Google and the mystery of international SEO

This week in the Coast Digital office, over a myriad of cups of industrial strength coffee, we’ve been discussing and dissecting an increasingly common SEO scenario – how best to manage an online presence across multiple top level domains.

In this article, I’ll try to uncover some truths and dispel some of the myths associated with obtaining SEO results, not only in the SERPS on Google.com, but for country-specific search too.

The problem
Take brand XYZ (fictional, for arguments sake – so don’t go searching), who have a website at XYZ.com, it’s ranking nicely in Google for their pre-determined keywords, and has done so for quite some time. Business is booming, and XYZ have decided to branch out into the foreign – yet still Anglophone – market of New Zealand. To this end they have registered the domain XYZ.co.nz.

Our big question now rears its ugly head. How do XYZ ensure maximum SEO for their extra domain? And now that they are an international player how do they continue to appear to the widest, most relevant audience possible?

There are a number of technical points to bear in mind to continue getting the best from SEO at an international level. With these in place it’s possible to ensure a high profile in search across any number of new, international domains.

1. Server level redirects
It is possible to redirect one page to another using a 301 or 302 server redirect. A 301 will tell the search engines that a page has moved permanently. Many hosts provide a URL forwarding system which uses a 302 redirect – this tells search engines that the page has temporarily moved.

But some search engines struggle to cope with this redirection and go on to spread popularity between the old and new sites, rather than just indexing the new one. The 301 is the more favourable of the two from an SEO point of view, however, a redirect alone won’t guarantee a listing for the New Zealand domain XYZ.co.nz in local search.

2. Hosting location
For the best results from SEO for a new international domain, a widely-recognised approach is to choose a hosting solution located in the country you are targeting, in our hypothetical example, XYX.co.nz in New Zealand.

Google uses IP data to determine the geographic location of servers hosting all the websites it indexes. This means that it is possible to plan ahead, arrange hosting in the desired locale and reap the benefits.

But it is important to be aware that some hosts have offices in one country and hosting equipment and servers in another. This pitfall makes it easy to be misled, so it’s wise to check before you sign up for a particular hosting solution.

Another important factor to remember is that the geographic location of the DNS record appears to carry a greater weighting then the actual location of the content host.

3. Link neighbourhood
Possibly the most crucial factor in getting listed in Google’s country-specific search results is developing a strong set of region-specific inbound links.

The number of these inbound links to the site will have a significant effect on the results in Google. In our example, a handful of inbound links from authoritative sites in New Zealand would have the effect of introducing the domain into the local search results pages.

Location-specific business directories are a very effective source for obtaining this type of link.

4. Duplicate or unique content
The debate around Google’s requirement for unique content to achieve good SERPs positions continues. In the case of brand XYZ there are many content options to consider – I’ll run through a few of the choices available:

Obviously there are a lot of possibilities – although not all of them are best practice. Ideally we would suggest rewriting the whole of a site’s contents to target the specific locale, however, this is not a realistic option if we are talking about 2000+ pages of content.

One useful trick is to set the footer template to contain the address of (in the case of our example) the New Zealand office, which will display on every page. Essentially, the ‘duplicate content penalty’ isn’t going to be too horrific where a website is duplicated in part on a different top level domain – essentially duplication on this level is quite a natural phenomenon, and should be handled with ease by Google.

5. Webmaster tools
It is possible to clarify any intentions by managing both domains in the same Google Webmaster Tools account, and using the tools available to specify each website’s country targeting.

This relatively recent addition to the toolset provides the most straightforward method of informing Google of this scenario. The use of this feature, combined with careful hosting choices, localised inbound link acquisitions and unique content, should result in maximum visibility for the brand, locally and internationally.

Take a look at the Multilingual SEO page for more details on the services provided by Coast Digital to help target your business to a global market.