In Part 2 of Searchmetrics’ International SEO podcast series, renown search strategist Jordan Koene goes in-depth on the optimization strategies and technical implementation details necessary for successfully expanding your website into new international markets. When it comes to developing brand and awareness in a market, growing an infinity group or seller community, and gaining press attention, what’s involved on the back-end? Learn about the overall technical process, starting with basic keyword research to deciding on a website expansion or creating a new one, to server location and more.
- Getting started with Google’s Keyword Planner and using the various tools for Yandex, Baidu, and Naver
- What are the factors for deciding on whether to expand your existing site or create a new one?
- What are the key considerations for the structure for your site and designating it for a country or market, including using a top level domain (TLD), a directory, or a subdomain version?
- What’s the current state of the .com and why is .io gaining affinity and traction?
- Does server location influence rankings in a local market?
- What should you know about hreflang and attributing language?
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Ben: Welcome back to International Search Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and this month we’re talking about how to expand your horizons and your search strategies into new territories. Joining us is Jordan Koene who is the lead SEO Strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. And today Jordan and I are going to talk about some of the technical implementation details that you need to know about to expand into new geographies. But before we hear from Jordan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise-scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions.
Ben: And we’d like to invite you, our loyal podcast listeners, to our upcoming webinar where we’ll discuss how SEM and SEO are joining forces to win the SERP. On June 19th, Tyson Stockton, Searchmetrics’ Director of Services and Leslie To, 3Q Digital’s VP of SEO will dive into the ways that you can combine your paid and organic search marketing to be more effective together. To register for our SEO and SEM Joining Forces Webinar, go to searchmetrics.com/webinar. Okay, on with the show. Here’s my conversation with Jordan Koene, Lead SEO Strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc.
Ben: Jordan, welcome back to International Search Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I feel like we should have the background music for Austin Powers and we should start calling you the International Search Man of Mystery.
Jordan: I love that idea. That’s a great idea. Can we edit that in?
Ben: Okay, I’ll spare everybody me singing. Anyway, let’s talk about some of the tactical stuff that goes into expanding to new countries. In our last episode we talked about some of the strategic decisions when you should be expanding your existing site to cover new territories and when you should actually be launching a separate site. So Jordan, walk me through the process that you think about, from the basic keyword research through figuring out what direction you’re going to go, whether it’s site expansion or creating a new site, and then some of the technical details, how do you think about solving this problem and what’s your process?
Jordan: Yeah, so a good segue from our last episode is the concept of keyword research. And I think this is one that’s often overlooked when folks are trying to do international SEO because they automatically default to translation and they think, “Oh, we should be doing all this translation of our website.” But in reality, in order for you to be effective, you need to actually be doing real research in the target market that you’re trying to work in. So a couple of tips for the folks that are trying to get set up on this and do kind of the analysis work behind keywords. Obviously you have the Google Keyword Planner and the variety of Google tools that Google provides, and obviously they provide those for various languages and various markets. That’s a great starting place. But also Yandex offers a keyword tool, Baidu has a keyword tool, and Naver has a keyword tool for the respective markets in countries that those search engines operate in.
Jordan: And so those are free tools that you can go out and just do some basic human research on. And I think this is one of the main points which is, and obviously we could spend a whole episode on this and we probably will later when our guests talk about content in SEO, is that you should really have a strategy that focuses exclusively on keyword research for the market you’re trying to go into, instead of just a pure translation and put it up and see what happens strategy, which most companies take.
Ben: So, step number one is understanding whether you’re going to expand your existing site or whether you’re going to create a new one. First and foremost, what’s going to help you rank in the geography that you want to expand to? And you have to do your keyword research to understand how much overlap you have between your existing content, and maybe you have to develop new content for a new market. As you decide and you realize what the overlap is between your existing content assets and the content assets that you’ll need to expand into a new territory, what do you do next?
Jordan: Yeah, so in our last episode we also talked about site structure and whether you’re going to use a TLD or a directory or a subdomain, these are basically the different ways to structure your site to be designated for a particular country or market that you’re trying to go into. So that’s a really important data point for you to have, and not just data point, but it’s a very important technical element that you have to have well defined and you have to understand pros and cons of those various strategies in order to effectively push your content into a market. And so, really there’s three different ways you can go about this. There’s the directory or subdirectory approach. There’s the country level TLD, so that’s just like having like a domain.ed or .co.uk, so the actual domain for that country with the country ccTLD. And then there’s the subdomain version of creating a site. And so that’s kind of an element that you have to have solidified, clearly defined, clearly scoped and well understood by your SEO and counterparts and product manager.
