If you want to present your eCommerce site to international markets or customers who speak different languages within the same country, you need international SEO.
When you have an inaccessible site — whether because of language differences or an inability to find the products your international audience is looking for — user experience suffers. As a result, your site loses out on key revenue opportunities.
A few simple strategy tweaks and some technical SEO updates can help search engines offer up your relevant content to a larger audience from Brazil to France or Germany to Japan.
And, today, we’ll show you how to do it.
In this blog, we’ll help you avoid common international SEO mistakes by covering the basics of:
- What international SEO is
- Why it’s important for eCommerce businesses
- Which best practices you need to follow to get your site in front of a larger audience
What is International SEO?
To put it simply, international SEO means optimizing your site for customers in different countries and/or languages.
This type of SEO strategy helps Google and other search engines (like Baidu in China or Yandex in Russia) better understand which version of your site they should show to users in different target countries.
When your eCommerce site is properly optimized, these search engines can identify appropriate pages and best serve them to target audiences in different countries (or those using different languages within the same country). Your website will have different versions of the same (or very similar content) in different languages to reach a wider audience.
Don’t worry: Since the pages are in different languages, your site shouldn’t be penalized as duplicate content.
If you want to maximize your reach to potential customers in different nations, international SEO is a key part of your success — no matter which search engine your audience uses.
Signs Your Business Needs an International SEO Strategy
Your eCommerce business should develop an international SEO strategy if:
- Your business serves international customers.
- Your customers speak more than one language.
Not all businesses need a dedicated strategy for international SEO. If most of your customers are in your home country and they largely speak the same language, you probably don’t need to invest the time and energy into this optimization.
But, even if you don’t sell products or services internationally, if your country has citizens who speak two or more languages, an international eCommerce SEO strategy is worth the investment.
7 Best Practices for eCommerce International SEO
Before we get any further, remember this: Every site is different, which means your strategy may differ based on your needs and audiences. If you want specific suggestions based on your customer demographic, reach out to our SEO experts today.
For digital marketers wondering how to do international eCommerce SEO on a DIY level, here are seven tips that we recommend to our clients serving global audiences.
1. Choose a default language.
When optimizing a website for international SEO, we recommend choosing a default language. This default language should be based on the target market most likely to use the site.
If your target market speaks English, then the default language should be English. If your target market speaks French, then the default language should be French (and so on).
Whichever language is chosen as the default language, there’s no need to create a subfolder for that language. Those pages should live off the main website root.
For example, if English is your site’s default language, then there’s no need for an English subfolder /en/. Instead, that language should be used on URLs off the root.
It can be incredibly difficult to enforce a subfolder ranking in lieu of an actual homepage. Should you choose to have subfolders for your default language, note that it will be an ongoing battle to stop / from being indexed, and to get /en/ indexed instead.
In our experience, search engines have the easiest time indexing when the default language (whatever it is) lives at the root.
2. Translate as much of your site as possible.
We recommend that all international content be translated into the language you are targeting. This includes:
- URL paths, where possible
- Metadata (the copy specified in page titles and meta descriptions)
- Navigation headers, footers, and all links
- Text in images
- Alt tags on images
- Image file names
- Header tags
- Page copy
- Anchor text for links
This doesn’t mean all URLs on your site must be translated; instead, all pages that are translated should be fully translated for all fields on those pages.
We recommend translating as much of your site as you can afford to — and by using human translation, not machine translation. Not translating strategic content (or UX pieces like customer service answers) can create challenges for SEO and your users.
You should also complete language-specific keyword research for each domain. Certain terms and phrases can be more common in some languages than others. For this reason, translating a single word is often not enough. Slang and terminology vary between regions, and attention to detail can set you apart from other brands.
3. Specify content language.
There are two ways to specify content language.
Choose the implementation method that makes the most sense for your team:
Http-equiv Method (Content Language Meta Tag)
Specify the correct ISO language code in the <head> section via the following line of code.
Example syntax variations:
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en”>
- On English pages
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”es”>
- On Spanish pages, etc.
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”fr”>
HTTP Header Method
The Content-Language representation header is used to describe the language(s) intended for the audience, so users can differentiate it according to their own preferred local language.
Specify the correct ISO language code via the HTTP header response.
Example syntax variations:
- Content-Language: de
- (on German pages)
- Content-Language: en
- (on English pages)
Don’t forget to specify the HTML <lang> attribute, too. Include the correct ISO language code in the <head> section via the following line of code:
Example syntax variations:
- <html lang=”en”>
- <html lang=”es”>
Note: You only need to specify the language used on the page in question.
