Growing An International Audience Through SEO

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Tactics to help you streamline and grow your business.

As your business begins to expand, it’s important to explore the opportunities offered by an overseas audience.

But where do you start?

When it comes to generating more international website traffic, business owners can often oversee the simplest yet most effective tips for business growth. 

In this guide, we’ve compiled a list of five SEO tactics designed to raise the profile of your business internationally, improve your search engine results and increase your online traffic.

1. Structure your site for international audiences.

The table below shows three different URL examples. These are examples of domains being modified for searchers in a different country.

Example cc TLD. Example Subdomain. Example Subfolder

Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are the least attractive for SEO as they often require separate hosting and platforms – increasing the effort needed to maintain and grow content on these as well as link building.

Subfolders are highly recommended due to being easier to implement and maintain from your existing website. You may also see results of optimized content ranking faster, thanks to PageRank.

An example of sites using subfolders effectively for international SEO: 


2. Tag the international versions of pages.

This section mostly focuses on the code snippetrel=”alternate” hreflang=”x”(often known just as hreflang). Don’t worry – it appears technical to a non-specialist, but it’s important and the principles are easy to understand.

Hreflang tags.

Hreflang tags are standard, page-level HTML tags that communicate what country or language your content was published for. Used properly, they can generate better quality engagement with a site. 

Searchers are served the most appropriate version in search engine results pages, meaning they are:

  • More likely to click through from search results
  • More likely to convert
  • Less likely to bounce back off of your site

For example:if you want to publish your English language home page in German, use the tag rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de”(“de” element for language “Deutsch”).

It’s possible to localize further by adding specific extra characters. For examplerel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-de”and rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-at”indicate German language versions which target specifically Germany and Austria respectively.

Alternative "language only". Alternative "language-country" pairs

“Language-country” pairs in a hreflang tag are a good option if physical presence or web content is discernibly different in territories with a common language. Otherwise a “language-only” tag may be more useful.

This is because extra elements like “de-de”/“de-at” indicate content aimed at searchers in Germany/ Austria; but not Switzerland, Luxembourg, or other German-speaking territories. Multiple-language territory tags to the same page can seem deceitful or spammy.

Make a judgement on which is right based on the realities of your business, or use “language-only” and “language-country” tags in combination.

This is an important detail to labor to digital teams. Websites should use either or both of the following:

  • rel=”alternate” hreflang=“language” 
  • rel=”alternate” hreflang=“language-country” 

Other combinations are not valid, and it’s easy to confuse language and country codes. The codes are ISO standards and you can find complete lists by searching Wikipedia for:

  • List of ISO 639-1 codes (language codes)
  • ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 (country codes)

If you lack the resources to create and maintain a suite of targeted international pages, hreflang tags can contain “x-default” in place of a language element. This indicates the most appropriate (and sometimes only) version of a page when searcher language preferences can’t be met. 

It’s also a suggestion that content isn’t targeting particular groups. So in short, the tag rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x-default” shouldn’t replace specific, appropriate, language or “language-country” tagging. It should supplement it. 

The URLs you can use in hreflang tags can be on the same domain, a subdomain or a completely different domain.

How to implement hreflang tags.

The main ways to implement hreflang are via:

  • Link elements in the of every page 
  • An XML sitemap markup 
  • Hreflang HTTP headers (for non-web page assets like PDF files)

Use one method only. For example, the first option is less time intensive, and the page speed latency it adds compared to the second option is minor. Exceptions to this would be very large sites – for example big eCommerce. 

A second implementation tip:each language version of a page must have a hreflang tag for itself as well as all other language versions. Alongside bad country or language codes, a missing tag is one of the most common errors seen in the industry.

Finally, hreflang should only be used on canonical URLs (put simply the ‘main’ version of a page, not a duplicate). Duplicate content is bad for users and search engines but it exists everywhere out of necessity – for example on http and https versions of the same page. Rel=canonical tags can communicate the relationship between the two so one gives way to the other and they don’t compete for ranking. Hreflang tags on non-canonical urls communicate confused logic. 

