Back when I was in business school, I read a book that changed the way I thought about international business. This book was called “The World Is Flat” by Thomas Friedman. In it, Friedman chronicles his own path to realization that globalization of business due to innovation, technology, and information has led to a flattening of the global marketplace.

One of the top ten “flatteners” that he calls out in his book is “Informing”. Specifically, Google and other search engines enabling the availability of nearly any piece of information to any person with internet access across the globe. Not only do search engines provide the portal, they are also capable of processing an incredible amount of searches every day (back then it was about a billion searches per day, but now we’re pushing 4.5 billion per day on Google alone!)

So, how then can you get your information into the hands of someone searching on the other side of the world and be a competitor on the global market?

The answer is international search engine optimization - or, SEO.

What is International SEO?

International SEO is the process of enabling of your website(s) to become visible in search engines for the languages and countries in which you do business. Or, to put it more plainly, get your website in front of your customers regardless of what country they live in, language they speak, or search engine they use.

So then, how do you do that?

Well, there are many aspects that Google and other international search engines take into account when serving a web page in a search result. However, I’m going to share the top 3 things you’ll need to get right in order to win in international waters.

  1. Translation, Translation, Translation

It is said that the most important things in real estate are location, location, and location. Well, in terms of international SEO, the most important things are translation, translation, and translation.

Although you may think your website is all about you and your business, it’s not. Your website is actually a tool that your customers use to find answers to their questions and solutions to their problems. It is for this reason that accurate translation must occur as the first step in your internationalization.

 And no, I don’t mean use Google Translate or some other translation software to produce the translation. Here’s what you get if you do (example from a recent Baidu webmaster notification email):


Pretty bad, huh?

Instead, invest in a translation service from someone who actually speaks the native dialect of your target area. That way you are producing content that is valuable and relevant to the people searching in that country.

Failure to invest in translation upfront will result in lost revenue. Do this first.

  1. Get to Know the Hreflang Tag

What the heck is an “hreflang”?

Well, the hreflang tag (pronounced H-Ref-Lang) is the second most important thing you’ll need on your site. More specifically, the hreflang tag lets search engines know where there are other language variations of your pages.

Let’s say you have 3 primary countries that you do business in: The U.S., the U.K., and Spain. Because of this, you created 3 language versions of your homepage: US English, British English, and Spanish. You would use these tags across these three variations to tell search engines which is the proper version to index in each country. Those tags could look like something like this:


Hey Google in the US, please serve this page to English speakers:

Hey Google in the UK, please serve this page to English speakers:

Hola Google in Spain, please serve this page to Spanish speakers:

Super important: You must have all language versions declared on each version of every page – including a self-referencing tag for that page. Failure to include return tags will result in improper indexation and loss of visibility. So, get them right!

There’s a few different ways you can implement the hreflang tags:

  1. As an HTML link in the <head> section of a page
  2. In the HTTP header (for non-HTML files)
  3. Via the XML sitemap (this method is primarily useful for large-scale implementations)

Need some help creating your tags? Here’s a couple of resources that should make it much easier for you:

  1. Yoast’s Ultimate Hreflang Guide – Super informative and easy to understand, even for a beginner
  2. Aleyda Slois’s Hreflang Tags Generator Tool – Great way to quickly and easily generate the proper code (also check out her walk-through guide)
  3. Hreflang XML Sitemap Generator Tool by Peter Handley – An absolute life saver for those big implementations
  4. Dejan SEO’s Hreflang Validator – Great tool for identifying coding issues of your hreflang tags
  1. Technical SEO is (still) King!

That’s right, I said it. Without a strong technical foundation to your website, your content doesn’t have a chance to be found on the international marketplace.

How are your servers structured for your international sites? Is your robots.txt file blocking important pages? Are different search engines crawling your site differently?

Don’t know the answers to these questions? You should if you want to win against your global competitors.

Each search engine has its own set of guidelines, but they are all very similar in terms of the technical and on-page SEO requirements for your site. Check them out for yourself if you have the time:

I have long preached that technical SEO is the most important factor to get right on your site here in the US; but it is equally, if not more important, on the global organic playing field.

By paying attention to and optimizing these three details, your business should be competitive in the global organic marketplace.

Need help gaining some ground internationally? Drop us a line and our team of SEO experts will help you get your products and/or services flying off the digital shelf in any country across the globe in no time!