We’ve also included those critical decision points your brand should carefully consider - they impact SEO + Internationalization, as well as your development teams, marketing budget (etc.), and the potential efficacy of your efforts.
Make these decisions carefully, weighing the costs and benefits to your own business as a whole - with full knowledge of the SEO implications.
Language-Only, or Country + Language-Specific Considerations
It’s important to decide if you need country-specific targeting, or just language targeting, both in terms of the Domain Structure you choose and the page-level technical implementation.
Language-only targeting is simpler and easier. Can you add Spanish to your website, or do you need to differentiate between Spanish for users in Spain, the US, Mexico, etc?
Global brands, or brands subject to local rules and regulations, may prefer (or require) country and language targeting.
If you are targeting specific countries, be sure to do your research on those countries to determine:
Any local rules and regulations you are legally required to follow for that area.
The major and minor search engines to target for that region.
Google isn’t the major search engine everywhere in the world. For example, if you want to break into the Chinese market, Baidu will be critical. Similarly, you may need to consider Yandex if you are targeting Russia.
Don’t assume that the UX of your site in your core market applies to your international markets (applies especially to Asian and Middle-Eastern countries).
For international SEO purposes (and Google purposes!), there is no such thing as “regional targeting.” Only the different combinations of languages and countries.
This is especially important when implementing hreflang on your site (the key method for specifying language and country targeting to Google). Don’t attempt to target “eu” for the European Union, or “uk” for the United Kingdom (it should be “gb”, for Great Britain, when used in this context).
Same-Language Targeting in Different Countries
The more similar the languages are, the more complications arise.
If you need to follow different rules and regulations (say, you offer different products or product variations in some places but not others, based on what’s legally allowable in those countries) you may have to have variations in the same (or very similar) languages.
But don’t expect to copy your American English product pages, set up a UK variation with some “u”s added here and there (e.g. color vs. colour), add hreflang to specify which is which and expect it to magically work out.
Brands where country-specific targeting (e.g. not just language targeting) is desirable, and/or a legal requirement (e.g. to meet local rules & regulations.)
Brands with the time, budget, and technical capabilities to maintain entirely different websites.
Brands with the marketing, SEO, and link building budget to support multiple websites.
Brands who want maximum SEO return and are willing to pay the associated costs (as outlined above).
Country-specific hosting is an option, which can improve site performance locally.
Maximizes country-specific ranking potential (assuming you are willing to pay the marketing costs to achieve that).
Extra cost (tech and marketing setup and maintenance).
Depending on the country/language you are targeting, this could be a requirement or a strong recommendation. Alternatively, you may need a representative of your company living in the country to qualify to use the ccTLD. Learn more about ccTLD restrictions.
If you aren’t targeting specific countries, it’s simply unhelpful and unnecessary.
Some ccTLDs are used so often as to become generic (gccTLDs,) e.g, .tv (Tuvalu). These are no longer useful for country-specific targeting.
Bottom line: If you have to, or can afford to, this can be a great option.
Brands where this setup is the only technically feasible option… it is what it is, and you can work around it.
Just keep in mind that you’ll want a bigger marketing, SEO, and link building budget to support what are essentially multiple websites in the eyes of search engines. If you don’t have this budget, expect more middling results.
(Often) less technically complex than setting up and maintaining ccTLDs and hosting.
You’ll want a bigger marketing, SEO, and link building budget to support what are essentially multiple websites in the eyes of search engines.
Bottom line: The “good enough” solution.
Whatever your decision is, make sure that you align your international expansion with overall business strategies. A well thought-out digital strategy can make your business grow even more than you think!
International SEO Technical Specs
Site-wide Conventions and Configurations
The following are technical SEO specifications we recommend which affect the site at the root level or affect content across the site.
Human-translate your content:
All content must be translated into the language (or country-specific language) you are targeting. That includes:
URL paths, where possible
ASCII characters, historically, were the only option for URLs. In other words, you couldn’t include Japanese characters in URLs.
Non-Latin alpha-numerical characters are technically possible in URLs, but this is much less common. Plus, special characters may not be easy to c+p, or share on social media.
We recommend ASCII characters for URLs at this time (eg use Roman characters to spell out words in that language.)
Metadata (the copy specified in page titles and meta descriptions)
Navigation headers, footers & all links
Text in images
Alt tags on images
Image file names
Anchor text for links
*** Note that this doesn’t mean all URLs on your site must be translated, rather, all pages that are translated should be fully-translated for all fields on those pages. We do recommend translating as much of your site as you can afford to. Not translating strategic content, or customer service answers, can create challenges for SEO and the users.
Automated translations are specifically not recommended - for your international users, and for SEO.
Build internal linking pathways to international pages
Don’t: silo international pages in their own bubble, expecting hreflang to notify search engines about all your new page variations.
Instead, ensure you explicitly hyperlink the “international homepages” from your primary homepage.
Much like your primary homepage & navigation links to sub-pages, build crawl paths from the international homepage to international sub-pages.
Interlink between language variation pages as appropriate.
Don’t depend on “links” from a language dropdown that requires user interaction - that Googlebot can’t mimic
Hosting & Servers
International CDN servers (e.g. local to the target area) should be considered, where possible, to improve site performance for the user, and establish local context.
If possible, host your site via a local IP address.
Never use IP sniffing to auto-redirect users to the “right” location. It’s a frustrating user experience (especially for people traveling, or near large borders), and Googlebot is “from” the US. Don’t accidentally bar them from accessing your foreign-language content.
All valid language and country-targeted URL variations should self-canonicalize.
Google Search Console should be verified on each site (if there are multiple), or on each sub-folder (if you choose the 1 site solution.)
Create & submit XML sitemaps of international URLs via GSC.
Specify language-only, or language and country combinations.
“en” or “es-es”
Ensure you specify the correct, indexable, full-path URL (e.g. the canonical URL)
Specify all variations - each language you are targeting
If you are targeting 10+ languages, we should talk about alternatives.
Ensure you are utilizing the correct country & language codes (e.g. “gb” not “uk” for targeting the United Kingdom.)
Ensure each page with hreflang refers to the other variations, and they, in return, refer to the starting tag (e.g. ensure correct cross-references. Avoid Return Tag errors.)
Implement hreflang via the HTML *and* the sitemap. It’s redundant, and Google recommends against it.
Add hreflang to pages that are not indexed, or which canonicalize to other pages. Only valid, original pages should be indexed and optimized for internationalization.
Strong recommendation: include an x-default URL. The “default” URL is very likely the original URL variation, prior to you adding internationalization.
Hreflang can be implemented via tags in the HTML (most common), http headers, or via your XML sitemap. Any of these versions works, however, the more countries/languages you target, the more you should lean towards a non-html solution (avoid code bloat and complexity.)
Hreflang via HTML
Add to the <head> section
List URL itself, and ideally all variations. If there are too many variations, list the most critical ones.
Remember that any page you link to via hreflang should link back in turn.