7 international SEO strategies to get your eCommerce site in front of a larger audience
Want to target your eCommerce site to international markets or customers who speak a different language? International SEO is your ticket to presenting yourself to your international visitors in the best way possible.
But it’s not just about being picked up in the SERPs (search engine results pages) - it’s about providing a good user experience. If your site is inaccessible because of language differences or an inability to find the products your international audience is looking for, user experience suffers. And your site misses out on key revenue opportunities.
Luckily, international SEO doesn’t have to be hard. A few simple adjustments and updates can help search engines show your relevant content to a larger audience.
In this post, we’ll show you how to avoid common international pitfalls by going through the basics, including:
What is international SEO?
Why is international SEO important for eCommerce businesses?
What are the best things you can do to get your site in front of a larger audience?
What is international SEO?
International SEO simply means the process of optimising your site for customers in different countries and/or languages.
Do this right, and it can help Google and other search engines (like China’s Baidu) understand which version of your site they should show to users in different target countries.
A properly optimised eCommerce site = you reach a wider target audience.
Search engines can identify appropriate pages and present them in the best way to target audiences in different countries (or those using different languages within the same country). As a result, your eCommerce site will have different versions of the same (or similar) content in different languages to reach more users.
What about duplicate content? Don’t fret. If you’ve correctly implemented hreflang, you shouldn’t be punished for duplicate content or have cannibalisation issues. (We talk more about hreflang in step 5).
If you want to get the most out of your potential reach to users in different nations, international SEO is a vital part of your success (and overall strategy).
How to know if your eCommerce business needs an international SEO strategy
You should consider creating an international SEO strategy if:
Your eCommerce business serves international customers
Your customers speak multiple languages
Not every business needs a strategy for international SEO. For example, if you’re a UK-based company and most of your customers live in the UK and largely speak the same language, you probably don’t need it.
However, even if you don’t sell products or services internationally, if your country has people who speak two or more languages (for example, Canada), it’s worth investing in an international eCommerce SEO strategy.
7 effective strategies for international SEO for eCommerce businesses
As with most things, no two businesses are the same, which means your strategy may be different depending on your needs and audiences. Want some personalised suggestions for your eCommerce business? Talk to our SEO specialists.
But for now, here’s 7 strategies we recommend to our clients (and use on our own eCommerce sites) who are targeting international audiences.
1. Select a default language
It’s best to choose a default language that’s based on the target market most likely to use your site.
Aka: if your target market speaks French, your default language should be French.
Whatever the default language, you don’t need to create a subfolder for that language. Those pages should live off the main website root. For instance, if your site’s default language is English, there’s no need for an English subfolder /en/. Instead, that language should be used on URLs off the root.
It can be tricky to enforce a subfolder ranking in lieu of an actual homepage. So should you choose to have subfolders for your default language, be aware that it’ll be an ongoing battle to stop / from being indexed, and to get /en/ indexed instead.
From our experiences, search engines index easier when the default language sits at the root.
2. Translate your site (the more the better)
All international content should be translated into the language you’re targeting, including:
URL paths (where possible)
Metadata (the text specified in page titles and meta descriptions)
Navigation headers, footers and all links
Text in images
Alt tags on images
Image file names
Anchor text for links
We’re not saying every URL on your site must be translated. Rather, every page that’s translated should be fully translated for all fields on those pages.
We suggest translating as much of your site as possible within your budget - via human translation, not machine translation. If you don’t translate strategic content (or UX pieces like customer service answers) it can create challenges for SEO and your users.
We also recommend conducting language-specific keyword research for each domain. Specific terms and phrases can be more common in certain languages. So often translating a single word isn’t enough. Slang and terminology differ between regions, and attention to detail can make you stand out from other brands.
Read more: Ecommerce keyword research explained
3. Specify content language
To specify content language, there are two ways you can go.
Select the implementation method that makes the most sense for your team:
HTTP-equivalent method (content language meta tag)
Specify the correct ISO language code in the <head> section using the following code.
Example syntax variations:
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en”>
on English pages
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”es”>
on Spanish pages
- <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”fr”>
on French pages, etc.
HTTP header method
The ‘Content-Language’ representation header is there to describe the language(s) that’s meant for the audience, so users can differentiate it according to their preferred local language.
Specify the correct ISO language code via the HTTP header response.
