Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, lifestyles have changed radically, with billions of people being forced to suddenly work from home and limit their entertainment to online options.

As a result, online sales have seen a surge, increasing in the UK by 46% as of May 2021, compared to 2019. This has made many businesses aware of the importance of having both an online presence and an optimised website.

Due to this acceleration of online sales, there has been a rise in the number of businesses intending to scale internationally post-Covid. According to a recent survey by CFO, 80% of respondents have expressed serious interest in expanding internationally and are planning on scaling globally within the next 12-18 months. So, how easy is it to scale your business internationally in the current market?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that once you’ve decided to scale your online business internationally and set up your strategy, you’re ready to launch your site and start selling worldwide. However, there are still several factors to consider and plan for before you reach this point.

It’s vital to research and acquire in-depth knowledge of the countries you’ll be targeting. Some countries may have less (or more!) of a need for your products or services, they may have language barriers to overcome or the website will need a specific set-up for each country. To help you stand out from your competitors and take the international market by storm, we have put together our top tips on localising your international strategy. From extensive keyword research to nailing your technical setup, we’ve got you covered!

Preparing your site to be localised

When going international, many companies don’t stop to think that in every country business and communications are dealt with in different ways, even if the same language is spoken. For example, what works in the UK, doesn’t necessarily have to work in the US.

Going international means you need to go local in those countries you will be targeting. It’s imperative that you, as a business, understand how the market talks, their colloquialisms and culture as well as what they need from your business.

You may be wondering, why would I need to learn all of this? To put it simply, you want to create a connection with your new markets, make them see that you understand who they are and what they need, and, obviously, avoid being a laughing stock like Mitsubishi in Spain.

In case you are not aware, they didn’t do research on every market and decided to push their Pajero model worldwide, unaware that in Spanish culture Pajero is a sexual slang term, causing them (after some brief humiliation) to promptly retire and rename the product.

However, this doesn’t just apply to different languages. English speakers will express themselves using different colloquialisms based on whether they are South African, Australian, Canadian, American or English. Therefore, an understanding of local language is critical when entering new markets.

We understand this may seem overwhelming, but there are several solutions that will ensure success in every market you land in:

  1. First off, hire a local marketeer who understands all the ins and outs of the targeted area and covers all the skills you will need from an SEO and content perspective.
  2. Work on identifying the different personas in each market that you will be targeting. This will give you a profound understanding of the culture, people's needs, what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, why they do it. The insights from the persona research will help you create emotionally relevant and compelling user experiences, which will translate into loyalty, trust and sales.
  3. A great example of good persona research implementation would be Apple in China, where competition can be fierce and filled with high volume of knock offs as well as Asian brands which are not as successful in western countries. They have spent years learning how to reach the Chinese users, avoiding the use of western content and basic Asian stereotypes, achieving more than 10% of the market.

Your keyword research will be your ally

Once your team, or agency, is set up and the personas have been identified, you’re ready to move to the next step; keyword research.

This step is key to moving forward because of the amount of information that will be uncovered, ranging from the website structure to the business strategy:

  1. Know if your product/services are needed: Based on search volume and trends, you will be able to know if what you offer is needed in the market, how niche or popular it is and if there are new areas you could expand to.
  2. Plan your site structure: Each market could have different site structures based on the keyword research findings. You will also need to understand the intent behind each of the selected keywords to be able to plan the site structure in the most efficient way.
  3. Understand how users search: Keywords are the voice of the online customer; they will show you how consumers ask questions and how they search for what they need, giving you a deeper understanding of your customer’s online behaviour.
  4. Helps you know users better: A deeper keyword research can tell you all about users needs, questions and concerns which will be key for your content expansion and FAQs section.

Run fast from simple translations

For years, in the world of SEO, we’ve had a mantra that keeps on being repeated: “content is king”. This phrase means much more than just highlighting the importance of content within a digital strategy.

Google strives to deliver the highest quality results, and for that, you need to guarantee your site will be creating fresh content frequently. We mustn't forget that this content should be unique and tailored to each market. We recommend having specific roadmaps and content creation for each of your markets to ensure you’re catering to their specific needs.

Simple translations should be out of the picture from the very beginning as they can cause misinterpretations that can be, quite frankly, damaging to your brand.

Many brands still heavily rely on Google translate, which can cause awkward situations such as the below:

By creating personas that use a deeper, more human, understanding of the psychology behind intent and decisions of your core markets, as well as extensive keyword research, you’ll be able to create unique content that resonates with your target market.

Images are REALLY worth more than 1,000 words

Image representation is often overlooked by brands as they consider other factors of creating website content more important. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Images, or a lack of representation, can break down the connection between you and your customers, causing them to look elsewhere for a brand that offers them more representation. Once again, we are circling back to the importance of persona research and knowing your target users in each market. If you are targeting an Asian country, you need to ensure the appropriate races appear, for instance in Malaysia or Singapore, you will need to have Chinese, Malays (hijabi women included) and Indians represented in your pictures. Don’t forget that age representation is also critical, as users will visually feel connected with them.

