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Supporting image for International SEO: How to Rank Anywhere! – Alexander Rehnborg
International SEO: How to Rank Anywhere! – Alexander Rehnborg
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No matter how big or small your business is, if you want to reach new heights, going global is the next step. But before you start slapping translated versions of your website up all over the internet, there are a few things you need to know. Translation isn’t as simple as swapping out English for another language – it requires cultural knowledge and an understanding of your target audience. So if you’re ready to take your business international, read on for SEO expert Alexander Rehnborg’s tips on how to do it right.


Rich: My guest today is head of SEO at Get Response. With over five years of experience as an SEO manager and lead. Starting his professional journey in local journalism and content marketing, he quickly discovered SEO as a discipline combining his two passions: language and technology.

He got extensive experience in recruiting international teams to scale business across vastly different work cultures and search markets. And today we’re gonna be talking about international SEO with Alexander Rehnborg. Alexander, welcome to the podcast.  

Alexander: Thank you so much, Rich. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Rich: So in your bio, I mentioned that one of your passions is language. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What aspects of language intrigue you, and how did that come about?

Alexander: Absolutely. I think it’s because language carries a lot of meaning. And there’s semantics included both in the emotional aspect, language makes us feel in certain ways, but they also try to designate things in the world and different languages essentially form therefore communities. So depending on what language you’re brought up in, you will see the world in different ways. So I’m intrigued by the fact that language helps us to understand the world, but in some sense, it also helps us to interpret and shape it. And that’s fascinating.

Rich: Excellent. I feel the same way actually about technology. How we create things to solve problems, and then the technology we create then changes who we are, and we go about and create the next generation of technology. And maybe you feel similarly since those are the two things that intrigue you the most.

So, I want to talk a little bit about international or global SEO. What phrase do you prefer? How do you describe what it is?

Alexander: I think international SEO works fine.

Rich: All right. So for the international SEO, how do you feel this is different than say traditional SEO? What additional or different considerations do we need to take?

Alexander: The first one will be very obvious for anybody who’s going to venture down that road, and that will be on the technical side. Typically if you start out with one domain, one language, things are easy enough or manageable. But once we talk about international SEO it assumes that we will manage multiple markets. Typically, that means multiple languages. Not always, but typically. And that comes with a whole host of new configurations that we need to do.

We may need to think about where to host the content. Should we have one domain per language, or should we try to host all of them on one domain? How do we get Google to understand that we have one blog post in Spanish, and we have another one in German, for instance? Can we connect them together somehow? And then we come into specifics and the setup of how to communicate to Google that you have contend in different languages and countries. So the technical aspect becomes much more complex, and it requires a good setup. But overall, it requires a lot of maintenance actually over time. So that’s an obvious one.

Rich: So you probably touched on six of the questions I had today, so that’s great. But it means that I was asking the right questions. But let’s start with a simpler experience where maybe we’ve got a website, it’s in our native language. I’m here in the U.S., I’m gonna use English. And then we want to expand and do SEO but for another country that also speaks English, like it could be England, it could be Australia. Are there any things, whether technical or from a writing standpoint, that we should be focused on when we just want to expand into another part of the world, but the language barrier isn’t there?

Alexander: That is a good question. I think it will depend a bit on what type of regions we’re talking about. Typically for English speaking markets, if we think that these markets are very similar in the way that [inaudible] works. I’m thinking right now just about the vocabulary and the grammar between UK English and American English. If you would like to be truly local, potentially you would then like to have two different websites. But in the case of English, this can be really a challenge. Because a person sitting in London googling your products in English probably use words that are common between the English languages and may end up visiting your primary website, which may be American. So a lot of cases you’ll just add a lot of headache if you start to differentiate.

But there are a lot of instances in Europe, for instance, where if you take Netherlands. I mean they have at least three languages and regions that they typically market to. That’s when it starts to get interesting. What about the people who speak Dutch and French in the same country? So I would say it’s more about one country targeting several languages even within that country, rather than trying to hit multiple countries that use the same language.

And sometimes also Google has over time, my feeling is that Google has started to let’s say – maybe ‘used’ is the wrong term – but disrespect what we SEOs would like to use when we create content and how we target Google nowadays considering language. Google seems to prefer more to look at search intents. And if you find a very strong American English page that ranks really well, they may choose that even though that you have told them to rank, let’s say the British page, for people living in London.

So again, yeah, I would say don’t add too much headache there. You need to have really good market data that tells you that you need to differentiate people within the same language, for sure.