Example syntax variations:
- Content-Language: de
(on German pages)
- Content-Language: en
(on English pages)
Make sure you also specify the HTML <lang> attribute. Include the correct ISO language code in the <head> section using the following line of code:
Example syntax variations:
Worth noting: you only need to specify the language used on the page in question.
4. Create properties in Google Search Console
We recommend creating a domain property for the main domain and setting up properties per language subfolder too.
This lets you keep an eye on each language for performance, submit the specific XML sitemap to Google and monitor any indexation issues that might come up in each subfolder.
5. Use hreflang tags
A hreflang is a HTML attribute that tells search engines which language and geographical targeting you’re using on a specific page. This helps the search engine serve the relevant result to users searching in that language.
Hreflang can be implemented via tags in the HTML (the most common way), HTTP headers or your XML sitemap. While all of these hreflang implementations work, the more countries or languages you target, the more your eCommerce business should look into a non-HTML solution to avoid code bloat and complexity.
Check out our dos and don’ts for implementing hreflang tags:
Specify language only, or language and country, targeting (like “en”, “es-es”).
Specify the correct, indexable, full-path URL (eg. the canonical URL, including the protocol, domain name etc.).
Specify all variations of each language you’re targeting and each specific country.
Make sure each page with hreflang refers to the other variations. In return, they should refer to the starting tag (eg. ensure correct cross-references and avoid return tag errors).
Include an x-default URL. The ‘default’ URL is likely to be the original URL variation, before you added internationalisation.
Implement hreflang via the HTML and sitemap. Google doesn’t recommend it and it’s redundant.
Add hreflang to pages that are not indexed, or those that canonicalise to other pages. Only valid, original pages should be indexed and optimised for internationalisation.
6. Update your XML sitemap
Your eCommerce XML sitemap is used by search engines to better crawl and navigate your website - getting a list of URLs (though not always every URL) so they can deliver the best results in the SERPs.
When setting up an XML sitemap for international subfolders, we recommend taking this approach:
Create a dynamic XML sitemap file that lives in this folder of your site.
- Create a unique sitemap for each language that includes all URLs specific to that language in the sitemap. For example:
To make sure search engines can properly understand your URLs, make sure you follow these XML sitemap best practices - including having it referenced in the robots.txt file or listed in your sitemap index file.
If you’ve chosen a ccTLD (country code top-level domain) or subdomain structure, create a normal XML sitemap for all indexable pages for that domain. After you’ve claimed the GSC account for each folder, submit the XML sitemap to that property.
Worth noting: you can specify hreflang directly in your XML sitemap.
7. Interlink between language variation pages
Don’t isolate international pages in their own section and expect hreflang to inform search engines about all your new page variations. Instead make sure you explicitly backlink the ‘international homepages’ from your primary homepage.
We suggest including self-referencing canonicals (including language-specific URL structure) on all pages to tell search engines that each language folder path should be seen as a stand-alone URL and to avoid Google consolidating any URLs.
Just like you’d do with your primary homepage and navigation links to subdirectories, create crawl paths from the international homepage to international subpages.
Also don’t rely on ‘links’ from a language dropdown that needs user interaction (Googlebot and other search engine crawlers can’t replicate this action). Let your user select the language by having a pop-up or clickable links where language selectors appear in the navigation or footer.
We don’t suggest using IP-driven redirects as they’re usually incorrect, particularly when they're close to borderlines, and can result in poor UX.
Worth noting: Googlebot is US-based and IP redirects can force Googlebot to only crawl the English content - causing big problems for other languages.
Market your business better with an international SEO strategy
Having a solid SEO strategy is important enough, but if your eCommerce site wants to sell to new international markets or customers who speak different languages, you need to build international eCommerce SEO into your strategy.
If you don’t implement proper sitemaps, tags, translations and properties, you risk missing out on customers. Or worse - being penalised by search engines for duplicate content, or experiencing cannibalisation issues between the different language versions of the sites.
Give search engines what they want - an optimised international SEO strategy - so they can show your audience your most relevant content. Giving your customers a more positive shopping experience, and a higher chance of buying from you.
Remember: each brand’s international SEO requirements are different, so approach it with your business’ goals and unique audience in mind.
Need help building your international SEO strategy? Or want an expert analysis of your current international SEO strategy? Talk to our SEO specialists for a personalised audit and proposal.