With all the hype around global growth of Search Engines and so many companies looking outside their borders for their next round of revenue, it is no wonder that there has been a flurry of articles about globalizing your search marketing programs.   Unfortunately, some of these recommendations have been incorrect, confusing or have not focused on some of the biggest mistakes people are making.   If you are not sure how search engines handle language detection and country detection you can read up on those common issues, but here we’ll cover some more subtle problems that hurt international SEO programs.

Top Level Domains (TLD’s) & Local Hosting

The most foolproof method of signaling to a search engine your content is unique to a country is to get a TLD and host it locally.  But you don’t always need to–you should evaluate the need on a market-by-market basis.

I have worked on business case justifications with companies where they estimated that the additional funding necessary to manage a multi-domain/local host deployment ranged from $25K to $500K per country per year.  This estimated expense has made it nearly impossible to justify this strategy despite the most optimistic of traffic increases.  So, if you are like most companies and don’t have the resources to adopt a local TLD or even host locally, what can you do?

Start by segmenting each market.  If it is a language unique to a country–such as Japanese, Korean or Thai–or you are targeting one of the language-specific engines–such as Yandex or Naver–then there is no need to worry about local domains because no location variable is necessary.

However, if you are targeting the UK, Australia, or Singapore, you have more to do, because the search engines rely on the common location signals of TLD and/or local hosting to designate content in these markets.

Instead of going the TLD/hosting route, simply set your site correctly in Google’s Geographical tool, which eliminates the need for local hosting or even a TLD.  I have used this approach very successfully for some of the largest sites in the world.  It does not help you in Yahoo! or Bing, but in these key markets, Google is the dominant engine, so this offers a free solution to help build the business case for investment in local hosting to grab traffic from the other engines. Once people see how this free solution works–and how much it raises revenue–they might want to invest in the more expensive solution or the other search engines.

Regional Content is not Local Content

Many companies have created regional sites for Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East to showcase their regional presence until they can afford to create country-specific content.  The problem is corporate executives now expect this content to rank well in all of the local markets.  Based on what we explained in above, you know that is not possible.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there. A company spoke to me after my global SEO session at SES San Jose and told me that he was instructed by his “global SEO agency” to create 20-odd versions of a single Spanish translation of the site for all for these markets.  As any high school Spanish student can tell you, this plan will not work.  Beyond the obvious linguistics and cultural problems, the content is an exact copy, causing search engines to push 19 variations to the supplemental index never to be seen again.

Beyond putting the content in nifty subdomains or directories you also need to send local signals such as local currency, phone numbers and other location elements that make content unique to a country. However, if all the versions refer to the Euro for pricing or the same phone number in Mexico City, it is highly likely it will be flagged for duplicate content.

For more tips, check out Matt Cutts’ timely video covering how Google is handling the issue of global website duplicate content.

Additionally, the single most effective method for ensure you don’t get hit with duplicate content penalties is to use their magical geographical designator tool.  And to be clear, even this magical tool does not completely absolve you of the sin of spinning off multiple duplicate content pages as unique.

Did they localize everything?

Don’t expect your localizer to use keyword research best practices or even know where to integrate popular phases into key locations on your pages.  I have seen cases where the title tags and meta descriptions are still in English or even in Russian on a French content page.  It is critical that your localization partner understand the key areas that you must ensure get translated as well as contain keywords.

In addition to the usual suspects, <noscript> content and other critical content maintained in XML files are often left out of the localization process.  With so many developers leveraging gradual degradation methodologies to optimize for search engines and mobile users, this problem will grow more acute.

Improvise, overcome and adapt for success

Before you jump into buying domains and negotiations with multiple hosting providers, check to make sure the basics are covered, that free options are leveraged, and that less traditional approaches to these problems are also considered.

Develop a matrix of the country and language issues and inventory your assets. Use the search demand in each locale to make a decision on the traffic potential and the degree of difficulty in reaching it.