Rich: It’s interesting what you said about the Netherlands. So if we are thinking of expanding into the Netherlands where it has three different common languages, what are some of the recommendations that you have? Do we create one site under the most dominant language, or do we create multiple sites or multiple pages that address each one of those audiences? Because I’m curious about, and this is the downside of being an American where we’re we so homogenous at times is, do people who speak multiple languages always search in the same language? I don’t know if you can answer that, but I am curious about it. 

Alexander: This is interesting, and I think some people speculate in the U.S. concerning the growth of Spanish speaking people, whether that will have a big impact in the future. But that’s perhaps a similar topic. But yeah, I think when it comes to the hosting itself, first of all, it really depends on the resources that you will have at your disposal.

Going out, creating a new website to host, let’s say Dutch, and to host the French content, the German content, you will essentially have three entities, three sub companies to maintain to grow for them to prosper. And if you don’t have a full organization, probably that’s not the best path to go.

I see less and less SEOs actually going down the road of having separate domains per language. One reason probably is technical SEO maintenance becomes way more complex. And some companies who don’t have a central content management system for everything, they don’t have a central system to manage all their tech SEO, they will struggle. And then you have just the day-to-day routines of making sure that all the content is interlinked correctly. Let’s say that you have one blog post in Dutch, but you don’t have an equivalent in French because you didn’t have the time to write it. What do we do now? Do we link to that post? Now we can’t link to something that doesn’t exist, but the system may do it.

There are so many problems that can arise. So I would say keep it simple, at least in the beginning for sure. But when it comes to differentiation, absolutely. I mean, if you want to be serious about targeting a group that primarily searches in a certain language, you need to have content for it, but you need to do the research.

If you take let’s say Malaysia, what is their business culture? A lot of times they use English, probably in many industries, especially on industries. Malaysians will search and English, even though they have a native language. But if you go to Indonesia, for instance, probably a different story, they may prefer to use their own native language. And well, you got to do the research. Look at keyword research, look at search volumes, and see how much native first searches do people do versus English searches.

And the last bit I will add to that is what results show up even if you search native language. We have seen this actually, especially in Southeast Asia. If you google Indonesia, will you get Indonesia sites and Indonesian content, or will you get American content? That’s something you got to look at.

Rich: And it sounds like you’ve gone through this process before. Have you found that it depends, and certain searches are pulling up English language pages, and others are bringing up Indonesia?

Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. Yep. I’m referring to something we have looked inside in-house when it comes to especially these markets, because they’re just fascinating. They mix English and native language in strange ways. So yeah, we could see for instance, formulations to most extent the people who visit us, and when they Google for our products especially around on email marketing, they will mostly use English searches. And even if they use native searches, we tend to see English sites dominate. But inside it was a completely different story. And we looked at countries such as Philippines and then it was more split 50/50.

Rich: Yeah. It sounds like if you are looking to expand into other countries, that you really need to do your homework first, and you really need to determine what is the search volume in these countries, what language do people search on? And even what type of results are likely to be pulled up based on the search, based on your industry and all those other sort of issues. There’s no two ways around that. Absolutely.

Alright. I think people hope that there’s one magic bullet that will just fix everything. You publish one really good piece of content and it’s out there and everybody’s going to find it. When you’re managing multiple websites or multiple languages on a single website, however you end up setting it up, what are your concerns around duplicate content? Does Google look at what was published first and promote that regardless of language? Or is there a way to make sure that Google’s gonna serve up the correct or most appropriate language based on the language of the search?

Alexander: Yeah, exactly. This is a conundrum. And I mean, this has been a challenge in the past, and to some extent we’re still working on it. Because it is something that is a difficult machine to manage, actually. Once you start to manage multiple languages, you need to have a sync content plan.

For instance, it’s entirely possible to have two websites or two languages on presence on your website. But how are we going to make sure that content is produced? Let’s say you launch a new feature in one language. It’s a really good idea to launch the other feature in the other language at the same time. Because if you don’t, first of all, it’ll be a question of knowing how far you’ve come on each market. But the second part is, in the background, like under the hood, where the technical SEO magic happens? And [inadudible] is one example. You want to cross link pages that belong to different languages, but they are equivalents, they are equivalents to each other. You want to mark that up under the hood. And those connections tend to break over time. Because maybe you have two pieces of content that are equivalent, but one gets deleted, one gets unpublished, and that causes problems.

