An increasing number of UK manufacturers are looking to expand their offerings overseas to both Europe and further afield. With uncertainty around Brexit increasing by the day, manufacturers are looking to diversify their sales pipelines and safeguard their businesses.
In response we thought we would produce the following guide specifically for UK manufacturers based on our own best practice approach to international SEO and research on the subject.
What Do We Mean by International SEO and Why Is It Important for UK Manufacturers?
When we talk about international SEO, we are referring to the ability to be found via search engines within the geographic target region. For example, if you are a UK manufacturer and are targeting sales in France, you want to have a valid search presence for searchers in France, not just in the UK.
To be visible on Google within your target area, there are a number of optimisation steps that need to be followed:
- Choose a domain structure that Google can read as referring to the target geographic area
- Translate your content into the appropriate language for the target area
- Optimise your websites meta tags to provide further indicators to Google and other search engines that your website and business is located or serves users in the target geographic area
- Local link building and SEO within the target search area
International SEO is a vital part of the success of overseas expansion plans for UK based manufacturers as it increases their online visibility. Without these steps, users would need to append keywords such as UK, English or the like in order to return their websites in search results. This is largely due to modern algorithms taking geolocation into account and prioritising local search results that are more likely to match a searcher’s intent.
Choose a Domain Structure for International SEO: root domains, ccTLD’s, subfolders and subdomains
Domains are an essential component to international SEO. It’s part of your brand and will dictate how your customers find you. Before we launch in to this discussion, we’ve provided a quick glossary to help you get the most out of this article:
TLD: Top level domain or the base domain of your website. For The Art Lab, it is theartlab.co.uk. A country neutral option would be theartlab.com, theartlab.net, or theartlab.tv.
ccTLD: Country-specific top-level domain that are assigned by ICANN. For example, The Art Lab using the UK ccTLD, theartlab.co.uk.
Subdomain: A designed section of a domain that is designated by letters preceding the top-level domain. For example, a subdomain named “anything” of The Art Lab’s website would be anything.theartlab.co.uk.
Subfolder: A subfolder is really just an assigned url part that can be used to create a specific pattern. For example, the subfolder here is the “fr” part of theartlab.co.uk/fr or theartlab.co.uk/fr/anything.
What is Your Company’s TLD and Is It Optimised for International Expansion?
When we are approached by UK manufacturers who are looking to expand into international markets, the majority have a co.uk domain, or example.co.uk. Although this works great for local or UK SEO, Google automatically associates this top-level domain as in the UK. In fact, you don’t have any options to target this content to any other geographic location. That does not mean it will never be found online via a search engine by user outside of the UK, but it does mean that it will not be favoured by algorithms attempting to display local or more meaningful results to a particular country or geographic target.
To combat this, when we work with UK manufacturers to increase their visibility abroad, we advise a domain change to a .com rather than a .co.uk. A .com address is seen as nationally ambiguous and could be located in any country around the world. All domain and page authorities from a pre-existing .co.uk are transferred via properly implemented 301 redirects so that no local, UK SEO is lost during the process.
Subfolders, the Easiest Way to Target Internationally
A subfolder or dedicated URL path to language or geographically targeted content is the easiest way to approach international SEO from a domain perspective. This would take the form of the following URL if you were targeting France: example.com/fr. Using Google’s Search Console, you can indicate that you are targeting users in France using the French language (see the discussion on language tags below).
There are many benefits to this approach. First, you are not creating a new website, just content that is located at that URL string. For example, a standard about page would be located at example.com/fr/about, while the English, UK-focused page would be located at example.com/about. These pages automatically inherit the Domain Authority of your home domain and require the least effort and cost to setup.
A great use case for a subfolder setup is when you have a domain targeted a country that has two official or dominant languages. A working example would be a website targeting users in Wales both in English and Welsh. You can this setup in use for the official Wales website where the English website is available at https://wales.com versus the Welsh https://wales.com/cymraeg.
The main negative with subfolders is that it does not necessarily convey to a user that you are a local company. In the UK context, users are accustomed to seeing a .co.uk address, not a example.com/uk. Additionally, the domain will need to be hosted in the same location, not allowing you to offer a locally hosted domain which can have positive SEO results.
ccTLD’s and Subdomains, Which Are Better for UK Manufacturers Selling Abroad?
