International SEO: A Not-Comprehensive Guide

International search engine optimisation can be tricky to a task. To demonstrate the difficulties, here’s a short story.

BE: Belgium or Belarus?

Recently, one of our clients informed us that they were looking for search engine optimisation to reach the market in Belgium. As a service supplier, the desires of our clients, of course, encouraged by the monetary aspect, form the motivation for all that we do. The industry in which this particular client operates we shall keep undisclosed; it is neither relevant nor interesting to the case being made here.

The specifics of the task were as follows: the client has a website hosted on one domain with four different language versions, located in subfolders. The primary language of the site is English, and the other versions are translated into Spanish, French and Dutch. We now want to reach the Belgian market, so the logical process would be to create a separate Belgian version of the subfolder, translate the content and publish it in Belgian, add local backlinks… the obvious problem here, of course, is that no such Belgian language exists.

So, we need to optimise the website for the languages spoken in Belgium, which happen to be French in the southern part of the country and Flemish (which is the same as Dutch) to the north. Of course, our client’s website has already been translated into both of these websites. We need to establish which version of Google the Belgian audience are using to find answers to their search queries: French, Dutch or Belgian? This is not a straight-forward situation: with one country, two languages and three search sites have thrown into the mix, we need to make sure we’re working on the areas which will provide the greatest benefit. This is just a small illustration of how international search engine optimisation can be complicated.

TDL, subdomain, or subfolder: which is best?

The first obstacle in global search optimisation is the organisational structure of the multilingual site. If you submit translated versions of a website for a target audience with a language other than the main version, then you can use the structure of the subfolders, such as or /de. If you are focused on promotion in a particular country, it is better to buy a country-code top-level domain (ccTLD), such as or Of course, there are situations when the domain name is already occupied, and in this case, the only option is the use of subdomains, such as or It should be noted that the use of ccTLD, as well as the use of subfolders, is better suited for brand promotion. Also, separate domain names and subdomains are in fact different websites, which means higher maintenance than in the case of subdirectories. Please note that for websites using ccTLD it is essential to set up geotargeting via Google Search Console -

The final decision depends on your needs and capabilities; there is no single one-size-fits-all solution.

Start from the HEAD: hreflang and all that

To begin, as in many other cases, the heading is the best place to start, in our case with the section, and in particular the attribute hreflang. The SEMRush guide for International SEO labels it as the cornerstone, which is difficult to argue with. This HTML-attribute is used to specify to Google which page to display to visitors depending on their location and language. If website owners recognise the importance of this, they also need to ensure that they avoid the next most common error: using the wrong country abbreviation. For instance, EN-UK instead of EN-GB. Therefore, always check that you use right ISO code. On this note, this is related to another common problem; ISO codes for countries often are not matched with ISO codes for languages. For example, many are confused as to whether BE is related to Belgium as the country or the Belarusian language?

Another example is JA and JP: which code should be used to indicate Japan as a country and which one for Japanese as a language? This is only the tip of the iceberg. We must go further! But not too far, because it often happens that webmasters put links to other language versions on the homepage but forget to include backlinks from each language version. If you have many domains, this can become entangled. This in its turn can raise another round of problems. If you implemented an hreflang attribute in the code incorrectly, Google may ignore it and display a page to the user in the wrong language. SEMRush also listed the main troubles in this case: conflicting hreflang and rel=canonical URLs, conflicting hreflang URLs, and self-referencing hreflang URLs. Besides that, sometimes websites use the wrong URL type. Instead of an absolute URL, only the name of folders or specific parts of a URL is used, which lead to problems with the crawling and indexation.

What else: sitemaps and…

Another problem with large and complex websites with multiple language versions is the problem of not matching the declared language and the language of the content. Similar situations arise when the original content has already been published, and its translation is not yet ready. Unfortunately, very often the owners of web resources do not see anything wrong with posting an English-language article on the Spanish version of the site. Alas, this is a negative approach, which causes more harm than good.

Also, to help with the correct attribution of the relevant language version to a search engine, the sitemap document can be useful. It is considered reasonable to make individual sitemaps for each language version in which to include links to all available options, as Google itself advises.

Local keywords: cookies or biscuits?

Even though Google undertakes all search requests equally, regardless of country and language, unfortunately, there is not one keyword tool that can help you the way a local resident does. Therefore, use (hire) someone who can help you overcome all the cultural differences, because can pose challenges. Even within a single language, such as English, there can be many differences between British English and American or Australian. The video below, where Hugh Laurie and Ellen DeGeneres are having fun discussing the difference in slang, is an excellent example of this.

You need to know your local audience and have a comprehensive understanding of the language they use; automatic translation will not help you here! For example, in France, the English term "babysitter" is more common than "garde d'enfants".

Cultural differences

Following on from the previous paragraph, the logical consequence is this: know your local audience and its language so as to avoid looking stupid. One error can cost the whole campaign. There are many examples of this, for example, American Airlines advertised their new leather seats with the slogan “Fly Leather”, which translated to “Fly naked” in the Spanish language, or Ikea children’s workbench - Fartful (speedy in Swedish), which does not sound particularly pleasant English speakers. A great failure of a much greater scale was the first sensor screens of Panasonic. The Japanese company bought the rights to use the image of the animated cartoon character - Woody Woodpecker. Popular in Japan, it made advertising memorable, and the product was successful in Asian markets. There came an occasion at an IT conference when an American fan of the company informed them that in the US "Woody" is a slang word for an erect penis, so Americans were unlikely to buy a touchscreen with this name. However, it was already too late, and Panasonic suffered losses. More examples with incorrect localisation can be found here.

Even how visitors navigate websites can vary depending on where you live. An example is in Arabic countries or Israel, where people read from right to left.

Therefore, check everything from the name of the brand to the content of your images, ensuring that these won’t be offensive in the relevant cultural space.

Local link building

Last but not least - you need a local backlink profile if you want to rank highly in local SERPs. This is perhaps the easiest part of the story of international search engine optimisation. If you have a list of the target keywords, you can find potential donors for backlinks for your website using online services, for example, Ahrefs or SEMRush. You can create your own plan or contact a local agency in the country you are targeting.

In conclusion

Indeed, despite its considerable length, this article did not cover all the nuances and subtleties of international SEO but instead listed the main ones to focus on. Also, it is worth mentioning the possibility of hosting a website on the servers of the country where your efforts are focused (get local IP), placing local contact information about the offices in the countries represented (if any), and implementing a local JSON-LD markup for each website in the appropriate language. As you can see the topic is massive.

If this seems confusing or overwhelming, please contact us – we can help!

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