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International SEO for Ecommerce

What is International SEO?

International SEO is optimizing your website to rank in multiple countries because search engines try to serve local content to local people. So a .co.uk website could rank really well in the UK, but it’s not likely to rank so well in the US for example unless you’ve got a very specific niche topic where there aren’t any US alternative sites out there with the same products or information.

Why does this matter for Ecommerce?

Many of your potential customers, especially in B2C, prefer to shop local. They’re not used to seeing foreign currencies in the pricing, that’s more of a B2B thing. If you’re looking to sell to an end consumer, they’re not accustomed to having to translate in their heads, what these foreign exchange rates are.

Plus, not everyone speaks English – even in English speaking countries. There’s a large Spanish speaking population in the US and a large Polish-speaking population in the UK. If people aren’t able to easily read your website in your native language, there’s an opportunity there to offer the customer content in their native language and increase conversion from that.

Also, ordering abroad has perceived frictions – what’s the delivery cost going to be? If I’m ordering from the US, what delays will there be? Are there going to be any import/customs fees for shipping something abroad?

I think that “Dropshipping” is a perfect example of this. Someone in the US will create a website on Shopify and choose a few different products to sell from Alibaba (the big Chinese marketplace). They get those products delivered directly to their customers from China and they charge their American customer double what they’re paying on Alibaba for it. They can do this because the US buyer doesn’t feel comfortable going directly to Alibaba themselves, or buying directly from China, even though they could do. It’s the illusion of comfort from buying local, even if the seller never sees or touches the product. So there’s lots of money to be made out of not only your domestic market, but also the other markets abroad.

How do I target other countries for SEO?

You basically need to create a new website for every country, which sounds quite hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The first step is translating the website for each target country and implementing local currencies.

Most payment gateways now allow you to charge in any currency you like, and they’ll do the currency conversion for you, so the money ends up in your bank account in your local currency. Stripe will do that for you.

You can get a translator from Upwork or one of the other freelance websites. I would not recommend using Google translate on your website because it’s a fully automated process that Google uses. Some of the words might not be the correct translation. Sometimes you might even have a very bad or inappropriate translation come through there. So it’s best to get a real human translator to work on the site for you, and also make sure that that translator lives in the target country. There are lots of local phrases, slang words and customs that only someone that physically lives in that country would know about.

For example, a Brazilian translator might speak Portuguese, but they don’t really know about shopping in Portugal and what people in Portugal would want to see on a website when they’re purchasing. They also understand the differences in what people call products and categories. So for example, in the UK we would say trainers as a type of shoe, whereas in the U S they say sneakers or pumps. And in the UK, we say sunglasses, whereas Australians would say “sunnys”. So there’s lots of these local differences that you should accommodate on your website. It helps with SEO of course as well, because people are going to be searching for these local phrases and they won’t find it on your main website, but they will find that content on your translated or regional website.

But you still need to set expectations about delivery times and costs upfront. You can be totally honest that this product is going to be shipped from a different country. “Don’t worry, it will be delivered within X days, we have a fixed low delivery cost and cover import fees or custom fees”. If not, tell customers that it’s really easy to pay these custom fees, handhold the customer through the journey.

How do you tell search engines which country a website targets?

It used to be a case of buying a local domain name and web hosting for each country you wanted to target. So if I wanted to start selling my products to Germany and I was based in the UK, then I’d buy a .de domain name and German web hosting. It got really expensive to trial new markets and was impractical for most businesses, apart from large corporations.

Plus each website would have a different domain name with different SEO authority/value. So for example, amazon.com is more powerful as a domain name for SEO than amazon.co.uk is, and amazon.co.uk is more powerful than amazon.ca is, based on their popularity and the number of people that link to those sites. It’s not a small difference either – amazon.ca has a tenth of the SEO “power” of amazon.com, which is why if you’re Canadian, sometimes you actually see amazon.com outranking amazon.ca in Google.

Google then decided to make it much easier, so businesses wouldn’t have to mess around with all of these different domain names and websites. They started to offer country targeting functionality in what used to be called, Google Webmaster Tools, now called Google Search Console. This allowed you to tell the search engine which country your website targets. So if you’ve got a .com domain name, you’ll be able to say this .com website is actually targeting the UK market, or the Australia market. You could even setup subfolders of your main .com in Webmaster Tools, to say “this subfolder is for the UK”, “this one’s for Germany”, “this one’s for the US”. It made it a lot easier for managing this kind of situation. Unfortunately, Google decided to deprecate this functionality, and it’s not a feature in the current Google Search Console. Instead, we have to use something called Hreflang tags.

What is a Hreflang tag?

It’s similar to a Canonical Tag, which is placed in the head of your HTML and tells search engines which country the current page you’re on is targeting.

