Get all the advantages of international SEO, boost your online presence and start reaching a truly global audience. If there’s one way to dramatically expand your reach and the potential profits your company could be making, it’s optimising your website for the global market.

But there are a lot of pitfalls to be avoided along the way. And many, many mistakes you can make which can instantly lead an audience in a different language or country to disengage from what you have to say.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to build and optimise your site for the global market. This will include how to choose which languages or countries to target and the advantages and disadvantages of doing this in certain ways.


1. What are country targeting and language targeting?
2. How to optimise your site – onsite pre-building
3. How to optimise your site – onsite content development
4. Optimisation offsite (link building)

What are country targeting and language targeting?

Targeting your audience by country or by language are the two general ways to aim your international SEO. Targeting by language is almost always a broader-brush approach than targeting by country.

The main factor that will help you determine whether you need to focus on country targeting or language targeting is organic search volume. Simply put:

Do the residents of a specific country use a sufficient number of keywords which are relevant to you and searched for on a regular enough basis to make your efforts in targeting that country worthwhile?

The type of service and type of site that you have are also going to be relevant in making this determination. If you sell physical goods and products then targeting specific countries is likely to be more worthwhile. Whereas if you provide an online service, language targeting is likely to be sufficient.

how to optimise a website

The general breakdown of advantages and disadvantages goes like this:

Country targeting (ideal version)

Advantage: enables you to engage with an audience very effectively, ensuring that the correct local phrases are closely targeted.

Disadvantage: there might not be search volume which justifies the additional costs of having multiple dialect versions of the same language version of your site – or the other SEO activities you’ll need to undertake for each version, such as local link-building.

Language targeting (simpler version)

Advantage: countries that speak the same language may use similar key phrases when searching, allowing you to have one language version of your site which covers them all. You can later upgrade to country targeting if you want to further optimise.

Disadvantage: targeting is likely to be looser and may miss some local idioms or relevant phrases in specific countries.

How to optimise your site – onsite pre-building

We’ll now move onto talking about the actual ways you can optimise your global website:

1) Host your website on a local server – be near your audience for quick access

In places such as China, you’ll be actively penalised for not hosting your website in or at least very close to the country you’re targeting. In general, hosting your website on a local server is simply best to practice no matter where you are or the region you’re targeting.

2) Use ccTLDs – get a country specific top level domain

ccTLDs are Country Code Top-Level Domains. They’re the method that you should be aiming to use when optimising your site for the global market. Essentially they’re two-letter codes which tell search engines and users which country a site is registered in.

While ccTLDs are the ideal option when going global, they’re not the only one. Alternatively, if you don’t want or can’t afford to use ccTLDs, you can use a gTLD (Generic Top Level Domain)and target a specific language. To do this you need to:

1. Use subdomains for the desired country or language
2. Use subdirectories for the country or language you target
3. Use parameters for the country or language you want to target

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of both methods?

ccTLDs (ideal version)

Advantages: ccTLDs work very well when you’re using a country targeting method. They automatically geo-target certain areas.

Disadvantages: these are new domains which will require time and effort to increase in popularity. They’re also the more expensive option.

gTLDs with subfolder, subdomain or parameter (non-ideal version)

Advantages: these are a solid option when you’re targeting a language. Subdomains, subfolders and parameters all have their own advantages (subfolders provide a simple, easy to understand structure, for example).

Disadvantages: again, subdomains, subfolders and parameters have unique disadvantages which apply – often when you’re intending to later upgrade to using ccTLDs. For instance, parameters look messy and can be accidentally negated, while using subdomains means you’ll be using up many of the best choices of proper URLs when you upgrade.

3) Mark pages using the appropriate language tags

The most important piece of terminology here is the hreflang tag. This is a fairly new innovation from Google, only having existed since 2010. Bing uses the meta language tag for a similar purpose.

Every page that will be translated into another translated instance of that page needs a hreflang tag. There are several ways to do this, but putting them in XML sitemaps is a generally favoured method.

One thing that should definitely be avoided is using the x-default tag. This is not the way to set the “default” language version of your site. Instead, it’s basically a label for Google to know which pages aren’t specifically language-targeted.

4) Geotargeting – adjust in Google Search console or Bing Webmaster Tools

If you’re using what we might think of as a hybrid method – country targeting but using gTLDs and subdirectories or subdomains – it’s important to use your relevant search engine’s webmaster tools to geolocate each of them independently.

While you have the console or tools up, you might as well check for any tagging problems that you’re having too. It’s quick and easy to do this, you can do it live or on a test server, and any issues will be pinpointed so you can rectify them.

How to optimise your site – onsite content development

5) Create relevant content

The creation of relevant content is a process that you need to become intimately familiar with. You need to keep the content you create in the right language for your audience, and use the right jargon too – this means details such as prices, phone numbers, addresses and so on should be as targeted as possible.

In general, your site should look and behave in a way that’s entirely natural for a reader in the language or country you are targeting to use. This means you’ll need to do things such as:

  • Get human translation – have a professional take care of the translation of the content into the local language or dialect. Never, ever rely on machine translation only.
  • Write country and language relevant titles, meta descriptions and headings
  • Create a SEO-friendly URL structure
  • Use reviews from local clients
  • Build a logical and easy to operate menu navigation for switching between languages or countries
  • Use country related Images and ALT descriptions when appropriate

These latter two steps should include elements that even large sites sometimes overlook when it comes to internationalisation. For example, many websites which allow users to choose a language version rely on country flags as a quick-reference guide. Unless you’re targeting a specific country (see “What are country targeting and language targeting?” above) this should be avoided. You don’t want your audience in the UK to be mildly irritated that they have to click on a US flag or vice versa.

Optimisation offsite (link building)

The final stage of optimising your content – often the most difficult no matter what location you’re trying to do it in – is link building and getting mentions and citations. When doing this on a global basis, it’s essential that you get all of these from sources which are local to each specific country or region you’re targeting.

This means local directories, blogs, magazines and others. For instance, you should:

1. Link to local content
2. Build links from local resources
3. Find ways to rank on local search engines, such as Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia

Because when all’s said and done, when you’re trying to figure out how to optimise your website for the global market, you need to try and be as local and specific with your approach as possible.

Comment below if you’ve got a question about any of the points raised in this article. Internationalising your business website can feel like stepping off a cliff, so it’s always good to have someone ready with the safety net…