International SEO Guide for Ecommerce

Offering your products or services internationally can be a great way broaden your e-commerce horizons and up-scale your revenue. To successfully explore an international market for your WooCommerce store, it is imperative that you perfect SEO. Getting SEO right, internationally is much more complicated than getting it right locally. It has to be done:

  • In a language you don’t speak and
  • For customers from different backgrounds and with a wide variety of tastes

The ultimate goal is to configure your store such that it is ranked highly by search engines internationally. Then your customers can easily find you and purchase your merchandise. The foundation of International SEO rests on components of your website that the end user may not necessarily notice, but you as the owner of the store, need focus on.

In this guide we will walk you through the critical steps of international SEO (what you should do and what to avoid), including: considerations before and when going global and how you can perfect SEO for the international market. The main tools in reference will be WooCommerce and Linguise

Getting Started

Whether you’re just getting started or you have been selling internationally without the desired success, it is imperative that you ratify what actually works in the regions you intend to exploit. There are factors beyond SEO for which you need to conduct research on. 

Focus your research on the current digital players in those markets, the volume of traffic they attract, the type of audience, and how they have set up their stores to match this volume. 

Evaluate the raw data you draw from this research to spot opportunities based on what you offer and how you can offer it. Alternatively, you can also utilize tools such as Google Market Finder to do this for you.

What Considerations should you make?

After getting information on the digital players and the audience, you need to validate:

  • If you have the resources to internally support the desired operation model and the type of audience available. 
  • If you have the capacity to handle multiple currencies and shipping to different areas.

Suppose this is not possible, you can make the necessary preparations that will permit you to seamlessly enter these markets. This could involve:

  • Acquiring the required web structure.
  • Developing a monitoring system that will track your preparation progress and alert you when you’re ready.
  • Sell locally and evaluate the behavior of the audiences. 

However, if you’re ready, you can proceed to SEO. 

International SEO Implementation

We have already mentioned how International SEO is complicated. What makes it so challenging? 

Challenges Associated with SEO Implementation

When you are just getting started with taking your products or services abroad, there are some common challenges that you are bound to face. 

  • Setting up the correct international web structure
  • Implementing an error-free hreflang and language tags
  • Going native with your offerings (Localization)

Knowing these challenges is the first step, how do you get around them? We’ll show you. 

How do you set up the Best Web Structure for a New International Market?

Targeting

The way you set up your domain tells search engines who you want to target. There is a number of options available for you:

Country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD)

Represents an independent domain with a clear country code attached at the end to tell the search engine the country to which the content is targeted. For example:

Germany targeting: example.de 

Spain targeting: example. es

Search engines such as google tend to focus on other components of the URL other than the domain, so there is a possibility that your example.de can appear in the US. 

Generic Top Level Domain (gTLD)

This domain is usually associated with organizations rather than regions. For example:

Example.com

Example.gov

To effectively target a given audience, gTLDs are usually accompanied by either subdomains or subdirectories. 

Subdomain

Subdomains are considered as a third-level domains, specifying the countries for which your content is intended. For example:

Germany targeting: https//:de.example.com

Subdirectory

Subdirectories are similar to subdomains with the exception that country codes are outlined in subfolders on the gTLD.

Knowing this, what is the best web structure for a new international market? This question has no one definite answer. To do this you need to consider the web structure being used by your competitors and the stage you are at in exploring international markets. If you’re just getting started, you can deploy a JavaScript currency switcher for WooCommerce to enable multi-currencies and international shipping using the same URL structure (there’s an official plugin called “Currency Switcher For WooCommerce”).

This comes at the expense of hampering your growth internationally. You will not generate a lot of traffic since the customers in those regions tend to search for products in local languages. Suppose they happen to search in your language, the difference in seasonal tastes will prevent you from having seasonal promotions. So how do you get around this?

You should deploy alternative web structures of either:

  • New ccTLDs that geo-locate to the respective countries by default or
  • Your gTLD with subdomains or subdirectories that can be registered via Google Search Console to geo-locate your content where it is intended. 

When should you use a new ccTLD?

Only acquire a new ccTLD if:

  • Your top competitors in the target market are also using ccTLDs and 
  • Their popularity or authority is low.

When the popularity of you competitors using ccTLDs is low, acquiring a ccTLD gives you a chance to compete with them. You should only use ccTLDs under the above circumstances because:

  • It is expensive to maintain, 
  • You divide your authority across multiple domains, 
  • The rankings tend to be low initially, and 
  • You may require more resources to localize your content. 

When should you use a subdirectories or subdomains within a gTLD?

