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SEO Dos and Don’ts of global SEO

I care about global SEO. And, if you’re working in any kind of globally active company, you should too.

But let’s rewind a little bit and paint a picture of what your website is probably like. Before we get into what the goal of global SEO really is. The contents of this post:

  1. The Global Website in a Picture
  2. Google as a Cannon
  3. The Goal and Problem of Global SEO
  4. Confusing the Cannoneer
  5. DO Have a Global Gateway
  6. DON’T Automatically Redirect Visitors
  7. DO Offer Proper Language Selection
  8. DON’T Ever Have Duplicate Content

The Global Website

Let’s think of your website as a large house. If you’re lucky, you have a bunch of floors, each dedicated to a different language.

All the people there speak only that one language. All signs are written in that one language.

If you’re even luckier, your house might look like this:

That’s a bunch of rooms on each floor, specific to a certain region, not just language.

For example, you might have the English floor separated into two parts. A bunch of rooms filled with people from the UK. They use the local “slang” and know their way around the UK. Ande a separate bunch of rooms filled with people from the USA, which know their way around the USA.

So that’s what large global websites look like.

The separate floors represent linguistic customization of the content, the bundles of rooms represent geographical customization. Linguistic customization means a floor is simply the English version of your website, while another floor is the French one.

The geographical customization means that a couple of rooms, that is a couple of pages within your English website are targeted at the USA, while a couple of pages are targeted at the UK. You can see that whenever you have the option to either choose a “location” or are confronted with choosing your country first before being able to choose a language.

There are websites that only have one or the other, or a mix of the two, but the DOs and DON’Ts apply to all of them.

Google and Global Websites

Let’s put Google in this picture:

Google is like a huge human cannonball cannon. You go to the cannoneer, tell him where you want to go, and he gives his best to shoot you right into the right room and floor.

There are many cannons you can choose from:

One might be called “google.co.uk”, one might be called google.com, another might be called Baidu.

Back to the cannoneer. The cannoneer has a lot of freedom because he believes he is the very best at his job, and he has the right to shoot you to the room he thinks best suits you, not necessarily the one you asked for, you’re sometimes in for trouble. If you look like this:

The cannoneer might decide to shoot you to the US floor, while the guy enjoying a tea might be shot to the UK floor. The heavy guy is harder to get to the right floor than some light dude.

In more technical terms, search engines will personalize the search results they choose for you, depending on your behavior, your previous searches, your browser characteristics like the set language, the IP you came from, and many other characteristics they can observe.

Now, how do the cannoneers know a room is the right one for you? They do this:

From time to time, they start to walk, or let’s say crawl, through your house, a bunch of rooms at a time, and try to guess, which room is best for what kind of people. They make a list, take photos of your rooms, and put all of this into their “cache”, their stack of notes they review when someone says their “phrase” and wants to be shot. Shot to some room that is.

The Goal and the Problem of Global SEO

The goal of global SEO is pretty simple. You want the guy from mainland China, speaking mostly Chinese, to be shot to the “Chinese” floor into the rooms with all his fellow Chinese-speaking Chinese.

The problem is this guy:

You have no influence on him. And no, “search console settings” and “href lang tags” don’t count as an influence. If you think so, read the paragraph below.

The only way to kind of influence the cannoneer is to make sure when he starts to crawl through your place, there is NO and I mean NO ambiguity on whom to put where. Let’s prep him with a perfect set of notes for his cache.

How is that different from normal SEO or local SEO?

I like the term global SEO because it’s emphasis is on the problem and the goal, the point of multiple languages and countries. The term “international SEO” kind of only means multiple countries, which I think is very misleading. Multiple countries, unless they are all English speaking always kind of imply multiple languages. So that’s why I like global SEO.

Normal SEO is kind of, like taking one of the rooms of your house at a time, or a collection of rooms, and prettying them up, such that any cannoneer can immediately see, what’s the purpose of the room. For instance, in the relaxation room of your house, you would put up a large sign saying “relax! Breathe.” You would place a large image (and alt-title it correctly, for the cannoneers who have bad eye-sight) of a large field. You’d put a water fountain up, and you’d put everything in order.

Local SEO is like taking a bunch of rooms, on a particular language floor, out of the bunch which is dedicated to some country, say the USA. Then you’d put a bunch of things in this room to indicate, where the people in this room are FROM. Like you’d print out their phone number, put up their local address on the wall, put up a photo of the town of New York.

Your goal is to get the right cannoneer into this room.

Those cannoneers will then if a guy wants to be shot up and say “I want to buy pizza in New York” try to shoot them to the correct room, hopefully, the pizza room, not the relaxation room. Or they might try to figure out that they actually want pizza in New York, based on something they can see, like a New York t-shirt.

HREF Langs or Don’t Try to Confuse the Cannoneer.