So one common problem for instance, is that let’s say that you start with an English first market and you expand into Latin America or into European market. You have a second or third language and you start to produce new content on the English site first, and then a few months after you will have the resources to roll out on other languages. That typically can create problems, especially if your system tells Google that, “Hey Google, you visited an American English page, there’s a URL for Spain also. Go and check it out.” And that page may not exist, or perhaps the page is live but it’s in English, also. It hasn’t been translated yet.

That also happens and that causes problems because that’s when you start to get duplicate content. And one additional problem today is that a lot of us in the industry can see more broadly within SEO that Google has become more lazy and picky when it comes to indexation. So if they see two, three pages that are connected to each other, Can links or [inaudible] flag, but they’re not differentiated. That is, they’re not localized or translated. Google will simply drop. The local variants out of the index. And you may get back to those pages, you may translate them and ask Google, “Hey, we have actually transferred the pages. Go and index them.” And Google may say, I don’t care anymore.

And so, it is a really good idea to be intentional about scaling on multiple markets and really making sure that don’t publish any URLs which you don’t want to go live in the index or that you don’t want Google to see. If you don’t have time to translate or localize something on a local, don’t create the URL in the first place, because it’ll give you problems down the road.

Rich: It sounds like best practice is, I like the use of the word ‘intentional’ that you use. So we want to be intentional as we roll out our website for other countries, other languages. And in a perfect world, we’ll have content ready to go in each language as we build it out.

So if we’ve got a monthly blog that we’re going to publish in both or all three languages at the same time, and make sure those connections are the same, is that what I’m hearing you say? In a perfect world. We don’t live in a perfect world, but that’s what we should do.

So, it’s interesting. I just got back from presenting to laboratory product manufacturers, and when I was doing some research, I noticed that many of them are global companies. Not a big surprise there. Many of them have been bought out or that they have multiple languages. And when I would go to the main URL, I’d often be redirected automatically or suggested to redirect to the North American or the American version of this. Are there best practices for companies like this that have that kind of reach in terms of do we set up absolutely completely different domains? Do we redirect to a /en/ if we’re trying to go to the English version one? What do you generally recommend for your clients?

Alexander: I would say building on what we talked about before Rich, keep it simple. Because running international SEO in general is challenging by itself. So I think in most cases it’s better to host all content on one domain if you can and use sub directories. Simply because the tech issue management is going to be so much easier. It’s going to be easier for the analytics side of things if you want to go into Google Analytics or your BI tool is going to be much easier.

And the only perhaps upside with going with local domains, and this is some we’ve looked at this in America previously. We could see that there was at least in our case when it comes to email marketing, there was a correlation between competitors having local, top-level domains, and also the ability to get local referring domains. So essentially, local link building. It seems like there is some correlation there whether it’s trust, whether it’s random, it’s hard to say. I guess that in some countries it could matter that you have a top-level domain, because it signals that you have a company or have an entity hosted in that country. That can matter.

But so there are some upsides to that. But you’ll need to have the organization and the resources to build that domain. I mean remember, you need to do now link building, outreach, promotion, PR, tech issue management. All of that you will need to work for one additional domain. And if you don’t have the resources to do it, you should just skip it. It would be better to host it on.com, I think.

Rich: Okay. Now a lot of time you’ve talked about the technical side of things. I’m curious to know. We build websites on WordPress primarily. Are there plugins for WordPress, or are there CMS platforms that are specifically built with global reach in mind, with the ability so that when you’re publishing that you’re publishing to multiple directories and different languages?

Alexander: Yes, I think so. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert here, but what I can see the trend right now is to go for headless CMS, because it allows you to perhaps even tap into external services where you can manage localization. So there are tons of services today that only manage translation localization into multiple languages.

And then people basically set up an enterprise CMS, if you have a bigger company. Such as from Adobe, you have Drupal, WordPress, depends probably on your business size and scale. I think if you want to do enterprise business building, WordPress is quickly going to be challenging for different reasons. But the big players basically out there, all of them offer enterprise CMSs. Many of them are now headless, and that seems to offer more functionality for people who want to run international SEO.

And I think one general learning takeaway in general is, despite that, we’ve had so many years of CMS building and WordPress have done a lot in the plugin community to support a lot of SEO functionality. I have yet to see a CMS that’s created with SEO in mind, especially on the tech SEO side. Basically you buy something, and you need to customize it. Otherwise, you won’t be able to do even simple things such as managing metadata on scale. What CMS can really do that out of the box today? It’s all about customizing the code.

