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BACK TO BASICS: Travel Guide for International SEO

By Virginia Nussey, December 15, 2008

When planning a vacation to another country, smart travelers first do their homework. They talk to others who have visited or may know the region. They buy a couple books to acquaint them with the language, culture and local interests. And they fill their suitcase with the most appropriate clothing for the climate and footwear for the terrain.

Smart marketers, before embarking on an international search engine marketing campaign, will also undertake the needed planning to prepare themselves for success. The major considerations of an effective search marketing campaign abroad center around domain name considerations, hosting and site architecture solutions, language and culture, and geolocation issues.

Have a Good Map

During your first visit to a new country, nothing is quite as helpful as a good map of the area. Likewise, when entering a new market, have a well-planned PR strategy to help you navigate the terrain. Hire a qualified consultant whose expertise lies in the region you are targeting. Their knowledge of the language and culture of the region will be an on-going resource for your international efforts and they will be able to steer your organization clear of common traps, such as cultural sensitivity and translation issues. They will also be able to help you get the most out of your presence in the country or region, for instance, directing your South American campaign to the countries with the highest rates of Internet adoption such as Brazil.

You can jumpstart your international campaign with a little homework of your own. For example, if you're interested in marketing your product to English speaking regions, find the countries with the highest user statistics by examining sites like This site has detailed information about the number of Internet users, the rate of user growth and the percentage of Internet penetration by region and country.

You may also want to use a search proxy to find out who your local competitors are and what search results are given to a searcher in that region. A search proxy feature will be available in our new SEOToolSet and SEMToolbar, to be released next year. With this information you can focus your campaign, narrow down targeted languages, and build your global brand and presence based on concrete facts and figures.

Pack Smart

Like the way your suitcase contains everything you will need on your journey and holds the way you will present yourself in the new location, your site represents your organization's presence in the new locale. Make sure to pack your site full of everything your users will need to understand your services and what your organization can offer them. There are a number of considerations that fall under this category.

Language and Culture Considerations

Language and culture are at once clear and nuanced. Plug a phrase into an automated language translator and this is obvious. While the direct translation of a word may be correct, the usage and context of that word may be incorrect and easily stand out to a native or fluent speaker. Different words that share a definition may not be interchangeable in all contexts. The same is true for different types of spellings, popular cultural references, local terms and common associations. One recommended solution to the dealing with the fine distinctions that fall under language and culture is to use a professional translating service. But even then, subtleties of language may be overlooked.

One such example I've heard from a conference speaker occurs when marketing copy is translated into Japanese. In the Japanese language, two sentences could have the same meaning but, depending on the exact words used, a feminine or masculine voice can be distinguished. A Web page selling a product marketed to men should utilize the masculine voice. Failing to do so could put-off male readers who would otherwise be interested in the product. The reverse is also true.

Rather than translating copy word for word, turn the original copy into dry bullet points. From there, those bullet points can be translated into bullet points in the target language. At that point, a marketer who works in the target language can breathe life into the copy, resulting in the right facts being communicated through an authentic local voice. You'll also want to be aware of writing conventions such as the date format, weights and measurements and the format of numbers.

In the interest of helping you focus your international SEO efforts, here are the top languages used to search online, beginning with the most often used language:

  1. English
  2. Chinese
  3. Spanish
  4. Japanese
  5. French
  6. German
  7. Arabic
  8. Portuguese
  9. Korean
  10. Italian

Site Architecture Issues

The way you organize your site can have an impact on the way users navigate the site and the way search engines index and rank your site. One common concern of organizations with multiple sites in different languages is duplicate content. However, at last month's PubCon, Google representative Ben D'Angelo repeated what Google representatives have said before: if you distinguish content - even in the same language - using the appropriate country code top level domain (ccTLD) or a sub-domain, duplicate content filtering will be avoided.

Each country has its own rules regarding domains and hosting, both of which play a role in the way a search engine ranks a site for relevance. For instance, there are countries where the number of domains a single company may own is limited to 20. Some countries require a company to have a physical presence in the company in order to purchase a top level domain there. If possible, it is best to have a ccTLD and local hosting for your site. The top level domain is a major signal to search engines of a site's geographic relevance.

When deciding on your site's architecture there are several different options, with the right fit depending on your organization's needs and priorities. The most common site architecture solutions are the one site approach, where each country-specific portion of the site is located within a sub-domain or directory; the multiple site approach, in which each targeted country has its own site using the appropriate ccTLD; and a blended site approach, keeping general global concerns on the international portion of the site and country-specific content on country-specific sub-domains or directories. For the advantages, disadvantages and challenges of each, read more about international site architecture considerations on the blog.

Make Local Connections

The sign of a real traveler is the relationships they form abroad. A traveler that makes a point not to stay within the circle of tourists and instead ventures out to the true-to-life experience of residents and natives will have the most meaningful journey. Online, local connections are communicated to the search engines through links.

Links, as always, are an important facet of your international SEO campaign. In essence, by linking to and receiving links from local organizations aligned with your site's focus or specialty, a search engine will recognize your site's relevance for a query done in the target country and assign credibility to your site. The most authoritative links will come from sites with the same ccTLD and language used on the site.

Find an Expert to Guide You

Much of what I've learned about international SEO is from hearing experts speak at search marketing conferences. There are several options available to a marketer interested in learning about search marketing considerations in a specific country or region. But regardless of how you approach your international SEO education, learning from cultural and technical experts is a must. While I can't vouch for any of these providers, these are a few starting points as you begin your search for the best resources to fit your needs and goals.


More than half of the world's population lives in Asia and the growth rate of Internet penetration in the region is booming. Bruce Clay, Inc. recently opened an office in Tokyo in order to better serve the Asian search marketing community. You can also find information on Internet marketing in the Asia Pacific region by visiting sites like Asia Search Academy (Singapore), Robert J. Steiner (Singapore), Internet Marketing Coach (Hong Kong), trainSEM (India), and the site of U.S.-based Japanese Internet marketing consultant Motoko Hunt.


Bruce Clay Australia is based out of Sydney and SEO training is offered twice a year. TrainSEM Australia, Semultra, and Search Tempo also offer training courses across the country.


Europe is a large continent and every country has its own considerations. To start your research, you can try the following Web sites: Alza Management Institute (online course), Weboptimiser (England), RingJohn (England, Ireland, Italy), and Internet Marketing Scotland (Scotland).

Central and South America

Brazil has one of the fastest growing Internet populations in the world and Latin American markets are quickly finding their way to the Web. You may want to beginning your education of Latin American markets by attending Search Engine Strategies Latino, which is geared for U.S. Hispanic companies targeting U.S. Hispanics, U.S. American companies targeting U.S. Hispanics, U.S. Hispanic and American companies targeting Latin American markets, and Latin American companies targeting Latin American, U.S. Hispanic and American markets.

North America

Canada can be a good international market to enter if you're looking for a country that is nearby and has a large English-speaking population. Check out the Search Engine (Ontario, Quebec), Uniseo (Quebec), and Reachd (British Columbia).

Before You Go

Before you enter an international market, be sure you've done your due diligence. Like a traveler entering a new land, know the customs and preferences of the culture, or at least find a native guide who is experienced and trustworthy to tell you about them. Find out about domain regulations, don't cut corners on content translation, construct your site in the most search-friendly way, and make sure your site is seen by search engines as geographically relevant via hosting, linking and top level domains. Also, it's always a good idea to test the waters by starting with a low-cost pilot program. Get to know your market, be there for the right reasons, and you could end up watching the rewards roll in.

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