The time when a company outgrows its domestic market is often associated with a lot of hassle, for a lot of different reasons. Payment solutions must be implemented, the product portfolio and descriptions must be adapted to other markets and you need to set up customer service solutions, to mention just a few of the bumps in the road on the way towards international expansion.
When it comes to SEO, the issues aren’t that big, but there are a few things that are important to consider and make decisions about, to ensure that the process runs as smoothly as possible.
The first decision you must make is if you are going to use a generic top-level domain (.com and the like) and have all the different languages on that, or if you should have a country-specific top-level domain (.se, .no and so on) for every language. There is no right or wrong here, since both alternatives have their pros and cons. Having everything on the same domain makes it easier to share link power, since the site has more content. On the other hand, it might be slightly easier to rank if you have a country specific domain, which is also a strong trust signal to visitors in many countries.
My recommendation is to keep the domain that you already have and keep building from that.
Generic Top-Level Domain – Subfolder or Subdomain
If you have a generic top domain, you have to decide whether you want to place the different language versions in subfolders (domain.com/se, domain.com/en) or subdomains (se.domain.com, en.domain.com). From an SEO-perspective it’s a dead heat between these two solutions, but I would recommend subfolders unless you have a technical limitation on your site. This is because Google tends to view the subdomains as different sites rather than as one.
Hreflang Tags and Geographic Targets
In order to make it extra clear for Google which language and country each part of the site is targeting there are two tools. The first one is so called “hreflang tags”. This is a kind of meta data that Google reads to understand the relation between different language versions of the same site. In brief, it is about listing all the different versions of the same page like this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”sv” href=”http://www.domain.com/se/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”no” href=”http://www.domain.com/no/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fi” href=”http://www.domain.com/fi/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”sv” href=”http://www.domain.se/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”no” href=”http://www.domain.no/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fi” href=”http://www.domain.fi/” />
This is especially helpful if you are active on several markets that share the same language, for example the UK and the US, as you also have a possibility of indicating which market a page is targeting:
link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”http://www.domain.com/gb/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”http://www.domain.com/us/” />
The other tool can be found in Google Search Console. There you can adjust your geographic target on both domain, subdomain and subfolder levels. This only works for generic top-level domains, since the country specific ones are already set to each respective country.
The last thing to keep in mind, maybe the most important one, is how the navigation between the different language versions is structured. It is important that it is clear how the different sections are related, and that it is easy for Google to find its way between them, for you to utilize the total power of the site (or sites) as much as possible.
The main recommendation is to add a clear ‘language navigation’ on each page, linking to the equivalent pages in the other languages. This is the absolutely best method both for Google and for your visitors.
If you have a lot of different languages/countries it might be a bit too much. It is stupid to place hundreds of navigational links sitewide. In that case, it might be a good idea to instead put a link on each page directing your visitors to a ‘language page’, where they can choose their language. However, this is not as effective, so it’s good if you can avoid it.
As soon as everything is in place, you have a solid foundation to stand on as you continue your worldwide expansion. After this, ‘all’ you have to do is keep working on your search engine optimization for each and every language.