International SEO: Setting Your Website Up for Global Success

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While local SEO is fairly straightforward, improving your website’s position in search results across languages and regions is anything but.

Should you target a language or a country – or both? Should you choose ccTLDs (and what are those, anyway?), subdomains, or subdirectories for different versions of the website? What are hreflang attributes, and do you need to use those?

Find out the answers to these questions – and more – in our comprehensive guide on international SEO.

What Is International SEO?

International SEO is the process of optimizing your pages to improve their ranking in search engine result pages (SERPs) across multiple markets. You can choose to focus on language optimization (multilingual SEO), geographical region (multiregional SEO), or both (hybrid approach).

For example, a website like NoCramming focuses only on English-speaking users and has all of its content in English. An online store like Amazon, on the other hand, has different versions for different regions: for Germany, for France, and for the U.S.

Why does international SEO matter? Search engines adapt the search results to the user’s location and language. Therefore, you need them to identify which pages on your website cater to users residing in a specific location or speaking a particular language.

Unlike local SEO, international SEO is larger in scale and complexity, as its goal is to improve visibility across multiple geographic regions. Therefore, it’s typically more expensive, requires creating more content, and comes with greater competition. You must also factor in regional differences to ensure your brand meets the target audience’s expectations.

7 Things to Factor in Your International SEO Strategy

Don’t overlook the following seven variables in your international SEO strategy:

  1. Languages. The same country may use different languages (e.g., French and English in Canada).
  2. Cultural differences. Website content will likely need optimization to be tailored to the local contexts.
  3. Keyword research. It has to be done for each language or country individually, resulting in separate keyword sets for each region and language.
  4. Search engine targeting. Users in certain regions may prefer search engines other than Google (e.g., Baidu in China).
  5. Technical SEO. You may need to use additional practices like hreflang attributes.
  6. Compliance. Your website must comply with different regulations in different regions (e.g., GDPR in the EU).
  7. Content strategy. It must be tailored to each language/region to be relevant to the target audience.

How to Get Started With International SEO

Here are the eight steps toward creating and implementing a solid international SEO strategy.

1. Identify Target Region(s)

Which regions are you planning to target next? To answer this question, make sure you rely on the results of:

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  • Market potential analysis. Check the geographical breakdown of the organic traffic in Google Analytics (Reports > User > Demographic details). Do you already have a substantial number of visitors from other regions? If so, assess whether targeting that location will make sense with a tool like an ROI calculator.
  • Market and competitor research. It’ll reveal whether there’s demand for the product in other regions and what you’ll be up against when competing for rankings in SERPs. Pay attention to the keywords your potential competitors are ranking high for, the scope of their operations (local/international), and their share of the market.

When you’re analyzing the target market, make sure to cover:

  • Popular search engines;
  • Languages spoken;
  • Local regulations you must comply with.

If you’re just starting with international SEO, it’s best to laser-focus on breaking into one region. This way, you can refine your approach and scale it to other regions later.

2. Select Your Approach

There are three approaches you may opt for:

  • Language targeting: targeting a specific language regardless of the user’s location (best for websites where information is the main value proposition, like news websites);
  • Geotargeting: targeting users in a specific country (best for businesses offering products or services);
  • Hybrid: targeting users based on their language and country (best for businesses planning to enter markets with two or more official languages).

3. Perform Keyword Research

Each new region or language you target requires separate keyword research and mapping. While your strategic keywords may work great for your current market, users in other parts of the world may use different terms in the search bar. Their search intent may also vary.

This goes even for markets with the same language. For example, while American users will likely search for a “closet” to buy, their British counterparts will look for a “dresser” instead.

That’s not to mention that the competition and search volume for the same keywords will likely vary from region to region. So, you may need to target different keywords to hit the sweet spot of low competition and substantial search volume.

4. Select the Right Domain Structure

There are three ways to structure your website to serve the right content to the right segment of your international target audience.

A. Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)


The top-level domain is one of the main ways Google determines the target locale, along with the hreflang attributes (more on that later). If your domain name contains a ccTLD, this signal supersedes server location when determining the target locale.

However, remember that some ccTLDs are treated as generic by Google since website owners tend to use them for generic purposes rather than country-targeted content. 

For example, the .ai TLD technically belongs to Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory. But since .ai is frequently used for AI-related businesses and websites, Google treats it as a generic TLD.


