By Vanessa Fox
A few weeks ago, I organized and moderated several sessions at SMX London. One of those sessions was about international SEO, which in part, touched on the issues related to having content available for multiple countries and languages. What’s the best way to make sure that searchers in a particular country or speaking a particular language are able to easily find the content you have available for them?
Last week, I was reading Eric Ward’s column Now Is the Winter of Linking’s Discontent, where he writes:
Personalized search results have been with us for a while, but this patent [about Google’s personalized search patent that Bill Hartzer discssuses on his blog] is chock full of link building implications. I’d say this is especially true for web sites trying to do business in multiple countries but offering their content in only one language. And if you take the time and effort to truly make your content available in other languages, do you also need to host that other language content on a server based in that country if you want to rank well for searches originating from that country? What about duplicate content? Aren’t French and German versions of a site, if hosted in France and Germany, duplicate? Hmmm.
These questions came up at SMX London as well. How do search engines sort out content targeted for particular languages and regions and what are the best practices for making sure you’re being seen by your target audience?
How search engines determine the geographic intent of the searcher
Search engines try to display the most relevant results possible to a searcher. The language of the searcher, the searcher’s geographic location, way the searcher accesses the search engine, and language or regional intent in the query are all factors the search engines consider when determining relevance. Since queries are generally three to four words long, search engines use all the signals they can beyond the query to figure out what searchers are really looking for.
For instance, if a searcher is in Ireland searches for [airline booking], they’ll likely get a very different list of results than a searcher in the United States, as the results will skew towards Irish airlines. But this doesn’t just happen at the country level. If a searcher in Seattle searches for [pizza], they’ll likely get more Seattle-based pizza listings than a searcher in Boston would. And for Google in particular, a searcher who’s logged into a Google account and has set a default location in Google maps may get even more targeted results. Google has made this option more visible lately, and for queries they think may have local intent, they offer a zip code option:
In addition, a searcher will get get different results:
- Searching google.fr from the US.
- Searching google.fr from France.
- Searching google.fr and choosing “French pages”
- Searching google.fr and choosing “pages from France”
And, as you might imagine, including a geographic location in the query impacts results as well. A search for [restaurant in Dublin] returns different results than [restaurant], regardless of the other signals. And searching in a particular language will generally return results in that language. For instance, look at the results for the query [donde esta los cabos] from a US IP address on google.com:
So, to recap, some ways search engines determine regional intent include:
- Domain accessed (google.co.uk vs. google.fr)
- Language-restriction (only search French pages)
- Country-restriction (only search pages in France)
- Location of searcher (at the country level, as well as more local levels, such as the city)
- Locational or language intent in the query
- Searcher’s default location (such as set in Google Maps)
- The language the query was composed in
Remember that search engines make slight tweaks to their algorithms all the time as they test what changes improve results. As personalized search becomes more important, it would make sense that if a searcher generally clicks on results in a particular language or country, pages in that language or from that country may start to appear more often for that searcher.
Note that I’m mixing language and region together a bit for the purposes of this article, although they are, of course different. And issues can crop up because there’s not a one-to-one mapping between language and country. For instance, if someone is searching for Spanish pages, should a search engine return pages from both Mexico and Spain? (Probably if the query is language-specific but not regional; and perhaps search engines should use the country associated with the site as a signal for the language the site is in.) Conversely, if you have a site that targets Spanish speakers, do you need separate sites for both Mexico and Spain? (Maybe not if your content isn’t regional, but how then do you ensure your content is returned for searchers in both Mexico and Spain?)
How search engines determine the relevance of the page
Once a search engine decides what is relevant for the query, what signals from the pages come into play? They include the following:
- Top-level domain (TLD): Many domains can only be used for a particular country. For instance, .fr always signifies a domain in France. TLD could potentially be used as a signal in determining language as well. a .fr domain is likely to have French content.Many domains, however, aren’t country-specific. .com, .net, and .org are well-known examples, but some countries allow their domains to be used by anyone. For instance, .tv is the TLD for Tuvalu, but that country has negotiated an agreement to make the TLD available for anyone ).The exception to the standard seems to be .us. While it’s intended for US-based domains, it hasn’t really taken off, and .com is much more commonly used.
