Chances are if you’re a digital marketer, you’ve previously worked for — or are actively working for — a company that sells their products or services both domestically and abroad.
The Internet has indeed made the world smaller. The barriers that once prevented international trade simply don’t exist like they used to (or in many places simply don’t exist at all). If you want your customers to find you when they search for your products or services no matter where they are on planet Earth, you should be thinking about international SEO.
What is international SEO? As Moz defines it in their International SEO Guide:
“International SEO is the process of setting up your website so that search engines can easily identify which countries you want to reach and what languages you use for business. Put simply, that means that you'll want to make your site content relevant for users in your target area(s) and language(s) including using the correct currencies and time zones.”
Sounds fine and dandy. But if you work for a company that operates in multiple international markets, or is considering expansion into one, the question of where to start is a seemingly complex one.
When my colleague Scott Taft and I were tasked with identifying the countries with the greatest potential international SEO and digital marketing ROI for one of our clients, we came up with a methodology and turned to SEMrush to help us find answers. Through the steps outlined in this post, we were able to answer the following questions:
- Competitors - Who is winning in the countries where we already have an international presence? Who is ahead in the countries that we may be interested in expanding to? Why is that the case?
- Difficulty - How competitive is the search market in those countries, looking at domain level metrics, paid CPC, etc.?
- Search opportunity - Is there significant volume for the keywords that we wish to target and the keywords that we are already ranking for in these countries? If not, what keywords should we be targeting?
After answering these questions, we were able to narrow down an extensive list of potential countries, and made a strong case for expansion into a little-known country in Europe. Hint: they like cheese.
International SEO Opportunity Analysis
Here’s How We Did It
The first phase of our analysis required choosing the countries we wanted to focus on in determining SEO opportunity and competitiveness. Our client operates in tens of countries across the globe, so narrowing our focus to a select handful with the greatest potential was key. We used three sources of data to determine which countries we wanted to assess:
- Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) that our client currently owns. We wanted to analyze the countries where our client has a presence on the web. The ccTLDs are a perfect starting point because the business is active in these international markets and, therefore, the barrier to entry is lower than if our client needed to establish a brand new business presence.
- Google Webmaster Tools. We can segment Google search result impressions and click data to see which countries are being exposed to our client’s content in search results the most.
- Google Analytics (traffic data). We can segment our traffic data by geolocation and we were able to see which countries are sending traffic to our client’s main domain.
Using these three data sources, we chose 11 countries to focus on for the International Opportunity Analysis:
- Client ccTLDs
- Germany, France, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Argentina and Austria
- Non-Client ccTLDs
- Italy, Canada (English), Brazil
Out of this batch of 11 countries, we would choose one to recommend as the most promising to focus international SEO efforts. Our goal was to find a country with a high level of search opportunity that also had a relatively low level of competitiveness.
- Choosing Competitors
The next phase of our analysis was to identify our client’s three most relevant competitors in each country that we were assessing. Starting with the ccTLDs that our client currently owns and operates, we were able to use SEMrush to analyze the keywords each domain currently ranks for and who their top-related competitors are from a search standpoint.
To do this, we used SEMrush’s Competitors tool in the Organic Research section, which analyzes competitor search data for a domain’s closest competitors in a designated country.
By plugging in an international ccTLD and searching by country, SEMrush automatically sorts each competitor domain by competition level, which allows you to easily determine which domains have common keywords, and are competitively ranking.
However, it’s always a good idea to manually check each domain to ensure that the content on each site is similar to that of your company or of your client. I don’t speak German, so the Google Translate Chrome extension on my browser came in very handy.
To analyze the countries in which our client does not currently have a presence (i.e. there’s no ccTLD to plug into SEMrush), we used a few tactics to identify the relevant sites performing well and ranking for similar search terms in those respective countries.
When going about this analysis for an international competitor, begin by looking at your closest domestic competitors’ international sites. However, translating head terms that you’re targeting to find ranking international competitors is a much more sound way to assess the market and identify your closest international competitors. You may not have known that they exist, and by taking this approach you can be sure you’re assessing competition from a search perspective.
The tool isn’t the newest and shiniest but, nonetheless, Google Global Market Finder is a great way to translate relevant head terms to find these opportunities. Google Global Market Finder uses data from Internet searches conducted around the world to show the number of times people search for keywords in 56 languages.
So, for example, if you were to plug terms related to “SEO firm” into the tool, it would spit out relevant keywords in multiple languages, and give you each keyword’s respective monthly search volumes.
Taking these translated head terms from Google Global Market Finder and plugging them into the SEMrush search bar (making sure to sort by respective country) then allows you to view organic search results and phrase match keywords related to these terms.
This method allows you to narrow down your list of international competitors in markets that you have not yet entered.
International Competitive Scorecard
Once we identified the most competitive sites in each of our target countries, we were able to use SEMrush to identify the keywords that each site ranks for in each country. Using this data, we put together an International Competitive Scorecard — or a framework for organizing our data — to give us a high level view of which countries currently have the most SEO opportunity and difficulty.
