International SEO Strategy Guide – Plus a Flowchart!

I’ve noticed there’s something we’re sorely missing in our marketing mix: flowcharts. Making sure that Portent has mo’ flo’ to offer has become of my new life goals. As part of this endeavor, I created the following International SEO Strategy flowchart to help those who are trying to decide what the best structure is for their international site(s).

Ready to get to work? To learn how to use the chart, see the quick guide below the graphic. For further explanation and exploration, check out the link bundle here with a slidedeck & more good stuff from our International SEO Webinar.

International SEO Flowchart

International SEO is a tricky subject, and every brand has a unique situation to consider. While Google provides some very high-level documentation on how to structure your site(s) and implement hreflang, there isn’t a lot of information about how to choose the best approach for structuring your site(s) in a way that makes the most sense for your brand.

That’s what I love about International SEO – the challenges of consulting are always fresh and interesting. It’s also why I created this flowchart – to lend clarity to the thought process that stakeholders need to go through before rolling out international sites. It’s part of mapping out the right strategy before you begin technical implementation.

It’s important to note this flowchart is designed to be simplistic; It does not account for every scenario or every consideration. To include every scenario would mean sacrificing clarity. The important thing is to focus on a chain of questions that will help you determine your strategy. On that note, I’d like to give a shout out to @blakecscott, who gave me great feedback and helped me with the design.

Here’s a text summary of how to use the above graphic when planning your International SEO strategy:

Step-by-Step Strategy

The first question to ask is whether there is significant search volume for the countries or languages that you are interested in targeting. Would it make sense to target a language-country combination where there are hardly any people in that market? No, not really. Be judicious and set realistic expectations about what markets you really want to expand into, before you go over-extending your empire like Alexander the Great. If there isn’t significant volume, and/or if traffic from certain countries doesn’t convert well, then those markets may not be worth pursuing.

The next question to ask is whether you honestly have the resources available to manage international content. Do you have design & development resources to handle multiple sites? Do you have writers to develop unique, localized content and professional translations? Do you have the budget and savvy marketing team capable of doing regional link outreach, to help your international sites build up authority? These are some of the determining factors in deciding whether to go with separate sites or not. If you don’t have the resources to accomplish all that, then sub-folders on one domain is your best bet, and you will benefit from a consolidated link profile.

The third question to ask is whether you have a compelling business reason to justify building multiple sites. If you are going to create significantly disparate sites, such as with different product catalogs or different information architecture, then separate sites is a good option. Choosing ccTLDs requires significant investment upfront, but it can be the right choice for larger companies, such as well-known retail or e-commerce brands. ccTLDs benefit from having the clearest geo-location signals and from receiving higher click-through rates.

Note: this flowchart doesn’t recommend sub-domains, because sub-domains are generally viewed as separate domains, so they suffer from the same disadvantage as top-level domains: separate backlink profiles. They do allow for the easy separate of sites and allow for different server locations, but these are not strong enough advantages to make sub-domains a better option than ccTLDs.

Implement and Refine

Once you’ve chosen the right structure for your international site(s), it’s time to implement and refine. First, you need to make sure that hreflang annotations are implemented correctly across all of your sites. Whether you choose to add hreflang tags via XML sitemaps or via the page tagging method, make sure to avoid these common pitfalls:

Hreflang tags need to be added to all pages within the page grouping. For example, if page A, page B, and page C are all variations of each other and are targeted towards different audiences, all three pages need to have hreflang tags that mention all three of the pages in the group. Don’t leave any of the three out of the hreflang club.

It’s also important that if you use canonical tags in tandem with hreflang tags, you do it right. Hreflang tags need to reference self-referential canonical URLs. For example, page A should have a canonical tag pointing to page A, page B should have a canonical tag pointing to page B, and page C should have a canonical tag pointing to page C. All three pages should have hreflang tags as mentioned above. You do NOT want to canonicalize only one version of a page in a page grouping, as that would interfere with hreflang annotations.

The next step is to “regionalize.” It’s not enough to duplicate your content across multiple sub-folders or TLDs and then hope that hreflang markup will eliminate the problem of duplicate content; the whole purpose of creating international targeted sites is to create custom web experiences for your target markets. So, you also need to regionalize your content by using professional translators, regional vernacular, local currency and contact details, and custom meta data. These things aren’t just “nice-to-haves;” these are necessary signals of quality in a post-Panda era.

The last step is to make sure that it’s all working properly, and to adjust as necessary. In evaluating progress, some success metrics to look for include SERP tracking across your target regions with AWR or similar, monitoring Google Webmaster Tools for hreflang errors, and tracking the flux of traffic from your target regions in Google Analytics.

Share your questions and insights in the comments, and get in touch with our SEO specialists for help with implementing international SEO for your company. If you’re interested in getting more advice on international SEO strategy, check out the link bundle here with a slidedeck & more good stuff from our International SEO Webinar.

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  1. Do you have the feeling that you rank easier with a subfolder where you present your content in another language?
    We all know how important Domain authority is but I could imagine if you switch language, that all of that starts at zero again?
    I saw that you don’t rank on the German or Spanish market with US-links anymore, so I could imagine that it has impact of all your content in another language than the main language as well.

    1. Hi Andres,
      Great questions. If you choose the sub-folder structure, all your content will be on one domain and so you will not have the problem of splitting your domain authority among separate top-level domains or sub-domains.
      In country versions of Google, such as for Germany, it helps to have your site on a country top-level domains that targets that country. Your country top-level domain will be given some preference in ranking over generic top-level domains.

  2. Hi Kaitlin,
    If the content is in the english for India and USA and no hreflang is created but canonicals are provided, in that case google will prefer country specific domain to come on top or not as compared to original domain like .com

  3. Well, I can say that with such a well developed flowchart you can convince even a nine year old child what SEO truly means and to develop a strategy to improve a website or blog.

  4. Very useful information, thank you. Sometimes it’s hard to decide which URL structure will be the best in the long term as we don’t have enough data regarding our potential customers, our target markets might change over time. I went with the sub-folder solution and it was a great decision but if my main market will be Austria, it won’t necessarily be the case anymore.

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