International Web Marketing Strategies

As businesses look for new growth opportunities, international expansion is becoming common theme. Aside from the obvious differences in commercial law, etc., there are some website-specific issues that need to be carefully addressed to give the best chance of success.

It’s quite helpful to develop a plan of attack, as there can be numerous steps in the process, depending on the target country. The principle areas you need to address are:

  • Domain considerations
  • Hosting issues
  • Content localization and customization
  • User experience
  • eCommerce-specific issues

Domain Considerations

There are three standard strategies recognized for building an international presence on the web.

  • Purchase a country-specific cc TLD (country code top level domain) In this case, a .fr domain
  • Place the country-specific content in a subdomain of the main domain
  • Place the country-specific content in a subfolder of the main domain

Each approach has its pros and cons but for, let’s say, France, the recommendation is that purchasing a cc TLD is preferred for two primary reasons:

  • Several sources have reported that because of the current state of search engine algorithms, a .fr domain will rank higher with less effort than using subdomains or subfolders.
  • Research has also shown that a French consumer is more likely to follow a link on a .fr domain than a link from fr.yourcompany.com or yourcompany.com/fr.

One difficulty a company might face with purchasing a cc TLD would be availability. It’s entirely possible that the domain yourcompany.fr has already been purchased and you will have to go through the legal wrangling of securing your preferred domain. In addition, certain countries might require that the domain have a physical address/presence in the host country and be hosted by a provider in that country. Your mileage may vary and the best advice I could give would be to work with law professionals within that country. As you will see later, there are advantages to having a physical presence and hosting in the target country.

The primary disadvantage to creating a .fr domain is that the site’s presence won’t increase the domain authority or garner any of the link juice of the primary (US-based) domain and lack of domain age will weigh heavily against the site at first. In addition, content updates become increasingly difficult with each new country added. This approach can also be expensive and introduce legal issues that will need to be addressed.

The other two strategies will also work if budget constraints are a factor but additional marketing efforts may need to be implemented to offset the difference. However, as CTR is crucial to an ecommerce site, a company using these alternative approaches would be placing itself at a disadvantage given consumer behavior patterns common to the target country.

There are additional factors that could effect ranking internationally:

  • Hosting location (suggestion: the target country)
  • whois information for the domain should have a physical address in the target country.
  • Domain name should use a translated keyword-based version of the generic class of items that you want to rank for (in this case, “tactical gear”). yourcompany.fr would be highly brand oriented and would be unlikely to help position in the SERPs. Whether or not you use hyphenated or non-hyphenated domain names is another issue and a debate that is well beyond the scope of this paper.

Keyword research

Given how Google is gradually removing keyword information from its analytics reports, the subject of keyword research might be a bit controversial. However, I don’t believe that keyword research has lost all of its importance and is an important part of providing a good user experience if used properly. So, we need to find phrases that visitors are typically using that rank well in the target country. For this, it is important to have someone “on the ground” or a native speaker who is familiar with the subject matter. Networking can uncover an individual or group that can assist in this. This could also be the translation service that is selected in a later step.

It is important to recognize that simply because a country speaks the target language, different countries or even regions within the target country might have different terms for the same product (e.g., France vs Quebec or Paris vs Lyon).

The next step is to research with your favorite keyword tool(s) how your initial keyword is performing and also identify any related keywords that might also lead to additional opportunities.

With the original keyword and any additional keywords gleaned from your findings, research must be done into keyword search volume to ascertain where efforts will be best spent. AdWords Keyword Tool and AdCenter Tools among many others provide detailed metrics to determine the top x-number of phrases to optimize for.

One other factor to consider is to search for phrases that might point to markets such as fashion or outdoor sports such as hunting. Research KEI on these as well.

Once the top results are selected, put aside the top term to be used in the URI and page title. The top two will be used in the meta description. It is recommended that one long-tail keyword be selected that can be used in the content or in an ALT tag in A/B and/or multivariate testing once the site is launched.

One final observation would be to consider gender in keyword selection, especially with apparel (homme vs femme).