In order to pull this data for each country, we used SEMrush’s Domain vs. Domain tool, under the “Tools” section in the left menu bar. By entering our client’s domain as well as those of each of our top three competitors, we filtered by common keywords and were able to see which keywords all four domains were currently ranking for.
We entered our client’s domain, as well as those of our top three competitors, and sorted by common keywords
In addition to an overall summary of common keywords, here’s what the tool spits out:
The beauty of this data is you can easily visualize on a keyword-by-keyword basis how your client stacks up against its closest international competitors. In addition, you can view keyword volume, CPC, a competitive score, keyword results volume and a trend line for each common keyword.
We ran the Domain vs. Domain analysis for each of our 11 countries and exported the data as a separate CSV for each country. Our next step was to decide which metrics from these reports would provide the most insight into which countries had the greatest search opportunity and international competition, which we would ultimately include in our Competitive Scorecard.
Snapshot of our Competitor Scorecard for Germany and France. Do they like cheese in Germany?
The seven metrics we ultimately chose to focus on for each of our 11 countries and their competitors were:
- Number of Ranking Keywords - Within the first two pages of Google
Why is this important? If our competitors had a greater volume of ranking keywords than our client, the SEO landscape was more competitive within that country.
How did we determine this? The SEMrush data export is organized by domain, so you can easily analyze which domain is ranking for each keyword, and what volume of keywords are ranking for each domain.
- Average Rank - Of the keywords that competitor is ranking for
Why is this important? By understanding the average rank of each domain, we can determine which domains are on average showing up more in SERPs within a country for competitive terms. The lower the average rank of our competitors, the more competitive the SEO landscape.
How did we determine this? We filtered out each keyword that did not rank, and took the average of the keywords ranking for each domain.
- Total Keyword Search Volume of Each Domain - Sum of the keyword search volume that each of our competitors are ranking for.
Why is this important? If search volume for the common ranking keywords of a competitor’s domain is much higher than that of our client’s, then they are performing better for keywords with higher search volumes within that country. If that is the case, then the SEO landscape is more competitive.
How did we determine this? We filtered out each keyword that didn’t rank for each domain. Then we summed the monthly search volumes of all ranking keywords.
- Total Keywords - Between all four sites, including our client’s and those of our three competitors
Why is this important? Understanding how many common keywords are ranking on a country by country basis allows us to determine search opportunity across countries. If more total keywords are ranking, then one can assume that there is more search opportunity in that country.
How did we determine this? We summed the number of total keywords from our SEMrush Domain vs. Domain export for each country.
- Total Keyword Search Volume of All Domains - Across all keywords that all four sites are ranking for
Why is this important? Taking our assumption about Total Keywords to the next level, the country with the highest keyword monthly search volume has the potential to capture the most search volume and opportunity.
How did we determine this? We summed the monthly search volumes from each keyword that ranked in each of our 11 countries.
- Average Volume per Keyword - Total Keywords/Total Search Volume
Why is this important? On average, understanding the monthly search volume per keyword allows you to make an informed cross-country decision on which market has the greatest search volume for keywords related to your product or service.
How did we determine this? For each country, we divided Total Search Volume by Total Keywords
- Average Difficulty Per Competitor - Averaged SEMrush metric based on competitiveness of sites ranking on page 1 of Google for a particular keyword
Why is this important? The SEMrush Keyword Difficulty tool estimates how difficult it would be to seize your competitors’ positions in organic search within the Google or Bing top 20 with a particular keyword.
How did we determine this? For each country, we entered our common keywords into SEMrush’s Keyword Difficulty tool, which can be found on the left menu bar of the SEMrush interface.
After entering our keywords and exporting the data, we summed each keyword’s Keyword Difficulty score, and divided the sum by the total number of keywords for that country.
Lastly, we adding conditional formatting to the Competitive Scorecard in Excel to visualize the data. Here’s what the final scorecard looked like for Germany and for France (they like cheese in France!) that we thought had the highest potential:
Applying the analysis to our framework and — to what we know about this specific client — France was the winner when compared to Germany in terms of SEO opportunity for a number of reasons.
While the Average Keyword Difficulty for our keywords is almost 13% higher in France, there are over 500 more common ranking keywords, and Total Search Volume is almost 350% higher; thus, there is a much greater potential opportunity in the search market. Although France may present challenges, we wouldn’t want to recommend our client focus on a country with a limited market for their product.
Additionally, our client has never hired an SEO firm to address their French domain, and does little in terms of content in that region and language. This leads us to believe that, though the number of keywords we’re currently ranking for is low respective to our competitors, with a few on-page tactics (gap analysis, content audit, internal linking audit, etc.) and a sound content strategy, we can increase that number dramatically.
The final interpretation of the scorecard is really up to you. Depending on your client’s goals for international expansion, different metrics may be more important to you than others. Because of this, we recommend a more anecdotal approach to the final analysis.
- Next Steps
Our next step for this analysis is to take a deeper dive into what our client’s competitors have accomplished over the past few years in France from a technical and content perspective. We'll do this in order to assess the challenges of competing in this market from a search standpoint. If our assumptions are correct based on our competitive analysis, France looks like the country that we’ll target.
Interested in learning more about this analysis, or how to take it one step further using SEMrush? Reach out in the comments section!