevant results to users (location being an increasingly influential one of these factors) have made serious changes in the search landscape dependent on where your users are. Moves by Google, such as:

…are all examples of this. So this begs the question (or better outlines the opportunity ;) ) for SEO in a number of markets that were:

  • Previously easy to rank in due to lack of competition (much of Eastern Europe and South America are good examples of this)
  • Or historically very difficult to rank in due to complex differences in the language or character set or search engine usage themselves (such as Russia, Korea, Japan and China).

Where does this leave SEOs? Does this mean that our mission is to educate the good word of SEO to these markets? What happens when you are approached by a client who wishes to develop their search presence in a market that you are not fluent in the language? Do you slam the door in their face? Or tell them you can be of no use to them?

I personally believe that things should be this black and white, and I think that in the industry we should view it this way too. Think I’m crazy? Then at least hear me out…

The Complexity of International SEO

I’m a keen traveller and have always dreamt of travelling the world, I studied International Business at university in order to help make that dream a reality. This dream has recently come true, with me making the decision to relocate abroad (Denmark) and to take a job as in-house SEO Manager for Miinto a leading premium online fashion store.

Hands Holding Globe

Many that I have spoken to have greeted this move with a level of confusion, asking things like “How do you intend to do SEO in a market where you don’t speak their language?” Well, I am now faced with this very question as I now operate across a number of markets where I am not fluent in the language, specifically: Sweden,  Norway,  Spain and the Netherlands. My intention for this post is that I wanted to justify my decision somewhat and share my reasoning for approaching international SEO in [what I view as] its truest sense.

SEO is a vastly complex field that, in my opinion and experience, often has a general sense of myopia about what it is us SEOs actually spend their time doing. The rise of buzzwords like ‘content marketing’ and ‘growth hacking’ have only served to confuse things further. As has the ever expanding proliferation in SEO disciplines (something I addressed in a previous post) with specialists in anything from:

  • Local SEO
  • Mobile SEO
  • International SEO
  • Content marketer
  • Etc etc…

Dependent on the size and structure of a team, it’s very rare that one person will yield a level of experience across all of these disciplines. However, the real challenges here are two-fold:

  • Understanding the importance and effectiveness of each discipline, and how it contributes value to the bottom line
  • Finding a balance and tact enough to justifiably say “no” when that area of specialisation simply isn’t offering value that is conducive to the overall ambitions of your company/client
  • Just think how many link building experts now own a role where their title is now ‘outreach expert’, ‘content marketer’ or … dare I say it ‘inbound marketer’…

Focusing Your Efforts on the Things that Matter the Most

SEO is complex, and to a large part a difficult industry to excel in. This is because much of the experience you may have developed could tomorrow be exactly what Google deems as unnatural, or ‘spammy’. This decision could render your experience something that will no longer hold value, and may even have clients actively investing in to clean up their act; the launch of Penguin 2.0, the link disavow tool and the influx of link detox tools are all examples that can be applied here.

However, to my previous point, some of the best SEOs I know, am inspired by, or have had the pleasure of working with, are ones that take the time to focus their efforts on the changes that matter. There is no difference when applied to many aspects of international SEO, below I have provided my 5 top tips for approaching SEO when it isn’t just the keywords that hold your focus…

5 Tips for Doing International SEO Where You Don’t Know the Language

International SEO DictionaryWith the ever-growing proportion of keywords being reported as (not provided) many SEOs are faced with the same level playing field. The trick here is to not get embroiled in the specific keyword data (although this is still invaluable where you can gather it!) and instead focus on patterns and usage behaviour on your site, and guess what? This means that a large amount of actionable insights can be made without necessarily sitting with a Collins dictionary, trying to decide whether your target keyword is being written correctly or not…

1. Get The Technical Setup Right

Many of the biggest immediate wins can often be found with even some of the most remedial technical SEO issues. Aspects such as:

  • Checking issues with crawling and indexation
  • Creating accurate and up-to-date XML sitemaps and submitting them to Webmaster Tools

Are still very commonly overlooked. Build strong foundations in order to succeed.