Competitive analysis

At this point, compare your research with what the competition is doing. Ask these questions:

  • Who already ranks where we want to rank?
  • Who sells a competing product?
  • What do they call it?
  • Where do the competing sites rank for the keywords that were previously selected in the keyword research phase?
  • Are there any other apparent keywords that the competition is using that aren’t in the group found during the keyword research phase?

With any additional keywords found through competitive analysis, go back and check on the search volume for these phrases so you can prioritize.

Translation of content

Armed with your best and brightest, take a step back and determine how you will translate your content so that it will beat the competition.

There are two main options, each with pros and cons.

  • Utilize a translation service. The advantages to this approach are that most services can also provide content for link building efforts at a later time. This is especially true for a service that also focuses on search engine optimized content. The con, of course, is that these services can, over the long haul, be quite expensive and can eat into margin.
  • Utilize a contractor, especially ex-pats, to provide the translations. The advantage is that these individuals or groups are hungry and will tend to give it their all because they rely on the income. The disadvantages are that contractors can be unstable, the consistency in quality of their work can vary and finally, they might not be able to hit deadlines or produce the volume of work necessary to nourish the site properly.

On-page optimization

The areas of emphasis here are no secret. Focus on the typical areas of a page’s structure and try to help improve the visitor’s experience as much as possible.

  • URI
  • Page Title
  • Description: This is important for your search results “look” on your SERP
  • If possible, while still maintaining a natural tone, use at most two or three of the selected phrases in the content on the page. Shoot for 250-300 words of content.
  • Ensure that the page renders well in a predetermined set of standard browsers.

Additional on-page considerations

  • Use universal HTML markup for accented characters
  • Use <meta http-equiv="content-language" content="XX"> in the header to specify content language for the target country. (Replace the XX with your country’s code)
  • Watch code bloat (especially regarding Javascript) and page load speed

Finally, create an account on google.fr for Google Analytics and set up and link a Webmaster Tools account to it that you can use to submit your sitemap.xml file. It is recommended that you set up the account with a local (in France) address. Create a Bing Webmaster Tools account to submit your sitemap there as well.

Link building

It’s funny how link building is starting to look a lot like what we used to consider PR. Be careful out there! Other countries may have less “noise” to hide behind and any iffy techniques might bring unwanted attention to your site a lot quicker than in the States.

  • Guest blogging: This will also require a presence “on the ground” in France or with a content provider. Guidance can be given as to subject matter but a native writer is essential here.
  • For eCommerce sites, publish an article a week in your content management system that can attract natural linking from fans. Link to the target product page to encourage conversions. With sufficient content on the blog, an internal link strategy can increase authority of your product or category pages and strengthen conversions.
  • Choose a group of forums and blogs to post to on a weekly basis. Don’t ask for links. With time and the addition of helpful posts, confidence will grow in the brand and will result in opportunities for linking.

Social Media

All social media efforts hinge on relevant content and a disciplined approach to updates.

  • Set a schedule for all social media postings and stick to it.
  • Every blog post (internal or external) should get a corresponding acknowledgement on the social media fronts. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and, if appropriate Pinterest or Tumblr fit this mold and have to be attended to without fail. This can be an enormous benefit to brand recognition and link building.
  • Do not send sales-oriented only messaging. Know the customer and send things that are not only self-serving but are also beneficial to a potential customer. The goal is to acquire social capital, aka trust and engagement.

Final thoughts

  • Have all legal and business issues been addressed before you start? You can throw a lot of good money down the drain by finding out too late that it’s not worth your time to do business in country X.
  • Is the user experience optimized for conversion? Perhaps messaging and page structure need tailoring for your target country
  • How is customer service going to handle a presence in another country?
  • For eCommerce, where do our competitors get their merchandise?
  • How is distribution done? Would it be cost effective to use micro warehouses in the target country to keep a minimum of stock in the target country for expedited shipping?
  • How does the page/site handle B2C vs B2B?
  • Mobile implementation? This is only going to get bigger.
  • iOS and Android app?