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International targeting is an integral part of any setup in an SEO campaign. It ensures your site and its content is being served to the correct audience in the countries you want to target. For example, if you were a UK based business that had recently started shipping to France, then you should be considering how your site and its content works for your new French users.

Why is it important for international SEO?

The importance of correct international targeting can’t be understated. If you’re not being specific with your chosen market you’ll likely receive irrelevant traffic (e.g. countries you don’t serve). If you’re targeting the wrong market you’ll definitely be receiving irrelevant traffic, which can not only be bad for your engagement metrics but can also impact the overall performance of your site through content cannibalisation.

What is cannibalisation?

Cannibalisation is a term used to describe when two URLs are being ranked for the same keyword. This is when Google’s algorithm sees value in the two pages for the same phrase but isn’t given – or hasn’t received – suitable signals to say that one page should be used in a different way, or one page should be prioritised over the other.

What opportunities could I be missing?

As previously mentioned, if you’ve not ensured your site is targeting the correct language and country then there’s a chance you’re receiving traffic from users in a country or location you’re not able to serve. This can result in your engagement metrics not looking as good as they should and conversion rates dropping as the user realises you’re not able to service them. 

By not properly targeting your site and respective international content you’ll likely be missing opportunities to rank in countries you’re wanting to serve, or impacting the performance of markets you already rank in. Following the next few steps will ensure you’re in the best shape to take full advantage of your site’s potential to rank in all the markets you cover.

What do I need in order to internationally target correctly?

Site Structure

It’s recommended that you review your current site’s URL structure and assess how you’re going to scale your site if you’re growing or if you already exist in other markets. There are three recommended ways to set up your site if you’re looking to target internationally:

  • Using sub domain (i.e france.domain.com)
  • Using separate TLDs (Top Level Domains, i.e www.domain.de)
  • Using a sub folder structure (i.e www.domain.com/es/)

Each structure has its pros and cons, with the major focusing more on the costs of running and maintaining separate domains / subdomains against monitoring one domain with a somewhat complex folder structure. With the SEO benefits of having country specific domains being limited, it’s recommended that a sub folder structure is adopted if you are just starting out in your growth internationally. This structure will not only be cheaper, but it’s also an easy way for the site to scale.

Search Console

In Google Search Console you should have your domain verified. This will enable you to use Search Console’s international targeting tool. If you have multiple countries to target, you should create separate properties. These properties can then leverage the same International Targeting tool to improve the targeting of different domains, subdomains and/or folders. One aspect that Search Console can’t support is the language level of target, so this is something you need Href Lang for.

HrefLang Tag

A href lang tag is another vital aspect of setting your site up for international targeting and an  important additional feature this tag holds is its ability to target specific languages. A href lang tag has two component pages: the country code, and the language code that ensures that countries you can tailor the experience for countries where users may speak multiple languages – for example, if you were serving users in Switzerland, you may want a German and French language version of your site content. 

The below are examples of the href lang tags you’d use for the Switzerland example. 

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ch-de” href=”https://www.domain.com/ch-de/page-a/” />

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ch-fr” href=”https://www.domain.com/ch-de/page-a/” />

Implementing Href lang can be done in three different ways:

  • Via HTML tags – This is where the href lang tag is added to every page of the site via the head. This is a good choice for sites with a few markets, or smaller sites, however the XML sitemap method would also work.
  • Via the XML Sitemap – this is where the tag is implemented in the XML sitemap and is a good choice for larger sites with lots of different markets and language variants. 
  • Via Header tags – similar to the HTML tags, this method adds the href lang via a header tag. This method could work for both a small and large site, but may require more developer support than the other two options.

However you implement your href lang, you should ensure on all pages you’re providing a tag for the page you’re on and a link for any other versions of that page. For example, if you have a UK English and and a French version of the same page then each page would be two href lang tags on like so:

https://www.domain.com/fr/

  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-fr” href=”https://www.domain.com/fr/” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”https://www.domain.com/gb/” />

https://www.domain.com/gb/

  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”https://www.domain.com/gb/” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-fr” href=”https://www.domain.com/fr/” />

For more information on href lang tags and implementation see the Google guidelines here.

It’s important to note that Search Console’s international targeting tool isn’t currently migrated to the ‘new’ (ish) Search Console, so you need to go through some of the menu. It can be found in Legacy Tools > International Targeting. In this report you’ll be able to see any href langs in place and whether you have errors, as well as setting your international targeting.

Understand your markets search behaviour

One key consideration when targeting across countries is to ensure you fully understand the way different users search. Most european markets are dominated by Google, however you do have some smaller, more regional search engines such as Seznam.cz in Czechia, Yandex in Russia, Baidu in China and Naver in South Korea. 

Ensuring you’re fully verified in any of the respective search console / webmaster tools that exist for these market’s most dominant or ‘other’ search engines will not only open up further opportunities to perform, but might also give you deeper insight into the way users in that country are searching, which could further inform your site content.

Case study in correcting targeting issues

Recently one of our clients had to deal with some targeting issues that were beginning to impact their rankings across the US and UK. This client had a sub folder structure for targeting, with the root structure for the UK and a /US/ folder for the USA. 

As you can see from the screenshots from recent keyword tracking, by adding another Search Console property with the prefix of /us/ then targeting that to the United States (leaving the existing root property to target the UK) we were able to quickly bring rankings back to normal.

keyword ranking improvements after international targeting changes

dramatically improve rankings after changes in international targeting

What’s the recommended setup for international targeting?

  • Use a country specific sub folder structure for scalability and minimising maintenance costs.
  • Separately verify each of your local market folders in Google search console (along with other relevant search engines)
  • Implement Href lang (if possible) either in the head of the site for smaller sites or in the XML sitemap for larger sites with lots of markets and language variations.
  • Ensure content throughout your site (and market variants) use natively translated content for the best user experience
  • Try to tailor your experiences on a market by market basis. For example, if you have an office in Paris, then add an image of it to the ‘contact us’ page. Or if you have a particularly big selling in Denmark then make sure that’s prominent on the Danish site
  • Be clear in the best search engines for your markets, and try to understand the differences in the way users search country by country. 

 

International targeting is important for all sites, whether you have multiple markets or not, so at the very least site owners should be aware of the opportunity in Search Console to ‘tell’ Google what country you’re working in.