Global search engine optimization is the process of optimizing a website for search performance all over the world. As you might expect, this can be quite involved.

Paying attention to the global performance of keywords you’re trying to rank for is just the start. You’ll need to create different pages for different regions, account for the different languages you’ll need to communicate in and figure out which keywords to target per region and language… as a start. 

Complex as getting started can be, however, any international company that doesn’t invest in global SEO now faces an opportunity loss too significant to ignore.

Digital transformation, the proliferation of accessible e-commerce, and huge globalized shipping companies like Amazon have shattered traditional geographic barriers to business. Today, nearly every market imaginable has globalized in one capacity or another. The organizations that treat it like the major opportunity it is will be the ones to seize new sources of business as they continue to join the global digital community.

Any organization with interest in serving or selling to users outside of their home region should invest in global SEO to maximize growth. Here’s what you need to know to get started.


“Any organization with interest in serving or selling to users outside of their home region should invest in global SEO to maximize growth.” — Nick Nelson @NickNelsonMN
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Structuring for region and language

The most important aspect of global SEO is making sure you structure your international websites to serve users optimally wherever they are and whichever language they speak. This can be handled in two steps:

  • Create different versions of your website for each language you want to support
  • Tell Google where to send users in different regions to ensure they’re getting the language they want to use

Here’s a closer look at geotargeting.

Different approaches to geotargeting

“Geotargeting” is the process of creating pages SEO-optimized for specific regions. It is the cornerstone of effective global SEO, because pages that are geotargeted for specific regions tend to perform far better in those regions.

There are several different approaches you can take to structuring a site you want to SEO optimize for geotargeting, and each has advantages and disadvantages

1. Country code top-level domains (example.us.com)

Country code top-level domains, or “ccTLDs” are the letters in a URL that go just after the final period in a domain name in international websites (http://exampleurl.us.com).

In most cases, ccTLDs follow ISO 3166-1 designation standards, though there are some exceptions. Countries that use non-Latin scripts may have their own internationalized country code top-level domains (IDN ccTLDs).

Pros of ccTLDs

ccTLDs are the strongest way to indicate that a page’s content is specifically relevant to a geographic area and should appear in that region’s SERPs.

Cons of ccTLDs

Sites with different ccTLDs are considered completely different sites by search engines. If you are the owner of example.us.com and example.uk.com, you’ll have to grow authority on both sites separately. You’ll also have to purchase each ccTLD domain separately, which can be costly.

2. Subdirectories (exampleurl.com/us)

Subdirectories are probably the most straightforward way of internationalizing content. You simply place content meant for a specific region on a subpage of the main website, the same way you might create pages for individual products and services.

Pros of subdirectories

Unlike ccTLDs, subdirectories consolidate ALL link equity within a single domain. Subdirectory pages can benefit from their root domain’s authority to appear in more generalized search engine result pages (SERPs). As all subdirectories are located on the same site, they are also cheaper and easier to maintain than ccTLDs.

Cons of subdirectories

Subdirectories only tell search engines they’re intended for a specific region on the strength of the keywords they rank for. This drastically limits the amount of information you can communicate to that region per page.

3. Subdomains (us.exampleurl.com)

Subdomains place internationalized content on the same website, but in a separate “third-level domain” that appears before the root domain of the website (us.exampleurl.com).

Subdomains differ from subdirectories in that they organize content at a higher level than individual pages. If you wanted to associate multiple pages of content with a region-specific subdomain, for example, you would use both subdomains and subdirectories to do so (“us.exampleurl.com/example-page-1”, “us.exampleurl.com/example-page-2).

Pros of subdomains

Though subdomains function as separate websites, they are considered part of the same root domain. No matter how many subdomains your website has, they are all housed under a single site. This makes subdomains considerably easier and cheaper to maintain than ccTLDs.

Cons of subdomains

Subdomains send a much weaker signal about their targeting to search engines. They also share domain authority with their root domain and each other, so the more subdomains you add to a site, the further you dilute your authority across multiple sources.

Signaling language to search engines with hreflang tags

Once you’ve decided how to structure your website, you have to tell search engines how to direct users to the versions they’ll be able to read. You can do this using “hreflang” tags.

Hreflang tags were created to show search engines the relationship between web pages in alternate languages. You can use them any time one of your webpages is available in multiple languages to ensure site visitors can easily find the version of the site in their language.

Href attributes can be placed on the HTTP header, on-page markup, or sitemap. They look like this: “<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://exampleurl.com” hreflang=”us”>, or, in a url, “exampleurl.com/?lang=us hreflang.”

This example would help Google direct any users believed to speak American English to the American English version of your site. Href language tags use the ISO 639-1 (note: not always the same as ISO 3166-1 used above) format for language codes.