If there’s another version of this specific page for a different country or language, you can tell the search engine about that in your Hreflang tags, with a tag for each language and/or country that you’re targeting. Because of this, it helps to prevent duplicate content issues. So if you’re targeting the US and the UK, both of those pages are going to probably have the same content, they’ll both be in English. So Hreflang tells Google that one is more targeted towards the US consumers and the other targeted more towards the UK consumers. And it’s all you need to basically tell search engines, which country you want to rank in, and which version of the page is the default/primary page.

How do I add Hreflang tags to my Ecommerce website?

It’s easy on some platforms and not so easy on others.

If you use WooCommerce for your eCommerce store, then WordPress has a plugin Hreflang Tags Lite, that helps you implement Hreflang tags on your website.

In Magento, if you already use MageWorx SEO suite, then you have the ability to set Hreflang tags in that as well. It’s the Magento SEO plugin that I’d recommend.

For Shopify, it’s quite a tricky – they only support one country per shop. You can accept customers from any country, just like you can on any other platform, but you can’t create separate language or currency experiences for each country, within a single Shopify site. It requires you to have a different domain or subdomain for each of these countries that you’re targeting. And because it’s a separate Shopify app, a separate shop for each website, you’ll have different inventories and a whole separate system to manage. So it can be a lot of work for small stores that don’t employ dedicated country managers as the larger stores would do.

Should I use a separate domain or subdomain?

If you can avoid it, don’t use a different domain/subdomain for each country or language. It does get seen by Google as a completely independent website. There’s nothing wrong with using domains/subdomains, just bear in mind that you’ll have to build a whole new SEO authority (links) into each of those, just like you did on your main website. So you could launch on, for example, uk.example.com or example.co.uk, but those will have a separate SEO authority to your main site on example.com. It’s much better to go with a subfolder strategy. So example.com for the US, example.com/uk for the UK etc. Then all of the power from example.com flows into the UK website.

Amazon uses different domains for each country. Shouldn’t we just copy what they do?

It’s what most people think – Why don’t we just copy Amazon, they seem doing really well? But Amazon is a mega-corporation, with so much power. Google even changed the way that they crawl and index Amazon’s websites, to accommodate Amazon who wasn’t using Schema.org or following Best Practice. So if Google is changing the way that they index Amazon, just to make sure that they’ve got all the information from Amazon, you can tell that it’s not going to behave the same way as it would do on your own website.

If you look at something such as amazon.com.mx as well, which is the Mexican version of Amazon, it doesn’t really rank so well in Mexico. It only has around 7,000 unique domain links, versus a quarter of a million for amazon.com. So, there’s some countries where Amazon is actually quite weak.

There are of course upsides for going with Amazon’s approach of a local ccTLD (domain) for each market. Some countries are very patriotic when surfing the web. The French for example, really prefer to see and use .fr websites. They’re much more likely to click through and to trust a website on .fr versus .com. So, there’s different things to weigh up there. How much effort is it going to take, to recreate all the SEO authority of your main site, to get the individual country domain ranking in that country? How much benefit are you going to get from having that local domain, how much more revenue, versus a subfolder off of the .com?

How do I implement different international stores on my eCommerce platform?

It’s still quite hard on the SaaS (Software as a Service) platforms, such as Shopify and Bigcommerce. You have to create a whole new shop for each country, as I said before, on ca.example.com or example.ca.

WooCommerce doesn’t come with support for individual country sites out of the box. The best strategy here is to create a “WordPress Multisite” install, which allows you to create separate WordPress sites in subfolders, using the same copy of WordPress software. So you don’t have to install WordPress over and over again. It allows you to then create these country subfolders and activate WooCommerce on each of them. It means you’re only maintaining one set of WordPress and WooCommerce code, but you still have the pain of managing multiple WooCommerce settings, setting up all the different inventory and products on those separately.

The big winner for International SEO is Magento. Magento is far and away the best Ecommerce platform for international Ecommerce stores. It allows you to create separate “Store Views” or “Stores”, with each one of those being a separate subfolder and targeting a different country or language. It works out of the box, with no plugins required whatsoever. So if you’re thinking of building a store targeting multiple countries and you really want to push forward with ranking in those different countries, Magento is, without doubt, the best platform to do that on.

How do you name those country subfolders?

Well, it depends on which countries you’re planning to target. If you’re planning to target a country where there are multiple official languages, then you want to include both the language and the country in that subfolder name. So you’d end up having /en-us/ for the US and /en-gb/ for the UK. But if you’re not going to be targeting countries where there’s more than one official language, you can just go down the routes of /uk/ and /us/. It really does depend on which countries you are planning to target.


Please Note: The content above is a semi-automated transcription of the podcast episode. We recommend listening (and subscribing) to the podcast, in case any of the content above is unclear.

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