When it’s time for your business to wing its way into the international marketplace in some form or another, you’re likely to be looking for support. It’s a big step, from logistics and accounting to more in-depth marketing considerations, and SEO is definitely one of the things that should be on the hitlist for the Big Plan. Which, in turn, leads to the need for a half decent international SEO consultant who is going to be able to make the right recommendations to get the results that you need.

So, let’s go find out how to do that.

Let's go find out about international SEO stuff

The importance of international SEO

International SEO (search engine optimisation, for those not paying attention to the TLAs) is in essence the process of optimising a website’s content and structure to make it accessible and relevant to global search engine users, not just Google UK here in ol’ Blighty. It covers a huge plethora of different topics, from language and localisation to cultural differences and the search habits of users in various areas around the globe. In some cases it can even mean looking at totally different search engines, and some very search-savvy businesses will actually bring an international SEO consultant in before confirming their expansion plans, to help identify new markets that will be easier for them to enter or where they might already have the beginnings of a foothold/presence.

The role of international SEO in business growth

If you’re serious about growing your business globally (and we’re not usually serious around here, so let that sink in for a moment) then you can’t afford to ignore organic search, because nothing will kill an expansion so quickly as not being able to be found in your new target territories.

From URL setup and configuration (multi domain, subfolder, some hybrid of both?) to essential technical markup to make sure search engines can understand what the dickens is supposed to be ranking where, there are plenty of considerations to make sure you get off on the right foot. Skip this stuff over at your peril – if I had a nickel for every international setup I’ve seen that winds up with the US site version ranking everywhere in English because of improper (or total lack of) markup, I’d have a whole bagful of nickels… to flick at the foreheads of people who ignore international SEO tech requirements.

The technical stuff aside, though, getting your international SEO setup right can also go a long way to improve and establish your brand’s reputation and credibility in new markets. Aside from the need to appear prominently in the organic results, making sure that everything is configured to offer a smooth user experience for global visitors will go a long way to building trust and getting a decent baseline conversion rate to build on.

Plus it builds traffic, and revenue, and all that other good stuff, of course.

International SEO gets money... there are more steps than this though

Local SEO vs international SEO

Local SEO, as the name suggests, has its focus on helping a website to rank well in specific local areas or regions – these could be as broad as “Linlithgowshire” or as focused as “south west Llandudno near the big golf club,” depending on what your business needs (and where it is located). This is driven a lot by content tailoring, local offsite signalling (PR and links) and Google My Business / maps optimisation, which is heavily influenced by reviews.

International SEO, on the other hand, is all about getting the website to rank in bigger new places to the scale of states, countries, or even continents. It includes the need to (potentially) cover multiple languages, dialects, cultures, and search patterns. Query and landscape research becomes more complex to help inform meaningful content creation, with translation and/or localisation of content also needed depending on the target markets.

It can even cover differences in technical setup and optimisation requirements between countries; most of the world may speak Google, but you won’t get very far on that platform if you’re trying to market to mainland China, where Baidu is the search engine of choice. Venturing into Korea? You might (still) want to take Naver’s eccentricities into account. And Yahoo, of all things, still has a vaguely meaningful market share in Japan, of all places, so there’s that to consider too.

Another factor that often gets forgotten (other than the need to take your link and PR strategy international too) is that it may often be required, or at least highly recommended, to adapt your website’s design elements to appeal to different cultures. This could mean UI changes (for example for Semitic languages, which “read” right to left, so the whole site needs to be “flipped”), to the use of different fonts and images or even colours, and making sure things are easy to navigate.

Another key difference between local and international SEO is the need to adapt your website’s design and user experience to different cultures and languages. This may involve using different fonts, colours, and images to appeal to different audiences, as well as ensuring that your website is easy to navigate and use for users in different countries. Otherwise chances are it won’t convert, which rather defeats the point of the whole exercise.

Make sure the visitors convert, or why bother?

Identifying the international SEO needs of your business

Before you diving off into the deep end of agencies and consultants and localisation, you should decide what kind of support you actually need – especially as a lot of the time this will help you to understand how viable it actually is for your business to venture into these new territories.

Technical international SEO vs content localisation

The technical setup parts of international SEO use a different skillset to content translation and localisation. I can tell you how to set up the correct markups and how to configure your language tags as an SEO consultant, but I can barely say “hello” in anything other than English. So there may or may not be an overlap there, which is why a lot of international businesses like to use agencies instead so they can get all their technical and localisation stuff done under one (figurative roof).

Language translation vs localisation

Again these are two quite different things. The world is full of translation agencies (and automated tools… yuck) that can take the words buy my stuff and convert it to acheter mes affaires or kjøpe tingene mine or whatever you like, but while it may get you off and moving, often this isn’t sufficient to actually do well in SEO terms.