You can also extend the hreflang attribute with extra annotations to indicate which region the content on the page is localized for by adding a hyphen to the hreflang section followed by the ISO 3166-1 Alpha abbreviation of the region in question.

For example, if you would like a page to signal it is localized for Spanish speakers in Spain as opposed to Spanish speakers in Mexico, you would use “hreflang=”es-es” (Spain) instead of hreflang=”es-mx”.

To associate multiple pages together and direct speakers to the right version, use multiple hreflang attributes on each page. These href attributes would direct Google to the alternate versions of your URLs for different languages and tell them where to send the searchers using each language.


“To associate multiple pages together and direct speakers to the right version, use multiple hreflang attributes on each page. These href attributes would direct Google to the alternate versions of your URLs.” — Nick Nelson @NickNelsonMN
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For example, if you created alternate ccTLD domains for your American English homepage that contained the same content in French (for French audiences) and Spanish (for Mexican audiences), your homepage would contain hreflang attributes that look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://ift.tt/0E5vTMq” hreflang=”fr-fr” /> <link rel=”alternate” href=”https://ift.tt/Vwhoecd” hreflang=”es-mx” />.

If you made subdirectories or subdomains instead, replace the ccTLD domains in the href sections above with their subdirectory or subdomain HTTP equivalents. Remember to include these href attributes on the French and Spanish language pages as well, but instead of including the primary language, include:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://exampleurl.com” hreflang=”us-us” />

Hrefs can also be used to direct speakers to the page they want to see, even if they aren’t living in a region where their language is the most commonly spoken. For example, if you want to make sure that French-speaking people using US IP addresses are directed to the French version of your website, you would use the US ISO 639-1 tag FOLLOWED by the FR ISO 3166-1 Alpha tag:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://ift.tt/0E5vTMq” hreflang=”us-fr” />

Using href tags will NOT help you increase your SERP rankings, but it will swap the correct version into a SERP based on a user’s location and language preferences.

Global SEO best practices

Now that your site is structured correctly, it’s time to start optimizing your pages for regional users and intent. Follow these best practices when reviewing your global SEO pages to ensure you’re optimizing for the right audience, region, language, and intent across every page:

Review your information’s relevance

Review every page you duplicate or remake to ensure all the information on it is relevant for the region and/or language it’s targeting. Be sure to double-check:

  • URL
  • Meta titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • Time zone
  • Navigation labels
  • Headings
  • Internal and external links
  • Image text, meta information, alt text, and anchor text
  • Product/service names and descriptions
  • Body content on directions, deals, and special offers
  • Contact information

Pay attention to both global and regional keyword volume

Keywords perform differently in different regions of the world. When optimizing for global SEO, pay attention to both a keyword’s global and regional volume. You can compare a keyword’s volume across geographies to gain an understanding of demand across individual regions.


“Keywords perform differently in different regions of the world. When optimizing for global SEO, pay attention to both a keyword’s global and regional volume.” — Nick Nelson @NickNelsonMN
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Conduct local competitor analysis

Look at the SERPs of the keywords you’re targeting to identify the local competitors currently ranking for the keywords you’re pursuing.

As you analyze your competition, evaluate the following:

  • How are their pages specifically targeting local users?
  • What kind of other content are they linking to?
  • How long or in-depth are their pages?
  • How are they using the keywords you’re pursuing?
  • What does the SERP landscape reveal about search intent?

Conducting international and regional competitor analysis can provide you with a great deal of information on how to pursue regional keywords more effectively.

Link to local content

Link building is one of the most important aspects of global SEO optimization. The more regional sources link to your site, the more search engines will recognize your associated value in your target region.

Start building your footprint by linking out to credible local content yourself. Whenever possible, replace cited sources or other supplemental information with local variations. This will show search engines that your page should be considered a part of that region’s internet ecosystem, making them more likely to include you in SERPs.

Measurement and reporting with geographic insights

Properly set up and optimized, the amount of actionable information you’ll receive from global SEO pages is staggering. Not only will you be able to glean global keyword performance, but you can drill down to examine how your pages, products, and services are doing across key SERPs in both different regions and languages.

Your measurement and reporting metrics should evolve to make the most of all of this insight. As you develop your SEO reporting, but sure to break out performance across all relevant regions you’ve optimized your global SEO to cover.

Start by taking special note of any pages or keywords that are over or under-performing in specific regions relative to others. This will help you understand what’s working and what’s not. You can then take steps to further optimize your regional pages in the future — and even break into new regional markets more successfully.

Global SEO is a significant upfront investment, but for ambitious companies interested in expanding, the opportunity is well worth it. Used properly, a bigger-picture view of SEO can not only raise your brand awareness, but it can also serve as a key source of critical information on how to expand and succeed in countless new markets all over the world.

TopRank Marketing currently conducts successful global SEO programs for multiple enterprise clients.

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