- Server location: For domains that are not country-specific (such as .com or .tv), search engines use the geographic location of the server where the site is hosted to determine country. For instance, a .com hosted in Canada is seen as a Canadian site and a .com hosted in Australia is seen as an Australian site.
- Google Webmaster Tools setting: Google Webmaster Tools includes an option for specifying the geographic location of a site. This option isn’t available if the TLD is country-specific. This setting basically replaces the server hosting location signal. This option is useful not only because you can host your domain anywhere and still set a location, but also because you can set each subdomain and subfolder of your site separately, if you’d like. For instance, you can set es.mysite.com or mysite.com/es to Spain and uk.mysite.com or mysite.com/uk to the United Kingdom. The disadvantage to this solution is that it only works for Google.
- Location of incoming links: If 90% of the incoming links to a site are from Germany, then search engines figure the site is German, or at the very least, of interest to German searchers.
- Language of pages: Again, language is technically a different relevance factor than country, but the two go hand in hand. If a site is in French, then it’s likely a site from France. The biggest signal used here is probably (as you might imagine), the language of the text on the pages. This criteria isn’t foolproof. What if the page includes multiple languages, for instance? The meta data and character encoding can help here. For instance, if you are translating your English pages into other languages, don’t forget to translate your title tag and meta description tag as well.
- Address: For local queries (for instance, that [pizza] query from a Seattle searcher, search engines might use the physical address it finds on the page, as well as any information from the search engine’s local index (for example, Google’s Local Business Center). If your site is for a local business, make sure you include your full address and register with each engine’s local index.Even if your site isn’t specifically for a local business, you may want to include regional signals on your site. For instance, if your site is windycityrestaurantreviews.com, and you have a page about each Chicago restaurant, you might assume that anyone coming to the site understands the context is Chicago, and that you don’t need to include “Chicago, IL” in each restaurant’s address. However, when a search engine sees “Joe’s Pizza, 123 Main St.”, there’s no indication that this restaurant is in Chicago. This can cause a usability issue with visitors coming to the site from search as well. Those visitors aren’t coming to the page from the home page that may say “Reviews of all Chicago Restaurants”. They may go directly from search to the page about Joe’s Pizza, and would need confirmation that 123 Main St. is indeed in Chicago.
How should a site owner architect a geographically targeted site?
Ideally, a company should maintain separate sites for each country, each with the correct TLD. When you do this, search engines can easily determine which page to show for searchers in different countries.
What about duplicate content?
Even if the content is the same across each site, you don’t need to worry about duplicate content. Remember that search engines generally don’t penalize for duplicate content, they filter. And in this case, filtering is exactly what you want. You want the search engine to show the UK page to searchers in the UK and filter out the US page. And that’s what search engines typically do.
If you are targeting only one country and have the .com rather than the correct TLD, make sure it’s hosted in the target country. (Check with your hosting company, if you use one, to verify where the server is actually located.)
Sounds easy enough, but this solution doesn’t work for everyone. You may not be able to get the TLD for every country you operate in, or for other infrastructure-related reasons, you may need to host all the content on the same domain. In that case, I would recommend the following:
- Putting content for each country on a subdomain or subfolder. (Either is fine; but if you’re starting from scratch and have a choice, I’d generally suggest going with a subdomain.)
- Ensuring all content (including title tag and meta description) is localized.
- Focusing on regional link-building efforts. For instance, make sure that your PR team is targeting newspapers in local regions, not just near the corporate office.
- Including location-specific terms in internal anchor text. For instance, you might want to create an HTML site map that links to each country’s “home page” on the domain.
