A version of this article originally appeared in Dossier 4.1. It has been revised to include Google’s recent announcement of the hreflang=”x-default” annotation. International SEO is a topic I haven’t seen much written about lately, but it’s becoming more and more important in this always on, highly mobile culture of ours. In fact, while the percentage of English speaking Internet users grew around 300% from 2000-2010, the percentages of Chinese and Spanish speaking users grew by 1,478% and 807% respectively. Any brand hoping to capture some of this international business clearly needs a solid strategy. Specifically in the hospitality world where most large brands have international properties and their guests are searching for locations around the world, having a robust international strategy is particularly important. First consider the goals. In this case, the goals are to create a site that presents the correct language to the correct users, and to rank well based on where the user is searching. For example if a user in Spain were searching for hotels, you’d want your Spanish language site to be returned on page one in the SERPs. This goal supports the larger goal of driving natural search traffic to the site, which ultimately converts and brings in dollars via the online channel. Now the strategy is to make use of all the tools and methods available to achieve the desired result. Here I will cover the most important tactics supporting this strategy. Before I get into the meat of the article let me first say thank you to the whole SEO Client Services team here at RKG, specifically Jody O’Donnell, Ben Goodsell and Cara Petterson who put in all the hard work researching and developing our international recommendations. These folks are so knowledgeable that talking technical SEO with them can be like drinking from a fire hose.
Domain Strategy Ideally a domain strategy using TLDs (Top Level Domains, e.g. .au, .de, .cn) would be chosen and implemented consistently across international sites. Hilton for example is using a consistent TLD domain strategy across three international sites.
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One benefit of choosing the Hilton.de country code TLD type structure is that the correct geo-location can be set within Google Webmaster Tools. Using subdomains or subfolders means you’ll need to verify the country specific website in Google Webmaster Tools and choose the appropriate country preference. The primary benefit of using the TLD strategy is that it’s most effective at lining up location signals correctly. A site is much more likely to rank well in the targeted regional search engine when TLDs are used. However, subdomains can be a viable option, as can subfolders, but these should be considered second and third options. Country Specific Hosting Hosting a website from the same country the website represents can be very beneficial in that it sends a strong signal to the search engines that the site is relevant to the users search query. By looking at the IP address of a site relative to that of the user doing the searching, the search engine determines they are in the same country and will be more likely to serve that website in the search engine results pages. Using the Hilton example above I found the IP address of http://www.hilton.co.jp is 18.104.22.168. Using a WHOIS search to run a quick check on that IP address shows that it’s country of origin is in the EU. Preferably the site would be hosted in Japan, but sometimes hosting each global site from its respective country may not be feasible for reasons technical or otherwise. Hreflang Tag Now on to one of the more complicated tactics in an international SEO strategy. In case you missed it, Adam Audette covered this topic in his blog post titled, “Advanced International SEO with rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x”. To boil it down, we’re essentially using the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” tag to let Google know there are region specific versions of the website available, which should be returned when appropriate. I highly recommend reading that article before continuing. Done? Great. Now that you have a solid understanding of this tag let’s look at how Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts could make use of this if they chose to. There are now two ways to use the hreflang tag; 1) in the HTML on each page via meta tags and 2) in the XML sitemap. The XML sitemap flavor is much easier to implement so we’ll focus on that method first. First off Four Seasons needs a well-optimized XML sitemap on their root domain, where the rel=”alternate” and hreflang=”x” tags will be listed along with the standard URLs we’d generally expect to see. Once the XML sitemap is in place we’ll add the following: <url> <loc>http://www.fourseasons.com</loc> <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”zh” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/zh/welcome/” /> <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”br” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/br/welcome/” /> <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ru” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/ru/welcome/” /> <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x-default” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com” /> </url> For more information on hreflang tag implementation in an XML sitemap directly from the source, visit: http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2620865. If the XML sitemap method isn’t feasible, there is another option using meta tags. This method is not as clean and simple, but will still get the job done. Using the example above, we’d simply put the following meta tags in the <head> section of each page: <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/zh/welcome/” hreflang=”zh” /> <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/br/welcome/” hreflang=”br” /> <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com/ru/welcome/” hreflang=”ru” /> <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.fourseasons.com” hreflang=”x-default” /> These are just examples, and every individual language represented on the Four Seasons site will need to be included. One more method I should mention regarding letting the search engines know which language is being targeted is through the use of meta content tags. Simply place a tag such as the one below on each page. <meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”ru”> If multiple languages are spoken within the same country it’s a good idea to create content in each language, as well as using the hreflang tag to make sure the correct language is served up. Link Building Just as in the case of working to improve rankings for US sites, link building for international sites is important as well. Developing high quality, relevant links from the correct region can be very helpful. For example, the site http://www.marriott.co.jp/default.mi would ideally have many great backlinks coming from other ‘.co.jp’ sites. This is a very strong signal to the search engines. The overall approach to link development is the same regardless of country. For more info on creating a link building strategy I recommend reading, “How to Create a Link Building Strategy”. Bottom Line To ensure the right version of the site is returned to the right users, it’s important to give every signal possible to the search engines, making it clear which version of the site to return. Give us a call to find out how RKG can help you create an international SEO strategy that fits within your overall marketing and SEO efforts.