Hsbc.com.my

Maybank

Maybank

Malaysian Airlines covering the Chinese, Malay and expat communities

Identify your competitors

So you’ve got a deep understanding of your target market, users and language, what next? To ensure you stand out from the crowd, you need to identify your overseas competitors, who will always vary from your home competitors. For instance, you could think a big international brand is competing in every single European market, as they have quite a big reach, yet you would be surprised how many local strong players each country has.

Once you have identified them, you should conduct in-depth research on their performance, including their site’s look and feel (which could tell you a lot about the market itself), site structure, overall SEO optimisation, paid campaigns, and their USPs such as same-day delivery, free delivery or free trials.

Off the back of this research, it’s a great idea to create a benchmark document to help you improve your delivery and ensure better results. This document should be alive and breathing, not just used once and forgotten about. When a new player enters the market, competitors usually step up their game, so closely monitoring their changes will help you stay ahead of them. At the same time, you should always be on the lookout for other competitors who may seem weaker, as they could always turn around their digital strategy.

Nail your technical set-up

Once your strategy and roadmap have been set up, you need to start working on the foundations of the site. There are some basic guidelines you will need to follow to ensure your hard work is reaching the right markets and is not in vain.

For starters, you’ll need to make sure your URL structure is set up accordingly. Here you will have different structures to choose from:

  1. ccTLD: In this case, your domain will give Google and your users an indication as to which country you’re targeting. For example, you would use .de for Germany, .es for Spain and .sg for Singapore. This option is the easiest way to rank locally - however it will be more expensive to maintain and as the domain authority won’t be shared, efforts to update and maintain websites will be multiplied by the number of domains you have.
  2. Subdirectories: The different markets are targeted on a subfolder level: .com/de, .com/es… Whilst this option makes it slightly harder to rank locally, it has so many other benefits that make it one of the preferred options of many international brands. It is much cheaper than ccTLD, it’s also much easier to maintain and the authority is shared by all the markets.
  3. Subdomains: This is when the international content is placed in a third-level domain. Once again this is easier to maintain than ccTLDs, yet has weaker local signals to search engines, may not have authority passed between them, and doesn’t look too local for users.

Once you have decided which URL structure suits your needs better, we need to ensure you make it clear for Search Engines which regions and languages you are targeting for each page. The following are examples of a hreflang tag:

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/es" hreflang="es-es"/>

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/es" hreflang="es-mx"/>

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="en-gb"/>

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="en-uk"/>

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/es" hreflang="es-us"/>

< link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/es" hreflang="es-es"/>

< link href="http://example.com" hreflang="en" rel="alternate" />

< link href="http://example.com" hreflang="es" rel="alternate" />

One last piece of best practice would be to avoid automatic redirections, as you never know if the user is living in a foreign country. Instead use pop-ups to suggest changing language or location, for a better user experience.

Don't forget your off-page

Once your site is live, it’s time to scream and shout about who you are, what you do and the amazing products or services you provide.

This isn’t an easy task, as you will have to identify which publications in each market are relevant to your identified personas and have high authority. You’ll then need to strategise the type of content you will be offering to each of those publications. An easy starting point will be to analyse who your competitors are getting links from and then afterwards move to new local/regional publications.

While this part of your strategy will require hard work and should be done over an extended period of time, it will bring great benefits; it will spread awareness within your local markets, improve the authority of your site, strengthen local signals and improve your rankings.

How your Paid Search efforts will benefit from localising your international site

The advantages of localising your strategy expand further than just the website, as it will also benefit your paid channels, such as Search Engine Marketing. There are several benefits of localising your site for PPC:

  1. Higher CTR: Ad copies with location-specific aspects (localised keywords) will resonate with users, increasing the chances to grab their attention.
  2. Improved quality score: If your ad works with users, Google will reward you by helping you improve the quality score of your ad since one of the factors that influence your score is the expected click-through rate.
  3. Better connection with users: Your persona research will be key to success here. If you know who you are talking to, you will be able to create specific ads to target the different user segments. This will help achieve a bond with your users by using their own language and expressions.

Conclusion

By now you will have realised that going international has a lot of areas that need to be explored before even buying the domain name. It is an ambitious challenge for any business, yet it can be an exciting project that will take your business to new heights if successful.

It is important to remember that, whilst Search Engines have to be a big part of your strategy and you should always be on the look for the changes they require, humans must be at the core of your strategy and roadmaps as, in the end, they are the ones you create and deliver your product and services for.

If you are thinking about internationalising your company or are in the midst of it and want more information, we will be more than happy to have a chat with you and see how we can help you move forward.

MEET THE AUTHOR.

meet-aiala-min

MEET THE AUTHOR.

AIALA ICAZA

Aiala builds, manages and nurtures our agency partnerships to help the business generate leads and pass these on. She also works with these agencies to upskill their teams; helping partners become more confident in understanding what we do and how to spot new opportunities. 

Aiala also works closely with the business development team to support in sales pitches and LOVES creating thought leadership (yay for marketing). She's appeared on several podcasts, panels and webinars, spreading her love and experience in SEO, human behaviour insights, digital strategy and more. 

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