4. Create properties in Google Search Console.
For Google Search Console, we recommend creating a domain property for the main domain, as well as setting up properties per language subfolder as well.
This will allow you to monitor each language for performance, submit the specific XML sitemap to Google, and monitor any indexation issues that may arise in each subfolder.
5. Implement hreflang tags.
An hreflang attribute indicates to Google, Baidu, Yandex, and other search engines which language targeting you are using on a specific page. This helps the search engine serve the relevant result to users searching in that language.
Hreflang can be implemented via tags in the HTML (most common), HTTP headers, or via your XML sitemap. Any of these hreflang implementations work; however, the more countries/languages that you target, the more your eCommerce business should consider a non-HTML solution to avoid code bloat and complexity.
Here are our do’s and don’ts for implementing hreflang tags:
- Specify language only, or language and country, targeting (such as “en”, “es-es”, etc.).
- Specify the correct, indexable, full-path URL (e.g. the canonical URL, including the protocol, domain name, etc.).
- Specify all variations of each language you are targeting and each specific country.
- Ensure each page with hreflang refers to the other variations. They, in return, should refer to the starting tag (e.g. ensure correct cross-references and avoid return tag errors).
- Include an x-default URL. The “default” URL is very likely the original URL variation, prior to you adding internationalization.
- Implement hreflang via the HTML and the sitemap. It’s redundant, and Google recommends against it.
- Add hreflang to pages that are not indexed, or which canonicalize to other pages. Only valid, original pages should be indexed and optimized for internationalization.
6. Update your XML sitemap.
Search engines use your eCommerce XML sitemap to quickly and easily navigate a list of all the URLs on your site, so they can serve up the best results in the SERPs.
When setting up an XML sitemap for international subfolders, our SEO experts recommend following these steps:
- Create a dynamic XML sitemap file that lives in this folder of your site.
- Create a unique sitemap for each language that includes all URLs specific to that language in the sitemap. For example:
- /sitemap.xml (English)
- /fr/sitemap.xml (French)
- /es/sitemap.xml (Spanish)
Ensure you follow XML sitemap best practices, including having it referenced in the robots.txt file or listed in your sitemap index file.
If you’ve chosen a ccTLD (country code top-level domain) or subdomain structure, create a normal XML sitemap for all indexable pages for that domain. Once you’ve claimed the GSC account for each folder, submit the XML sitemap to that property.
Note: You can specify hreflang directly in your XML sitemap.
7. Interlink between language variation pages.
Don’t silo international pages in their own bubble, expecting hreflang to notify search engines about all your new page variations. Instead, ensure you explicitly backlink the “international homepages” from your primary homepage.
We recommend including self-referencing canonicals (including language-specific URL structure) on all pages to indicate to search engines that each language folder path should be considered a stand-alone URL and to avoid Google consolidating any URLs. Much like you do with your primary homepage and navigation links to subdirectories, build crawl paths from the international homepage to international subpages.
In addition, don’t depend on “links” from a language dropdown that requires user interaction (Googlebot and other search engine crawlers can’t mimic this action). Let the user choose the language by having clickable links or a popup prompt where language selectors appear in the navigation or footer.
We recommend against using IP-driven redirects as they are often incorrect, especially when they are close to borderlines, and can lead to a poor experience.
Remember: Googlebot is US-based and IP redirects can force Googlebot to only crawl the English content, which would be a big problem for the other languages.
Personalize Your International SEO Strategy Today
All digital marketers know the importance of a solid SEO strategy. But, if your eCommerce site wants to sell to new markets in different countries or customers who speak different languages, your strategy needs to include international eCommerce SEO.
Without proper sitemaps, tags, translations, and properties, you may be missing out on customers — or worse, being penalized by search engines for duplicate content.
An optimized international SEO strategy, on the other hand, will allow search engines to show your audience your most relevant content — which, in turn, will give your customers a better shopping experience.
Each brand’s international SEO needs are different, so your business will need an approach that works with your goals and your unique audiences. If you need help crafting an international SEO strategy (or want a personalized international eCommerce SEO analysis for your current strategy), we can help.
Let our team of SEO experts create a personalized international SEO plan for your online business. Contact us today for a free site audit and proposal.
Great insight. For international SEO, sub domain, CCTLD or sub folder. Which one is best?
The answer depends on a lot of factors. A subdirectory (or subfolder) would usually be preferred; it should be easier to manage and better for tracking purposes. Subdomains are often treated as entirely different domains, so you could be splitting your efforts. However, there could be platform-specific reasons to have subdomains, too.