2. Measure Your Success

Take time to understand exactly what is deemed as a success by the chief decision makers, and play into their hands. Show them the real business benefits of SEO work. Without being able to prove that successes (increased revenue, greater amount of leads etc) are attributable to the SEO department’s work, you’re going to have a hard time from the get go.

3. Identify Trends and Behaviour of Keyword Usage

Utilise the data made available from internal site search, Google TrendsGoogle AnalyticsGoogle Webmaster ToolsSEMRush and any paid campaigns that are running, or have historically ran, to hone your focus and leverage your strategy to the next level.

4. Utilise Local Team Knowledge

Get the local language experts to input on the process. Leverage your local marketing teams and utilise their natural language skills to help guide you into what is right and what is wrong. Who knows, you may even make some friends while doing so… ;)

5. Delegation is Key

The key is about developing the strengths of the SEO resource that you have within your team. Invest internally. You can’t spend your time at a feeble attempt at local keyword research in a language that is not your mother tongue, so delegate this to the members of your team that can. Install intelligent processes that are fail proof when it comes to output (you’ll be surprise how easy these tactics translate).

Ultimately empower your team to be the keyword guardians, question their output to ensure that it meets with the requirements you have put in place. Develop synergies that allow you to spend your time on overseeing the implementation of the strategy across the board. If you’re struggling to occupy your time with the thousand-and-one other aspects of SEO, then ultimately you’re not embracing the broad reach of SEO as a discipline…

Let me know your opinion! I’d love to hear from anyone who operates in a similar discipline, or from anyone who has found particularly useful ways of approaching SEO at scale, please leave your comments in the section provided below.

Image credits:

AUTHORED BY:
h

Ned Poulter is the Co-Founder of AvitaDigital, a Digital Marketing Consultancy based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He specialises in all aspects of SEO, digital marketing consulting and PPC, amongst many other things.
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  • http://www.webcertain.com Gemma Birch

    I think the key point here is that to be effective and successful with an international SEO project, you need to combine SEO knowledge and expertise with native market and language knowledge. Relying solely on one or the other will lead to missed opportunities and mistakes.

    • https://twitter.com/NedPoulter NedPoulter

      Couldn’t agree more Gemma. It’s an interested position to be in, as I think that it’s very applicable to the way that many SEO agencies should also view their activities. For too long have SEO’s attempted (and often failed) at trying to straddle too many disciplines: PR, content creation [marketing], technical… etc. This is very comparable to the situation that you are faced with when operating in markets that you don’t necessarily speak their language, the key is to engage and empower those individuals that possess those discipline or language skills and leverage their input. It’s there that you will discover the opportunity and also where you can vet out any potential mistakes.

      Thanks for your comment, great to hear others opinion and feedback!

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  • abecaglia

    This post should be translated…let’s start with French shall we?

  • hendrik lennarz

    Nice read. What do you think about the use of international trustbadges, to increase conversion rates??? Any experiences?

  • damian

    This is one of the more sensible posts that have been written on international search.

    Realistically, you need native language speakers to properly market online. However, if you have the expertise, it is perfectly possible to lead strategy without understanding the nuance of a given language (it’s worth knowing your way around the basics, though, even if it is just recognizing what your brand name looks like in Russian). The other opportunity you have is to bring on people who don’t have a great deal of online marketing experience, because you can train and guide them – they’ll fill in your language gap, and you’ll provide the technical / strategic backbone.

    The one thing I would say is to make sure you are able to communicate effectively with your team, whether that be in English or their native language. The nature of our industry is that mistakes can be costly, and avoiding these is one of our more under appreciated responsibilities (mistakes are for competitors!) – it can be more difficult to check up on, say, what link building strategies someone is using to help influence visibility in Yandex; something might be commonplace and successful in that regard, but can have repercussions on the rest of your set of domains. Google’s pretty good at identifying networks, especially if they have the same domain name..

    Good stuff!

  • http://websitetranslation.co.uk Liam Curley

    Interesting take on things Ned and not one that you hear often with regards international SEO. I’d agree that if you have a person/team managing SEO strategy and delegating linguistic tasks to native speakers (keyword research, general market research, translation etc.), there’s no real reason that a specialist international seo team can’t direct their efforts towards markets in which the SEOs can’t speak the language.

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