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How to Not Embarrass Yourself with International SEO

Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

“Are you lactating?” - Mexico

“You’ll definitely eat your fingers.” - China

“Pepsi bring your ancestors back from the dead!” - China

“Every car has a high quality corpse.” - Belgium

“Female horse stuffed with wax” or “Bite the wax tadpole.” – China

If you haven’t figured it out yet, these are advertisements gone horribly wrong through translation. Can you guess which U.S. marketing campaigns go with which?

Got milk?

Finger-lickin’ good.

Come alive with Pepsi!

Every car has a high quality body. (Ford)

Coca-cola. Sounds like “Ke-Kou-Ke-La” in Chinese, which translates to “mare” and nascent amphibian, depending on the dialect.

When you’re tackling international SEO, it’s a much larger task than simply translating the copy on a website. It’s as much a piece of marketing as any advertising campaign, and to do it right (and avoid embarrassing yourself and the brand you’re working for) you have to understand the culture, dialects and idioms of your target audience.

Despite the inherent challenges of serving international markets, many companies are finding that the next logical step for their brand is to “go global.” If you’ve looked at your site traffic and see visitors coming from near and far, it may pay to make your site content relevant for users in that area. This may require setting up separate sites, or at least subdirectories, to help search engines – and most importantly, visitors – find content relevant to them. From there, it’s time to employ a combination of SEO Best Practices and Translation Best Practices.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation.” – Robert Frost

  1. If you don’t want to lose the poetry, find a Sherpa.

You might be the best SEO specialist on the planet, but unless you spent your formative years in Timbuktu, don’t presume you can pick up “enough” on that destination from research alone. You’re going to need a Sherpa, a guide into the diction and culture of you target location, to effectively translate and optimize your website, conversion copy, landing pages, thank you emails and content. Whatever you do, don’t rely on online translations. Note: Your Sherpa doesn’t need to be a professional translator. You might find you get better copy by using a multi-lingual marketer or copywriter.

  1. Create a local buyer persona

Your Sherpa can also help you build a buyer persona within your target geographical context. Abidah Shalhoub’s interests, keywords, buyer psychology, and customer service expectations are going to be very different from Amanda Schaffer’s.

  1. Localize the details

Converting copy to the local language is the most obvious part of an international site to change, but don’t forget the details like currency, time zone, weather, addresses and phone numbers.* For example, if you offer a live Help Chat during business hours, make sure it’s during their business hours – not yours! And, don’t forget to change titles, meta descriptions, navigation, headings, text and image titles (or the images themselves).

*Don’t have a local office? You can buy a local phone number that you can redirect to your toll-free number.

  1. Send the right SEO signals

  • Users tend to prefer country code, top-level domains. But, while sub domains are less popular and have less geo-targeting strength, they can leverage the established authority of their parent domain. Pick your poison.
  • Use hreflang or language meta tags to let search engines know which languages your website serves. It’ll look something like this: <link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com" hreflang="en-us" />
  • Host your site on a local IP address. Not only does this give another hint to search engines that your content is relevant to that local audience, it also improves page speed.
  • Link to local content and build links from local places
  • Look for local search engines (Google hasn’t taken over the world quite yet)
  1. Find and use local lingo (ie. Keywords)

When optimizing a site for a foreign language, work with your translator/writer to develop a list of keywords that make sense to, and for, your market to incorporate into the copy. Then, use the Adwords Keyword Tool to find “related to my topic” keywords, and analyze them for popularity using Google Trends. If you copy/paste your translated text into Adwords, you’ll get an even longer list of keywords.

Counter-intuitive Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t automatically redirect users to a different language based on geography – they might be expats or English-speakers.
  • Do build links aggressively, and do supply an adequate budget for the task. Don’t expect every country to have the same link building strategies or link-outreach etiquette. For example, while guest blogging is common-as-dirt here in America, in Italy it’s far less common.
  • Don’t assume. Anything. You’ll need to do a lot of research into your target audience including keywords, behavior, competitors, interests, preferred content formats and media.

Essentially, the real challenge of international SEO isn’t deciding between a domain or sub-domain, finding the right keywords or switching out your meta-data. It’s all about understanding your audience – just like every other form of marketing. Only, in another language.

Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

An experienced member who is always happy to help.

Nichole the Chief Strategy Officer at Inturact. She is also a moderator at Product Hunt and GrowthHackers.com; Previously, she was in growth at Inbound.org. View her website.
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Martin Kura

Provides valuable insights and adds depth to the conversation.

Thanks for the post, Nichole! I would add, you don't have to host your website on local servers in most cases. I have described hosting options for an international website here: http://www.semrush.com/blog/in....

Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

"Don’t automatically redirect users to a different language based on geography"

True. I'm not from English speaking country but I'm used to reading in English. It feels weird when technical terms are translated to local language...unreadable.

Oh and often when I found one of their blog content from Google, they automatically redirect me to local homepage so I can't even read that content. I'm looking at you..Shopify.
Terungwa Akaahan

Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

Hi Nichole,

Awesome and actionable tips. Previously, I had course to read correspondence that was clearly messed up by online translations...The warning bell is thus apt: why take the risk when better options exist?

Enjoy the day!

Akaahan Terungwa

An experienced member who is always happy to help.

Thanks, Nichole.All great information. My only international experience thus far has come from clients in Canada and it was a very humbling experience initially. The biggest mistake I made, both sociologically and from a marketing standpoint, was approaching Canada in essentially the same way that I did the US. In short, I could not of been more wrong.
Kathleen Garvin

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Rob Wilson
Oh wow, care to share what happened? :p Hopefully everything turned out OK!

An experienced member who is always happy to help.

Kathleen Garvin
I could probably type a novel of all the things I did wrong, Kathleen. Some of them where industry/tech specific and not really interesting to someone not familiar, but to be brief Canadian search habits are decidedly NOT like their US counterparts. I have planned lots of SEO and SEM campaigns and I have never struggled quite like that before. The first 3 clients I worked with fired me less than 4 months later :(.

From a personality standpoint, Canadians (and I am talking in generalities here) are much more social and less direct in business dealings. People on the East coast, and especially place like NY and NJ, are 180 degrees opposite, if that makes sense.

Luckily, I have since evolved and learned from the experience, which is the desired result from any epic fail I suppose. These days some of my best clients are from up North. A good percentage of them are really as much my friends as they are my clients.
Kathleen Garvin

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Rob Wilson
Sounds like a blog post in the making. ;)

Thanks for sharing, Robby! Reading your post conjured up memories of my youngest brother in the Army. He's bounced around to different bases in different parts of the country and, even in the US, it's interesting how words and sayings can be misinterpreted or have different meanings.

Glad you learned from the experience and turned it into something positive!

An experienced member who is always happy to help.

Kathleen Garvin
LOL. Yeah, I suppose I have advanced past the"I just started a new job" as justification for my lack of writing for you being a legitimate excuse.

I really need to crank something out for you soon. Speaking of which, if you could re-email me guidelines to my new addy r.wilson@aronsonads.com

Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

This is such a necessary post, thanks Nichole!
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

An experienced member who is always happy to help.

Thanks, Camille. Glad you liked it!

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