Choosing the right international SEO partner is crucial for businesses looking to achieve overseas growth. What should international marketers bear in mind?

How to choose an international SEO agency

If you’re looking to expand your business internationally, it’s important that your international SEO is in the best shape possible. For many businesses, this means working with an SEO agency to optimise their website for search engines in their target markets. But how do you make sure you are working with the right international SEO agency?


Why use an international SEO agency?

What distinguishes an ‘international SEO agency’ from simply an ‘SEO agency’ is their ability to understand and navigate different markets around the world. For example:

  • How consumers understand and search for your product or service will vary across cultures. A mistake that some businesses make is simply translating their English keyword list into their target languages and optimising around that. However, consumers in your target markets may search for your product using completely different words and phrases. A good international SEO agency will take the time to understand local audience intent, so they can optimise your website and other online content accordingly.
  • The search landscape varies around the world. Whilst Google is the dominant search engine in most countries, there are other international search engines, such as Yandex in Russia, Naver in South Korea, Yahoo! Japan in Japan and Baidu in China. An international SEO agency will know how to optimise for different search engines around the world, not just Google.

An international SEO agency will bring an international mindset to your online campaigns,  through their understanding of the cultural, linguistic and digital nuances of your target markets. Without this international mindset, it’s easy to fall into a UK or US-centric mentality – which may mean you fail to capitalise on the biggest international opportunities or make costly mistakes.


What does an international SEO agency do?

In essence, an international SEO agency will optimise your website so that search engines can easily identify which countries you want to target and which languages you use for business. Key areas that an international SEO agency will focus on include:


International domain strategy:

  • Helping you to understand whether you need a separate website for each country.
  • Choosing the right domain structure for your website – i.e. country code top level domains (ccTLDs), subfolders or directories, or subdomains – and evaluating the pros and cons of each approach for your business.


Language targeting:

  • Showing search engines which languages your website can handle through correct implementation of hreflang or language meta tags (i.e. small pieces of code which indicate which languages your content is available in).
  • Avoiding the use of cookies or scripts to show different language versions of pages – since search engines can’t crawl that type of dynamic content, and human users may miss it too.


Content localisation:

  • Carrying out local keyword research to understand how local audiences understand and search for your product (as opposed to simply translating your existing English keyword list).
  • Making sure the different elements of your website – including copy, imagery, page layouts, the check-out process, form fields, information on delivery, returns and sizing, prices, and so on – are properly localised for your target audiences in each market. This process goes well beyond simply translating words and should take account of cultural and linguistic nuances in your target markets.
  • Localisation should also include elements like title tags and meta descriptions, menu and navigation elements, headings, alt tags, and so on.


International link building:

  • Building relevant links to the localised version of your website from other local websites to strengthen search visibility.
  • Carrying out competitive link analysis using tools such as Ahrefs, Dragon Metrics or SEMrush, to identify potential link opportunities for your own website.
  • Leveraging existing marketing activity for link building – for example, if you’re a fashion brand, using previews for media and influencers to obtain local links.
  • Creating editorial content or content assets – potentially in conjunction with local influencers – that are sufficiently high quality that they attract links.
  • Getting rid of unwanted or toxic links – e.g. as a result of misguided past attempts at link building – through a disavowal process.


A good international SEO agency will also keep you up to date on search engine news and algorithm updates – not just for Google but for international search engines too. They should also provide insights into your search competitors in each market – to help you stay one step ahead.


What to look for in an international SEO agency

If your business sells products or services in multiple countries or regions, then maximising your search visibility in target markets is crucial to your success. Some of the key attributes to look out for in an international SEO agency or partner include:


Degree of focus on international:
There’s a significant difference between a UK or US-focused agency which offers some international capability as a bolt-on extra, and an agency whose entire focus is on international growth. An agency which specialises in international digital marketing will have designed their systems, processes, recruitment strategy and operating model in an entirely different way to a UK-focused agency with an Anglo-centric mindset and approach. If you want an agency which really understands how to achieve international growth, regardless of which markets you are targeting, it’s worth hiring an international specialist.


Access to local in-market expertise:
Very often, the key to international digital marketing success lies in uncovering local on-the-ground insights to guide your campaigns – such as nuances around search terms or behaviours, or customs and preferences, or key dates in the calendar year. These local market insights can often be subtle and individually, may sometimes seem relatively minor. Cumulatively, they can add up to a significant competitive advantage by ensuring your business appears familiar to local audiences – and therefore much more likely to be trusted. Using authentic local in-market experts can help you to identity the biggest international opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.


