So, you know you want to go with an international website? Or you’re already international? Congratulations! Here are some principals to keep your international website user- and search-engine-friendly.
International extension: Purchase a domain with the relevant international extension for the country in which your audience will be conducting business through your website (Canada = .ca; China = .cn; Germany = .de; Japan = .jp United Kingdom = .uk). Make sure this extension is also hosted within the same country that bears its name. After the US, the countries with the highest search volume include (via comScore):
- South Korea
- Russian Federation
Gateway pages: These are a “no-no.” You should take the user directly to the version of the website appropriate for that user’s country. This can be done automatically on the back end using server “auto-sensing.” Don’t bring users to a gateway in which they choose their own version of the website like a preteen Choose Your Own Adventure novel.
Sub-domains/sub-folders: Keep sub-domains or folders attached to the international extension. Your topical sections should stay within the international hierarchy, e.g. “bakery.michael-mazzone.de” or “michael-mazzone.de/bakery.”
Keyword research: Use the real native-language equivalents (or regional variation, e.g. British English) of your popular English keywords, not necessarily literal translations. This will probably require a copywriter/SEO specialist fluent in the native language. You want to be targeting the expressions people actually use when searching for your offerings.
Ranking reports: Run search-ranking reports on the native keywords in the native language. Compare rankings for the actual international extension of the search engine (e.g. China = Google.com.cn) and other leading search engines of that country (e.g. Baidu) for a more accurate assessment.
Promotion: Obtain quality links from other domains that share the same country as your website. Advertise your international Web content exclusively within the foreign market so that Google can associate links to your domain with the related country extension.
Google Webmaster Tools: Establish a separate GWT account for each international site.
Language choice: Offer language options in an obvious place on every page of your international site for those who might prefer English to the native language.
Color scheme: This is another case-in-point for cultural context. North American audiences tend to favor the color blue, hence websites based in these regions predominantly feature this color. By contrast, Asian audiences tend to prefer red (as a signal of prosperity), so websites in this region generally reflect this color scheme. More research should be done on website design for your particular location/demographic, but one step is to realize the importance of color.
PPC strategy: Use PPC to augment your search-engine market share for foreign keywords in foreign countries. You can also bid on your native terms in cases where they’d be known to the international audience. The main regional divisions of Google AdWords include:
- EMEA (Europe/Middle East/Africa)
- Latin America
Cultural context: Beyond language, another thing to be aware of is cultural context. In other words, don’t assume that what interests one country’s audience will apply equally to another. An international audience’s shared knowledge (or lack thereof) could make your reference to a famous American company as a satisfied user of your products irrelevant because this company is not known internationally. For example, let’s say your homepage features a logo of Pizza Hut as a satisfied customer, but your audience in some tiny European country where there is no Pizza Hut loses the reference due to its unfamiliarity.
Cultural differences could also influence how your navigation/template is fine-tuned to display information people are generally most interested in. For example, American audiences prize research libraries of case studies, where Asian audiences (e.g. Chinese) that put relationships first might want to know more about the people they would be doing business with (in which case, you’d want to feature management profiles more prominently).
Reading patterns: The F-shaped reading pattern for Web content is well known, with the underlying principal that users focus more on the first things they see on at the top-left of a page, and then scan down the left side. However, if you’re using a language that reads right-to-left like Arabic, then your page designs need to be mirrored accordingly.
Phone numbers: Do not display your phone number in letters when phones in the country you’re targeting don’t have letters on their keypads (via “International Sites: Minimum Requirements,” Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox).
Units/dates/times: Use the convention of the native country. For example, if everybody uses 24-hr. time, then state your office hours/event times in the proper format: e.g. the office closes at 17:00. If you offer a choice in measurements, make the default the standard for the country you’re targeting.
These tips just scratch the surface of what you need to know about international SEO. Use them to cover the basics of your global digital marketing strategy.
Photo courtesy of Rochelle Hartman via Flickr.