I have seen sites with several dozens of hreflang tags per page: hreflang for San Marino and for Jersey (I’m not even kidding), for English speakers in France and Indians in China. All the most bizarre combinations you can imagine, all derived from the same misconception: that talking to the whole world is as easy as implementing a tag. Well, unfortunately it’s not.
With this I don’t want to downplay the importance of getting your tech basics right, and yes I’m aware that the big G recommends implementing hreflang no matter what. BTW, there’s a comprehensive article on Tech International SEO by my man Ben Howe here.
How different is a different culture
It is easy to underestimate the difference between two peoples.
I am an Italian who lives and works in the UK-two cultures that, after all, share thousands of years of close relationships, and whose languages are partly similar. I am lucky enough to have worked for many international top-level brands in both countries, and I specialise in sorting their approach to International SEO.
Now that I live in the UK I am painfully aware that, in spite of my frankly excellent language skills, before living here I did not have a grasp on the culture that I could consider good enough to be able to autonomously fully manage a .co.uk site. Of course, I was ever careful to err on the side of caution and involve a local specialist or team for all the countries I was targeting, from South Korea to Venezuela, thanks to the great people with which I try to surround myself. Nevertheless, I thought I knew more than I actually did about Britannia, as is the case more often than not (Dunning–Kruger effect anyone?).
It is not only a matter of being familiar with the audience: the industry one operates in is different, with different experts and tools and strong players; and the overall online environment is different, with other search engines and apps and social and a whole different approach to browsing in general.
I will go through some of these differences, providing direct experience of how, even if you are a multibillion worldwide company, it is extremely easy to screw up the internationalisation of your online presence.
I like to split this topic into three main fields, to consider when accounting for the differences between your country, and another: industry, audience, and environment. I will begin by analysing these, and will thereafter offer a few tips on how to tackle your landing on a foreign market.
Whatever industry you are in, and no matter how well you know it in your country, your target foreign market will be uncharted territory. You will need a local guide, at the very least to set up the whole project initially. In the best case scenario, you’ll have ongoing collaboration with local agencies, as well as a local branch to account for all brand and product decisions.
In Italy, all telco providers (Vodafone, TalkTalk, etc.) are way cheaper than in the UK. When Iliad opened their lines in Italy in 2018, the adv campaign was huge, they worked very well on online buzz and, of course, on their price. In order to keep them from owning the market, the three pre-existing players (Vodafone, TIM, Wind Tre) were forced to either sensibly decrease their prices, or even launch entirely new products whose objective was to be perceived as low-priced by the general public. Iliad had studied the market, and managed to cause great disruption to the three monoliths that were sharing the pie until then: one can only imagine the budget in terms of money (Wikipedia mentions €1 billion), competences, and time that such an operation entails, absolutely massive. It was the only way to do it.
I worked with some amazing teams with telcos in both Italy and UK, and the absolutely gigantic dimensions of these companies made it quite hard for me as a third party, but even more for their internal team, to really be able to change things swiftly: among other things, this was due to the heart of the company being several layers away from the digital marketing team, and in one case in another country altogether. In this case, it was simply impossible to drive any sort of change on the site. Eventually the company centralised all of their marketing efforts to their central office, making it even harder: there was, then, a UK-based marketing team with a UK-based agency, trying to optimise for Italy without any local agencies or consultants: not the greatest idea.
I guess what is the greatest idea for multi billion worldwide companies, is to have local staff and local agencies.
I will also mention the SEO agencies world, so as to be able to name people 🙂
In Italy, one of my previous workplaces Webranking is among the 3 top-of-mind in the country when it comes to SEO. Here in the UK, they are utterly unknown, or even worse mistaken for these (great) guys.
My current CEO at Blue Array, Simon Schnieders, is quite the authority in the SEO industry here in the UK, but not so much in Italy. The agency itself, instead, is quite present in the Bella Vita SEO buzz, but unknown to business owners. Maybe, purely from a business perspective, vice versa would be better.
I have this theory for which the single most important ranking factor that really matters is branding. You build your brand, you build your ranking. From an audience perspective, don’t you tend to click on a result from a site whose name you already know? Well, now consider all the subconscious influence a brand has, on top of that of which you are aware.
