Last year I worked on a cool international SEO research piece for a business that was considering expanding to sell internationally. It was a neat project that helped me to bring together a bunch of things to form a process for how to work out if a business could (or couldn’t) start selling to other countries via SEO. If that’s something you’re planning maybe this will help you too?
SELLING INTERNATIONALLY WITH SEO CHECKLIST:
The different areas I’ll be taking a look into are:
Understanding what we’re working with
What countries could we target?
What the demand is in different countries for different products
How competitive different countries are for different products
Working out whether using SEO would be useful to sell
None of what you’re about to read covers the technical elements of International SEO. If you’re after that then check out the fantastic work Aleyda Solis has completed.
WHO WAS THE CLIENT?
I can’t say. Sorry. What I can say is that they’re an established eCommerce business based in the UK using Shopify. They sell tech products to a fairly niche market with an average order at around £300+. Their plans for international expansion were loose but something they were keen to do.
UNDERSTANDING WHAT WE’RE WORKING WITH
Before starting anything I needed to get an idea of how the current website is performing. So step 1 was naturally a full SEO Audit of the site. Identifying any issues up front meant the problems wouldn’t be replicated as more and more countries are targeted. Plus, if I can improve their visibility in the UK it would only mean more sales from an already busy market.
Around 1 month later and we had a solid checklist of things which needed working on. A bunch of technical upgrades were made by the developer. A bunch of copy upgrades were made by a copywriter. All the correct pages were indexed and we were good to go.
The work also gave me a much clearer understanding of how they sat within the UK market. Their average rankings for their main money keywords wasn’t bad by any stretch - but there was definite room for improvement.
Next up was to build a core list of keywords which we would like to see the website rank for (both UK and internationally). For this site this was a pretty easy job as each product category was essentially what we were after. So, in a short space of time we had around 20 key phrases as our starting list. A couple of more generic big money keywords and the rest more specific phrases with lower search volumes but things that would still be perfect to rank for.
Let’s call this our seed list.
WHAT COUNTRIES COULD WE TARGET?
Using the above work as our starting point the next task was to establish from a list of around 10 countries which would be the most suitable to target.
My goals were to get a feel for 3 key areas: the demand, the competition and the languages used - all which would impact on SEO performance. This would then feed into a wider business plan which takes into account the complexities of shipping, trade legislation and so on.
First up was to make a list of the dominant language spoken in each country. Simple enough. So let’s run with an example. Let’s take 5 countries - Germany, France, Canada, Brazil and Spain. All countries which could buy the clients products.
Dominant language in Germany: German
Dominant language in France: French
Dominant language in Canada: English
Dominant language in Brazil: Portuguese
Dominant language in Spain: Spanish
(Quite quickly you realise the number of other languages which are spoken in a country so it’s worth making a note of what other languages are widely spoken and by what percent of people)
Next we have to get a feel for how many people are searching for what we’re selling.
We do this twice. Once for understanding demand in English. Once again for the native language.
At this point what we’re essentially looking for is which language in which country has the highest demand as that (in theory) is the best source of new business for us.
To get the translations of each word on our seed list using Google translate seems to be a fine solution. (You can always search Google using the translated word to see the results it shows to check you’re onto the right thing). However, if you’re going after a bigger list or a country where a Latin script isn’t widely used then you will need to bring in the services of a translator.
Starting with English searches this is easy enough to do as we use our seed list, add this into Google Keyword Planner and adjust the target country to see the average monthly search volume.
Next is to repeat the process for your list of translated words. Run the words through Google Keyword Planner again - making sure you adjust your country AND language settings - and you should end up with a graph that looks something like this….
This is where you start seeing things like:
Countries like Brazil have a much greater demand for searching in Portuguese than in English so making sure our content is optimised for the Portuguese market makes more sense
International countries like Canada are already speaking English either way so the demand hasn’t changed
Countries like France might have a greater preference for using English for your search terms (even if English isn’t the dominant language spoken normally) so optimising for English in France could make sense
You can continue to repeat this process by looking at the other languages spoken in a country. For example we might also want to get a feel for what the demand is for our keywords in the French Canadian market or the Spanish speaking market in Brazil.
Overall, you’ll end up with an average monthly search volume for each country and each language to compare demand.