If your competitors in the new market are currently using ccTLDs and they are very popular with the audience, using a new ccTLD will push you low in the ranking. In this case opt for geo-localized subdirectories in your current gTLD. If you can’t do this, acquire a new gTLD and use subdomains in it.  

ccTLDs and gTLDs are often not enough to accurately target your international customers. You need to implement another attribute known as the hreflang. We’ll get into this later.                        

Avoid targeting continents as a whole   

Targeting a whole continent looks good from a business perspective, but it kills your SEO. This is because continental domains, such as .eu for Europe, have no specific location designated to them by search engines. Furthermore, search patterns and languages differ among different people within the same continent.

For example:

Only the UK customers in Europe predominantly search for products in English. The store above will likely miss out on the customers from Portugal, Germany, Spain, etc. Therefore this EU targeting is not necessary.

If you must use continental targeting, treat the domain as gTLD and add subdirectories for countries and languages. 

How do you implement Hreflang without errors to rank with other top players?

What is the Hreflang?

When taking your merchandise international, you often set up variations of your original ecommerce store to suit the preferences of the customers in different regions. This includes setting up differentiated domains, currencies, and in different languages. 

The aspects above are usually not enough for Google (or other search engines) to understand the localization of a given webpage. Even if a page has a distinguished ccTLD, it is important to note that most if not all countries of the world are multilingual. 

Some languages have variations, for example the US and UK versions of English. You might want to target French speakers in France or those in Canada. How do you do this? Implement Hreflang. 

Hreflang is an attribute that indicates to Google the exact language that you are using on a specific page so that it can display this page to users who are searching in the given language. It is sometimes referred to as rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” by developers. 

Sample: link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”en-uk” />

Hreflang combines indexable URLs and their language values and or country values. The purpose of this attribute is to denote a specific page version that should be displayed in each country or language. 

Hreflangs can be implemented in 3 ways:

  • HTML head – for smaller sites with less versions. 
  • HTTP header – for non-HTML documents
  • XML sitemap – for bigger sites with numerous versions. 

There is still a lot of division over which is the best way to implement hreflangs, but you can generally reference the above suggestions. 

Implementing hreflangs gets complicated with scale. A bigger site targeting more customers means:

  • There will be high number of page variations required.
  • A high number of variations of numerous products.
  • Lack of equivalence among your merchandise in different international markets. 

This flowchart outlines when hreflangs would be useful. 

If you don’t fulfill any of these criteria, you can just do what we mentioned when you’re not ready to explore international markets. 

Ensure you get the language codes right to avoid having your store ranked in a different location. You can use the hreflang generator to ensure you don’t make mistakes.

You can implement hreflangs in WooCommerce, Shopify and Magento in this way. 

Avoid forced language redirects

In some cases, despite setting up hreflang well, a customer may end up on the wrong page. A simple solution for this would be to forcefully redirect them to the right page basing on their IP address, right? Not quite.

Forced redirects diminish your SEO because you will also be redirecting Google. This will cause it to be mixed up and there’s no way to know what it is reading. Suppose you have a US store and a German one, the German version will not be shown because Google, being US-based, will always be redirected to the US version.

The solution to forced redirects is to use a banner whenever a customer’s IP address clashes with the version of the page. Avoid intrusive banners, opt for those that use an adequate amount of screen like this one.

Scaling Categories and Product Content Localization 

Localizing your content, if done correctly, has the potential to establish your store in a new international market. It offers an opportunity to connect with your customers. It involves localizing all the content on the UI including:

  • The URL
  • Product labels and descriptions
  • Notifications
  • Metadata and so much more. 

A good example is how Nike present men’s pants in the US and trousers in the UK. 

Doing this with a couple dozen of products, in a few categories, for a few countries is relatively straightforward. Problems arise when you upscale to numerous products in so many categories for dozens of countries. How can you manage this?

It involves phases:

  • Automated translations – using plugins
  • Human Validation – translation editing to incorporate native search behaviors. 
  • Transcreation – adapting the translation to the respective languages while retaining the intent of the original content. 

With the most common ecommerce platforms supporting neural network-based solutions, implementing this is practical. In Shopify you can install plugins such as Translation Lab that automate translation. Similar plugins are available for Magento with an extension for content localization also available. These ones are usually not free because of the cost of a good quality neural translation. An honorable mention goes to Linguise, that has a WordPress / WooCommerce plugin with a live translation editor. You can invite professionals to localize your content. Automatic translation quality is the best you can find with the latest Google API version in use.

Getting SEO right will be pivotal to your ecommerce store’s success in exploring the international market. Follow these and many more guidelines to stay on track with the big players in those areas and maximize your return on investment. 

Further reading

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