How to Optimize a Site for International SEO

SEO, or search engine optimization, has been with us since the first search was completed by the first internet user on Archie. What started with just backlinks as the main indicator of a “good” website has evolved into semantic understanding and more than 100 ranking factors.

That’s why now, more than ever, it’s essential that you make SEO best practices a part of your online presence.

Best practice includes the optimization of: meta-tag/headers, body, image, URLs, content sitemaps, user experience, links and website accessibility.  Completing these best practices will give you a great start toward optimizing any website. But there are different levers you can pull within these best practices that can push you ahead of your competition on a local level or even internationally.

International SEO

If you are a company that receives a lot of traffic to your website from other countries, it may be time to optimize your website internationally.

International SEO can help place your website on more search result pages in the targeted country through dedicated language targeting or country targeting. No matter which targeting you choose, it’s important to understand that you need to have as much commitment to the foreign version of your website as you do your domestic.

Just like your original website, every international website you create must also have a site map that can be crawled, indexed and ranked properly, and needs to be written in the target language. It cannot just be a translated version of your domestic page.

The most common international versions and contributing language attributes include:

  • Chinese (zh)
  • Spanish (es)
  • English (en)
  • Arabic (ar)
  • Hindi (hi)

The language attributes in parentheses will be used in all your international URLs and HTML code for your internationally targeted website.

Language targeting

Using language targeting is the best course of action if you can’t have a physical presence within your targeted country. It is also the most used and easiest method to implement for companies looking for an internationally optimized website.

There are two site structure options you can utilize when using language targeting. The first one, and the best way, is as a sub-directory. The other version is a sub-domain.

Sub-directories will have a URL structure like this; and have sub-pages with the following structure: Note that the sub-pages, or categories, will use the targeted language within the URL.

Sub-domains will have a URL structure like this:; with sub-pages laid out like this:

Country targeting

When you can have a hosted presence within your targeted country you have a slight edge over those that don’t. Having a ccTLD (country code top-level domain … for the U.S. it is .com, for Spain it is .es, etc.) that is specific to the country you’re in will be beneficial to you, if you can afford to buy your related domain name. Once you are hosted in that country you can then have a URL structure like this:; and for sub-pages.

Country targeting will allow people in that targeted country to know you’re a “local” company, providing you with the added benefit of better search capabilities within that country.

HTML & HTTP header additions

With the addition of country/language specific content and proper URL structure, you can now add the HTML code required to make the transition to international search.

For every page that you have an additional international version for, it’s important that you add HTML code to the header of your original version.  For example, if your home page is you would add this international HTML to the page: <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=””.

You would modify the language attribute code for every international page you have. This code allows search engines to understand you have an international version and if a visitor is from that country or has set up their browser to present only that language, that visitor will be directed to the language targeted website.

Now, not every page is written in HTML.  That’s where the HTTP header comes in handy. If you have created content in a format that doesn’t have HTML, like PDF, you can use a link like this: <>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”es”.   This will tell the bots that you have an alternate, language specific version of that content.

You can learn more from Google’s webmaster resources on how to accomplish these tasks.

Tracking international traffic

Now that you have a website that is strictly for your international audience, it’s time to track the success of those versions. You can do this through Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. It’s a setup that easy to do and only requires creating a filter within your analytics. A great step-by-step walk through is located on


Creating a website that is user friendly is important when trying to rank with search engines. Having an international-specific website is no different. You are providing information to your customer, and when you have an international presence, having a website that caters to that audience is only going to help your business in the long run.

So take another look at your analytics to see how many international visitors you have. It may be time to create an optimized, international website.

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