With cross-border ecommerce booming, it’s not surprising that more businesses are launching international websites. Britain generates the biggest online trade surplus in the world, according to research by OC&C.
The value of exports is $1bn more than imports, putting it ahead of the United States and Germany.
It’s not just major retailers such as ASOS and Marks & Spencer that are contributing to this trend. A survey by Royal Mail found six in 10 small and medium-sized businesses are looking to boost their international sales in 2014.
There are clear benefits to adapting websites for customers across multiple foreign markets. Burberry recently moved all its online operations to a single international site, with subdomains for each country. This saved money and made it easier to manage localised content for each country.
But many would-be global businesses are still tripping over stumbling blocks along the way. When not done correctly, moving a domestic site to an international domain can result in the loss of carefully built up organic search results and a sharp drop in visibility.
Other common mistakes include directing customers to the wrong site for their country, failing to choose the best domain strategy, and not re-directing existing links.
Here are seven potential pitfalls and how to avoid them, or for more information on this topic download the Econsultancy Best Practice Guide for International SEO.
1. Not choosing the right domain strategy for your business
Many search marketing experts used to recommend separate websites for each country, using in-country top-level domains (such as .de for Germany). Search engines automatically recognise the location and rank them accordingly.
But this is no longer the only – or necessarily the best – option. So long as you effectively configure your website to geotarget the right countries, a single site with subfolders for each country (such as www.brandname.com/de) can work just as well.
There are advantages to each approach. A single site with subfolders is easy to maintain and update, but requires some work at the beginning to ensure correct geotargeting. If your business has the resources, and a product range that varies extensively between countries, then separate sites might be a better choice.
For some countries, the choice is clear. French consumers are much more likely to trust a local, .fr domain. Not having one will put you at a disadvantage in this market.
2. Not setting up re-directs correctly
You’ve put months of hard work into earning high-quality links to your existing site, and slowly improving your search positions. Moving your .co.uk site to an international domain doesn’t mean all that hard work will be lost, but it does require careful planning.
When re-directing links, the default setting in Google Webmaster tools is often a 302 temporary redirect, which means your new site does not gain the SEO benefits of those links.
This is a major reason why many international sites see a sharp drop in rankings, and struggle to retain their visibility. Changing these links to 301 permanent redirects will prevent this.
3. Using Geo IP as more than a gentle prompt
Visit www.amazon.com from a UK IP address, and you’ll see a prompt directing you to the British site. This is Google’s recommended way of directing consumers to the relevant site for their location. But some companies go further, and automatically re-direct searchers to a territory-specific site based on their IP address.
This can be annoying for customers – for example if you’re on holiday but want to shop from your favourite ecommerce site. It can also be confusing for search engines, as your inbound links might be re-directed to another of your sites.
4. Using free machine translation tools
While automatic translation software is advancing rapidly, it’s still not perfect. Mistakes don’t just make your text hard to understand (and sometimes inadvertently funny). All things being equal, Google will give higher rankings to well-written content produced by humans, rather than machines.
5. Not creating separate Google Webmaster profiles
Whether you choose to use subfolders or separate sites, you should have separate profiles for each target market. Google and Bing both tend to use clues such as the currency, phone numbers and addresses to identify which country your site (or subfolder) is aimed at. But they can be thrown off track, for example if your American site has a high number of links from the UK.
Creating separate sitemaps and webmaster profiles for each one, with the right geographic targets, will remove any confusion. For example, your UK subfolder (www.brandname.com/uk) would have its own profile, while your US one (www.brandname.com/us) would have another one.
6. Not localising social media
Social media, especially Google+, is becoming more important in search marketing. It’s worth taking the time to set up local Google+ profiles that are linked to each localised site.
7. Not localising your checkout
It’s the last stage in a buyer’s journey – and the last thing you want to do is lose them here. But the style of checkout varies from country to country. While Brits and Americans are familiar with using plastic for online purchases, that’s not the case everywhere. In Germany, it’s standard practice for companies to send an invoice for payment within 30 days.
Consumers are understandably wary when it comes to parting with their cash. Making your checkout look familiar and including their preferred payment method will help build trust.