Working with websites that targets several countries is always challenging, especially from an SEO point of view, people just don’t seem to get that doing SEO in different countries goes way beyond different languages. I would go as far as to say there are probably more website struggling with geo targeting issues in one form or another than it is websites that are all ok and ranking in all the relevant countries they are targeting.
If you can imagine that the different Google TLD’s are people, you have Francois (Google.fr), Ingrid (Google.no), Helmut (Google.de) and so on. They all want to rank the most relevant websites highly in their relevant countries. How do they do that? Well, they need to find a way to separate the listings, making sure that a website selling iPhones but only to Helmut’s friends doesn’t end up on Ingrid’s list.
The obvious number one rule of differentiation is (1.) Language. Obviously Francois, Ingrid and Helmut friends all speak different languages , easy right. But then sometimes, when Ingrid speaks to Helmut she speaks in English (as her German is just rubbish and she doesn’t trust Google Translate, who does..) so in this instance we need to make sure that Helmut knows she is talking to him and not to Francois (cause Francois actually speaks English believe it or not, he just pretends he can’t to piss off the English). So we also need to make a bigger differentiation, we need Ingrid to be on the same “wave” as Helmut, (2) ideally Ingrid also gets a .de TLD! That way Helmut knows that she is definitely talking to him.
These are the most standard ways of getting the search engines to understand what country you are targeting and wanting to be listed in, you have your website in the relevant language and you have bought the country specific tld i.e .de .fr or .no.
BUT sometimes it’s not that easy, in fact it rarely is. Especially for targeting in France and Norway as buying a country specific TLD like .no and .fr is restricted, in Norway for example you have to prove that you have a company that is based in Norway, you even have to have a minimum of 80k Euros in startup capital to be allowed to set up a company (feel free to correct me on the amount Norske folk). So even if you would like to set up and target Norway or France it might not be that easy.
The other example is when websites have a portal, usually a .com domain where all translated versions of the website is located on the same domain. Usually this is built something like this www.samplesite.com/FR and www.samplesite.com/DE and so on. And the company doesn’t own the TLDs or they don’t want to buy them or move the site (maybe they can’t afford the multiple CMS costs or so on). In this instance they are relying mostly or often only on using the language itself as a differentiator. Now it’s quite obvious that a site on a .com/DE is not going to rank as well as a site competiting for the same keywords but is on an actual .de TLD Unless of course the link equity is INSANE!
So what do you do? Well, most people starts fiddling about with geo targeting via cookies and IPs, now this is when it gets really messed up. I can’t count the number of times where I have evaluated websites and found that they are geo targeting and redirecting based on IP and forgotten to exclude the IPs of the search engine spiders (which is mostly on US IPs). Ouch!!!!
Geo targeting via redirecting based on IPs is also very grey hat, although Google themselves is allowed to do it of course (you know when you try to go to google.com and they redirect you back to your own country! Like they are saying “go back to where you came from you crazy Viking!”). Also these solutions are never recommended long term. Obviously if people thought about all of this before they set up their websites you wouldn’t have these problems, but let’s be fair, it’s a wonderful world not a perfect world!
So what do you do?
I had exactly this problem for one of my biggest clients; they have a .com website, mainly targeting UK but are also targeting Germany, France, Holland and Italy. They had created translated versions of all the main pages and put them in folders of website.com/DE /FR and so on. The rankings and traffic from the search engines in these different countries were nearly non existence. I couldn’t get the TLDs and duplicate the site and target each country (for several reasons including budget, CMS and so on). But I needed to improve the traffic, so here is what I tested out:
I’m sure most of you know that you can specify target country in Google webmaster Tools when you submit a XML sitemap, up until now this has mainly been useful when you have a .com but actually want to highlight to Google that you are actually targeting the UK rather than the US. But, did you know you can submit several sitemaps on the same domain?
So as at a Search Engine conference I spoke to one of the Google engineer to make sure what I was doing wasn’t deluded/waste of time, and for once in my life I heard a Googler say something else than the usual FBI line of “I can neither confirm or deny but there is an indication that this possibly definitely maybe could work”, no no she didn’t say that, she said “yeah that could work”. Which in Google land means “I think you are on to something and you have my permission to proceed”. Ehm I think…or it might have meant “whatever blondie, you are annoying me and I will say anything to get you out of my face”…But the point is that what I did seem to be working, so I thought I would share it with you guys:
1. I created separate XML sitemaps for different subfolders on the same domain. One for samplesite.com/FR, one for samplesite.com/DE and so on..
2. I then uploaded these new XML sitemaps on the root, making URLs like this: samplesite.com/DE/sitemap_de.xml
3. I then verified the sitemap on Webmaster Tools
4. Once the site has been verified I clicked on each sitemap => Settings (see below screen) and selected target country.
Et Volla….fast forward 4 months later and here are the results so far:
Since we implemented the country specific sitemaps we have seen an increase of traffic and rankings. For the German version of the website the rankings in google.de has improved and thus generated an additional 27% increase in organic traffic, the French version has increased by 32% and the Dutch version has seen a 25% increase, so far! There are still loads to do from an SEO point of view on all of these different language versions, but I am pretty sure the geotargetting using the sitemaps have had a positive impact!
So if you are working under the same restrictions it might be worth testing out my method, it would be great to get some feedback once you have tried it and let me know how it worked for you. Good luck!
This post was originally posted by Lisa Myers on Searchcowboys