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What most SEO agencies keep missing about international SEO

International search engine optimization (iSEO) has become hot topic lately. Even if all SEO gurus feel the need to talk about it and lure you with technical details, no one points out the ugly truth. It’s almost impossible for a company to leverage its international online presence with minimum costs.

Take a few moments to remember all the SEO techniques you’ve tested for your website and how long it took to implement. Think about how hard it is to maintain your ranking.

Optimization is a challenge for English-speaking websites. How could it suddenly become a breeze for French or Chinese? You paid an army of SEO experts and copywriters to get an optimized site. And now, the same experts tell you that for all the other languages out there, Google Translate will do the same work for free. All of a sudden, everything became doable with a click. How could this be possible?

Breaking down the concept of international SEO

Google has the same high standards for evaluating the content across all markets. Other local search engines like Baidu or Yandex follow pretty much the same best practices as well. That’s because, after all, all search engines have the same purpose —that is to provide the best answers in search results and help end-users.

What does it mean for brands that want to go global? That a simple translation of a website isn’t going to cut through the noise. You need website localization to gain visibility in local markets. It means adapting your website for every new country and region to make it “look native.”

No matter what language your target audience speaks, when you publish online, you should follow the same old SEO best practices:

  • Publish high-quality content.
  • Implement technical SEO techniques that allow your website to be crawled.
  • Do on-page SEO, which includes keyword research and optimization, descriptive URLs, meta descriptions, titles, good user experience, calls to actions, and so on.
  • Do off-site SEO to build and consolidate your authority with backlinks.

How much of the above can be achieved by working with Google Translate and a freelance developer? Even if your website covers the technical part of SEO impeccably, you can’t grow a business with translated content only.

That’s because international SEO includes more than a couple of technical adjustments. Hreflang tags just tell Google what language every page of your website speaks, but they don’t automatically optimize your content. How could they? They’re only pieces of code.

The ingredients for a successful iSEO strategy

Most SEO agencies start from the theory that once you’ve optimized your content, the translated versions will also be optimized. Unfortunately, things couldn’t be further from the truth.

The word-to-word translation of a website can’t capture attention, bring traffic, get leads or generate conversions. That’s because people who speak different languages also have different searching habits online.
Successful SEO (the one that brings relevant traffic and gets engagement) requires four pillar elements: local marketing knowledge, language skills, cultural insights, and tailored keyword research.

Local marketing knowledge

Local market knowledge enables you to familiarize yourself with the new environment — potential buyers, competitors, laws and regulations, or any other detail that can influence your local presence.

As a business owner or marketer, you know how important market research is. You can’t just assume there’s no real competition for keywords in the country where you’re planning to launch your product. Just as you can’t expect locals to have appetite for whatever you publish.

The more you know about the target market, the easier it becomes to adapt your content and marketing campaigns to meet the expectations of the local audience.

Language skills

Once you know what people like, you need language skills to make sure you speak as they speak. You can spot a non-native speaker a mile away, regardless of your mother tongue.

Web content that performs well on search engines is usually the result of a long creative process. Your English copy has a strong brand voice, is catchy and authentic, maybe also includes humor and idioms. Google Translate (or any other software) alone can’t transmit all the complexity of a language. You need professional translators to deliver good copy in all languages.

Whether you decide to work with freelancers or hire an agency, you must make sure that your translators understand the purpose of your content. Also, you should give them all the details about your brand and the target audience, so that they can adapt the translated texts.

Cultural insights

Google teaches us that powerful marketing starts with a deeper understanding of people. Your audiences in Brazil, Germany or Japan rarely care about the same things, let alone what reaches your national audience.
Not only do international audiences react differently to titles and types of content, but they also engage with brands online in other ways. A six-nation study from 2008 revealed that a brand can have diverse perceptions across cultures despite identical positioning. So, if a company wishes to achieve the same brand perception worldwide, it needs to implement various strategies in every country or region.

Tailored keyword research

The approach of most SEO agencies is to translate keywords just like they do with the rest of the content of a website. What they seem to be missing is that this type of translation doesn’t consider the actual terms used by local audiences to find information online.

Probably, this area is where the difference between international and classic SEO agencies is most visible. iSEO agencies are aware of all the cultural differences that determine different behaviors online.

The translated version of a high-intent keyword in English can be irrelevant for a foreign audience and the other way around. A keyword you’ve chosen to ignore in English, once translated, could be an excellent source of relevant traffic. Based on this knowledge, local experts perform keyword research and pick the right keywords based on their search volume for every new country or region.

Multilingual keyword research enables you to use the right keywords for each stage of your international buyers’ journey. It’s the same process you used for your original website — the only one that has an excellent return to your content marketing efforts.

Optimizing the content for each language

As you already know, the quality of your content stays at the heart of any SEO strategy, local or international. When the content has the right flow, and all keywords get integrated naturally, you have better chances to delight your audience and get the engagement you need.

Professional translators and linguists have the language skills necessary to reach the balance between the technical part of iSEO and the sociocultural one.

Moreover, they manage to deliver tailor-made content in any language without sacrificing your brand voice or changing the meaning of the original message.

They can optimize titles, descriptions, blog posts, social messages and calls to action to make your content appealing to both crawlers and the human audience. And this is what iSEO is all about.

The bottom line

While very similar to SEO, iSEO comes with a different set of challenges for marketers and SEO experts. It’s a form of SEO that is implemented during a complex localization process. You need to adapt your content and your strategies to every local audience that you target.

For successful iSEO, you need to go beyond the technical issues of multilingual websites and curate the cultural elements that make communication possible. In simple words, you need to stay on top of the complexity of different cultures and languages. That’s a job that SEO experts can’t do without the guidance of linguists and language experts.

Many SEO agencies tend to ignore the cultural part, mostly because they can’t do it. They don’t have the linguistic and cultural background necessary to reach local audiences. However, this isn’t the right place to cut corners, as you can’t communicate without the proper understanding of your target audience. And search engines can rarely find a website that doesn’t communicate effectively.