One of the great things about ecommerce is how it breaks down barriers for customers and merchants around the world. It is no longer an extremely laborious process to ship products directly to consumers in a different country, nor for a customer to buy a product from their favorite overseas brand. International ecommerce is a huge opportunity, and with its massive growth over the last 12 months it’s no wonder that many Shopify merchants are turning their sights to internationalization.
When you enter any new market whether domestically to a new audience, or internationally to a new country, you’re going to want to attract users to your store. The best way to do that - prepare your store’s SEO for international search users.
How to optimize
1 - Do your research and decide on your markets
The best place to start with international SEO is to do some research into which markets you’re going to target. There are a couple of ways you may want to do this:
Look at your current international traffic
Using tools like Google Analytics, you can look at the traffic coming to your Shopify store from other countries. If you notice a substantial percentage from any particular country, then it may make sense to look at these countries for international development. Which keywords are leading them to your store?
Shopify sales data
In conjunction with site traffic, you can also look to your Shopify sales data - if you already ship internationally, where do you see the most international sales originating from? Does this align with your store’s search traffic?
Competitors and Desired Markets
Another way to determine a new international market is to look to your competitors or markets where you know your product category either performs well or is growing. Which other markets do your competitors cater to? How do they do this on their store - language selection? A country specific storefront?
If you’re already actively selling to other markets abroad, you may already have done the research necessary to enter those markets and may also have created separate storefronts. However it’s still valuable to consider what more you could then do to optimize your store for international search users as regionalizing your store is one thing but fine-tuning it for SEO is equally important.
2 - Are you targeting a country or language or both?
This may seem a strange question, but it makes a big difference in what will be required for SEO depending on which you’re targeting. This decision will guide what you do with your URL structure, content, and more.
As it sounds, you’re targeting the country rather than just the language of that country. So instead of targeting users who speak Italian, you’re targeting users who live in Italy, for example. This option is most useful when you’re looking to offer a different range of products for example you don’t want to ship heavier items overseas due to shipping costs, or certain items are subject to restrictions in the customer’s country. It’s also valuable if you’re planning to offer different pricing, or different content altogether from your usual storefront.
Note - You can’t target a region, for example APAC or Europe, only specific countries. URL structures that end in website.eu for example won’t target just Europe, but will behave in search the same way as a .com address.
This is typically seen as an easier route as instead of changing pricing, catalogs, and site content, you’re just giving the user your existing storefront in their local language - there’s no separation. If you’re just offering different languages, then the customer can select their language and currency and shop that way however it won’t be a specific catalog or pricing structure for that country.
We’d recommend offering the language as an option when the user lands on your site using geo-targeting rather than automatically redirecting a user to a language based on their location. The reason for this is that you aren’t able to determine that individual’s situation - they may be an American living in Germany who isn’t fluent in German, for example, so would prefer to use your English site.
3 - Choose a URL structure that best suits your needs
Choosing the right URL structure for your store is a crucial step in helping search engines know what to do with your international pages and who to show them to. There are different options, each with their own purpose, pros, and cons, and you’ll likely have seen all of these before when browsing various international stores.
ccTLD (Unique Top Level Domain)
Example: shopifywebsite.us, shopifywebsite.fr
ccTLDs use two-letter codes to tell search engines which country or territory a website it registered. The search engine interprets the code as being intended for users based in that country for example .fr would tell Google the site is intended for users in France. If you’re planning to target languages only, then this is likely the least likely option for you as it automatically geo-targets based on countries.
- It geo-targets automatically, meaning less steps for the merchant
- It sends the clearest signal to search engines so is the easiest approach for ranking internationally
- Takes more resources both from staff and monetarily to maintain
- Launching and ranking may be slower
Targeting is set at a third level domain - all your usual content will still be stored on your top level domain (example: www.shopifywebsite.com) but the country is defined at a subdomain level.
- The maintenance of a subdomain is much lower than a ccTLD
- Signals to search engines aren’t as strong as a ccTLD
Your international content is placed in a subfolder of a root domain, defined by country codes mentioned earlier.
- Easier maintenance than a ccTLD but with stronger signals than a subdomain
- Better chance of ranking faster
- Stronger signals than subdomain, but still a lot weaker than ccTLD
- Can be more difficult to launch local strategies
gTLD with language parameters (Generic Top Level Domain)
Your top level domain remains the same, but there are parameters that target speakers of a certain language.
- Easier maintenance than ccTLD, Subdomain, or Subdirectory
- You won’t be diluting your domain authority like with a ccTLD or subdomain
- Relying on parameters can be difficult and will require regular SEO check-ups
It’s worth noting that Google actively do not recommend this option
As it sounds, this is a completely unique and separate domain to your original storefront and root domain.
- Gives the clearest signals to search engines
- Flexibility with branding and content strategy
- Requires more maintenance and is expensive
- Difficult to keep in line with parent domain
- Starting from scratch with SEO
There’s no right or wrong answer to which structure you should choose, it all depends on your individual store. If you’re still in the research phase of deciding on new markets, you should consider your budget, staff resources, market opportunity, and current store performance to determine which of these options will suit your strategy best.
4 - Localize your content
It’s important that if you’re going to the effort of entering a new market that you localize your store’s content - this is true for if you’re targeting a country, language, or both.
Don’t duplicate content
There are many reasons across SEO why you shouldn’t duplicate content, but with international optimization this is especially important. Duplicating content across different domains also doesn’t make much sense as you may end up sacrificing the authority of your parent domain - in other words, the “localized” store may end up ranking higher on some pages than your parent store for the wrong area. It’s an expensive endeavour to localize your store, therefore you want it to work in your favor rather than against the hard work you’ve already put in. It will inevitably happen that some of the content between stores will be similar for example between a US store and its Canadian version, but that’s the key word; they can be similar, but they shouldn’t be identical.
Use a professional translator/interpreter
The cheap and easy way to add an extra language to your store would be to use an auto or machine translation. We’d highly recommend that you don’t do this, and instead hire a professional or at least consult with a native speaker. Reason being that a machine translation will mess up from time to time on grammar, and won’t consider figures of speech or nuances of language in the same way a manual human translation would.
Consider cultural differences
Another factor to bear in mind is how your brand is translated culturally to new markets - how will your brand’s tone of voice and humor translate? How about colors and layouts? Or certain products? By considering all these different factors your localized store will clearly be for that target market which ultimately will help with international page ranking.
The opportunity of expanding beyond your borders is an exciting prospect for any Shopify merchant. Whether you’re already deep in international markets, or just starting to research them, getting your store primed to take advantage of international SEO opportunities will reap rewards for your international strategy.