What most SEO agencies miss about international SEO - Social Media Explorer
What most SEO agencies miss about international SEO
What most SEO agencies miss about international SEO

When it comes to search engine optimization, there are a lot of common points no matter which optimizer you’re talking to. I don’t think there’s a single SEO out there worth the name that would disagree with the need for optimizing the page title and description, for example. It’s the first handshake in the SERPs, and you want to make sure it’s marketable, right? Right.

10 Tips on International SEO for SEOs

Just as there are specific additions when dealing with hyperlocal SEO, there are also specific considerations when you take your optimization strategies global. Some of them you’ll probably say, “well of course,” but you never know what you might come across that you hadn’t thought of.

1. Know your search engines.

If you’ve been an SEO for any length of time, you’re probably already aware that other search engines exist – at least in the way you might know that air exists. You breathe it, but kind of take it for granted. However, as shocking as it may sound, Google is not the top search engine in certain locations. When you’re targeting specific countries, you want to make sure you’re following the guidelines for their top search engine.

So, who are the top performers? Here are a few:

  • United States: Google 
  • Russia: Yandex
  • Korea: Naver
  • China: Baidu

Just like Google and Bing in the States, each search engine has its standards for ranking. If you’re going to take your clients global, make sure you learn the target engines and how they rank.


Different countries have their own search engines. Make sure you learn what it takes to rank on your target country’s top SE.

2. Language isn’t the same.

I know you’re thinking, “Of course it isn’t; that’s why it’s international!” However, you’d be surprised how many don’t think beyond the translation. In short, you never want a direct, word-for-word translation. Words mean things and the meaning can change depending on the person speaking it and the language used. 

Some words (and gestures, for that matter), can cause a PC nightmare in the wrong country. For example, we all know in the U.S. that “fag” is a highly derogatory term. In Britain, however, there’s a very real chance that you’ll be asked at least once if you have one, as it’s British slang for a cigarette.

Coors is another example. A Spanish “turn it loose” campaign translated to “suffer from diarrhea” when their ad execs forget to pay attention to how translations would resonate among the populace. 


Don’t be like Coors, Braniff Airlines, or any number of other brands gone wrong in international campaigns. Double check your witty tag lines and marketing slogans before sending them out.

3. Dialect isn’t the same, either.

Translations matter not only in language but also in culture dialect. Case in point is Braniff Airlines. In 1987, Braniff Airlines made the mistake of promoting new leather seats with the campaign slogan of “Vuela en cuero,” which mean “fly naked” in Mexico. In most of Latin America, it translated better as “fly in leather,” but there were several confused Mexicans.

Another example is the use of terms between the British and America, such as the terminology used above. This can translate into some odd issues arising in your optimization campaign. For example, you might find yourself ranking really well for “apartment” in the U.S., but for some reason you don’t rank hardly at all for the same term in Britain. 

If you find yourself ranking for a term in one country but you can’t seem to do the same in another, make sure you’re using a translation that makes sense. For example, “apartment” in the U.S. translates to “flat” in the Queen’s English. It could be that a well-timed push for the target country’s term will get you the kind of push you need. 


The above is why having partners in or from your target countries is very important. They know the local culture, dialect and language better than any amount of market research will. You’ll save your brand a lot of potential embarrassment!

4. Choose your team carefully.

Speaking of partners, how are you going to deal with the multiple countries? Are you going to have a team in each country, a person in your team from each country, a person in each team that knows the language?

Each has its pros and cons. Having a team in each country is great in terms of point #4, when you’re looking at translations and cultural differences. However, somebody has to be in charge. It’s very easy to lose site of what’s going on when you go beyond two or three target companies.

You can also opt for team members that know the language, and you’ll get by fairly well. Having said that, they may not know the cultural differences, which, as discussed above, can cause some serious faux paus. If you choose this method, be very careful whom you pick, as they need to be someone with extreme attention to language detail.

The easiest (and often best) solution is to have a single point person in your team from, or in, each country. That person is often from a local agency, although they don’t have to be. They will have the team they need based on their knowledge of the place, but you want to deal with as few people as possible. In this way, you can streamline the global activities without getting lost.


Choose your team carefully based on the size of your client and the funds available. I’ve often found the best option is a point person with the power to build their own team works best. No matter what you choose, be straight forward with expectations, have weekly or bi-weekly meetings to make sure you’re staying on track, and address any concerns immediately.

5. Time zones play an important role.

When you’re talking about international borders, you’re also talking about international time zones. Among other things, this means getting up early in the morning or going to bed late at night to meet your global partners. It also means coordinating through those time zones for work done. 

For instance, if you do some work on a client site that your global partner needs done on Monday, it could be Tuesday before they get it. If Tuesday is the date of a scheduled launch, you could miss your mark. 

There’s another way that time zones are a potential issue, and that is with posting times. Email blasts sent at your 2:00pm could be their midnight – and midnight is a lot less effective for most things. Blog posts scheduled to go out just in time for your morning cup of joe can get buried if they receive it at 3:00pm while they’re still working.


Make sure you time your meetings and your marketing campaigns to match your target countries’ time zones instead of your own. If your posts, emails, newsletters, etc. aren’t performing as well as expected, this could be the issue.

6. Handle your languages carefully.

No, this isn’t a repeat. Beyond the translations, the technical side of multiple languages can get pretty hairy. I’m sure most of you have heard of hreflang, but some may not realize the significance of it if you’ve only worked single country sites.

