How to Win with International Technical SEO

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Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on techniques to drive global search success for your content marketing efforts. Read parts two and three.

Content discoverability is a business-critical function. Companies invest considerable money and resources in creating great content. But if that content isn’t search engine accessible in-market, what good is it?

According to Aoife McIlraith, Lionbridge’s Director of Global Search and Marketing Services, your ability to reach and stay connected to your customers with the right content – in the right place, at the right time – is hugely dependent on how your site is ranked by primary search engines. That means not only Google, but Baidu in China, Yandex in Russia, Naver in South Korea, Yahoo in Japan and many more.

“When it comes time to go global with search engine optimization and content discoverability,” McIlraith says, “there are three primary pillars that are critical to success: technical search, on-page optimization and off-page activities that drive quality links back to your site.”

In this post, we address technical search. We’ll tackle the other topics in upcoming installments.

First things first

Is technology standing in the way of your content being found by search engines and, in turn, potential customers?

“The biggest challenge I see with customers and their global SEO strategy is that they aren’t even aware that technical SEO is a requirement,” McIlraith attests. “Or they assume that their site has built-in SEO. The truth is, more than 90 percent of the time that isn’t the case.”

Conducting SEO technical-specific audits and fixes should be the first step to ensure your content is found and indexed by local search engines. Carry out a full technical search audit with international markets in mind. If you don’t have the resources or expertise to do it, bring in an expert global-search agency as a consultant.

Your global search audit, McIlraith says, should cover, at minimum, the following areas:

  • Site architecture
  • Site structure
  • Mobile/speed/AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages)
  • Geo-targeting
  • Structured data
  • Microdata
  • Duplicate content issues
  • Metadata
  • Google Search Console setups (and others as they apply)

“Start with those,” McIlraith says. “Learn what technical issues are standing in the way of your search engines easily finding, indexing and ranking your sites. Once you’ve found out what the technical issues are, address and fix them immediately.

“What’s the point in having invested in a local version of your site – all that time, money, the rounds of content reviews with legal, brand, marketing and sales – only to have an easily fixable technical issue prevent your great content from being found by your audience?”

Two aspects of an international technical SEO strategy that help ensure your website is indexed correctly are especially critical today: mobile and geo-targeting.

The importance of being mobile friendly

Google recently changed its mobile-friendly ranking-factor. (If you’d like to determine if your site is mobile compliant, Google offers a simple tool.)

Now, websites that aren’t mobile compliant won’t rank on a Google search on mobile devices. Your local market rankings and search results may begin to decline as a result.

But a further affect that’s critical to understand, McIlraith explains, is a potential drop in your current desktop ranking: “Whereas your site may have previously ranked well on desktop Google search results, if you do not have a mobile friendly site you may actually start seeing a decline in your desktop results.”

Google has been stressing for years the importance of being mobile friendly, making a lot of shifts and changes in that direction.

“Google has confirmed – which is unheard of – that they’re ‘testing’ a new ranking index. Our prediction is that this test is not a test at all, but a very clear statement of change that will roll out permanently,” McIlraith says.

“B2B companies that have not invested in mobile-first sites due to an incorrect strategy of ‘our traffic comes from desktop so why should we invest’ are now going to see the impact of ignoring these very clear statements from Google,” she says. “They may very well start seeing their desktop search results drop.”

If your site is already mobile-first and has responsive or dynamic design, McIlraith says, no action is required, and you should see no change.

“However,” she cautions, “if your site isn’t leveraging structured data, this is now highly recommended. The use of structured and microdata on sites will become even more critical for high [search engine results page] rankings within the year.”

International geo-targeting guides search engines

“The single biggest mistake on your site is not having a clear international geo-targeting strategy in place and telling the search engines which web pages should be shown in which markets,” McIlraith says.

The most effective technical tactic to ensure localized pages rank correctly is to leverage and implement the <hreflang> tag. “At a basic level,” she explains, “this tag tells the search engines that you have local versions of your site, and to serve up that local content in search results.”

If you don’t implement these tags correctly, she asserts, you cede control to the search engines.

“Without clearly telling Google which content you want to show, Google will serve up the content it thinks is most relevant, and, trust me, Google often gets in wrong, especially with multiple duplicate content,” she notes.

An example of international geo-targeting

ccTLD interference (country code Top Level Domain): Google showing the wrong language version of your site

Market:

  • Canada – French Audience

Site:

  • Localized French Canadian version of you web site mysite.com/fr-ca/product

Search:

  • Customer searches in Google.ca for a product you sell

Result:

  • Google shows your .com/fr-fr (French France) product page in Canada search results mysite.com/fr-fr/product
  • Google is driving your potential Canadian customer to the wrong French version of your site
  • Ignored the correct Canadian French product page

Customer Impact: 

  • Under-optimized user journey, frustrated customers
  • Potential drop out of sales funnel

Search Impact:

  • No clear instruction to search engines
  • .com/fr-ca/product pages not indexed or found
  • No ROI for correct fr-ca pages
  • High bounce rates
  • Major duplicate content issues
  • All leading to a lower or no search results

“This is such a basic technical error with a very large impact to business,” McIlraith says. “Implement geo-targeting with the correct international <href-lang> and you’ll reverse incorrect search results and future-proof your new content.”’

In our next installment, we’ll discuss on-page optimization.

Read next: Part 2 – Global On-Page SEO: What It Is, and Where to Start

> Global search is an important element of global content and customer experience. To learn how manage an efficient workflow for global content, SEO translation, and localization, download the eBook, A Marketer’s Guide to Global Customer Experience Management.

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