More strength in one domain?
At SMX London, there was some debate about if it was better to have a single domain for all countries to consolidate PageRank, and if multiple domains (one for each country) would dilute the overall strength. Remember that relevance is a critical factor for search engine ranking and PageRank alone doesn’t equal relevance. A page that is deemed highly relevant for a query, but has low PageRank is going to rank above a page that has high PageRank but has low relevance.
With that in mind, TLD is a strong relevance factor for results in a particular country. As for the argument that it’s more work to build links to multiple sites than to one, I content it’s around the same, since even if you had the country-specific information on subdomains or in subfolders instead, you’d still want to build regional links to each. So, I would generally recommend TLDs if you can get them.
However, if you have a .com (for instance), with separate subdomains that you’ve been maintaining for a period of time, it probably makes sense to leave things as is and consider the other relevance factors (regional links, language of content, etc.). If you radically change your site structure (for instance, from subdomains to separate TLDs), you’ll need to have the content recrawled, reindexed, and reranked, and may need to change user perception, branding, link building efforts, among other things. And that may take some time. In a situation like this, I would recommend changing only if you’re having substantial problems getting the right content to be returned for the right country indices.
What about targeting multiple countries?
What if you want results returned to everyone? Or you have German content you want returned in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria? Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. In some cases, you’ll have to rely on the search engines to understand what results your pages are relevant for, but keep in mind that a more specific site may be seen as more relevant.
In some cases, other sites may be more relevant. For instance, if you have a US site in English that targets tourists worldwide, your content won’t be shown to searchers in France who select “only French pages”. And even if searchers don’t filter using that option, a site that has created content in French, targeted to tourists in France who are planning a visit to the US is likely to be seen as more relevant than your site targeting the world.
What about IP-Targeting?
Some sites detect the location of the visitor based on IP address, and redirect them to a country (or other location)-specific page. While this seems to be a user-friendly solution, some issues exist:
- The location may be incorrect. For instance, many AOL users appear to be coming from Virginia.
- The searcher may want a different location. For instance, when I was in Zurich, I still wanted the US Hertz site, but Hertz sent me to the Swiss site automatically and gave me no options for navigating elsewhere.
- Search engines need unique URLs in order to index content separately.
- Search engines crawl your site from a particular location, but you want all locations indexed.
If you have your site set to detect a visitor’s location and show content based on that, I would recommend the following:
- Serve a unique URL for distinct content. For instance, don’t show English content to US visitors on mysite.com and French content to French visitors on mysite.com. Instead, redirect English visitors to mysite.com/en and French visitors to mysite.com/fr. T hat way search engines can index the French content using the mysite.com/fr URL and can index English content using the mysite.com/en URL.
- Provide links to enable visitors (and seach engines) to access other language/country content. For instance, if I’m in Zurich, you might redirect me to the Swiss page, but provide a link to the US version of the page. Or, simply present visitors with a home page that enables them to choose the country. You can always store the selection in a cookie so vistors are redirected automatically after the first time.
Google isn’t the only search engine
Of course, Google and Yahoo and Live aren’t the only search engines. If you’re targeting other countries, research who the dominant search players are there and how to best optimize for them. Mona Elesseily recently wrote an article on Search Engine Land about international search markets, and while she was focusing on paid search, the players and numbers are similar for organic search.
An international strategy is about more than targeting
Of course, a lot more goes into creating localized content. You should localize, not just translate, the content. Searcher behavior and customer needs may be different from country to country. Even simple phrasing may be slightly different. Different PR efforts may be need to build awareness and links. And there are conversion factors to consider. At SMX London, several panelists pointed out that searchers are more likely to click search results that had their local TLDs in the domain, because they felt more confident those domains would give them localized content.
Hopefully, this article can help sort out some of the issues that arise when planning a global site strategy, but it’s certainly only a starting point.
(By Vanessa, who clearly is still working through technical blog issues.)