Proper localisation is more than just 1-1 technically correct translation; it involves localising query research, understanding how that local target audience searches for information, and the cultural nuances that can affect how they interact with your website. This can be everything from preferred payment methods and providers to any of the design and UX factors already mentioned above.

Heck, you can see the challenge of this even in English differences between, say, the US and UK. Trousers vs pants, for example, is a well-known one. Panties and knickers. Tights and pantyhose. Sweaters and jumpers. High heeled shoes and pumps. Thongs and g-strings (ooh-err).

And thong means something entirely different again in the Australian market! So with all that to consider just from “one” language with different dialectal and cultural implications, imagine how many faux-pas and poor targeting decisions you might be making when you’re translating into a different mother tongue entirely.

PS: you’ll want to make sure your customer service teams can handle multiple languages, too. No point trying to engage with people in Japan (or wherever) if nobody on the service side can speak (or read) a lick of Japanese (or whatever).

Gotta have the local lingo to do well in international SEO

Finding your international SEO consultant (or whatever)

Once you’ve established what you need (tech setup support, UX support, translators/localisers) you can go shopping for help. Of course unless you’re willing to shell out big bucks for a multinational agency it’s unlikely you’ll find everything you need under one roof, but as a rough guideline these are the kinds of things you’re looking for in your international SEO team.

Proven international SEO experience

What have they deployed where, how often do they do this kind of work, and how well does it go? Do they have case studies and (ideally) client referrals or references you can speak to? What are their general SEO creds as well as their international launch experience? Some international SEO consultants will specialise in some locales (China, for example, or Europe, or the Middle East etc) while others are purely technical setup folks, and some are solely content localisers who specialise in linguistic and query research nuance but don’t know much about the architecture side of things. Some will specialise in PR or link building in particular territories. That’s not necessarily a problem, as long as you can get all your bases covered sensibly.

Proven SEO growth experience

It’s unlikely you start as an international SEO consultant, so don’t be afraid to ask about non international deployment creds too. All the usual caveats about case studies and client testimony apply here of course, as do the blend of sub-disciplines, but a good question to ask here is about growth, not just setup. Sure, you can help me set up and deploy a website in Arabic, but can you then build me a strategy to grow business in the UAE via organic channels? Your international SEO consultant may not speak the local lingo (especially if they’re more of a techie type), but they absolutely should be able to articulate and discuss the essential building blocks for growth in a new market post deployment.

Industry and location familiarity

It’s always good to get someone with sector expertise involved – be that as broad as eCommerce vs lead generation or as specific as “sure, I’ve helped launch sportswear brands into the west coast of the USA before.” Finding someone with the right locale and granular sector experience might seem like a unicorn hunt, but you’ll be surprised if you look and ask around. That kind of background just can’t be beaten when it comes to value for money – a consultant with the right experience combination is going to be able to provide all sorts of insights and strategic tips that will help you to bypass obstacles and get things moving in the right direction with minimal hiccups.

The best international SEO consultants just know things

How to find a good international SEO consultant

Um… have you tried Google?

But no, seriously, there’s no single correct way to find a good international SEO consultant for launch and/or growth strategies. Sure, you could just search engine it and see who has the most time to spend on SEO-ing their own stuff rather than doing work for their clients (ahem) or which agencies seem to be leading the charge in the space (or are, often unironically, using PPC to bid for SEO terms), but there are other places to look too.

Referrals from professional networks are often a goldmine. Ask around colleagues and peers who may have been in similar shoes and find out who they worked with – it may well give you some names to avoid as much as ones to seek out! If you want to do it all by the numbers you could go down a more formal RFP route, which is common for those seeking an agency especially, but that may or may not be right for everyone. Bear in mind too that the really good international SEO consultants –  the really good consultants in any field, truth be told – will rarely be immediately available, so plan your timelines accordingly and start that research early on. The best folks are kept busy – there’s a reason why that is.

All the best international SEO consultants tend to be busy

Without delving into the intricacies of rel alt hreflang markup, Accept-Language GET requests and various other niggling minutae, that’s probably the most meaningful we can get in terms of guidance for finding the right international SEO consultant for your business. Just remember that taking your business into new markets is a big challenge, and it’s okay to ask questions and just be plain bewildered at various points (well, unless you’re some kind of infinitely polyglottal super-person) – what you really need on hand is a team that can put your mind at ease and give you the confidence to take this big step. That might be a techie consultant and a fleet of native localisers, it might be a big multinational agency with boots on the ground in your new target territories, or any combination thereof or point in between. The most critical thing is finding the right fit for your business.