Ben: So, help me understand the trade-offs between creating a TLD, your.co.uk or your .de domains versus a directory versus a subdomain. Is there a right or wrong way and what are the trade-offs between those three options?
Jordan: Well, that’s a great question. So there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way across all of these. There’s more financial impacts, so oftentimes a lot of sites will just take the core domain, so domain.com or website.com and then /Spanish or /the market that they’re going to be in. So like Columbia or Mexico [/.mx 00:06:24]. That directory or subdirectory becomes the core set of content. And that’s typically the cheapest way because you don’t really have to buy anything, you just have to kind of build out your site with this new structure. And you get into country level TLDs, now you have to buy a new domain, you have to maintain that domain, you have to build and maintain a separate site in of itself for that particular region or market.
Jordan: However, all these decisions have financial pros and cons, as well as they have clear business pros and cons. And so like we discussed in our last episode, you have to really understand the businesses needs or desires to want to move into that market. Having a country TLD, so having like a website.de or website.co.uk can be really important, especially if you’re trying to build in-market awareness and connecting with different communities and resources in that market because it makes your site look more authoritative in that market.
Ben: When you say it looks more authoritative in that market, I’m assuming that you mean it looks more authoritative to the search engine, not just to the end consumers. Am I right?
Jordan: It’s a mixture of both. It certainly looks more authoritative to the search engine, although Google and a variety of other search engines, not all of them, but mainly Google, have stated that they can handle both of these or all of these scenarios just fine and that they don’t have any preferential treatment across them. However, it’s always much better to have that country TLD because there’s an ease of use for users in that market who are innately or naturally going to be using that country TLD when they look up your domain. So it just inherently has a lot more value, especially in some of the more prominent markets like say the UK, Germany and most of the Western world or in some markets like China or South Korea where it’s basically mandatory because those search engines, they oftentimes will block other country TLDs.
Ben: But nobody’s blocking .com domains that I’m aware of, at least universally blocking .com domains. So if you are a .com website, I guess I don’t see the benefit of the TLD other than the end consumer feels like you have a connection to that market. I have my website martechpod.com, if people are going to look for that domain, they’re not going to look for martechpod.co.uk in the United Kingdom.
Jordan: Correct. So .com has the most universal application. The interesting thing that we’re running into nowadays is that there’s even other TLDs that are gaining much stronger affinity and traction. Notably .io. A lot of brands and companies are going with .io as their TLD. And so you’re right, no country or searching engine is universally blocking an entire TLD, but it does become much more restrictive or challenging in certain markets, most notably China. But the reality is that you can play in all these markets with a .com and creating a directory. And like I said before it is the cheapest mechanism, but if you’re trying to build a brand in the market, if you’re actually trying to go out and get press awareness, grow, say, a seller community, build an affinity group that really follows and has a strong connection to your brand, having an in-country TLD really will matter in the long run.
Ben: Okay, so it is as much a branding consideration and it’s about building the community and sort of the authenticity that goes with having a local TLD as it is something that’s going to impact your rankings with the search engines, for the most part.
Ben: What about a directory and subdomains? You mentioned that subdomains are a little cheaper because all you’re doing is using your existing site. What’s the difference between that and setting up a directory and how is it balanced against what a TLD does?
Jordan: Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of the subdomain strategy. I think that it creates a real challenge in terms of structure and content structure when you’re looking at the rest of the directories of your website. And I think it also creates a lot of confusion with Google, in particular, since Google is amassing all of that content and then has to make a differentiation between it, and if all the other directories are exactly the same as say the English and the Spanish version, that can become very confusing for Google. Ultimately, both the subdirectory and the subdomain have the same financial benefits, but personally what we’ve noticed is that with the subdirectory GTLD, it’s the most effective in terms of creating clarity with Google in terms of what country you’re trying denote for that particular set of content in that directory.
Ben: Okay. So once you decide which direction you’re going to go, whether it’s a TLD, a directory, a subdomain, talk me through some of the technical implementations. What are some of the things that you need to do to make it clear you are creating an archive of country-specific content?
Jordan: Yeah, so another topic that’s pretty technical that we often talk to clients who are really big international players is the concept of server location. And I know that this is a challenging topic for some of the SEOs to comprehend, but location of server doesn’t necessarily inherently imply that you’re going to have better rankings in that local market. But there are a lot of great trade-offs by having either really well-structured CDNs or better server installation globally, that allows you to reap the benefits of faster speeds, better user experience, and ultimately in some markets, servers do matter, server location does matter, notably China and Russia, and it becomes almost a prohibitive factor for some sites to actually show up in those markets. But by and large, through your own advent of CDN and web servers, that can become a real true differentiator for your business, in you may have to invest in an ability to have a faster and better user experience within that market.
