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The Importance of Localisation in International SEO

Gemma Birch

by Gemma Birch on 8th May 2013

LocalisationGemma Birch looks at the best ways to localise a website by region, content types and keyword research as well as how to get that content found.  

Localisation, and indeed international SEO, means different things to different people. For some it’s simply translating a few pages of content, along with the keywords and bingo, you have a localised website. Yet this approach will be very unlikely to bring any results when it comes to driving traffic to and conversions on your website.

Think about how you browse the web; how do you interact with websites and make decisions on whether to purchase from them? If you come across a website that is poorly written, where you can’t relate to the content or that doesn’t instil trust in you that they will deliver what you need, when you need it, I’ll guess that you’re unlikely to fill in your card details or send an enquiry.

This is true for the majority of web users, anywhere in the world. A couple of pages, translated word for word, will not be enough to convince them that you are a credible, relevant provider. And it’s not just the users, but also the search engines to which you need to appear local – if you want your website to succeed internationally.

I’m going to highlight just some of the things to think about when you’re deciding on a localisation strategy for your international websites.

Localise by Region, not Language

The attitude of “We’ve got Spanish pages, so that’s Latin America covered” is not uncommon, but it’s one of the deadly sins of international SEO. As a language moves across borders, and in some cases, oceans, it evolves and adapts to each locale to become a variation rather than a replica. The Spanish word “Cuero” means leather in mainland Spain but this is too nice a blog for me to tell you what it means in the Dominican Republic. Not only might you confuse or alienate users if you don’t use their local terminology, you might actually offend them.

Localising by region is also important to keep the search engines happy. As we all know, they don’t like duplicate content, so merely replicating a language page in multiple countries will see you penalised by Google and friends and reduce the impact your site and brand will have in all your target markets.

Think about ALL Content

So we’ve established that creating unique content for each country is a vital element of any international SEO activity. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch; in some cases the variations will be very minor but they need to be enough to convince both humans and engines that the content is intended for the region you’re targeting.

There is a much greater chance of a user engaging with your website if they can connect with it, and local references, relevant products and descriptions will make a connection more likely.  However, it’s not just the words you use that count. Every element on the page needs to reflect the locale – from currency, to contact phone numbers. Even if all your copy is perfectly translated, if users are seeing a foreign currency and an overseas contact number, they aren’t going to feel particularly compelled to take the next step. Also, think about the fact that you may be competing with local businesses which are, by default targeted locally. You need to demonstrate that you can offer the same local service and experience.

There’s no substitute for native Keyword Research

If you’ve heard just one thing about international SEO, it’s probably that you should never ever translate keywords. This of course doesn’t mean just leave them in English, rather that you need to research your keywords individually in every language, for every market to guarantee that you’re actually targeting terms that people are looking for.

Again, think about your own search behaviour. It’s unlikely that you consult the Oxford English dictionary before you perform a search and more likely that you’ll use abbreviations, slang terms, colloquialisms – and in many cases just type the first words which come into your head. Understanding exactly how users in each target market search for your brand, products and services is vital to enable you to actually offer them what they are looking for – and of course appear in relevant search results in the first place.

Go where the people are

I mention this, because it’s all too easy to get carried away by the global dominance of Google, and Facebook, and forget that any other search or social site exists. But they do, and in some countries, local players such as Baidu (China ), Yandex (Russia)and Naver (South Korea) hold significantly more market share than Google. Failing to embrace and use these local sites, will seriously harm your SEO efforts, as you’ll miss out on a large percentage of traffic – and potential customers.

This is not a comprehensive list, but a guide to the kind of things you need to be thinking about when you’re making the decision to target new international markets. While the basic principles of SEO remain the same everywhere in the world, the importance of localisation when it comes to international SEO cannot be stressed enough. It is more than translating content. It’s about adapting your entire brand presence and marketing activities to be as relevant and appropriate for each local audience you want to target and giving search engines as many signals as possible to ensure every potential customer sees the most appropriate and enticing page for them and their needs.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.

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Gemma Birch

Gemma Birch

Gemma Birch has been working in international search for 5 years and leads WebCertain's marketing team. She is responsible for managing WebCertain's online marketing activities, as well as organising and programming the International Search Summit event, which runs across Europe and the US. She contributes regularly to the multilingual-search.com blog and is also part of the State of Search blogging team. Gemma holds a Professional Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a BA Joint Honours Degree in French and German.


  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 8th May 2013

    Thanks for writing for us Gemma. The region vs language point is one I think people certainly need to invest more time in.

    In terms of markets if you could only sell in five countries and language wasn’t an issue which would you pick and why?

    Reply to this comment

  • Andrew Tonks 8th May 2013

    I’ve noticed quite often international brands will set up independent CCTLD for each market they are targeting, which means they end up competing against themselves for rankings.

    Quite often they will have a .com version of their site, which is usually the first domain they purchased 15 odd years ago and so has loads of history and authority. This site usually ranks first for brand related searches in most markets. Then for example for the UK, the brand will set up a .co.uk and then try to outrank the .com version.

    What would be a far more cost effective process in my opinion is to either have sub-folders for each market all off of the .com and leverage the existing authority of the domain, instead of trying to create a whole new profile from scratch for the UK market. Apple and IKEA do this and it works really well I think.

    If you can’t get a sub-folder opened up, then the next best bet is a sub-domain, but I don’t think this is as user friendly and it’s not clear how much authority gets passed on to a sub-domain versus a sub-folder.

    Once you have the sub-folders in place you can set up specific Google Webmaster Tools accounts for each and set up the appropriate geo settings, so Google knows for example this part of the site is for the US whilst the other is for the UK. After that, you can set up rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” for each page and Google should have a pretty good idea which content it should be serving in a particular market and negates duplicate content issues you might have between English for the US, UK, Australia and so on …

    After that I’d leave the site for a while and give Google a chance to interpret the changes and then you can see where you rank locally by default after a few weeks. Once this is done, you can then establish a localisation outreach/link building strategy to try and demonstrate relevance for the particular market.

    Finally I would then make sure I own all CCTLD for my brand term, so for example <brandname<.co.uk and 301 redirect that to the UK sub-folder/sub-domain on .com. I’d recommend this as there might be users who will naturally assume you have a CCTLD for the UK, so you give them a good brand experience if they’re going direct. It also means if people naturally link to the .co.uk version, the 301 redirect is passing on that authority of a naturally built links. Also you can publish the CCTLD in localised advertising, like banner ads for example, instead of the less user-friendly sub-folder/sub-domain.

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  • Fernando 9th May 2013

    If people need localized SEO, they should work WITH local providers. That f’kin simple. I can tell you this is not the rule, and most time international teams do use translators and/or shitty writers on fiverr or similar trash to get their (coff coff…) keyword lists. And when you check their ads, copy, or simply their target customers, you just have to smile. Thats why major brands with Lisbon offices are dropping international SEO companies, and working WITH local teams.

    Reply to this comment

  • Quentin Sabanowski 9th May 2013

    Even sometimes in the same country, people search the same product with different keywords.

    For example, I am French and at the bakery, depending on where you are, you can ask for a ” (petit) pain au chocolat” or “chocolatine”

    So, you could imagine a future with localized version within the same country of your international strategy, why not?

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