Hreflang helps the search engines understand which language translation a page or site is. Importantly, each version has to have the other versions listed as an alternate. If you don’t cross link, the search engine may not index the translation. As well, you want to make sure you hard code the alternative links. Instead of //example.com, you’ll need to add the transport method (http/https).

Google has an excellent tutorial on how to handle localized variants of a page. If you’re going to help your client step into the international market, it’s a must-read.


It’s important to handle translations correctly. If you’re new to languages, take the time to read all of Google’s 1-pager on the topic. It will save you lots of time and troubleshooting.

7. Choose domains carefully. 

To split or not to split? That is the question. Actually, the question is, “Do I use country code top-level domains or subfolders for each language?” To which the answer is, “Yes”.

To really answer this, you have to know your international SEO strategy and objectives. You also need to consider how big a team – and budget – you have to work with. Different TLDs means different websites. Each website has its own code base, and each will have to be individually updated. 

You might be able to get away with a website platform that makes it easy (er) to update across multiple domains. WordPress Multisite is an example of this, as you have a single login for all translations. Having said that, the more sites you have, the more complex your system will have to be, obviously.

Another point to consider is the target country’s search engine (s), and China is an excellent case for this. Baidu is the primary search engine for the country, with Qihoo360 being second, and both prefer .CN for their listings. If you can’t get a .CN, opt for a .com. 

If you’re going for a large local focus, opt for a ccTLD. People are more likely to click on their country TLD. As well, a local site and domain means being able to offer vastly different content personalization. Consider these to be an international form of hyper localization.


Using subfolders vs ccTLDs depends entirely on your budget constraints, resources constraints, international SEO strategies and overall objectives. If you have a single site with multiple translations, opt for a .com. If you have multiple sites, opt for a ccTDL.

8. Choose hosting carefully.

Besides your domains, you also need to consider your hosting. This isn’t a problem if you’re going with subfolders for your translations but is a definite concern when using multiple sites. China is also a perfect example here, as hosting on a server in China will serve you better than using one in the U.S. 

I don’t want you to think I’m picking on just China, however. Plainly put, hosting in the target country does increase relativity and local signals. A site with only French, hosted in France with a ccTDL will have a much better chance of ranking than one with several translations, hosted in India with a .de TDL. 

Having said that, if you choose to host your site in another country, carefully review your possibilities. Each country has its own regulations, and you don’t want to be caught flat-footed by signing up with a less-than-savory hosting provider in a different country.


If you have a single site, host in your headquarter country. If you have multiple sites, opt for target country servers. But be very picky about hosting; not all countries have the same regulations. Read all fine print.

9. Up your off-page SEO strategies.

You’ve gone through all the trouble of setting up a French translation, in France, with a French ccTLD and your clients still aren’t getting the expected results. What gives?

A good place to check is your off-page SEO strategies. Are you building backlinks from local areas? A link from the U.S. to a German site isn’t going to do near as much good as a link from Hamburg, for example, or a link from a place in Kiev to a Russian translation. 

As well, pay attention to your social strategies. Not every country uses Facebook en mass, believe it or not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Facebook user in China, as the social media platform is banned, but the Philippines is the number one user. You might think YouTube is popular in Spain, but Mexico is its biggest user. And while Twitter has taken over Indonesia in storm, you might as well not bother in Germany or several other countries. 

[Image URL: https://www.smartinsights.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2015-Social-network-popularity-by-country.jpg]

[Image caption: Social media usage break down by country for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google +, courtesy of Smart Insights, Global social media research summary 2019]


You already know not all links and marketing strategies are good ones. It’s SEO 101. However, this is even more true when dealing with international SEO. Get rid of your own perceptions about which platforms to use; use the ones your target country prefers.

10. Remember that there is a time for international SEO and a time to nix the deal.

“The customer is always right,” may be a common statement in American business, but it shouldn’t be a thought process in SEO – especially international SEO. If you have a client that wants to go global, do your due diligence. An hour or two of research can verify whether it’s a good move or not. 

A humorous write up in Insider talks about 14 common American things you don’t find much outside of the U.S., such as yellow school buses or red Solo cups. It’s interesting, but it also has a great take-away. Not everything translates.

Is the product or service something that is wanted in the target country? Does the client’s current site show significant interest from the target country? Do global competitors do well? Can the budget they give you support the move?

To be blunt, an unwarranted move to the global market can make or break your clients. If they aren’t ready for it, let them know it’s not a smart move. Will some of them go ahead with it? Sure – but they’ll be moving forward fully informed that the move may flop. 

Maybe there’s a little CYA in there; if you told them before hand, then you were the voice of reason. But being informed also gives them the chance to have preemptive damage control. 


Don’t let your client jump into international marketing uninformed. Take the little bit of time it would take to ensure it’s a good move, and make sure they know what they’re really getting into.

Bio:Gabriella Sannino is the founding partner of Level343 LLC an international SEO and marketing agency headquartered in San Francisco, California. A leader in international SEO, she’s helped numerous clients break into the global arena using a large network of partners in the target locale. Gabriella is a linguist, able to speak 5 languages and understand several more, as well as a frequent globe trotter. When she’s not working in San Francisco, you can find her in various parts of the world building strong international relationships. Join her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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