Used correctly, SEO is the key to making money in new online territories. Alison Clements asks the experts how it’s done

At a time when the prospects for UK growth are not exactly rosy, many retailers are turning to international expansion this year to bolster their businesses, and launching an international transactional website can be the ideal way to kick-start global expansion.

“The greatest weakness of international SEO is lack of serious research”

Mathias Duda, FACT-Finder

Only last week John Lewis revealed it is to open its website for international orders to 25 European countries, which in turn will help it decide which locations could support physical stores. Meanwhile former Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose spoke about the web acting as an “advance guard” for M&S into new markets at last year’s World Retail Congress.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Key to the success of an international website is good international search engine optimisation. Google AdWords allows etailers to promote to a global audience, with the ability for ads to appear only when potential customers in specific locations are searching online, using words chosen to describe that company’s products and offers. Pay-per-click means costs can be controlled, and interest precisely measured. But how can etailers be sure they’re getting the basics of international search engine optimisation (SEO) right?

Plan ahead

“There are many ways to truly tackle SEO in a new market”

Mathias Duda, FACT-Finder

Key is planning SEO alongside all the other marketing investments for the launch of an international online store and to fully understand the local market and customer needs. “Perhaps the greatest weakness of international SEO is lack of serious research,” says Mathias Duda, head of UK operations at European conversion engine FACT-Finder.

“There are many ways to truly tackle SEO in a new market and Google Translator is not necessarily one of them. Great sums of money are often invested into correct translations, but rooted in incorrect contexts.” He says local expertise will help with problems such as frequently misspelt words and search term colloquialism, and says there are two solutions worth considering. One, if funds allow, is to invest in professional localisation services.

A more affordable option, says Duda, is to hire interns who are active in ecommerce who can provide adequate translations.

Think local

WebCertain Group, an international search market specialist, advises retailers to start by deciding which countries really need to have search geared around the local language. “For instance, some web retailers make the mistake of spotting growing interest from, say, Holland, and spending on a Dutch site and language-specific search marketing, when really the Dutch would buy anyway from the UK-language site,” says WebCertain chief executive Andy Atkins-Krüger.

If you target Finland, Sweden or Norway then translating the landing page will probably be enough, says Mark Blenkinsop, head of search marketing at web design agency Pod1, as the vast majority of these populations speak and use English online. “

A localised landing page should be also enough in Spain and France where the relative quality of SEO is lower, therefore it may be easier to successfully implement a multilingual SEO strategy on the website,” he says. However, if your international SEO targets Denmark or Germany then the translated version of the website is a must. “This is because of the high level of ecommerce saturation and the high quality of local SEO,” says Blenkinsop.

Although there are local search engines, particularly in Russia, China and the Czech Republic, Google is the big influence in most markets, with 90% market share in many countries. “We tend to use Google for all the international pay-per-click,” says Kieron Smith, managing director of The Book Depository, which currently sells books in 101 countries from Andorra to Vatican City. “We’ve found that SEO has little in the way of regional variation. Most of our titles are currently in English, however, we’re adding more foreign language books over the next few months and will be doing a lot of additional language work hand-in-hand with that.”

Having a country-specific domain name helps enormously. Atkins-Krüger says Superdry, one of its clients, has worked hard to offer a complete service with the right domain names for their country sites in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. “Local domains are better for SEO because they give the best geographic information to the search engines, and users prefer them,” he says.

“You have to take a step backward before you can go forward”

Niall Madden, search director at digital consultancy Reform

Niall Madden, search director at digital consultancy Reform, thinks Clarks has done a masterful job of gaining a web presence internationally, again with fully localised sites. “It now operates in over 20 countries and has achieved great brand visibility in each country,” says Madden. “Many online retailers are reluctant to invest to this degree, but in truth you have to take a step backward - rebuild a site getting the domain and the language right - before you can go forward.”

Masters of their domain

Similarly, mobile phone accessories etailer Mobilefun.co.uk launched in Germany and France with country-specific domain names, “so Google treats them as German and French sites which gives better results,” says managing director Mohammed Hussain.

“Natural search is just as important as pay-per-click”

Mohammed Hussain, Mobilefun.co.uk

Hussain says that between 45% and 50% of Mobilefun’s orders come through SEO, and the etailer feels that having every country-specific site search engine optimised for will pay off. “For us there’s competition in these markets, so you can’t just become the number one player overnight. SEO is a slow burn, so we’re concentrating on building up interest on blogs and forums, and generating PR around the brand to maximise our presence on natural search. It’s just as important as pay-per-click.”

Atkins-Krüger says a mistake he sees regularly is websites that successfully attract a flow of new customers in new territories, but then fail to convert sales because the site isn’t operationally optimised for that country. “You have to be sure you’re offering the prices in the right currency, the right credit cards, and sometimes unique payment options that local shoppers expect,” he says.

Retailers must also consider whether they can cope if they are inundated with orders and queries from a distant part of the world on the back of successful international SEO. “Paid search can deliver instant results, so you have to be ready from the word go. Don’t forget there are more than 10 million people in Moscow alone, which could be too big to handle,” warns Atkins-Krüger. Global expansion offers countless opportunities, but the world is a heavily populated place. Trying too much at once could be fatal.

SEO Dos and Don’ts

Do

  • Understand different search and purchasing behaviours - the UK is quite sophisticated, while somewhere like Spain isn’t. So don’t sell £350 items in places where people are still afraid to spend big sums online.
  • Find out if people browse in-store and buy online or vice versa?
  • Carry out extensive cultural research for the new countries you’re entering. Think about colloquial language and slang, not just straight translations of words, for example, how many French or Italian words are there for hoodie or trainers?
  • Design your international site to be search-engine friendly so that content, menus, images, shopping carts and other elements have been optimised for the purpose of search engine exposure
  • Understand the protocols involved in selling in other markets - eg server types and domains. Local domain names often do better in local search rankings, particularly Germany, Denmark, Russia and Japan. So invest in a local domain name, eg Superdry.de. Yandex is the largest search engine in Russia and prefers .ru domains

Don’t

  • Step up from natural search to pay-per-click until you have tested your site and fulfilment capabilities
  • Assume the main search engines operate the world over - Google isn’t everywhere. In South Korea, less than 10% of searches are done on Google, while Naver dominates
  • Invest in paid search for a whole country at once - focus on key cities in your SEO planning
  • Forget about mobile search in technologically advanced countries (particularly in some Asian markets). Mobile search is huge in Japan - people take photos of outfits they like on the street and then search for those same outfits online