Using both ccTLD’s and subdomains are both valid approaches to international SEO and come with their own pros and cons. As they are treated as separate entities by Google, there is no need to directly attribute a geotarget to them in the Search Console. They also offer increased flexibility for hosting options if you choose to host your domain locally for increased SEO potential.
Using subdomains to purposefully target geographical zones is a good approach that saves companies money in terms of domain purchases and extra hosting. Under most hosting packages you can add sub domains without extra charge. To return to the previous example of example.com, to target users in France, we would use the subdomain fr.example.com.
Subdomains have the added advantage that you can choose to host them in other locations. For example, if you were targeting France, hosting the site in France will provide an additional local indicator via the site’s IP address and lead to faster delivery speeds due to the server’s physical proximity to its target audience.
The only drawback of using a subdomain is user experience. In markets where local indicators are important, a local ccTLD can be of great use. For users in the UK, the ccTLD of .co.uk is a common or normalised indicator of a local company. In other countries such as Canada, a .ca is a local indicator, however the use of .com addresses is highly prolific amongst Canadian companies, negating the importance of a .ca address.
With ccTLD’s, however, there is no confusion or debate on whether a domain should be considered local by search engines and users alike. A .fr, .de, or .co.uk are all clear indicators of locality and are respected by all parties.
The major barrier for companies using ccTLD’s is the cost and administrative burden. Every domain needs to be purchased and managed. For your average manufacturer or company, this can be strenuous.
Developing a Plan and Strategy for Growth
Since all three strategies of domain structure are valid, it is important to start planning from the beginning and outline your company’s goals from the start. We suggest the following setups based on real world scenarios we have worked on in the past.
Subfolders – Quick and Easy
Use when you have content that either targets multiple languages in the same country, or, if only limited content will be translated. If the plan is only to offer a landing page for each country or language rather than a full site offering, keep it simple with subfolders and define your targets using Google’s Search Console.
Subdomains – Room to Grow with Less Administrative Burden
Use when you are planning on offering full websites with different geographical targets. An example would be if you have a UK, Spain and France store, then having subdomains for each country, or, one for the UK and two for Spain and France make sense. This will allow you to quickly add new subdomains and countries.
ccTLD’s – All in with the Team to Support It
If you are planning on only targeting a few countries or have a larger team that can handle the administrative burden, then go all in with ccTLD’s. This will allow you your best shot at local SEO in each country.
English is Not Good Enough – Working with Multiple Languages
Moving into another country’s marketplace means adapting to their norms and practices. Although English is a language spoken in many countries, for targeting search performance using local, colloquial language will offer the best results.
Translation into Local Languages
If you are targeting users in non-English speaking countries, having your content professionally translated into the appropriate language is not only advised, but absolutely necessary. We emphasise here professionally translated. Google Translate is a useful tool, but it is not capable of translating complex content with sufficient accuracy. Find a reliable translator and have that translation checked by a qualified native speaker.
We will go into technical components of making sure that language tags are configured correctly later on, but the language of a page is a major indicator for Google when it is returning search results. To make sure your manufacturer’s website is properly optimised, make sure to fully translate any page including any navigational, footer or header content that is duplicated between language pages. Depending on the complexity of the website, its navigation alone can make up a substantial percentage of its overall content. This way there is no confusion during crawls as to which language your content is in.
A Quick Note on Languages and Flags
Stylistically it makes a lot of sense to include tiny flags to indicate that a website is available in multiple languages. We whole-heartedly agree with Moz [https://moz.com/blog/guide-to-international-seo] on this one. They can be used to indicate countries only. A British flag would come to represent the English spoken in the USA, Canada, Australia, etc. The same goes for Arabic, Spanish, French and Portuguese. It’s better practice to use country names, language codes or a combination of the two to avoid confusion for your end users.
International Keyword Targeting
Keyword research needs to be completed in each country and language that is being targeted. Basing your translated content around relevant keywords in English will not achieve optimal SEO levels. Take the time to have your keywords validated in your target language and then do your research in your focus geographic area. You may need to enlist help from a local SEO expert depending on your comfort level with different languages.
This advice should also be applied in geographic areas that predominantly speak the same language. Using English as an example, there are large differences in idioms and local dialects between English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada and the UK, not to mention between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Your keyword list should take into account local differences in language to be increase traffic.
