International SEO has always been a little tricky, mainly because historically Google has done such bad job of displaying the right pages in the right locations. So trying to get your websites indexed, ranking and being served to the right people in the right place can be somewhat of a chore.
Best practices for making international SEO work are usually along the lines of either:
> Register the right TLD’s (.com, .co.uk, .ie etc….)
> Create the appropriate sub folders on your domain and geo target them through webmaster tools.
This works, however there has never been any solid advice for dealing with duplicate content/products etc….
Back in September 2010 Google released a post talking about unifying multilingual templates through use of the “hreflang=” tag, this got very little coverage and more information was published in Dec 2011 putting more emphasis on the new markup.
It seems Google have done SEO’s everywhere a massive favour with the new tag but let’s briefly look at how we implement this:
OK, let’s say we have a website in the UK, US, Ireland and Canada. All have the same content apart from a few minor differences in description and currency.
Now you may think that Google won’t dish out any penalties for all the duplicate content, as it can easily understand all these are targeted at different markets, and therefore separate websites? You’d be wrong, in the past 6 months we have seen major brands penalised because Google seems to get confused between .ie & .co.uk, or .com and .co.uk etc…. For whatever reason Google doesn’t handle it very well, one client even lost their major rankings for nearly 2 weeks until a fix was added.
So Google now wants us to implement the following on international sites:
1) Choose the preferred domain or language
2) Add the canonical tag to all versions of your site, all pointing to the domain with the preferred language
3) Add the “hreflang=” tag to all pages on the canonical domain to let Google know which domain is preferred based on their location.
Google now knows that the .com is your master or default website and the other variations in URL are to be served only if the user is searching in that location. The above is based on English based websites but this new markup applies across all languages and locations, so your master website may be in English but you can set the “hreflang” to show a Spanish, French or German URL where appropriate to do so.
If you have multilingual content my advice would be to implement this sooner rather than later, we have already seen multiple websites hurt by not applying this earlier.
It’s also worth pointing out at this point that you can use the “hreflang” to consolidate pages on the same domain as well as cross domain:
So that’s the technical elements out of the way, however after reading Google’s article I couldn’t get the below sentence out of my mind.
“By specifying these alternate URLs, our goal is to be able to consolidate signals for these pages, and to serve the appropriate URL to users in search. Alternative URLs can be on the same site or on another domain”
We already know that a canonical acts like a 301 redirect, well in terms of how it passes authority to another page, so does this mean you can have multiple domains for each country you operate in, but only build links to one of them?
In the above example, if you build links to the .ie page, it will only be passing its authority back to the .com domain? So why not just link back to the .com domain right from the outset?
Google themselves have stated that they are looking to consolidate signals, why wouldn’t this work?
I guess the only doubt in my mind is relevance, surely to rank well in a particular country you need links from that country? A site in English is rarely going to attract links from French domains, unless it has some international appeal…
Maybe Google is presuming a good result in country A has to be a good result in country B. Certainly from what we’re seeing, it seems as though international link building just got easier.
Would be good to know everyone’s thoughts on this, specifically on how it could affect link building.