Next up though is to assess the competition. While it may seem most logical to go for whichever country/language which has the greatest demand a client’s site might genuinely not be able to compete with the major players which are operating there. And you’ll likely see that there is a lot of competitors.
Instead it may be better to aim to market to a country where there is less demand, but correspondingly less competition so you stand a greater chance of ranking.
To do this we’re going to take a deep dive into the SERP’s of a few select keywords from our English seed list. We’re going to take these, add them into the version of Google relevant to the target country and see what the results show. Here’s the details.
I chose to do a deep dive on 3 target keywords from my English seed list:
The broadest keyword which had the highest demand - and you could expect - the highest competition
A slightly more specific keyword which has less demand - and therefore - less competition
A long tailed keyword which has less demand still - and you could expect - very little competition
This should give us a broad overview of the type of sites and the authority of the sites which are ranking.
Let’s use an example of laptop bags. My 3 keywords might be:
Leather laptop bags
Leather laptop bags for macbook air
We then want to use these keywords - and their translations - and search for each one of these in the version of Google used in that country.
Let’s assume Germany as our example to see what the competition is there.
GERMAN RESULTS FOR LAPTOP BAGS
Translating each of these words we have:
Laptop bags / Laptoptasche
Leather laptop bags / Leder Laptoptaschen
Leather laptop bags for macbook air / Leder Laptoptaschen für MacBook Air
We now have 6 searches to complete. 3 in English. 3 in German.
We want to get an authentic result from Google so you’ll need to do the following things:
Use Google Chrome and switch to Incognito mode to block any history/personalisation
Go to the version of Google used in your target country (in this instance google.de)
Add your keyword in to the search and the search engine results will show
Right click the SERP and Inspect the page to bring up Chrome Console Tools
Follow these instructions to update the Sensor to a location inside of Germany. Berlin is a preset option. If you want a location not listed in the preset’s you’ll need to grab a longitude and latitude for where you want
Click ‘Update your location’ at the bottom of the SERP and refresh the page. You should now have an authentic German SERP as viewed by someone in Germany
With each SERP you bring up make a note of the website URL’s which are ranking and add them to a spreadsheet
Alongside this test the Domain Authority (DA) of each website (or use whichever authority metric you prefer). Add this to your list
Make a note of the other features which also appear on the SERP. For instance, paid ads, shopping Ads, Image blocks and People Also Ask
Eventually you’ll get a list which looks something like the table below
Repeat the process for different keywords in different countries (this can take a long time)
From here you’ll start to find a number of really important patterns which can help inform how easy or hard it’ll be to rank in a given country. When doing this on the project we came across things like:
If we’re looking to rank for a foreign language search term then the website content will have to be in that language. The English version won’t suffice in almost all instances
Amazon dominates almost everything, everywhere
The average domain authority - both in English and in the target language is far higher than the current domain authority the site has. Only the most niche searches had ranking websites with a comparable domain authority
Almost every SERP includes Google shopping Ads
IS SEO ACTUALLY SUITABLE?
When you’ve been through this process you should be in a better position to answer:
How easy or hard it would be to rank organically for your target marketplace
What language would be most important to target and how much demand is out there
Now you know the situation, the next question is can you make it happen? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
This is where an experienced SEO consultant’s skills really come into play. From here you’ll need to work out:
How long might it take to start ranking for a target keyword in a target country?
What level of investment in both technical, onsite and offsite SEO would be needed? (This will need including in your SEO budget plans.)
Are there opportunities for content marketing which might be easier away from our main commercial keywords?
Once you know the answers to these you can take things one step further and begin to assess whether a country really is valuable in targeting.
You might decide that it’s all systems go and you want to press ahead
You might decide that the country isn’t worth the investment
You might decide to still target the country but that SEO isn’t the right tactic to generate business
As we know, SEO takes time and it takes investment to do it and do it right. What’s here isn’t fullproof and could likely be drastically improved upon. However, if you can work through something that’s similar to what I’ve written about there you’ll have a much clearer idea of the pro’s and con’s of launching your brand into another territory.
From here you have some of the answers - one piece of a much bigger puzzle to assess whether international SEO is the right thing for you. If it is then I’d highly recommend having a read about using Google Ads to test your international SEO before you begin. You might also find it useful to see how Google Keyword Planner can be used to understand the ROI on your investment.