Avoid These Global SEO Mistakes—And Do These Instead
“If you can tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, you don’t need advice.”
This quote by Laurence Peter, educator behind The Peter Principle—the tale of bureaucracy where every employee eventually rises to the level of his or her own incompetence—is a good barometer for experience in the world of international SEO.
When you’ve put in enough reps with numerous global clients and websites that you can spot the red flags and smell the smoking guns coming from a few time zones away, then you’ve seen some serious stuff—and can helpfully steer your clients away from it when providing global SEO services.
Such was the meeting among like-minded SEO veterans I hosted in April 2023 with Melanie Datz, SEO specialist at TPT Digital, and Steve Hill, director of SEO and operations at Metabalon. In this webinar, we shared some of the most common international SEO mistakes we’d encountered in the decades we’ve been at the craft.
The advice is just as apt now. I’ll recap the highlights here, starting with where my team untangles a mess on newly translated websites—technical SEO—and ending with linking.
Untangling Technical SEO
For a new local site to be found, you have to know how to tell search engines it exists. This effort starts with instructions to search engine spiders, those data-munching bots that crawl from link to link to link, gathering up every byte. Unless you make it hard to find.
Here are some of the self-defeating measures we’ve seen.
Duplicate Content and Canonicals
Over-thinking what constitutes “duplicate content” and having your translated pages point to the original source-language pages as “canonicals.” This essentially tells search engines to not crawl your translated pages, but to show the original site pages instead. Don’t do this—translated content is unique content.
Getting Visitors to Your Content
Panicking that customers won’t find the content you translated just for them and resorting to heavy-handed measures like auto-redirecting customers based on their IP addresses or showing translated content without changing the URL.
Actually, Google and other search engines rely on unique URLs to help decipher what content is intended for a specific language or country, not to mention that since Googlebots typically crawl from the U.S., they may not see the translated content you redirect them to. So, it’s better to trust in logic and have separate URLs for your unique, international content, and let your customers decide through easy drop-downs and directories which sites they want to visit.
Robots.txt and sitemap.xml
Forgetting to do for your global sites what you (probably) did for your original website when you published it. That is, directing search engine spiders by sharing crawling instructions in a robots.txt, which points to a sitemap.xml listing the pages you want indexed and shown in search results. Additionally, submitting that sitemap or sitemap URL to Google Search Console (or its local market equivalent) so you can monitor how your site is seen and fix any issues that arise. Robots.txt and sitemap.xml can be housed off the top-level domain or at the language- or country-specific subdomain or subfolder level to keep things organized and clear.
Taking a deep dive into hreflang tags without understanding the logic that governs them. Namely, that each hreflang tag set must use specific, two-letter language and country codes (in that order), and that the full set for any website page is duplicated exactly on every localized version of that page so that all references are connected. Add in the need to keep these updated as your sites inevitably change, and I often suggest that clients get to hreflang tags later (after following the basics above) unless there’s a clear indication in your analytics that the basics aren’t getting your site seen.
Get a Grip on Content SEO
Perhaps we should have noted this earlier: just because you’re committed to having a localized website doesn’t mean you need to translate everything. As Hill pointed out during our webinar, he’s seen too many brands rush to market with hundreds (even thousands) of translated pages without first considering how each country’s audience is different and which content matters to them. Leading off with market analysis can help narrow your focus—and budget.
From there, the case for weeding out problematic SEO advice continues.
URLs themselves do not have to be translated. In fact, probably 90% of our clients do not translate terms in their URLs. Sometimes content management systems don’t support it, and other times understanding analytics across identically structured URLs is a lot easier. For example, comparing the performance in different countries for “/running-sunglasses” is much easier than deciphering which page that is in Japanese, Portuguese, Hebrew, etc. Remember that keywords in URLs are just one of many signals we can send to search engines.
Don’t forget to invest in actual, local keyword research and optimization for your most important translated pages. Just like we’ve addressed prioritizing what you translate, you don’t have to hit every last page on your site with a keyword strategy. Instead, first think taxonomically: home page, category pages, service-level pages at first, and then go deeper when you’re ready.
Our long track record of optimizing translated sites has trumpeted a pretty consistent KPI: the difference between pages that were only translated vs. pages that were also optimized with locally researched keywords edited into titles, meta descriptions, headers and body content is, on average, another 400% more traffic from organic search results.
Another misstep we see when brands rush into translation is forgetting to first understand the right localization for common product and service terms. In our webinar, Hill described this need clearly when dealing with room-size lab equipment, but it’s an issue that crosses nearly every industry. For example, soccer cleats in the U.S. become soccer boots in the UK, an American’s car rental becomes car hire to a Brit, etc.
Good keyword research should uncover those popular expressions, but your translators and SEO specialists need to be in sync with brand terms hard-wired into glossaries. And the case gets trickier with tag lines. HSBC wealth management invested millions in its 2009 campaign “Assume Nothing,” only to see it badly translated as “Do Nothing” in many markets, resulting in millions more to rebrand. It’s better to get ahead of it with proper cultural consultation.
The Lowdown on Linking SEO
Backlinks remain a strong factor in building your site’s visibility, but the importance shifted long ago to gaining quality links over quantity. This means earning links the old-fashioned way: by creating content that is useful, resourceful, and relevant to your local customers. Evaluate your content and improve it through the same lens Google is now using. Call this the “new-fashioned” approach to gaining links from quality content. Google has made it clear: to rank well in search results, you must demonstrate “E-E-A-T,” which is content that shows your experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Here’s what this means for local markets.
Not just porting over links out to websites in your home market. If you’re a dental supply company and you link to standards from the American Dental Association, that’s not going to carry weight in Qatar or Turkey. You need to find the local equivalent.
Your catalog of inbound links from your sister and partner sites, plus backlinks from the wider world, could use an upgrade to equivalent or even new links from strong, local-country websites. This is a case where outreach to new partners can still pay off.
You can’t assume that a topic—either whole or in part—applies to your audience in a new country. For example, we helped a popular job recruiting site localize its blogs into multiple European countries. We helped them rethink content that was U.S.-focused, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and articles that described what can and can’t be asked in job interviews.
Messaging and Social Media
Finally, don’t assume the message you crafted in the source language can be received in the same way in different countries. Consider adding explanatory graphics or video—with local subtitles and audio—and make sure the format fits what local cultures are accustomed to.
Amplifying this content by planting your own backlinks in local social media is also key. For example, Facebook in the U.S. could give way to LINE in Japan, and LinkedIn at home could mean posts in Xing for Germany.
Once you evolve from the first step of planting a new flag for your brand in a new country to tailoring and planning unique content for that audience, the task of effective international SEO has come back around to delivering effective local SEO. And by then you’ll likely be qualified to dispense your own valuable advice.
If you could benefit from the tips we’ve shared in this blog and could global SEO services, contact our team today.