Thursday, August 30, 2007

The top 10 errors of international SEO

A lengthy but excellent post here from one of our guest bloggers, Andy Atkins-Krüger, managing director of Web Certain:

Putting this post together, I realised why so many expert highly successful SEOs don’t enjoy the same success when they go international; the potential pitfalls are simply different. All their years of experience and their gut instincts don’t give them the right answers.

I remember my days training people to sail racing dinghies. Newcomers always made the same error – the yacht would heal as the wind filled the sails – but, instead of leaning out and backwards from the dinghy creating a counterbalance, our trainees would head for the middle and WALLOP – get very wet.

Dripping wet international SEOs, are towelling themselves off from similar experiences internationally! From personal experience I have seen errors in the international field which range from highly technical subtle differences – to pure rank stupidity.

Let’s get the really stupid one out of the way first.

Error One: IP Redirection

An international web-based company with a site which targets the far east to Europe and north America wants to point its US visits away from a very popular UK site. Easy, let’s just point all the American IP addresses over to our international dot com site, they say. Clap clap, job done. Days later traffic levels don’t just go off a cliff they dig a trench in the ravine and the ER team (Web Certain in whites) is called in. Now don’t you just know that they redirected the search engine crawlers too – wasn’t that obvious to you…?

Error Two: Autotranslation

I once came across a site where all of its non-English content had been auto-translated – to generate traffic. The problem was that our team of non-auto-translators (we call them that to keep them on their toes) couldn’t understand the first thing about the content – it was so far from having any value. In fact, it was easier to for them to work from the original English. Now in that process of autotranslation, our carefully crafted keywords become thoroughly mangled. In fact I’m starting a campaign to get the words “AUTOTRANSLATIOM KILLS KEYWORDS” added as warning on the packet.

Error Three: Assume everyone speaks English

Not exactly an SEO error – but certainly a missed opportunity as well as a cultural one. This presents difficulties on two levels; the audience may well understand English – but if you’re trying to persuade them to buy something – you’re going to be more successful talking to them in their own language, especially as your competitors are probably already doing that.

But there is a second reason why this is an error: the scope for keyword variety and therefore maximum potential for the site is much reduced by not expanding into the customer’s own languages.

Error Four: Several languages on the same page

This seems to crop up less frequently but not so long ago there was a fashion for the same web page to be published in, for example, English, French and German in different columns. However, this error still crops up but more subtlely and less deliberately where the metatags and page content are in different languages – and this we see frequently particularly for sites run by content management systems.

Error Five: No local inbound links

Today it is common knowledge that to succeed with search engines you need to have inbound links. But that becomes doubly more complex when you have different countries and languages to consider – and you need links from both. You can have some really strange things happen with page rank between countries too and a high page rank does not guarantee success in a particular language (because often the inbound links have been linked in English).

Error Six: Using only a dot com

This is a truly world phenomenon. So many organisations find that for either political or technical reasons – or because they think it looks good – they end up with a dot com and can’t shift from it. There are ways of mitigating the impact of this of course – like local links – but the people who will win the good fight in the end are those with the local country domains.

Error Seven: Duplication of content between countries

The way this happens is that the company hierarchy bounces the most recent web budget asking why it’s costing so much – “And why do we have translation costs for both Germany AND Austria – don’t they speak the same language”. They do of course – but an Austrian page in German is going to disappear into the ether in search engine listings terms. The reason is because it will be a duplicate of the same page in the company’s German site – which on a law of averages will be better linked because German is just a touch bigger than Austria (don’t tell the in-laws…). So you may need special content – just for the Austrians please.

Error Eight: Javascript changes the language content

This happens more often than you might think where javascript – controls the language setting of the page and pulls in a different language to the same template following the user’s instruction. The problem is that search engine crawlers don’t follow javascript navigation (which this is of course) so languages other than the default (English usually) just disappear.

Error Nine: Links in a different language to content

Now how many times have I seen this – or error messages the same. Let’s assume the main navigation has been changed, there are many sites where you still find odd little links in the footer – that really should have been translated and haven’t been. One or two and you’ll get away with it possible – but don’t overdo it!

Error Ten: Language code not set to the correct language

Very common – and the more minor of our peccadilloes for today. In fact, I did a study of this a few years ago and found that the majority of the Government web sites around Europe were actually encoded ‘en’ for general English and it didn’t have a huge impact on their rankings (thanks to being link loved by their own communities of course).


The above 10 errors are not the whole story. All the normal SEO errors still apply and I haven’t delved into the depths of hosting which is a whole story in its own right. But the fact is that the above errors are repeated so often that I think this must be a useful checklist to avoid the most typical pitfalls. Now I’m going back to our non-automatic non-alien humanoid team (otherwise known as international SEO experts from around the globe) to see the latest little linguistic challenge the world of SEO has brought to us.

Andy Atkins-Krüger, managing director, Web Certain

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Ian said...


Really good post.

I'm not clear on point 10 however. What encoding are you referring to?

Do you mean using
<html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en">
as described here?

Is it really that important? What if it isn't set at all (presume English is default?). Do you have any references to back up this point?


Travolution Blogger said...

Ian: thanks for your comment. i'll ask Andy to post a response for you.

klm, ed, travo

Anonymous said...

Nice to see that there is an SEO who likes Sailing.

I have a website and like keeping informed on SEO but I am not an SEO.

BTW Good Post.

Andy Atkins-Krueger said...


Yes you're spot on - I'm talking about the language tag in the DTD as described at

The key thing about this tag is it makes things clearer. The downside is that so few sites use it correctly that search engines can't rely on it to identify the language correctly.

In a recent study of ours - it may have changed recently as this study is now well over a year old - we found that many of the European government sites actually had "en" as the language tag set which is effectively US English - when that clearly wasn't the case.

Hence why I say it's not really very significant - however it makes sense to use it nonetheless.

Thanks Andy

Travolution Blogger said...

Andy: thanks for the update.

esther.pearson said...

A little more elaboration on point 10 would be great. It really only broaches the lingual nature of content. The question of duplicated content on same language sites (ie. English) still remains the worry to me in terms of SEO and search engine penalties.

esther.pearson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esther.pearson said...

Apologies my comment relates to Error Seven: Duplication of content between Countries, not 10!