Is International SEO Really That Different From “National” SEO?

Usually, when I’m asked if “international” search or SEO is really different, the person asking the question has made up their mind that it’s actually not. Usually, they have a view that international SEO is all about infrastructure, domains and local domains and not much else.

But is this true? You’ll probably not expect me, someone who’s based their last 14 years specializing in international search saying, “Of course it is!”

But can I defend that position? I’m going to have a jolly good go at answering all of the “buts” — please use the comments to agree or disagree with me!

“International Is Just About Local Domains, Sub-Domains OR Folders”

This has been the refrain since 2004 and no, this one is just silly. Infrastructure is an area where anyone with some SEO experience can claim to be able to figure out how it should be done on a global website. This is partly why so many international conference sessions focus on this topic.

Local domains or sub-domains or folders is an important question but it really should be classed as “geo-targeting”. The chart below shows the relative amount of training effort I dedicate to various topics on a 3 day international SEO training session.

This gives a pretty fair breakdown, in my opinion, of the relative importance that people who work in the field of international SEO must now.

The Relative Signficance Of Different Activities In International Search -- Source: Webcertain

The Relative Significance Of Different Activities In International Search Source:Webcertain

As you can see above, I give geo-targeting roughly an 8% share of dedicated training time and to answering questions relating to geo-targeting.

Bearing in mind that time allocation when training is a very careful decision, I believe this about the right attribution of its importance in the mix for people working in the field.

“Apart From The Language, International Is Just The Same”

At least we’re now talking about language. But I fear that monoglots (people who speak only one language) are not in a very good position to judge the importance of language. If you’ve never been in a survival situation where to cope, you had to work in a language which is not your mother tongue, for me, you just won’t have a feel for the true significance of language and culture.

Occasionally, I’ve succeeded at getting this across to search people by explaining it this way. The source code of a website is very important, correct. Yes, of course. But users of websites don’t really read the source code, correct? Yes, indeed.

So, the source code is the result of wanting a website to take a particular form, correct? “Oh no, it’s much more than that!” In what way? I ask. “Well, the source code has to reflect the website design it’s true, but it also has to hold much more information about the structure of the webpage so that browsers can fully interpret it.

Exactly, I say. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Puzzled look.

Language is the source code of culture. It has to represent the meaning that one speaker had for another, but it has to communicate much more than that. The browser that is the sub-conscious brain understands a lot of additional information such as that the speaker is from my part of the world, has experience relevant to mine (because he chooses the same words) and sees things the way I do — even though none of this “meta content” was actually contained in the literal meaning of the words.

If I’m lucky, a light goes on. Often, the puzzled look is the same. How did you do?

“Have Translation Agency, Will Travel”

I take my hat off to translation agencies. In the last two years, the penny has really dropped that SEO is important (thought they tend to think social media is bigger still whereas I believe “search” will have another life in the world of Internet TV and other developments). So, they’ve added services to give themselves the veneer of being the in the thick of SEO.

But if you think you can go to a translation agency and get international SEO or search advice, then you’re very much mistaken. Just my opinion, of course, but I’m always happy to compete with them! I believe the background reason is to do with the currency of trade.

Search agencies sell traffic or conversions, translation agencies sell the lowest cost per word. Of course, there are other solutions and wonderful software products, but it’s really the same question again of “Why the railroads didn’t get air travel?” It was because they were all about railways.

So, if you’re an SEO and you’re working with a translation agency (as many do) that’s a bit like. You’ll get plenty of burgers at lowest cost, but your customers might not be impressed.

SEO Agency With Translation Agency Is Like Cordon Bleu Chef With Burger Manufacturer

"SEO Agency With Translation Agency Is Like Cordon Bleu Chef With Burger Manufacturer"

“Just Make Sure Your Website Loads Properly Across The World”

Right. So that’s the bit that’s different is it?

Figuring out how to do that whilst working with caching systems which distribute requests to servers all over the world is more what this is about.

Is that important? Sure. Is that all its about? Well no, but it is something which doesn’t rear its ugly head much for national sites (but the local guys worry about it too in some instances).

“SEO Is SEO Wherever You Are”

Now this is true. That is it’s true if you define SEO as researching the problem and finding an appropriate solution.

