Your in-depth guide to international SEO

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International SEOInternational SEO projects are not only very exciting, but also a source of preoccupation since they require such an effort from both technical and economic perspectives.

Technical implementation is usually a weak point of these projects. After revising various information from different sources, as well as our own international projects, I have created an in-depth guide.

The selection of targeted markets is a crucial initial part of international SEO projects, but following this you have to prepare to attack those segments from technical, content and popularity strategies perspectives.

What will be your project structure?

Depending on your resources and goals, you should choose between having different project sites under different domains, folders or subdomains.

The best option from a geo-targeting point of view is to choose different ccTLD domains based on destination countries’ servers (with targeted country IP). This would maximise the geographical factor by combining it with meta-geo tags, resulting in enough information being provided to search engines about the different combinations of countries and language versions.

Difficulty surrounding website control is inversely proportional to design and web structure freedom. On one hand you can use different domains and offer tailored styles based on destination market preferences, which is great from a marketing perspective. On the other hand you will need to expend more time and resources, which increases risk from a ROAS (return on advertising spend) timeline perspective. This is because you will need more time for implementing and managing procedures, as well as for recovering your initial expenses.

The number of results you will be able to get on SERPs may vary depending on the structure too. Using different domains, you will have more chances to get the maximum number of results in each market. This is because Google generally tries to keep the SERP page diverse by showing a maximum of two results per domain/subdomain.

The site link support (links to internal pages that appear in SERP results) is available for subdomains and folders since they belong to the same domain. Therefore, you won’t find sitelinks referred to one country domain for a ccTLD not intended for the main domain.

Trustworthy factors from a popularity point of view, like Domain Authority, can be in part inherited for subdomains and folder, granting folder more importance. Obviously this can’t be inherited to different ccTLD since they are different sites under different domains and in different servers.

Link structure is quite different for subdomains/folders and domains. If you are working with folders, you can manipulate internal linking strategies to let your most important pages enjoy the maximum amount of importance.

Regarding subdomains, you have to be sure of having links pointing to them from your domain.  For separate domains, you should keep them interlinked but always in a white-hat way (no hidden links), while also indicating that these are your sites for each market with meta-geo tags.

A general recommendation would be to get pages linking internally to all related/value-adding pages. For example:

  • linking to
  • linking to
  • linking to

Link-building actions differ depending on if you are working with domains/subdomains or folders. You should create different campaigns for the first case, which can be more expensive and will need more technical resources.

But since they are different projects in different servers with different IPs, your capacity for ROAS recovering after penalties, in case you make some link building mistake or suffer a penalty, would be higher.

A general recommendation would be to have enough inbound quality links from the market you are targeting if they are ccTLD from the desired country.

When it comes to measuring difficulty, resources needed and results, this table should give a relative measure about the above different options:

GEO Targeting Website Control Design &  Structure Freedom SERPs Sitelinks Trustworthy  inherited Link Building Link Structure Total
Domains 100 25 100 100 50 25 50 25 475
Subdomains 50 50 50 50 100 50 25 50 425
Folder 25 100 25 25 100 100 50 100 525

The folders option is the most recommended of the three; it is also the most used. However, as mentioned above, everything depends of your resources and goals.

Having versions settledby hreflang

When you have multiple versions of a website targeting different countries that speak the same language, it is easy to suffer from duplication issues. To prevent the Google Bot becoming confused, you have to show the correct version of the content by adding some tags that indicate which version has to be showed for different country/language versions.

There are three different ways following Google guidelines to do this:

  • HTML link attribute in <head> section: If you have versions targeting different countries that speak the same language, it is a good idea to indicate which content should be shown for each of them. An example from Google Support is the following:

Imagine you have different sites targeting different English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada or Australia. You also like to show a general English content for the rest of English speakers and for anyone else you want to show your home page.

Thus you would like to show specifically one content for each of this countries and a general English content for the rest of English speakers. In all sections, you should include the following tags in your header section <head>:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-ie” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-ca” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-au” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”x-default” />

The supported countries-languages can be found here and here.

And don’t forget that as Google says: “If you have multiple language versions of a URL, each language page must identify all language versions, including itself.”

  • HTTP header: If you want to publish non-HTML files like a PDF, you can use HTTP headers to indicate that a different language version of the URL exists.

<>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”es” />

  • Sitemap: Add some tags and values to your different sites’ sitemaps about languages and countries versions.

You have to add for any single URL in your site that has a version for another country-language the following attributes: rel, hreflang and href. In the example of our fashion website English folder, for noting our German language versions for Deutschland and Switzerland, our sitemap would include:






href=” /deutsch/”





href=” /schweiz-deutsch/”





href=” /english/”



Please note that all versions of an URL has to be included.

Read the Google guidelines, or click here for information on hreflang with sitemaps.

About link building

As we are working in different markets, we have to get links that send relevant signals, so gaining links from the country we are targeting is crucial. We should get inbound links from sites with ccTLD from our target country and websites that are targeting and hosted in that market.

Always think about what kind of sites are linking the benchmark sites in each country, as that will help you develop the whole picture of the link profile required per market and industry.

About content

As well as carrying out different keyword research for any country-language, it is also a good idea to have different content for alternate versions of an URL. This is not only for SEO but also for identifying appropriate expressions for any single market. Countries that speak the same language use different expressions, so it is interesting from a pure marketing perspective to take this approach in your internal and external content strategies, to increase the chance of engaging local users.

In conclusion, you can choose any one of these three ways of internationalisation. However, always keep in mind how far your resources can go. Try to play it safe wherever possible too. If you are not sure about how to face your international strategy just contact us; we will be happy to help!


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