Your Canadian pages turn up in google.co.uk? Or in our metaphor, the British cannoneers ended up on your Canadian floor, liked it, and keeps shooting people up there? Say because some evil automated elevator took them there (hint: see below for more on evil automated elevators) and never actually revealed your specific Canadian floor?

How on earth do you think you can fix your broken house architecture with a bunch of signs like this:

Or that:

Or that:

Let’s just put it this way. Your architecture is broken. And no sign, no map, no setting will change anything about it:

The only way to fix bad information architecture is to fix the information architecture.

Don’t try to fix it with “href lang tags”, “canonicals”, “search console settings” or whatever new technical idea comes up next. That stuff you can put on a properly built and organized house, not a messy one.

Alright, let’s get going with the DO’s and DON’Ts.

DO have a global gateway

A global gateway is like this:

One large front door, with an elevator, taking you to the right floor. And I mean right in the best way here, it’s the one you choose. Not some “automatically” chosen one.

There is a great book about global gateways by John Yunker of Byte Level Research called “The Art of the Global Gateway” . Yunker lists a couple of elements of global navigation
  1. Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)
  2. Global gateways
  3. IP based geolocation
  4. Browser language

For Yunker, the thing that makes or breaks a global website is the global gateway. And I agree. Visitors too often get caught in some way on the wrong part of the website. Imagine, a guy from the US enters your house, e.g. through the window, here:

How on earth is he going to get back? If you let him walk 3 miles before getting to his destination, he might just as well just walk over to the next house.

Even worse is, what is surprisingly common, you manage to not provide him any door labeled in English, or any door at all.

If you get that one right, you might still manage the related problem: Either you or Google shot your visitors to the right floor, but into the wrong room. Into the EN-GB room, not into the en-US one. And if you’ve been good in hiding the “localization” then people won’t notice and keep on sending the wrong salespeople e-mails, which then, in turn, claim much higher conversion rates for their amazing Adwords campaigns and so on and so on…

So the best practice is simple: On your main page of the website, website.com, put a global gateway, without any kind of localization.

If you get that to work, then you can start, in a non-pushy way, to localize that page, for instance like this:

A real-world working example of this is IKEA, check out the post on IKEAs global gateway.

DON’T automatically redirect visitors.

Imagine, you were entering a website, step into the first room, wondering whether you are already on the right floor, and it starts moving! It’s an automatic elevator.

And it takes you to the Chinese floor!

Based on your new Chinese dragon tattoo, the automatic elevator took you, without asking, to the Chinese floor, and kicks you out.

How does that feel?

Not so good. And still, it’s what a lot of websites do.

Technology firms building websites love to sell the automatic redirect as a “way to give the visitor directly what he wants”. Except, they usually suck at automatically detecting the customers’ preferences.

And even if they are good at it, they offer you no way of evaluating if they redirect correctly. How would you know? The real problem is with the people who leave the website, so there’s no data left behind.

The problem is: The redirect ends up making mistakes, and quite a lot of them. And for those visitors, it’s much harder to get back to the right website version.

The best practice is easy: Do not auto-redirect!

Remember the guy from above who entered through the window into the Chinese room? He takes us to the next DO.

DO offer proper language selection

A proper language selection is simple it looks like this:

It’s big, fat and obvious. It’s the way lost visitors can get back. It’s simple and usable. And someone tested it, again, surprisingly often people don’t test their own navigational items.

The three best practices are:

  1. Do tell people where they are so that they know they might have to change the language or region (or keep wondering why your GB team reports huge conversion rates on the Adwords campaign you stopped a month ago).
  2. Do tell people where they can change the language.
  3. Tell them how to change it in a way they can understand. I can’t even recall how often I’ve been stuck on Chinese websites trying to figure out what the Chinese word for English is and finding it in the language selection, after spending a minute figuring out which Chinese phrase meant “language selection”.

Don’t Ever Have Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is like this:

The problems with duplicate content are:

  • Problems cascade. Duplicate content gets crawled wrong by the search engine because the cannoneer himself might be from the US. The website gets listed in the search results, people visit the pages, link to the wrong duplicate content, Google realizes this as a sign it is the right version and so on.
  • Google itself doesn’t care all that much about your “best practices” of implementing href langs, canonicals etc. if it has good reason to believe otherwise. Then it will do, whatever it thinks is a reasonable choice. And that includes delisting your “original” pages and listing others which you discarded as duplicates.
  • Google’s (and all other search engines) crawling capacity is limited. If you create 100 versions of your page, Google has to crawl 100 times as much.
  • You have duplicate content to curate, in one way or the other. You have no guarantee that this will work out.

And don’t let your IT agency tell you that “really in the backend, there is just one piece of content” when on the website you see two. Technically, in a weird way, they might be right, but in the real world, they are not.

Last Best practice: Don’t duplicate content. Ever.
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