  • The ccTLD communicates the targeted country clearly for both users and search engines.
  • Server location is irrelevant for Google when a ccTLD is used.


  • You’ll need to pay for the extra domain(s).
  • The domain name may be unavailable for a specific ccTLD.
  • A ccTLD isn’t language-specific (e.g., a website with the Swiss TLD, .ch, can be in any of the country’s four official languages).
  • Certain ccTLDs have restrictions on their use, so you need to check the regulations first.

B. Subfolders


In this case, your localized content resides within the same domain, facilitating upkeep and reducing costs. This makes it the most popular approach among SEO professionals and webmasters alike. 

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You can customize the URL slug to your liking, too: can also be displayed as if you’d prefer.

While it’s easier to set up and maintain multiple subfolders on the same domain name, this method doesn’t provide as strong a signal about your target locale to crawlers as a ccTLD. Therefore, you’ll need to rely more heavily on hreflang attributes to signal your target locale.


  • It’s easier to set up and maintain than a separate ccTLD domain.
  • Your website preserves domain authority across language versions.
  • You have to pay for hosting a single website.
  • It’s easier to track SEO performance.


  • Users may struggle to recognize the targeted market from the URL.
  • You have to use a single server location for the whole website (or use a content delivery network).

C. Subdomains


A subdomain is part of the URL before the main domain name (e.g.,, separated by a period: e.g., While its cons are similar to the subfolder approach, you can host different subdomains on different servers, leveraging server location as an additional target locale signal.

However, search engines treat subdomains as entities separate from the main domain. This can lead to duplicate content and diluted domain authority issues.


  • It’s easier to set up and maintain than a separate ccTLD domain.
  • You can use custom naming conventions (e.g.,
  • You can use different server locations and CMSs for different subdomains.


  • Users may struggle to recognize the target market from the URL.
  • Crawlers need to index these pages separately at first.
  • You’ll have to copy content and design changes across subdomains.

5. Avoid Parameterized URLs


Google does not recommend using URL parameters to separate different website versions. That’s because crawling such pages is technically difficult for bots, and parameterized URLs are the least user-friendly option. Moreover, using parameters may easily lead to duplicated content.

In other words, steer clear from using parameterized URLs for localized pages.

6. Add hreflang Statements

Google doesn’t crawl pages from different locations or take the locational meta tags into account (e.g., geo.position). Instead, it relies on explicit technical signals to determine which locale the page is targeted for. The ccTLD is the strongest among them; however, it’s not the only one.

If you opt for the subfolder or subdomain structure, hreflang attributes are the next strongest signal you can send to Google. hreflang is an HTML attribute that belongs in the link tag of the <head> of a web page. Google uses it to identify the target locales for localized versions of the page; however, it doesn’t use the attribute to pinpoint the language of the on-page content itself.

Here’s what the hreflang attribute looks like:

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hreflang demonstration

Before you add the hreflang attribute, add the <link> tag to the head with rel=”alternate” and the href attribute containing a link to the localized version of the page. For example: <link rel=”alternate” href=”>

The hreflang attribute can indicate either just the language or both language and country. A standalone two-letter lowercase code is used for the language (e.g., en for English, es for Spanish). 

To add a country two-letter code, use a hyphen: en-us for English and the United States, fr-be for French language as used in Belgium. (Google uses lowercase for the country code in its examples.)Refer to this guide on valid hreflang codes for more information.

7. Adapt Existing Content

Before you hire someone to create the content for a new market, make sure your existing copy is either 1) properly translated into a new language or 2) adapted to the local dialect of the language if it’s the same.

If you need to translate content:

  • Avoid fully automating translation (you can have a native speaker proofread and edit machine-translated text in some cases, however).
  • Consider “transcreating” instead of translating: recreating content adapted to the local culture and language/dialect.
  • Optimize the translated copy for the new keywords.

If you need to adapt same-language copy to a new market:

  • Pay attention to the vocabulary, idiomatic, and syntax differences between regions (e.g., lorry and you’ve got in British English vs. truck and you have in American English).
  • Adapt the copy to local culture, especially if you have market-specific references in it.
  • Optimize the copy for the keywords relevant to the market.

8. Build Local Backlinks

Your domain authority can vary depending on the user’s location, especially if there are language differences. For example, a backlink from, an American website focused on entrepreneurship, may not be as valuable in Spain as it is in the United States.