Rich: All right. I’m thinking about the process that we often go through when we’re doing SEO for clients, which often takes us to Moz or Ahrefs, and we’re doing our keyword research and we’re pulling out the best keywords possible, and we’re creating the content for our websites and we’re publishing it. Okay. So that’s a typical experience. Now normally if somebody then was gonna go do a Spanish or Chinese version of this, many people would hire a translator to do this. But I’m wondering, does it make more sense or is there an Ahrefs version for Chinese or for Spanish that then you would actually do the exact same research in another language and maybe write it up almost in two different silos? Is there a best practice here when it comes to trying to create the most optimized content for each language?

Alexander: I think that matters on it depends on ambition and scale. If you have recently scaled into a new language or a new market, if you want to test that market out. And let’s say that there are some ground rules probably before you do that. You see that there is historical market growth that the market conditions are favorable at least to some degree, mature, so people actually want to convert and so forth.

If all those conditions are met, then typically if you want to start out then yeah, a lot of people would do translation. You would maybe use freelancers for that. But what you will get in return a lot of times it’s that you will get literal translations. And this is where I like to separate between translation and localization.

So translation is if you take a sentence, let’s say from US English, and you translate it directly word for word into Swedish or Spanish. And what you get in the other end. it’s something that I think a Swede or Spaniard will understand, but they might shake their heads slightly depending on the quality of the translation.

The reason for that is simple. Literal translations don’t sound so good usually. In order for language to flow, because we started out talking about languages, so like communities. They are not always equivalents. They’re not. There are some words that only exist in certain languages, and some phrases sound great. Like we have a slogan right now on our homepage that says, “get leads, get sales, get growing”. And for me, that sounds good in my English ear. But if I would translate that into my Native Swedish, it would sound probably ridiculous because we just don’t have that effect. So, how to get there?

Well, I think in order to get truly good sounding content, and also to properly optimize the SEO, you need to have a native, first person who manages the language and crucially who understands the market. Preferably, who has experience in it. Like a lot of translators and freelancers online, they translate for tons of different industries. But if you take marketing as an example, a lot of phrases are not translated from English. If you take the term ‘market’, the automation, which is very relevant for our business, if you do a literal translation of that, a lot of people won’t understand the European language what that means. It’s used in English and the translator won’t know unless he or she has experience of the industry.

So industry knowledge, super important. And I would say localization, rewriting the content, daring to sometimes actually changing the meaning or changing the phrasing is crucial in order for the content to sound good.

And then of course the last bit we want to add to that is somebody who can manage and understand an SEO content brief, who understands topical targeting subtopics, how to use keywords to write content that actually hits what people search for. But yeah, the basics is to understand the language and do it well.

Rich: Right. Because I can imagine somebody translating something I wrote from English to another language, and they may be localized, they may know exactly how to make it not word for word but the equivalent of what I’m trying to say. But even then, there’s another step because they may not know how to optimize it tor search engines. There’s got to be another skill in there where they can use an online tool to discover what the keyword usage is and what people are actually looking for, and then bake that in as well. It becomes very difficult, I think. It’s almost trying to turn a meat dish into a vegan dish and still have it taste pretty much the same.

Alexander: Yes. It’s to some degree, I think you think it could be done. There’s a beautiful feature in Google Sheets, for instance, where you can actually automatically translate words. So if you do keyword research, you could actually try to use that formula to translate keywords. But again, you need to check the search volume and you actually need to check the search also.

Because what I found, and this was interesting between for instance Spanish and Portuguese and similar European languages, is that the words that are being used, for instance ‘creates’, there are tons of different synonyms for that. Closely connected languages will use different words, and actually the intent can be different between countries, even for things that are almost literally the equivalent of each other.

So again, I think the search intent here is key, like the translator or whoever prepares the SEO content brief and conducts the research. Check the servers. Are we going in direct direction, or are we getting a Google Maps listing, for instance, which may not be relevant for us. Yeah. Really important.

Rich: You’ve talked a little bit about the difference between language and location when it comes to targeting. Can you just talk a little bit more about that? Because I think we imagine if we have it written in Spanish, it’s gonna work in every Spanish speaking part of the world. But I’m guessing there’s more nuance to it than that based on what you’ve said. 

Alexander: Yes, it can be, Rich. It’s not certain. But if you take the Spanish speaking languages as an example, something we are working on a lot right now. There are several layers of differences between what’s going on in continental Spain and Europe and what’s going on in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Columbia. And couple of differences can be tone of voice. Is it informal or formal? That’s something that can matter. In the end, you as a company need to decide the tone of voice, the branding, but that’s just the basics. You need to decide how to approach people.

