For readers who have made the decision to make their eCommerce presence international, here’s what to think about or ask your SEO team/agency when it comes to code and site structure that will allow your eCommerce site to be visible, and its content customised for different languages and regions.
Understanding your setup
Your international eCommerce site will either be:
- Multilingual—offering content in multiple languages. English, French and Spanish for example. Your intention is not to target the regions that speak these languages, just to make sure that people reading these languages are served pages they can understand.
- Multi-regional—you want to ship products to the UK and the US, but the language of each page will stay the same. You want to serve pages with the right currency, shipping info, payment methods, etc, otherwise users are less likely to convert.
- Both—you might want to have pages in Spanish that serve up different content to users in Mexico than in Spain. This situation is going to be more common with eCommerce sites, especially as they grow.
Don’t use cookie or browser settings to adjust the content of your pages. Search engines find content changed dynamically difficult to locate, crawl and index. Instead, use different static URLs for all of the pages on your site.
Then, tell Google what language they’re in. For HTML pages, you’ll be using HTML tags commonly known as hreflang tags. The syntax for these tags isn’t hard, and there are lots of HTML validators out there to make sure they’re correct.
Also—use human translations when you can, and avoid side-by-side translations. Search engines use the visible content of your pages to determine what they’re about. If the translation is poor or languages are mixed, it makes their job harder.
What to ask your developers/SEO agency
- Are we using static URLs for our pages in other languages? If not—we should be!
- Have you installed hreflang tags, and are they correct? This is essential when it comes to multilingual sites. Developers might not understand their importance but should know how to implement them, while anyone working on your site’s SEO performance with a real background in SEO should know what hreflang tags are, and why they’re important.
Multi-regional pages (or geotargeting)
Use a URL structure that makes it easy to target different regions. Your choices here depend on your resources, tech stack, the needs of your business… but for most eCommerce sites, you’ll have a generic top-level domain (gTLD) (.com usually), and then be using subdirectories with your gTLD to organise your site.
This might be said to be the industry standard. Nike do it for example (notice how the language changes in these cases too—we’ll come onto that shortly):
This is because it’s relatively easy for developers to set up, low maintenance and results in a site architecture conducive to successful search engine crawling and indexing.
- Country-specific domains—example.de, example.fr, etc. These give the clearest indications to search engines for geotargeting. However you also have to:
- Purchase each domain
- Have the resources to manage each site independently
- Have the resources to market each site digitally as independent entities
- Examples here include JD Sports. https://www.jdsports.de/ :
Country-specific domains are a great choice, but very resource-intensive. They’re only likely to be worth it if you can justify the expense.
- Subdomains with gTLD—also used commonly, especially within eCommerce as it’s often an out-of-the box solution for the big platforms, especially Shopify.
It works but it’s not considered the best option for SEO, as link equity might not be distributed as efficiently between your pages.
That said, search engines are getting better and better at parsing sites structured in this way, so it’s no longer considered a “bad” option. It’s one of those things SEOs argue over—which usually means that Google already has it sussed. So don’t worry about this too much. Subdomains are easy to set up, and easy to keep your content separate and well organised— potentially putting less strain on marketing and web development resources.
A good example here would be Gymshark. https://de.gymshark.com/ :
- URL parameters—e.g., site.com?loc=de. Don’t do this. If your web developer suggests this option, refer them to what Google say about it.
What to ask your developers/SEO agency
- How are we going to structure the site? Are we organising it using subdirectories or subdomains? (If you’re considering country-specific domains as an option, you’re likely to have had SEO experts already making proposals and explaining them before this stage. If not, if this is presented as an option, you will definitely need to consult an expert to assess the viability of this strategy.)
These two options are by far the most common. The answer to this question should be what you pay attention to. “Because it saves time” / “because it’s easiest” = a red flag. You should be looking for answers that show knowledge of your business aims and website, for example the limitation of your site theme and platform. Your international SEO strategy needs to be about long-term growth and technical stability, and not short-term expedience.
Multiple languages and locations
It’s the ultimate goal of most eCommerce businesses—to reach people around the world with targeted products and supporting content, expanding your business so it reaches as many customers as possible.
If your site uses multiple languages and multiple locations, then use your subdirectories to organize your site around locations. Here’s a handy list of 2 digit ISO codes. It makes sense to use these because they’re also used in hreflang tags, and if you’re using a third-party app to organise your site, it’s likely to use these codes too.
Then you correctly implement hreflang tags on all your site’s pages, specifying the combinations of language-location used by your site. Uniqlo’s hreflag tags, for example, have tags with en- language codes for US, GB, and AU location codes (among others)—same languages, different locations.
What to ask your developers/SEO agency
- Do we have correct hreflang tags implemented, that specific both language and region? This is the most basic thing to check when thinking about the set up here. It’s important, but you and your design/SEO/web development team will also be dealing with questions about site structure (see above) and user experience.
Again, anyone working on your site should give answers that indicate thinking about long-term success—if not, you are much more likely to run unforeseen issues (and therefore costs) further down the line.
Using different eCommerce platforms
Most eCommerce sites are built on a specific eCommerce platform, like WooCommerce, Shopify or Magento.
This makes life a lot easier for business owners. It also means that most of the above is taken care of without the need for web developers spending hours on changing your theme code.
All free Shopify themes are compatible with selling in multiple languages (you might have to check to see whether yours is, and ask your web development team to update accordingly).
The plugin architecture of WooCommerce means that finding the right option for your site should be simple, and Shopify has lots of third party apps that effectively manage site structure, HTML tags, languages, currency, GDPR and other regional factors.
Magento make it fairly easy too, with localisation and translation extensions built specifically for easy international SEO optimisation.
Quick eCommerce international checklist
Here’s a quick checklist summarising the above, with a couple of extra points too:
- Use unique URLs for all pages with different geolocation, with targeted content accounting for currency and other regional differences
- Tell Google what language the content is in using hreflang tags
- Tell Google what location the pages are targeting using a logical URL structure (usually subdirectories), and specify the target locations of these subdirectories in Google Search Console
- Make sure your hreflang tags are correct
- If possible, allows users to switch between language and location using internal links, for example in a drop down menu (Uniqlo again is a good example here)
- Track subdirectories or properties independently in Google Analytics (if you’re not sure what Google Analytics is, it’s definitely something you should become familiar with —here’s a guide to get started) to accurately monitor their performance
Which international set up is best for me?
If you’re left asking this question, don’t worry. The key thing is to consult with an expert before you start any substantial updates. You should have a detailed and comprehensive strategy in place, put together by a team with a history of successfully implementing international SEO campaigns. If you’d like to get in touch and discuss how your team should be approaching these questions, you can contact the Blink SEO team here.
If you’re already a large company working on a custom build the above won’t necessarily apply. But if you’re a growing eCommerce business planning to start selling internationally, this should give you and your team the information needed to start selling your products around the world.
James Macnamara is Operations Director at Blink, a dedicated eCommerce digital marketing agency with offices in Norwich and Birmingham.