How not to fail at your international business expansion
Updated: May 27
I recently had the amazing opportunity to be a speaker at the International Search Summit, in my hometown, Barcelona. It really was an incredibly well organised event where I got to learn from other amazing speakers and share my own knowledge with the audience.
During my talk, I covered some point that I find really key when it comes to international SEO:
Why do companies go international?
The most common pitfall in international SEO
And how to actually succeed at it
If you don't feel like reading all of this, you can find my slides here:
If you want to know what all of that ⬆️ means, let's dive in!
Why do companies go international?
I'm going to put my MS in Business to good use and bring up the Ansoff Matrix, also known as the Product/Market Expansion Grid. Bear with me, there is a reason I'm sounding so pretentious.
This matrix shows that there are 4 main strategies of growth:
Growing your market penetration
Launching new products or services
Developing new markets
Or diversifying, which means launching new products in new markets.
The most low risk strategy of the 4 is trying to grow within your existing markets with your existing products. This is the strategy most young companies choose to go for, as they haven't yet reached a cap ROI.
Eventually, most companies will reach a plateau in their ROI, which will in turn reduce their margins and push them towards one of the two growth paths: internationalisation or product development.
Depending on each company and what their overall growth strategy looks like they will take one path or the other.
Obviously, internationalisation is quite a popular growth strategy. When companies choose this, they're mainly after a one of these 3 benefits:
Immediate revenue. Moving to a new market offers an entirely new set of consumers who can potentially buy your product.
Increased profit. By opening a new market, companies can move the ceiling of their ROI, allowing them to grow their revenue without reducing their margins.
Defining what the market looks like. This is based on the psychological phenomenon of anchoring. In most of life's situations, our first reference will set our expectations to judge future inputs. What this means for businesses is that they can set what the "normal" price looks like, easily become top of mind for the consumers and set the standard of what's expected of a provider of their products or services.
Keep this in mind when making a business case for more SEO resources or highlighting your wins. Always align with the overarching business strategy in your reporting and SEO strategy.
The most common pitfall in international SEO
Yes, hreflang is complex, but new markets are even harder to understand.
The main obstacle to overcome is the assumption that our international audience is going to have the same pain points and needs as our original audience.
Most companies choose what I like to call the "rinse and repeat" approach. They simply translate the website and expect the users to behave in the same way, without adapting their content to the reality of each new market.
How to nail your international SEO strategy
This approach makes sense at the beginning of an internationalisation process. It offers an MVP with which you can test the market and seek to prove that your business model works there. It's also low investment, which will help companies improve their overall ROI.
Once a business knows it's going to invest in a market it's time to move on to a more personalised approach.
1. Understand the users' search journey
Digitalisation has happened at a different pace in every country. Less mature countries tend to accumulate search volume on more generic keywords.
This introduces us to a new problem: the more generic the queries are, the harder it is for us to understand and satisfy the search intent behind them.
Instead of assuming that the search intent will be the same than for your equivalent keywords, explore the user's search intent from scratch and aim to satisfy it. Build out a keyword map for each new territory and focus on the search intent you're trying to satisfy.
You can follow this guide on keyword mapping.
2. Address the market's pain points
You'll have to research what your market's pain points are and address them face on, just like you do in your original markets. Your main tools for this are going to be content and UX.
Some markets might be more price sensitive, while others are going to worry about the quality of your services or mistrust digital transactions. A very good indicator of a market's trust in ecommerce is the popularity of cash on delivery as a payment method.
When it comes to content, look at the questions your target audience is asking about your product, your brand or your competitors and create content around it.
If it's a price sensitive market and you're competitive, bring up your prices early on. If they're worried about quality, make your guarantees and awards stand out on your website.
Top tip: make sure you know how users prefer to contact you and pay and offer those options.
3. Know the SEO weaknesses of your competitors
It's gap analysis o'clock! To make the most of your SEO efforts, you have to understand what your competitors are good and bad at.
Improving your technical SEO when you're already the best at it is not going to move the needle for your business. Find out instead at what you're average or below average and work on it.
In my experience, many European markets such as Germany or Spain are excellent at technical SEO, but struggle to execute a good content strategy or get good links for their site.
The specifics are up to you, but you need to understand where you stand against your competitors in terms of content, technical SEO and links to create a roadmap that will make a difference for your business.
4. Have a strategy in place for special characters
Most of the world's languages have special characters, but since technology is typically built and deployed in English first, these can be overlooked.
When your site interacts with other technologies such as Facebook, a redirect plug-in or an outdated browser, this can cause issues.
The recommended best practice here is to anglicise your special characters in your URLs and file names. Google will view the anglified version and the special character's version as the same.
However, you must make sure you accept them in your forms. Otherwise, you will be providing really bad UX to your users that could cost you their business.
5. Know how to earn links internationally
Links act as a localisation signal and they're absolutely key to be seen as an authoritative source by search engines in YMYL sites.
Link building has been a hot topic in the SEO industry since half of the internet got hit with a Penguin penalty. Rumour has it the most senior SEOs still have nightmares about it.
The hard truth is that it's likely that you're going to need links if you want to rank for competitive keywords. It's how you build those links that's going to be divisive.
As an ex-Rise At Seven, my technique of choice is obviously going to be digital PR.
In order to earn links internationally, you can't just translate your UK or US campaign. You need to plan a global campaign or create campaigns for your target market.
Again, market research is key. For you to understand how to earn links in your target market you'll have to look at:
Number of digital outlets available - this will determine the ceiling for your digital PR strategy and help you adjust your targets.
Number of journalists - in many markets, it's common for journalists to be fully freelance and publish in many different publications. If this is the case for you, you'll have to put a bigger focus on building out those relationships.
Consumer trust in news - trust is hard to earn and journalists are going to fight to keep it. In markets with high trust, you'll have to offer airtight methodologies and really good data if you want to have any chance to get published.
How many users pay for their news - media that relies on advertisers is likely to reply to your email with a price list. A low percentage of paid users can sometimes play in your favour if the publishers rely on pushing out a ton of content in order to get traffic and ad revenue.
Use this knowledge to plan your digital PR campaigns in a way that's going to work for your market.
Understanding the business reasons behind your international expansion and the needs and pain points of your audience is the key to success. Not just in your SEO efforts, it is going to make or break the results of every department.
If you've found this interesting, please share it on Twitter and feel free to slide into my DMs to chat about everything SEO!