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Beyond borders: The art and science of international SEO for business growth

Expanding a business internationally has always been associated with challenges, a reality amplified in recent years. Inflation remains persistently high in most regions, while geopolitical tensions escalate across many parts of the world. HBR’s State of Globalisation report portrays a noticeable ‘decoupling’ between the world’s major strategic players – the United States and China. News outlets contain discussions of friend-shoring (i.e. manufacturing or sourcing from friendly or allied countries) and bloc-building, further exacerbating regulatory and cultural differences between markets.

In the digital search space, we are seeing growing fragmentation. Search engines such as Baidu, Yandex, and Naver are gaining market share by tailoring their search features to each market’s unique preferences. At the same time, heavy investments from Google and Bing in generative AI search results are reshaping the landscape. These advancements aim to provide personalised answers based on an understanding of each culture’s intent behind search queries. Google is also in the testing phase for ‘Perspectives‘ results, integrating user-generated content from social media, blurring the lines of how and where people search.

Against this evolving backdrop, once a decision is made about which markets to expand into, ensuring an optimal web presence is crucial for organic success. Oban International has helped numerous brands to achieve just that – read on to find out more.


Adapting your website for diverse global search behaviour

It’s easy to assume that people search in similar ways across different markets, but this is rarely the case. Hidden behind search terms are various cultural and social nuances that influence audience expectations. For example, in Brazil, people don’t search for ‘private jets,’ but rather ‘air taxis.’ To achieve optimal performance and avoid cultural missteps, it’s important to tailor international sites to reflect each audience’s unique search patterns. Employing human translations over machine translations is imperative for accuracy and cultural nuance.

A crucial aspect of this adaptation involves the input of individuals familiar with the local market and its cultural intricacies. This is where Oban’s network of Local In-Market Experts comes into play, providing vital insights into linguistic and cultural differences.

Backed by local knowledge, concrete data is equally important. Oban uses Dragon Metrics, a global SEO platform with comprehensive access to keyword information across major search engines. This enables us to understand search patterns, intent, competitiveness of results, and click distribution between organic and paid results. Working closely with our LIMEs, we assess search term relevance to business objectives and assign ratings, which allows us to make informed decisions on page creation and messaging.


Navigating the search landscape beyond brand competitors

Contrary to conventional assumptions, merely targeting direct brand competitors (think Apple versus Samsung, or NatWest versus Barclays) may not be sufficient in achieving top positions in organic Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) across diverse markets.

An emerging trend is the increasing dominance of comparison sites and specialised marketplaces within SERPs. For example, Rakuten in Japan, Flipkart in India, Konga in Nigeria – or closer to home, MoneySuperMarket in the UK for service businesses. These platforms often take precedence and occupy prominent positions because they provide users with a comprehensive overview of various options, encouraging informed decision-making. Consequently, businesses eyeing international markets must understand which websites wield significant ‘market share’ for specific keywords in each target market. This insight is crucial for devising an SEO strategy that aligns with the local digital landscape.

In addition, search engines tend to prioritise their own entities or products within SERPs. This manoeuvre is designed to keep users within their respective ecosystems for as long as possible. An example is Google’s rich comparison functionality, where users can compare a wide array of products or services directly within the search results. Other search engines adopt similar practices, aiming to enhance user experience and streamline decision-making. For example, on Baidu, if you search for the Chinese word for ‘laptops’, Baidu channels occupy the first four results.

There are other indirect competitors to consider, such as resellers or news publishers who write about your product or service. To navigate this landscape effectively, tools like Dragon Metrics prove invaluable. The platform helps to identify prevalent search features specific to the targeted industry or vertical. Even if a business’s primary listing does not secure a prominent spot on the first page of search results, insights garnered from these tools enable SEO experts to tailor optimisation strategies that align with prevalent search features. This approach enhances visibility and engagement, ultimately driving organic traffic and conversions.


Decoding international SEO signals between search engines

To navigate the nuances of international SEO signals, choosing the appropriate domain strategy is crucial, with options such as subdomains, subfolders, or ccTLDs, each with their pros and cons varying by market. Different markets may favour specific domain types – for example, Yandex favours .ru ccTLDs or those from Russian-speaking countries.

Furthermore, considering specific aspects for each search engine is essential. For Baidu in China, local domains may not be crucial, but local hosting is vital. We recommend Pinyin URLs based on the Romanisation of Chinese characters. Hreflang tagging, a complex aspect of SEO, should be meticulously tested and implemented.

If you’re using IP redirection to deliver multi-regional and multilingual content to users, ensure it’s integrated within a broader SEO strategy to ensure effective crawling, ranking, and visibility on search engines.

Note also that non-Google search engines can take meta keywords into account. If a website, initially focused on Google, has phased out meta keywords to avoid penalties, consider reintroducing them in a cautious and considered manner.


In summary: Practical tips for global digital success

Successful international business expansion involves a deep understanding of the evolving global landscape, tailored strategies for each market, and a nuanced approach to navigating SEO differences across various search engines. By embracing these principles, businesses can position themselves optimally in the ever-evolving global market:

  • Understand cultural nuances in search: Recognise that search behaviour varies across cultures and regions. Conduct thorough research to identify the unique search patterns and preferences of your target audience in each market.
  • Tailor your website content: Adjust your website content to align with local search preferences. Use human localisations to ensure accuracy and cultural resonance, avoiding costly mistakes that could alienate your audience.
  • Leverage local expertise: Engage Local In-Market Experts who understand the cultural intricacies of your target markets. Their insights can guide you in tailoring your web presence effectively and avoiding cultural misinterpretations.
  • Use global SEO tools: Employ SEO platforms like Dragon Metrics to gather concrete data and understand search patterns, competitive landscapes, and intent. Use this data to optimise your website for each market.
  • Look beyond direct competitors: Acknowledge that securing top positions in organic search results requires targeting not only direct brand competitors but also comparison sites and specialised marketplaces prevalent in each market.
  • Identify key market players: Research and identify which websites dominate ‘market share’ for specific keywords in each target market. Incorporate this understanding into your SEO strategy to enhance visibility and relevance.
  • Prioritise user experience: Recognise search engines’ tendencies to prioritise their own entities or products. Optimise your website to enhance user experience and streamline the decision-making process for potential customers.
  • Choose the right domain strategy: Select an appropriate domain strategy (subdomains, subfolders, or ccTLDs) considering the preferences of each market and search engine. Optimise for specific ccTLDs based on search engine preferences.
  • Adopt language-specific techniques: Tailor your URL structure using techniques like Pinyin for the Chinese market. Implement hreflang tagging to cater to multilingual and multi-regional content and enhance visibility.

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To find out how Oban can help your business achieve international growth using our unique network of Local In-Market Experts, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion.
Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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