The Technical Side of International SEO – Language, hreflang, hosting and CDN’s
We are going to go over this side of things quickly as this post is not a how-to, but rather a high-level guide. To summarise this section: you should tell a search engine what language content is in, if it’s available in any other content, and make the content physically available as close as possible to the target market.
The opening tag of this document is, predictably, . There are several attributes that can be included with it, however the one of importance here is the ‘lang’ attribute. The ‘lang’ attribute allows you to officially set the language of the document and the web page. Google no longer takes this tag into account and is now smart enough to detect what language a website is in on its own (think of the ‘would you like to translate this page prompt?’ in Chrome, the development has long been in the making). Bing, however, still uses this tag as an indicator of usage.
Best practice indicates that you include it if your website or domain is targeting multiple languages or geographic locations.
The hreflang tag is more important than the ‘lang’ parameter as it tell search engines that the content that it is crawling is also available in other languages for other countries.
This is where the division between language and country becomes important. A properly formatted hreflang tag includes a two letter language identifier (ISO 639-1), and optionally a two letter country code (ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2). An example of this code for French content for users in France would look like this:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/" hreflang="fr-fr" />
To be clear this can get confusing and lead to several errors. You can read Google’s post on this and for information on the x-default tag to help you go into more detail. In multi-site setups on subdomains and ccTLD’s this can be complex and requires detailed planning, strategic maintenance, and frequent reviews.
To be clear, this tag is to be used to tell Google of where duplicate, translated content exists. If your content is also targeted to different countries but in the same language, it is also good to include an hreflang tag, such as hreflang=”en-us” or hreflang=”en-gb” to make it clear which content is targeted where. It is arguable that if you create sufficiently different content that is targeted locally, the addition of these tags is not necessary. We would argue that, if done properly, they provide an additional indicator to Google regarding duplicate content, language and geographical targeting.
Local Hosting and Using Content Delivery Networks
Concerns over local and non-local hosting is predominantly over two issues: does your website have a local IP and is the server located close enough to offer the best speed possible?
Local IP’s were really important in the pre-cloud hosting era. With companies like Amazon’s AWS on the market now, it is becoming more and more normal for websites to be hosted at centralised locations and not necessarily in the target’s market.
Today’s concern over where you host your website is all about page load times and delivery speed. Logically, if you host your website in India but your users are in the UK, your website will be slower than if you hosted it in the UK. This is simply a product of the distance that data must travel in order to be displayed on a computer screen.
In order to ensure fast load times but to simplify hosting setups, it is now common to use Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) to load specific elements or parts of a website. This approach can significantly increase speed and decrease page load times if the CDN is physically closer to the user. Many shared hosts now even offer this service at very low cost and CMS systems such as WordPress come ready and optimised for CDN use.
Local SEO – Local Business Registrations and Link Building
When we are optimising local companies for search engine visibility within the UK, part of our focus is making sure that all appropriate business registrations are filled out and pointing to the company’s website. This not only helps users find their website via other means than search, but it provides engines like Google positive indicators that this website is indeed reputable, serves the target area where the search is being conducted, and is relevant the user’s search query.
For UK manufacturers who are expanding overseas, it is vital to conduct the same optimisation within their geographic target areas. The exact nature of this will differ depending on the individual company’s scenario, but the more successful registrations you can complete on reputable sites the more positive local indicators will be associated with your website.
Of special note here is Google Business accounts. In order to create a local Google Business account and profile, you will need a physical address within the country you are targeting. This is not always possible, however it is something to consider during your company’s expansion, although it does add significant administrative and legal complications.
Local Link Building
Completing business registrations is a form of link building, however it is also advisable that you develop other links to locally significant websites. There are several strategies that can be implemented to accomplish this, however a few are tried and tested and completely sound:
- Link to locally important websites from your own content
- Draft up a PR strategy and publish press releases. These can be picked up by local media news outlets and contribute to your local presence.
Tying It All Together – Make Yourself an International SEO Strategy
Although this post is far from exhaustive and only covers the basics of international SEO in broad strokes, there is an inherent complexity that requires significant planning before any action is taken.
Take the time to create your strategy, identify future growth areas and make allowances for unforeseen developments so that you can remain proactive and successful in your target markets.