International SEO best practice: Optimising for the Anglosphere

Rupert Rowe

Ask an American where the loo is and you’ll most likely be met with a rather confused reaction. The same is true if you need a ‘bin’, ‘rubber’ or directions to the ‘petrol’ station. And, indeed, the other way around– band aid anyone? 

There are many amusing differences in U.S and U.K English vocabulary that can cause frequent misunderstandings and lead to funny anecdotes. And that’s before the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders have even got involved in the conversation.

However, this can also lead to a number of practical questions when optimising websites active in multiple English language markets. As a luxury travel company active in the U.K and U.S should you prioritise the keyword ‘vacation’ or ‘holiday’? Or as a clothing brand also active in both markets, do you sell “jumpers” or “sweaters”? 

Using the right vocabulary on search and targeting the most lucrative keywords is the cornerstone of any SEO strategy. Ensuring that these inconsistencies and linguistic nuances don’t compromise your visibility in our increasingly global economy, could be an important step your teams take. 

Two nations divided by a common language

Reminiscent of  Winston Churchill quoting George Bernhard Shaw, at times it feels like the largest English speaking markets for the western world, U.S and U.K., are indeed divided by a common language. Along with differences in vocabulary and spellings, there are also cultural nuances that come from a shared, but very different history. This has linguistic consequences. 

Google’s algorithm has gotten considerably better at picking up regional nuances in the same language, however, the science of this is not flawless. It also doesn’t always account for nuances in semantics. For example, the prevalence of “lodge” or “cabin” in each continent might be different for your cross-Atlantic, luxury rental company. 

As well as potentially influencing who manages to find your page, these differences can considerably influence the user experience of your site. You can’t expect both audiences to be equally well-versed in the regional differences of their shared language. If the information seems irrelevant because it’s not written how the local audience speaks, you can expect to see this in your bounce rate. 

English as the international fallback language

It’s also worth considering that English in particular is a world language, with the highest proportion of non-native speakers of any language in the world. The English language version of your site could end up being a hub for those who speak languages you don’t have a translation for – especially across Europe. 

U.K. English in particular is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers because of the amount of slang in everyday speech. You might want to check your pages for this and remove content that is too localised, although this comes at the risk of being less relevant to the local audience. Your team might have to look into where it’s worth compromising. 

Best practice for international SEO

There are a number of actions your SEO team can take to ensure that you have visibility in international markets and maintain engagement. However, this is only effective if it is built into your initial sitemap. Remember there are always risks involved in transferring content, as you stand to lose valuable search traffic. 

Setting up different language versions of your website is about more than just translating the content. Likewise the early decisions you make of how to set up your site can have considerable consequences later on. This is an important lesson in how SEO can help inform the structure of your site from the get go. 

  1. Country vs. Language specific optimisation

One of the first decisions when setting up a website is whether to optimise by country or by language. This will largely depend on what type of business offering you have. If you’re an ecommerce site, optimising by country or geographical region allows you to show local stock levels and prices in local currency. This is obviously an advantageous and worthwhile investment. 

By creating different pages for these different regions, you can then use HTML markup to clearly highlight the differences between each and help search engines index them. Note, however, that for many sites that are not e-commerce, there is rarely an advantage choosing an optimisation tactic by country rather than creating language subdomains.

  1. Top Level Domains

If you’re targeting just one geography, top level domains (TLD) allow you to alter the final segment of your URL to localise it. For example, the UK uses ‘.co.uk’. Many search engines give a higher priority to country specific domains, making it less competitive to rank for your keywords whilst also resulting in a higher click through rate. 

If you have more regions, you can take a multiregional set up that uses the same domain but creates language subfolders or subdomains. These have their own advantages even if they are not quite as effective at improving ranking and click through rate. 

Beside being a much more budget-friendly option and easier to set up, TLDs are able to consolidate the site authority as all backlinks and ranking signals are channelled to the same domain. This reduces some of the risk involved. 

  1. Hreflang or language meta tags

Hreflang is an HTML markup that tells search engines about alternate versions of your content so that it can understand there are localised versions of the same page, allowing them to serve content that is most relevant. 

There are three main ways that this can be added, including it in the HTML header, XML site sitemap markup or in HTTP headers. It’s worth noting that not all search engines support this, both Bing and Baidu (China’s most popular search engine) use the content-language HTML attribute instead. 

The benefits of hreflang far outweigh the investment of setting this up. Not only does it help avoid issues with duplicate content it also supports the addition of regions within countries.

  1. Localise your backlinks

Another key tool for search engines to identify how to serve content is analysing where your backlinks come from. The addition of local backlinks will help search engines identify how relevant your content is in each geographic region, positively affecting ranking. 

Your link building strategy will differ depending on which market you are in, so a one-size-fits all approach won’t work here. The ones that are most effective are also the ones that you have to work hardest for. Links that lead to pages curated by ‘real’ people as opposed to robots generate the most trust. 

Utilising your content 

These best practice steps are mostly relevant for new website builds, or brands wanting to reinvent their online pages. But as mentioned the risks in this might not outweigh the cons, or it might not make good sense to invest in making these changes. 

If you didn’t not to go down the route of optimising by country and instead have separate sitemaps by language (meaning there is just one English language hub) this doesn’t mean you can’t think about creating a personal experience for your users. The content you create can play an important role in targeting these nuances between geographical regions.

Aside from the linguistic differences of dialects, vocabulary or spelling there are differences in cultural norms and values based on individual histories. Content that might work well for a UK audience might not spark any interest for your North American one. It might not even be relevant across both audiences. 

While transactional content is an important element of any blog content you create,  content is an important tool for your audience to get to know your brand. Taste-making articles that show your company ethos, topical content that reflect trends, as well as seasonal content all have a place within your content strategy. This could be a thanksgiving article for your American audience, highlighting your partnerships with local causes, or engaging with local trending topics. 

Keyword research that targets specific regions might also reveal different appetites for the same topic in different geographical regions, or even entirely different ones. It could even reveal different angles to take on the same topic. 

Key takeaways 

The main goal of all of these steps is to ensure the continued effectiveness of your brand across different markets.  By personalising the content you serve to your audience, you maintain relevance, authority and trust for both search engines and people. 

Combined, these steps can result in a better click through rate, lower bounce rate and longer dwell time on your site. This all means great things for your business and continued engagement with your clientele. Your content can step in to deliver a more personalised experience, and your SEO teams can make steps to localise certain features. 

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