You can test both the accuracy and effectiveness of your hreflang implementation. For accuracy, use, and for effectiveness, consider this quick test:

Adapt the string below for known language versions of a site, and input it into a Chrome browser. If the hreflang tags are effective, the correct “language”/”language-country” version should appear on the results page.

The string asks for a Google search of a brand, and manually specifies a language and territory preference. Google is used in this example because Bing do not use hreflang.

Can you implement hreflang with Bing?

Google is the leading search engine worldwide, fulfilling around 90% of queries. Microsoft’s Bing are second, globally. Their share of search in the UK is larger than their global average, but you may still want to take them into account. Instead of using hreflang, they rely on a different tag, but it is implemented in a similar way.

To tag “language-country” preferences for Bing, place <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”language-country”>(language meta tags) in the head section of every page – just as with hreflang. 

The two tags can coexist, and the “language-country” codes are the same for both types.

3. Actively link international pages together.

Web pages can benefit hugely if they attract a volume of relevant non-paid links from trusted third party websites. Links can pass equity (ranking power) to a site, and this distributes itself through internal links to boost overall authority. 

This equity (or PageRank) does not pass through hreflang tags or language meta tags. 

This means that once “language” / “language-territory” pages have been built and tagged, they need to be actively linked up. A language drop-down menu list is often effective.

Listing these options alongside flag icons is often the best approach. “Language” / “language-territory” information seldom sits in the body of a page, and the flags are instantly recognizable visual cues. Written language names (in the target language) can accompany these for clarity – flags symbolize nations, not languages.

4. Avoid automatic geo-redirection.

It’s possible to force geo-targeted pages to searchers by instantly redirecting them based on their search location. This can be determined by IP address. 

Forced redirects are seldom a good option. Not only could they frustrate users by serving different-than-requested content, they can also be detrimental to crawling. As of December 2018, Google crawls websites mostly from the US, so automatically redirecting based on location may make it harder for international pages to gain traction. 

Google specifically states that it’s crawler, ‘Googlebot’, shouldn’t be treated any differently than users, or there’s risk of penalization for cloaking. This has its challenges for SEO. In particular, the homepage of a website, which is often the most linked to page needs to be treated in one of three ways. 

Ultimately, proper hreflang tagging – in combination with a country/language menu and search console targeting – is likely to be more effective in international SEO efforts. Plus, it’s more likely to provide a good user experience.

Automatically redirecting based on location is a risky tactic for the sake of saving a click. Some sites prefer to use IP address to offer searchers a specific language/language-territory version, but this has no SEO benefit.

5. Reinforce international targeting in Google Search Console.

Once a subfolder/subdirectory structure is set up and pages are correctly tagged, further reinforce page targeting in Google Search Console. 

This simple step is a direct line to Google, but it’s a sign of intent rather than a command. It doesn’t matter if the site owner hasn’t set up Google Search Console – a new property needs to be set up for each international subfolder/subdirectory anyway. 

This is important to avoid accidentally geotargeting a whole generic domain to a specific territory. A mistake like this is easy to make and could result in a swift decline in traffic.

To geo-target a site in Google Search Console (as of December 2018), visit the platform, select the property you want to target, and follow: 

> Go to the old version 

> Search traffic 

> International targeting 

> Languages or country

For Bing users.

Bing Webmaster Tools is roughly equivalent to Google Search Console for the Bing browser, and it allows geotargeting in the same way. 

Search Geotargeting your website – Bing for more information on this.

So there you have it,  five fundamental tips to optimise your site for an international audience. A quick summary:

  • Structure your site for each audience using subfolders (also known as subdirectories). 
  • Tag canonical, international versions of pages with hreflang and make sure these reference each other.
  • Actively link international pages together for ease of crawling. 
  • Avoid automatic geo-redirection. This could damage international SEO efforts, and there are better alternatives for user experience. 
  • Reinforce international targeting in Google Search Console.

About Blue Array.

Blue Array is the UK’s largest pure-play SEO agency, working with some of the UK’s leading brands. The SEO ‘consulgency’ combines the individual attention you expect from a consultant with the scale you expect from an agency.

To learn more about how you can improve your SEO capability internationally, have a read of the full guide.