Most of a site’s organic traffic gets there via brand queries. Dolce & Gabbana is of course an institution in Italy: we know who they are, how they talk, and they are frankly too Italian to scandalise us. But they are just a brand among many others in China, so when they said something about that country that was OK for them, but was heavily offensive for Chinese people, they paid severe repercussions. As in, losing millions and millions in revenues.
We have been working for years with one of the largest online photo printing providers in the UK. Probably the largest, and pretty well known in other countries too! But in Italy, well…in Italy we do not use cards (to this day, Cards Galore is an incomprehensible mystery to me). We do not print our little kids’ faces on mugs and give them to their grandparents for Christmas.
All in all, the culture you are talking to is a filter through which you are evaluated, and it’s something you should consider. Europeans prefer a black/white website, whereas colours are more appreciated in Asia. Chinese people might find a red background intriguing, whereas for us Italians it’s a colour that triggers negative feelings. Same goes with any flashy colour really.
What I mean is, psychology is an important part of what people do online, as most decisions are made irrationally; the process of optimisation of the website should consider this.
Even in a country in which a brand knows their audience, and supposing they have a good understanding of the industry and all the players they are going to deal with, the online environment itself, in which they’ll dwell, will be alien.
I am often asked how to approach traffic generation in China: a lot of people know that Google is not present on the Search Market there (yet), so how does Baidu’s Search Engine work? The question is correct, but partial. It is important to understand, for instance, that the portion of paid real estate for branded queries on Baidu is much bigger than on G. It’s not only a matter of quantity, but also of quality of the information available in the above-the-fold portion of the results page. And how about Wechat? Wechat is not a mere correspondent of our Whatsapp: the Chinese use it for a lot of purposes, among which a strong part of their relationship with a brand. So when you want to land in China, you do not have the option to neglect Social Media. You want social media. You can live without a Twitter channel in Europe, but you want Wechat in China.
How much are apps used by the average person? Do they actually buy online, or is browsing more of a step of a complex off-/online multichannel path, as is normally the case (making things incredibly hard)? What is the natural channel in the moment of information acquisition for most people?
How to hit a foreign market with a hammer
So how do you actively tackle all this? The stakes are high, and so are the price to be paid and the time it will take: no hard questions can ever be answered with easy answers.
Business solutions: go big or go home
First of all, SEO is like an extremely important part of a complex mechanism: let’s say the driving wheel of a car. It’s good to have a perfect, functional driving wheel. Actually, it’s absolutely imperative.
But you won’t go far at all without the rest of the car.
What I mean is that the effort should be a well-organised concerto where all parts work simultaneously: development might be global, but content should definitely be local; organic and paid traffic should be local from a strategic point of view, and the copywriting process should most definitely involve local actors. It is important to notice that having a native in your back office write all texts for you is not a sufficient solution: most Italians do not know how to write in our language, have no idea of the concept of Tone of Voice, and more often than not will incur in first-grade grammatical errors. Bad ones.
As a consultant, it is part of my job to point out when I believe my client is wrong. Upon the proposal of any new web project I always ask, are you doing it just to try your luck, or do you really want to do it? Do you have the budget to back it up? The patience? The time? How about the stakeholders? If you don’t, then you should not even try, because uncertainty will lead to failure.
Do, or do not: there is no try.
From the standpoint of organic traffic, two are the things you’ll need, generally speaking: localisation, which is what we might call all that bunch of stuff I just spoke about; and technical accessibility. That is making it easy and fast for the user and the crawler alike to find, access, understand, and index your information. On the site itself, this is done via a solid foundation that can follow what you do on your own local version of the website. Besides using a CDN, all other on-page technical specifications should already be on your site (if you are not optimising your site in your own country, you most definitely should not do it elsewhere). Use all of the recommendations from the article I linked above. I also talk about it in a module of the Blue Array Academy, and there’s no way I can convey all that information in a few lines here. Also, keep in mind that not all search engines are as smart as the big G: if your site is accessible for G, it might not be for Baidu. In fact, it probably won’t. But after reading all this, you are going to have a specific, localised site for China right? Right!?
My whole point is, do remember that there’s a lot of things to do when localising a website, and you should not believe, nor as a consultant lead your clients to believe, that implementing a hreflang tag will make your brand international.