International SEO is just like regular SEO, but with a type of personalization.
Arguably, the first step towards true search personalization by the search engines was international search. This was followed by local search and universal search, with even more coming ideas coming along, including logins, "answers" and so on.
But it started with international search, because that was the big issue - how do you develop relevent results if you can't even present them in the language of the visitor? How can you claim a result for someone looking to buy something is relevent if the companies in the results don't even ship to where that searcher is? Unless you restrict yourself only to a certain region, you can't.
As a result, international search is, even with all it's little issues and odd behaviours, one of the more settled and stable types of personalization. Which means you can actually DO international SEO, rather than hoping you are doing it. As a matter of fact, I'm writing a book on that very subject right now.
First things first: standard SEO still counts. You still need good technological setup, links and content. If you don't start here, then internationalizing your site will only make things harder, not easier.
Once you have that in place, here are the 3 main factors for internationalization:
Localization is the act of making your site relevent and useful to visitors from a particular locale. This includes:
- Translation and language localization (examples include US vs UK spellings and regional terms like "pop" vs "soda")
- User interface (examples: sites aimed at Asian languages should be more link-heavy than English sites, you need to avoid menu systems that assume that the words in the menu are a specific width, and your order forms need to accept addresses in the local order)
- Keyword research - there is no Chinese "WordTracker" or Keyword Discovery" program currently available. I often need to do PPC campaigns to do any KW research at all. This is why I use SEO-trained translators - they cost more, but are worth it.
Geolocation is the process of figuring out the best localized site to present to a particular visitor. Often this is done by matching a visitor IP from a country to the country-specific version of a website (IP Geolocation), but this is a simplistic method that doesn't account for todays highly mobile workforce - an American visiting Japan may want an American site, or they may want a Japanese site, you don't know, and can't guess easily.
And what country is Google from? More specifically, which site do you present to search bots, and how do you do it to avoid problems. This is an entire article by itself, and it's not as easy as you may think.
Geolocation, then, is the process of both choosing the right version of your site for visitors, and also helping the search engines make the same choice.
Here are some ways to help do this:
- Geolocating the website. The most important step of the process is letting everyone know what country your site is targeted to. You can ONLY target one country per page, and in reality, for most organizations, one country per site or sub-site. Methods of doing this are using a ccTLD (country code top level domain like .ca and .uk) and using an IP address that is assigned to a particular country.
- Geolocating the visitor. This can be done in several ways. You can detect their IP address, you can ask them to identify their preferred site, and you can detect their browser settings.
- Visitor language detection. Many countries have more than one official language, and even countries that only have one official language may have substantial alternate linguistic populations ( For exampe, Spanish speakers in the US, English Speakers in Korea). This means you can't just assume that country=language. This can be either detected using browser settings, the keyword used, user choice, or (last resort) geolocation.
- Website language detection. This is harder than you may think. Many language share words or have similar characters, making it hard to automatically detect a language if you are a computer. This can usually be solved by declaring the language within the code.
Globalization in this context means bringing it all together. Combining the localization and geolocation in order to present the best site for any visitor. Creating a system that treats every visitor as special, and dealing with their language choice as easily as dealing with the fact that they want your product in size 8, or shipped overnight, or paid for in Euros.
Geolocation and Localization focus on the differences between the countries, languages, and cultures of each visitor, while Globalization focuses on the similarities between visitors, and works towards communicating a message or selling a product seamlessly.
The main mistake I see during globalization efforts is an inappropriate division of responsibility. There are some things that head office should be in control of, and some that the local office should be in control of.
Head office should run the branding and overall marketing strategy for the company. Local offices should then take that strategy, and devise tactics that will work in the local market that further the global strategy.
This means, of course, that head office should control the urge to create "strategies" that are really tactical - like choosing the exact wording of ads, and so forth. Because none of that will matter during translation, and will almost certainly make it worse. Let the locals sell to the locals. You just provide them with the tools and support to do it.
Likewise, local offices should control the local tactics, such as specific marketing copy, photographic images (other than product shots) and, within reason, timing. Launching a major campaign on your new fast food item may not be a brilliant strategy at the beginning of Ramadan, for example.
But local offices tend to be focused on their own area. They may not understand the global issues (including supply line problems) and often don't have as strong of a sensitivity to the "brand" as head office does. A local office in South America infamously changed the BMW logo to better match it's new website, for example. You don't do that!
In order to properly do international SEO, you need to address all three aspects of it - localization, geolocation, and globalization. Once you get these parts are working in harmony, you'll find that it's actually fairly easy to continue to do and improve upon.