In this case, you’ll need to build backlinks across websites with high authoritativeness in your target region. To find potential backlink sources in your target market, you can:

  • View the search results only with pages hosted on websites with ccTLDs – add the ccTLD after site: in the search bar (e.g.,
  • Head to Tools > Advanced Search under the search bar and select the target language and region in the corresponding fields.
  • Use a VPN to view search results for your target location.

5 Best Practices for International SEO

Acing international SEO is no easy feat. Here are the five best practices you should keep in mind to set your website up for global success.

#1 Let Users Choose the Website Version

Google explicitly recommends that you avoid using IP address analysis to serve users with the localized version of the page. This is because it’s generally not a reliable way to understand who your user is.

Furthermore, such automatic redirects may prevent the crawler bot from indexing the page variations properly. Since Google uses U.S. IP addresses to crawl pages, it may be unable to access the content targeted for other regions.

So, instead of redirecting users, suggest they switch to another version of the page based on their detected location. Place the menu for language and region selection in the header, too, to make it easy to find and access.

#2 Avoid Common hreflang Attribute Mistakes

Here are several best practices for using hreflang attributes you should keep in mind:

  • Use absolute URLs for alternate links in the href attribute (e.g., instead of // or /fr).
  • Add the list of the language versions with the hreflang attribute to each localized page (otherwise, the tags will be ignored).
  • Add a catchall reference to a specific language for users with undefined locations (e.g., fr for French speakers) if you have two or more geographically targeted pages for this language (e.g., fr-fr for French speakers in France and fr-be for French speakers in Belgium).
  • Use the x-default value in the hreflang to define a fallback value for unmatched languages (like this: hreflang=”x-default”).

#3 Use a Content Delivery Network

As page loading speed is a ranking factor (as a part of Core Web Vitals), you must ensure your pages load fast for your new target audience segment. For example, if your website is hosted in the U.S. but you’re planning a launch for the German market, data from the U.S. server will take more time to travel to a user in Germany than one in the U.S.

If you choose a ccTLD for your localized website version, you can host it separately from your main version. In other words, you can just put it onto a server in Germany (but you’ll have to pay for additional hosting, of course).

Alternatively, you can leverage a content delivery network (CDN). A CDN provider owns a group of distributed servers in multiple locations, each of which hosts your website. When a user tries to access your website, the CDN identifies the server closest to them and redirects the request to it. As a result, your pages load fast for users across the world.


#4 Localize Everything

Translating and adapting the existing on-page copy is only half the journey. You should also localize:

  • Metadata;
  • Currency (if applicable);
  • Images, including image text and metadata;
  • Time zone mentions;
  • Phone numbers (if applicable);
  • Addresses (if applicable).

Overlooking any of these website components may confuse your users (if you specify the wrong time zone, for example). Unexpected bits of text in a foreign language could also give them the impression the website owner didn’t care enough to localize the page completely.

Furthermore, since Google determines the page language on its own (without relying on the hreflang attribute), such discrepancies may confuse its algorithms.

#5 Avoid Internal Link Mishaps

Take stock of your internal links within a given language or region version of the website. Do all of them lead to correct versions of pages?

If not, users in Mexico may find themselves clicking a link on your Mexican version and landing on a page destined for U.S. users. Besides making for a subpar user experience, Google’s crawler bot may get confused by such a link.

But what if you don’t have all that many pages to link to within your new website version? 

Well, you’ll need to create more localized content. In the meantime, refrain from going live with this website version: the lack of internal links is a sign that it’s not ready for launch yet.

Key Takeaways

Reaching a global audience starts with carefully analyzing every target market and repeating all the common steps in search engine optimization: competitor analysis, keyword mapping, content marketing, link building, and so on.

Want to make sure you don’t overlook a thing? Here’s your international SEO checklist:

  • Identify the target region(s);
  • Select your targeting approach (language targeting/geotargeting/hybrid);
  • Do keyword research and mapping;
  • Choose the right domain structure for new pages;
  • Set up the hreflang statements in the <head> of each page;
  • Localize existing content;
  • Build links in your new market.

Janna Smith is a senior content writer who crafts blog posts and reviews at NoCramming for students striving to balance studies with other commitments. Before joining NoCramming’s team, Janna built her career in search engine optimization for news outlets and e-commerce websites, leveraging both local and international SEO to boost clients’ visibility.

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