Ben: Doesn’t this impact site speed, which impacts performance? Like having a local server allows you to cut some of the load time.
Jordan: Exactly. And that’s the main benefit here. As I like to call it, it’s a trickle-down effect. Google isn’t going to come out flat out and say, “Hey, buy local servers or structure your partnerships with your CDN to ensure that you’re able to improve your load times within markets.” But there’s obviously a benefit to better performance in markets. And again, I think that there are some markets that benefit more than others in this particular instance. We especially see it with US-based companies who are trying to expand into Europe and they are still using a structure that predominantly serves from the US. And we clearly can see that they have much slower load times in Europe.
Ben: So outside of having servers that are local or a CDN that’s going to allow you to minimize the load time for your local geography, what are some of the technical hurdles that you need to overcome to effectively launch in a new country?
Jordan: So, the next one, it’s a two-step kind of topic. The first one is around the basic attribution, what everybody knows is hreflang. An hreflang basically is a designation for both language and region. These are standardized tags that are predetermined by the ISO. So the International Organization for Standardization basically has denoted tags for all the languages of the world and all the regions in the world. And so in these instances what you’re going to do, especially for a lot of US-based companies, this is where you can use something like … for a country you can denote MX for Mexico and then dash ES for the language. You can also denote MX for the country or the region and you could also denote EN, which is English. So you can have essentially a Spanish and English version of your website for a Mexican audience if you so choose. And so these standards allow you to tell Google what content is on that page and what region it’s for and what languages it’s targeted for.
Ben: So, you’re going to try to make sure that your site is as fast as possible by having some sort of local server solution. You’re going to specify what country your content is for and what language it’s in, so Google and the other search engines can appropriately assign it or evaluate it. What are the other tips from a technical perspective to make sure that your content is visible and ranks?
Jordan: Yeah, so another big one here is the use of your XML site maps. When you have your site map set up, leveraging these to denote the hreflang tag becomes very imperative. It allows Google, especially Google, to quickly digest what countries your content is targeted for and then appropriately classify that content to be served in those markets. And so, I think that is really critical for companies to not only set up their websites correctly, leverage hreflang, but then use site maps to ensure that Google is identifying and collecting the right content for the right markets.
Ben: Yeah. So, so much of this resonates with just general best practices for SEO, which is make sure that you’re preserving your site speed, make sure you’re telling Google what content is on the page, and then making sure that you’re submitting it so it’s crawlable.
Jordan: Correct. Exactly, exactly.
Ben: So, Jordan, that all seems very logical to me. It follows sort of the best practices for submitting any site, fast, good content, make sure you know what it is, and get it to Google as quickly as you possibly can. What are some of the things that you shouldn’t do when you’re trying to launch internationally?
Jordan: So, one of the things that we often see companies try to do is either utilize URL parameters or redirect through IP addresses to different versions of the sites. So basically this is, in summary, the idea of rendering different content to different users based on their IP address. This isn’t really a highly recommended tactic. It doesn’t really work particularly well. It’s much better to have an isolated set of content with a designated region and language and serve that without trying to dynamically render content based on a user’s IP address. I highly “disencourage” companies from trying to do that and trying to basically, as they like to look at it, make it easy for the user by serving the content and the language that they want dynamically by looking at their IP address. Probably not a good idea and is only going to end up on making it more challenging for you to actually get the right content indexed and ranked.
Ben: So, I think the key takeaway here is that however you’re rendering the experience, it’s important that that experience is relevant to the local market.
Ben: Okay. Jordan, any last words on some of the technical details for internationalizing a website?
Jordan: Nothing more from a technical standpoint, but I will give encouragement here to some of our guests who are coming on. I think that you’re going to learn a lot from these folks and they’ve gone through the trenches to learn the various international tactics across content to technical SEOs. So, soak it up.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s an exciting month. That’s a big hairy topic for us to cover. We’re going to talk about content localization. We’re going to talk about integrating into some of the biggest non-Google search engines. And then we’re going to meet some internationally famous SEOs, so lots to look forward to. But that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, the Lead SEO Strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics Inc.
Ben: We’d love to continue this conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find the link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter, where his handle is @jtkoene. Or you can visit his company’s website, which is searchmetrics.com If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @benjshap. If you’re interested in learning about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our Digital Strategies Team.
Ben: Or if you’re interested in attending our SEO and SEM Joining Forces webinar on June 19th, head over to searchmetrics.com/webinar. And if you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed soon. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.