Do This, Not That: 10 Tips for Successful International SEO Strategy

International SEO Strategy
August 18, 2022

Early on in my first job out of college as a newspaper reporter, my editor shared some advice uniquely targeted to the raging, green, perfectionist monster inside me: Don’t worry a concern to the bone.

What she meant by that, essentially, was: work smarter, not harder.

Every day, she watched me lavish the same care I devoted to my page 1 and section cover stories as I put into each calendar entry and arts brief. Imagine the results of the local cookie bakeoff getting the same, breathless deadline dance as, say, Watergate, and you’d have an idea of how 24-year-old me approached every minute of the job.

Exhausting, right? Well, the same lesson can apply to your international SEO strategy. The way we counsel several dozen clients each year as they launch and spruce up their global websites is not tied to an end-all, be-all checklist. There are tactics you hold dear, while others you can let slide.

Here’s my guide to not sweating the small stuff, and saving your efforts for what matters in creating a successful international SEO strategy.

1) DO: Get your XML Sitemap Right.

2) DON’T: Get Tangled Up in hreflang Tags.

My team has completed more than 300 SEO audits in the past five years. Much has changed in the digital landscape since then.

For starters, take mobile responsiveness. Less than half of sites we audited in 2015 paid due homage to the smartphone; by 2019, 92% of the sites we audited were mobile responsive.

But a lot of clients are still missing a core bit of technical SEO optimization. Nearly half of the sites we audited in 2019 had no discoverable XML sitemap.

The holy trinity of technical SEO begins with listing th­­e pages you want search engines to crawl in a proper XML sitemap located off your home domain or language subdomain/subfolder; pointing to it in robots.txt; and uploading it directly in webmaster tools of the leading search engine in your market – whether that’s Google, Baidu, CocCoc, etc.

And that’s easy, compared to the knots I see clients tie themselves in over hreflang tags. In theory, those tags are a good way for search engines to understand the different language variations that exist on each crawled page. But I see far more confusion around how to properly implement these tags – and far more resulting errors in search engines – than I do benefits.

Get your sitemap, robots.txt and connection to webmaster tools right, and you’ll be on your way to visibility in any language or market.

3) DO: Invest in Localized Content.

4) DON’T: Sweat Canonicals.

Eight or so years ago, in the wake of the Panda algorithm update to Google, we were all petrified that any thin or duplicative content on our sites was going to get blacklisted or penalized.

For brands that were spinning out 10 nearly identical articles on multiple microsites, or running content farms like the internet was hungry for vapid prose, they had every reason to worry.

But the endless clients who wrung their hands over whether their translated content was considered duplicate content (it’s not), or who wielded canonical tags as a weaponized shield to shout how unique their pages are? Not so much.

I will say that actual Google penalties are very (very, very) rare when you invest in your content the right way. And I have seen sites that accidentally canonicalized every page to the homepage get crawled anyway. (Hint: Google takes them more as suggestions.)

I am not making excuses for your clearly duplicated content or suggesting you ignore canonicals completely. Do them right. But put more effort in where it matters for international SEO and truly localized content.

That starts with native writers researching the type of keyword variations that audiences in their language will actually search for. And then optimizing your translated pages to reflect those keyword strategies.

But it can and should include the type of nuances we see when treating truly creative content with care for SEO.

For example, when a destination marketing organization came to us to localize their travel blogs into Japanese, our writer not only advised them that bachelorette parties aren’t really a tradition in Japan, but she did the SEO research and wrote additional content to explain that tradition and make the content work in Japanese.

That’s the type of originality that outdoes a canonical tag – every time.

5) DO: Go Deep with Your Content.

6) DON’T: Belabor Optimizing Image ALT Tags.

For years, the word’s been out that longer content tends to rank more highly in organic search results. In a more recent analysis of its top-performing posts, HubSpot found that its 50 articles generating the most leads averaged just over 2,500 words.

Am I saying you need to write a book on every page?

Absolutely not.

Start by understanding what questions your audience is asking and what topics form the core of your site’s categorical structure. Where is your expertise going to be most meaningful? Where can you provide information at length? It’s best to target longer-tail, contextual keywords that will help your content rank for a variety of searches.

In several our of case studies, serving up a variety of ways to learn about and interact with your company’s products and services not only brings in more visibility and traffic, it also leads to longer time spent on your website, more pages visited, higher conversion percentage and more money spent on orders.

Now, text isn’t everything, especially with today’s mobile-connected, visually oriented audience. You’ll want to ensure your content is diverse and rich, incorporating meaningful graphics, images and video, as well as deep.

But the text you don’t need to over-analyze are the ALT tags attached to those numerous graphics throughout your site.

It’s useful real estate to fill in, but with a practical, descriptive tag, not a keyword-stuffed one. That’s going to help accessibility for vision-impaired users as well as search engine spiders. Even better, optimize those images on the backend so they load quickly and don’t drag user experience down.

7) DO: Use Schema Markup.

8) DON’T Bother with Meta Keywords.

Creating and optimizing your content around question keywords is not just a great way to hit word count. Questions reflect one of the main ways customers search on mobile devices.

In addition to ensuring a responsive mobile experience, and different elements load easily, utilizing schema markup to break down key parts of your pages – including emphasizing questions and their answers – will help search engines deliver more enticing, complete search results.

In our audit data from five years ago, just 4% of clients were coding structured markup into their pages. By 2019, More than 60% had that tool in their arsenal. So don’t get left behind.

On the other hand, leave meta keywords in the dustbin. They have not mattered for Google search results in 10 years now. However, 28% of the sites we audited in 2019 were still using them, with about 10% of those meta keyword sets having problematic duplication.

Unless you’re spelling meta keywords out for Baidu in Chinese SEO, you can save your efforts for the stuff that matters.

9) DO: Tease Your Content on Social Media.

10) DON’T Rely on Email Link Prospecting.

In the blissful Utopia we envisioned five or six years ago, after Google’s Panda update bore down on the spammy content and Penguin nipped spammy link-building, earnest content would be shared with potential link partners via an earnest email and free, abundant backlinks would follow.

I don’t know about you, but my inbox is a veritable sinkhole for earnest outreach, thanks to stringent spam filters. And the bulk email campaigns my team waged on behalf of clients tend to yield about 1 to 2 percent response rate, many of them seeking the type of payments Google wanted to scrub out of the backlink equation.

Audit data trumpets the path to a hard-earned Utopia. While the average number of backlinks and linking websites have grown at the same rate since 2015, clients are amassing 10 times the number of social signals to their site pages.

Consider not only the variety of ways you can post content in the established platforms – from video takeovers and gamification on Facebook, to conversation-spurring articles on LinkedIn, to hashtag bonanzas on Twitter – but the increasing multitude of niche platforms catering to unique segments of your audience, not to mention novel ways of posting.

Local social media including KaKao talk and Naver blog in Korea, WeChat and Weibo in China, Line in Japan, among many, many others, deliver ways of sharing your content that give it a new presence and different character online, and can create communities beyond your website for driving engagement and leads.

There’s no need to drive yourself to despair over global SEO. Put your effort into the right tactics, and there may even be time left to optimize your life offline.

Colt Foutz, Global Director of TPT Digital