Thought leadership within the industry:
An international SEO agency with a serious track record of success will likely demonstrate thought leadership within the industry. For example, do they maintain a blog which covers relevant international SEO and digital marketing topics on a regular basis? Do they publish whitepapers and guides which offer solutions to business problems? Do they attend and speak at industry events such as Brighton SEO? Do they maintain an active presence on social media? Has their work been recognised by industry awards?


How long have they been around? If an agency has endured for a while, they will likely have built up accumulated experience across sectors and markets, which they can use to guide your international marketing campaign.


Ability to offer complementary services:
Most digital marketing campaigns are integrated across channels, so you may well be looking for an agency that offers services beyond SEO. For example, can they also manage international paid search and paid social campaigns in different markets around the world? What about understanding cross-cultural UX? Do they know how to localise content and provide content marketing services in different languages? An agency which offers a one-stop shop for global digital marketing can save time for busy international marketing teams.


Understanding the difference between translation and localisation:
Translation is the process of rendering text from one language to another, so its meaning is equivalent. By contrast, content localisation is a more comprehensive process which involves taking your existing content and ensuring it is fit for purpose for your target audiences in different countries. This goes well beyond translation because it considers cultural and non-textual components as well as linguistic issues. A good international SEO agency will understand the difference and ensure your content is properly localised.


They never use machine translations:
Machine translations are still not good enough and don’t compare to copy which has been written by native speakers based in market. The danger of relying on machine translations for your international campaigns is that you could make mistakes which, at best, appear odd or amateurish to local users or at worst, could cause real offence. They don’t offer a good user experience and they aren’t particularly good for SEO either. A good international SEO agency will advise you to steer clear of automated translations.


A credible client list:
You can tell a lot about any agency by their client list. If other credible brands work with them, that is obviously a significant trust signal. It’s also worth reviewing the depth and breadth of experience an agency has in your specific sector – for example, if you’re a B2B company, which other B2B brands have they worked with? If you’re a tourism or attractions business, what expertise do they have in attracting international visitors to your property? A good agency should have relevant case studies to show you and should be able to provide testimonials from current and recent clients.


They only use ‘white hat’ techniques:
A trustworthy international SEO agency will only use ‘white hat’ – i.e. ethical – SEO techniques. For example, they would never buy links – since doing so could incur a penalty from search engines – and they avoid spammy techniques like placing keyword-stuffed articles on low quality ‘guest posting’ sites which exist solely for SEO purposes.


They don’t make unrealistic promises:
Reputable international SEO agencies will be realistic about what is achievable and will avoid giving cast-iron guarantees about results. This is because SEO is an ongoing process, and no-one can categorically guarantee rankings since search engine algorithms are beyond an agency’s control. If an agency does promise overnight SEO success or guaranteed ranking positions, it’s a red flag.


A clear company culture:
They have a clear agency vision and mission. They also have a set of coherent, meaningful company values which they live and breathe. Many businesses see their international SEO agency as an extension of their own team. Since you will be communicating with them regularly, it’s a good idea to look for a team that you think you will get along with.


How to work with an international SEO agency

Choosing the right international SEO agency will involve doing your research, drawing up a shortlist, potentially holding a pitch, negotiating a scope of work, and then onboarding them. To get the most out of your international SEO agency, it’s important to:

  • Have a clear understanding of your goals and desired outcomes, as well as your budget, which you communicate to your agency.
  • Understand the scope of work, processes involved, and likely timescale for when you can expect to see SEO results.
  • Prepare your team and internal stakeholders, so they understand why you’re working with an international SEO agency and how it will impact your business.
  • Ask questions and offer your thoughts and ideas. The best digital marketing projects tend to be collaborations between agency and client.
  • Expect transparency. Your international SEO agency should provide regular reports and insightful commentary which you – and they – can use to monitor and optimise your campaign.


International SEO agencies – summary

Choosing the right international SEO agency is an important way in which businesses looking to achieve international growth can gain competitive advantage. Choosing the wrong agency can drain your budget and worse, potentially negatively impact your brand.

Oban has a long track record of helping businesses achieve international growth using digital marketing techniques. To find out how we can help your business, 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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