But that SEO effort is going to have to take account of the impact of words and phrases in one language over another. It will have to cope with language morphology (the grammar of word forms you might say), with the different ranges of keywords, with the different behaviors of searchers with the different seasonality with the impact of payment systems and with building trust where trust is not defined the same way you know it.

Trust, for instance, in eastern cultures is about someone you’ve met and are prepared to do business with. How do you deliver that on a webpage?

“Google Has The Same Algorithm Everywhere — So No Difference”

Actually this isn’t true. The fundamental approach is ultimately the same, but when is “ultimate”. Remember the old “sandbox” effect of new domains, for instance? It had very little impact in many nations which it just didn’t seem to reach.

The Knowledge Graph? If I search for “Mila Kunis” (a great Ukrainian actress) in, I get the Knowledge Graph box. But not if I do the same in the UK or in the Ukraine. And this is typical.

Universal search took months and maybe years to fully roll out, Google Places verification works different in different countries. I could go on and on but I won’t. The advantage for us non-US based SEOs is we can see what’s coming weeks and months ahead of it landing.

“People Who Say They Do International SEO Just Want To Charge More”

You think? Have you checked? I think you’d find that the rates for undertaking SEO for many markets of the world are less than they would be if you were buying US-based services. Find a market that’s interested in your product and service and “check” it out!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: is a linguist who has been specializing in international search since 1997 and is the CEO of WebCertain, the multilingual search agency and Editor-in-Chief of the blog You can follow him on Twitter here @andyatkinskruge.

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  • Nicole Degner

    Andy I was wondering if the Google algorithms were different in various countries and from your post, I now know there are differences.

    I want to understand international SEO and how a US based company can provide effective SEO in another country. What sources/news do you read to keep up on international SEO?


  • Andrew Shephard

    I guess the basic strategies remains the same because Google is using the same algorithm everywhere, however when we target specific location in the globe some extra care and extra coding is needed and that too on some specific pages based on the target country.
    For example when we talk about the loading time of web-pages it should be low for every country however if we have some product pages that are meant for particular region the designing, appeal, coloring, welcome message and link structure should change as per the targeted country.
    Some other areas of SEO that needs localized approach is the Google Place optimization, and video optimization. If we leave these certain regions rest of the ingredients remains the same.

  • nicolesimon

    It goes down to a very wrong understanding on how the whole process
    works if you just thing translation. Example: Germany is a language
    island country  with google being something like 95% of the search market – partly because they understand language better than others German is full of endings which are going back to the same core. In english, different words are different words, in german it can depend on the sentence.

    Second Germany has no Social Media in the traditional sense, aka no Blogs nor other social networks in the way they are in america. Startups often ask me “so who are the influencers we want to reach the market” to which the answer always is “do you want to reach the “influencers” or do you want to reach the market?”.  If you SEO thinking is based on the mechanisms of american social media with outreach through blogs and social signals through ideas like reddit and digg and alike, you will completely fail.

    Facebook does have a very different role here as it has in the states, reflected also in the majority of users and perception.

    Also Germans spend *heavily* on SEO, I always like to say we are Web 1.0 but with hard core SEO. ‘Just’ translating stuff and not taking into account how the local market it will fail you. Getting links for your internatinal partners but not local ones will fail you.

    Knowledge of the local market and the local language are as important as knowledge of the ‘international’ and the ‘american’ way SEO is done.

  • Chris Ruseler

    This is off topic, but can anyone help me, find a Google Adwords specialist in the USA? I’m searching for a customer who wants to sell pool (cleaning) filters for jacuzzi’s and whirlpools online. Thanks in advance.

  • Dino Gomez

    Bullet point number six is perhaps the strongest. Google rolls out algorithm changes in the U.S. prior to other countries. Big changes have impact first in the states and thus SEO at times is significantly different in different countries. Once all updates have rolled out across all countries SEO is more similar per country. I sure would like to see those algo changes coming from a distance however… Won’t Google implement a major change in another country first at some point?

  • Nathan Giesbrecht

    Thanks for the great info Andy. Just about to internationalize at work, and will definitely keep this in consideration


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