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International SEO Ranking Signals

This article summarises the key aspects to consider when developing an internationally targeted site.

International SEO Ranking Signals

Top level domain tied to a country

Having a ccTLD is generally one of the strongest signals you can send to Google when it comes to country targeting. ccTLDs (country-code top level domain names) are tied to a specific country, for example, .au for Australia, .cn for China.

As an example, if your business operates solely in France, it is very unlikely that you will use a .co.uk domain as your main domain. Instead, you’d probably pursue a .fr domain name because users (and search engines) can easily work out the country where the business operates.

While this is one of the strongest signals you can send Google, it isn’t always practical. There are at least three scenarios where this may be the case:

  • The ccTLD for your chosen domain or business name isn’t available to buy
  • You operate in many countries and therefore have to maintain a number of different domains, each one tied to it’s respective country – this may be difficult depending on the resources you have to manage and market each one
  • It can also be administratively hard to acquire certain ccTLDs because some will require a physical presence in that country when you register the domain

Therefore, this option may not always be open to you. If you only operate in one country and you can get your desired ccTLD, then that should be the option you go with.

However, if you intend to operate in different countries, you should only build out different ccTLDs if you have (or intend to have) the resources to manage and market each of them well. By this I mean:

  • Having native speakers to write and update content
  • Marketing activity planned for that country to appeal to local users
  • Resource to do link building to the domain
  • Product support staff available for that country

If you do not have these, then your best option may be to go with a gTLD which stands for generic top level domain. This is a domain that is not tied to a specific country such as:

  • .com
  • .biz
  • .info
  • .net

Google has a full list of domain extensions they treat as generic here. Note that this page also includes some ccTLDs that Google does NOT treat as country specific. A few examples are .tv, .cc and .co which are technically tied to countries, but users tend to see them as generic, therefore Google treats them as generic.

With this option, you only have a single domain to manage which can mean fewer resources are required. Then you would target each country or language using subfolders or subdomains, for example:

  • .com/fr/ – targets France or French
  • .com/us/ – targets the US
  • .com/es/ – targets Spain or Spanish

Then each of these subfolders would hold the content for that country, in the correct language.

IP address / server location

The IP address of the server where your website is located can be another signal to Google of which country you’re targeting. It should be said that this isn’t a definitive signal and is probably a very small part of the overall picture.

A scenario where this may not work could be if you use a central gTLD like a .com and then use subfolders to target each country. In this case, the domain would probably be hosted on a single server which is in one country. Therefore Google can’t really use it as a definitive signal.

If it is possible to get reliable hosting in the same country as your customers, then you should do so.

You also need to consider users here, having your website hosted in their local country is likely to mean better speed, and therefore, a better user experience – assuming the actual hosting company is a good one.

Using hreflang to indicate alternate language versions

This was first introduced by Google in 2010 and then expanded in 2011 when it started to become more widely adopted by SEOs who were trying to solve problems with expanding websites into multiple countries and languages.

Hreflang provides a methodology for explicitly specifying the language or the language and country you’re targeting with each page on your site(s). Here is a flowchart to help you understand whether hreflang is appropriate for your situation:

There are a couple of ways you can use it:

  • In the HTML of your page in the <head> tags
  • In the HTTP header
  • In your XML sitemaps

Content language (avoid mixing on one page)

You need to make it clear to Google which language or location you’re targeting with a certain page. It isn’t a good idea to send mixed signals because it could mean Google ends up showing the wrong page in search results.

For example, you shouldn’t mix content that is written in different languages on the same page. Instead, you should create different pages for each language. This not only sends a clearer message to Google, but also creates a better user experience because users will see their language and not have to scan the page to find it.

Another thing you should avoid is sending mixed signals in terms of the country you’re targeting. A common example here is if you have local stores or offices in multiple countries around the world. Rather than having all office details listed on one page, it is better to have a single page for each one. This also means that if someone runs a search such as “company name store New York City” they are more likely to be shown the exact page and information they’re looking for. Rather than one page full of lots of different stores.

Local office address / phone number

If you have offices or stores in a target country, you should definitely list those on your website and make sure Google can find its way to those pages. If possible, add the full company address and phone number to every page within the section you’re targeting for that country.

Google is usually pretty good at identifying addresses and phone numbers. You can also integrate Schema markup here too using local business markup.

GWT geo-targeting

There is a nice feature in Google Webmaster Tools that allows you to tell Google what country you’re targeting. This feature is called Geotargeting  and it only works on gTLDs (generic top level domains) such as .com / .net etc. It will not work if you have a ccTLD because that is set automatically to the country it relates to.

However, obviously this is a setting that only applies to Google and will not affect rankings in other search engines.

You have a few options with how this feature can be used:

1) Set an entire domain to a certain country

For example, if you’re solely based in the UK but you have a .com website, you can tell Google to treat every page on your website UK targeted. This is very easy and recommended if you only target one country and have a gTLD.

2) Specify certain areas of your website to target a certain country

This is a popular option for gTLDs that target multiple countries on one domain. So you could have something like the following:

  • www.example.com/us/ – this is targeted to the US and in Google Webmaster Tools, you can tell Google that all URLs in this folder are targeted to users who are in the US.
  • www.example.com/fr/ – this is targeted to France and in Google Webmaster Tools, you can tell Google that all URLs in this folder are targeted to users who are in France.

Please note that at the time of writing, you can only use this feature to target a country, you can’t target language.

Inbound links from websites using the same language and country

There is some debate over whether or not you need to have links from other websites in your target country in order to rank in that country. For example, if you want to rank in France, getting links from other .fr domains may be helpful. Google does actually say this is something they look at when trying to determine which country you’re targeting, but this isn’t to say that you should only try to get links from websites in the same country. You should try to get links from good quality, relevant websites which, if you’re targeting a certain country, probably means that you’ll naturally get links from other websites in the same country.

There is also some debate as to whether the same principle applies to languages, meaning should you also try to get links from websites written in French if you have a French website. Our broad opinion is yes, you should, even from a pure marketing perspective, this is a good idea. If you have French content, then getting links from websites French speakers visit is a good tactic.

Overall though, you shouldn’t worry too much about this, it is far more important to focus on the quality links and making sure that all of your on-page international SEO signals are correct.

Google Places account in target country

This is a signal Google recommends and is a good idea even if it doesn’t directly affect your rankings. Google Places allows you to list your business and provide Google with specific details, such as address, phone number, opening hours, pictures etc. You can also link directly to your website from your Google Places listing.

When users search for a keyword that Google interprets as looking for local results, quite often Google Place listings will appear above the regular organic listings.

This gives you another chance to get organic traffic to your website for local keywords, which is a benefit in itself. But having this can also be a signal to Google of your intention to rank in a certain country by giving it all your country-specific business details.


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