The second one is definitely there are linguistic differences between Spanish speaking countries. Absolutely. And there’s even, technically, I guess I’m not an expert on the field, but one can also see that there are Northern Latin American languages and Southern Latin American languages, and these can also differ. So, it depends really how granular and how narrow you want to go to each market. But, targeting Mexico and targeting Spain will be slightly different.

In other cases, for instance, if you take Brazil and Portugal, at least in our industry, we don’t see great differences. They use similar searches when they search. The searches are basically the same, are very similar. We typically joke in-house here that if you target Brazil, you will also target Portugal. That is not the case if you take Spain and Colombia, for instance. And one way to see how much local demand there is, try to use some of your primary keywords. Like the main business area that you have and combine them with the country name. So such as in our case, ‘email marketing Columbia’. Do people search that way? And if you see that there is such local demand, that is a strong indication that there might be more to find if you do a bit deeper dig.

Rich: It’s interesting. You’ve mentioned tone of voice a couple of times. And even here in the United States, or just even within an industry or company, you have to determine what is your tone of voice if you want to be consistent. Are you going to be business? Are you going to be irreverent? Whatever it may be. And that may not always translate well. It sounds like there’s a lot of complexity here and there’s a lot of business decisions that are going to get made. I’m sure you’ve had conversations where some businessperson says, “Oh, we’ll just use Google Translate at the top of every page.” So when you hear something like that, what is your visceral reaction to that and how do you respond to it?

Alexander: I think that such a comment in a sense, you need to understand where it’s coming from. Because a lot of people will feel if we’re going to invest, scaling into a new language in a new market is a big thing. It’s a risky thing for a business that starts out in one market. So a lot of people feel that we’re taking a big risk here. Is there a golden mill path? Can we deliver mediocre content and still get money coming into the business? And I think potentially again, we come back to the point of ambition level.

I think if you break it down and say let’s see what’s the viability for this market? Let’s do our homework. Is this market can people actually here convert? And is there a demand for our product? Do we have a product market fit in this country? If yes to some of these basic questions, then you can start slowly by finding maybe low-cost translations.

You could, even if you had the time, you could do some simple keyword research and adjust the copy accordingly, or make sure that the briefs are good enough. And then you can just see if the content flies. Do we get organic traffic, for instance? Do people convert? And what type of value do we get from those customers? Those indications can then be used basically to argue for more investments.

So it’s hard to actually start full scale localization, starting up with a blog inbound marketer, SEO outbound. Having a sales team is really difficult to do that before you have tested your ground. So I think us in the SEO space or in the marketing space, today we’re usually at the forefront in the business pushing out into new markets. But we also need to do our homework. And scaling things is actually a smart thing to do.

In some cases, for instance, you can get a lot of organic traffic. But will those people convert? Like we have seen, for instance, right now in our business we see India booming. We see Nigeria booming. And if you look at the market conditions, if you look at the population growth and the economic growth, it makes total sense. But what about the customer lifetime value? That’s something different.

And similarly, if you take Latin America for instance, absolutely booming. It’s one of the biggest regions in e-commerce in terms of growth. But of course customer lifetime value probably won’t be at the level that it is in Europe or in North America, but that’s fine. We scale slowly and prove as marketers that there is sustainable growth. Not just traffic, not just people signing up, but actually people who will stay with us a long time. And if that seems to work out, then you can invest more. So, Google Translate might not be the be best first start, but starting low cost, absolutely. Why not.

Rich: I often say business decisions trump SEO decisions every day of the week. And it sounds like this is another instance where if you want to go global, there’s a lot more considerations than just doing a quick translate. That’s not necessarily gonna work. It might be a good way to test the waters, from what I’m hearing. But the bottom line is if you really want to scale, you have to know the local environment. You have to do your business research as if you would with any other aspect of your business.

Absolutely fantastic. This has been really eye-opening, Alexander. I really appreciate your time and your expertise. If people are looking to learn more about you or the services that you’re providing for companies, where can we send them?

Alexander: Feel free to connect on LinkedIn, I’m available there. Otherwise, feel free to check out GetResponse or getresponse.com. Especially if you’re interested in scaling the market. You will need email marketing as one tool in your toolbox, and that we can offer.

Rich: Excellent. And we’ll have those in the show notes as always. Alexander, thanks so much for your time today, really appreciate it.

Alexander: Thank you so much, Rich.

Show Notes: 

Alexander Rehnborg understands the constant changes and nuances as they pertain to SEO, and he is passionate about helping his clients continuously adapt for growth and success. Check out his website to see what his team at GetResponse is working on, and definitely connect with him on LinkedIn and make sure to let him know you heard him on this podcast.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.