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11 Common International SEO Pitfalls

Important Note

The ideas below belong to our Converged Asia Contributor Emrecan Şanlı‘s point of view.


Be Aware of These Most Typical International SEO Mistakes


International SEO has been a controversial area for many SEOs. While some people still stick with old fashion techniques,- aka Dinosaurs – others don’t hesitate to try experimental changes. In this article; instead of demonstrating best practices which depend on countries, industries, architecture and so on, it is better to explain how you can refrain from traffic and revenue loss while expanding your geographical coverage.


  1. Be Aware of These Most Typical International SEO Mistakes
  2. Avoid Using Computer-Based Translation
  3. IP – Browser Redirection
  4. Canonicalizing Different Languages
  5. Using not localized URLs
  6. Missing Hreflang and Sitemaps
  7. Using The Same Language for Different Cultures
  8. Switching Language with JS
  9. Launching in Non-Profitable Markets
  10. Not Identifying The Need For Focus If You Should Go for Country or Language or Both First
  11. TLD/Subdomain/Subfolder Selection
  12. Not Changing HTML Language Accordingly


#1 Avoid Using Computer-Based Translation


As all SEOs believe “content is the king” motto, it is important to use proper language for each country that you are serving. You may not be aware, but the auto-translation may use offensive or irrelevant words which can affect the user experience negatively. In addition to this, nowadays search engines can understand the natural language usage and intention of the user queries with the help of the machine learning. When it comes to ranking for “watch types” search (In Turkish it’s “saat çeşitleri”) Aliexpress are not in the first 80 results. The issue is the usage of translated titles and descriptions which are far away from being optimized for the search engines.


saat cesitleri search query result aliexpress


Here is the example of an auto-translation which makes the user unable to understand watch category tree (marked areas translated wrongly).


wrong auto translation


Finally, let’s look at what Google recommends;


what google says about robotstxt


#2 IP – Browser Redirection


I do not know how many times I struggled with finding the proper language and local services for me on a website when it redirects me to a different language based on my IP or browser language. I’m a user and I can change the language or country from a drop-down menu easily, however, when it comes to search engine bots let’s read John Muller’s (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) opinion:


john mueller IP redirection comment


Basically, not only the user experience but also indexing and ranking can be badly affected by IP – browser-based redirections as the website redirect search engine bots to specific languages.


#3 Canonicalizing Different Languages


To avoid having duplicate content, some websites canonicalized their different language pages to a single language. Despite this belief, Google does not classify the identical contents as the duplicate. Websites rely on this technique mostly suffer from indexing issues. To give an example a website with X and Y language and canonicalized the content in Y language to X language as content in Y language will be not indexed (except some rare conditions like a page with back-links), this website will lose tons of traffic due to pages will not get ranking.


To make it short here is Google’s recommendations;


Canonicalizing Different Languages


#4 Using not localized URLs


You may see many URLs with parameters and still get rank however when it comes to CTR and UX relation, localized URLs plays an important role. Users tend to click localized URLs instead of URLs in a foreign language. With a clear URL structure, users can easily understand the site structure and page content. It also gives a clear understanding to users about page language.


Here is an example from Samsung – a bad one:


samsung example on international seo


#5 Missing Hreflang and Sitemaps


Many websites suffer from geo-targeting issue even it is not hard to deal with this issue. There seem to be several mistakes with hreflang implementation however wrong iso code stands out as the most common one. For instance, using “en-UK” instead of “en-GB” when aiming English speaking users in the United Kingdom. Also, another misuse scenario is targeting the whole region with only one iso code like targeting Eastern European countries only an iso code.


< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/cz” hreflang=”eu-cz” / >

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/pl” hreflang=”eu-pl” / >

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/sk” hreflang=”eu-sk” / >


Another basic but important issue is missing returning tag. This happens when a page includes an hreflang link to an alternate language, but the linked page doesn’t link back to it.


X page has ;

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/cz” hreflang=”pl-pl” / >

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/en” hreflang=”en-gb” / >

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/en” hreflang=”en-us” / >


Y page doesn’t have pl alternative ;

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/en” hreflang=”en-gb” / >

< link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com/en” hreflang=”en-us” / >


Note this error may occur if your URL canonicalized to another page like example.com/en is canonicalized to example.com/en/index.


Alternatively, there appear to be cases which website prefer to use hreflang in the sitemap. Nonetheless, if the website does not have updated sitemaps, probably there seems to be URLs with no-indexed or blocked by robots.txt which Google will not follow the return link from that blocked page back to the originating link, so it will report a return tag error.


To sum up, using hreflang both in the head and sitemap is not recommended as it may cause conflict between each other. (Plus unnecessary lines of codes)


For best practices please visit Google Support.


#6 Using The Same Language for Different Cultures

It is not a good practice to serve the same languages in different countries. Even though each region has a different accent and different words, it is not a good idea to use the same language in several countries. To give an example, in Spain, the verb “coger” (to catch) is used all the time, not just to mean catching, but also grabbing or fetching. For example, “coger al toro por los cuernos”, literally, “to take the bull by the horns”. In Latin America, “coger” is a slang term used extensively to describe, ahem, the act of love.


#7 Switching Language with JS


Changing language with JS is one of the bad practices. If something goes wrong with your JS rendering, your alternative languages might not be indexed. You can have indexed pages with the help of the sitemap but if possible add href links or replace drop-down menu structure with HTML one.


Another bad practice using JS translated website without changing the URL. In this scenario, the website can serve only for one language which causes a huge loss in the traffic because HTML text will be same and altered with JS and there can be differences between cached page and live version. Note Googlebot rendering the website in several steps depends on its available resources. The situation will be much worse when it comes to other search engines with little or no JS rendering feature as they will just see a single language version.


#8 Launching in Non-Profitable Markets


As a part of a growth strategy, most businesses try to enter as many markets as they can. However, before expanding businesses in other countries it is essential to do proper research.


There appears to be a lot of factors which can affect the final decision, but in terms of SEO here are the 3 important research which you need to conduct:

  1. Understand the market and possible competitors
  2. Do proper keyword research for each market
  3. Forecast the ROI and define whether they are profitable or not


#9 Not Identifying The Need For Focus If You Should Go for Country or Language or Both First


International success depends on many factors and sometimes it is better to think out of common practices. If you can attract many clients just adding the language, there is no need to spend your valuable time on complex optimizations. In order to decide, here are the options you need to take into consideration.


– You need to identify if you should go for country or language or both first

– For your niche, for some countries, you may not necessarily focus on for both language and countries

– Define the need in terms of matching your keywords with your landing pages


Amazon.de can be a pretty nice example of this situation


Amazon.de can be a pretty nice example for international seo



Before entering in the Turkish market Amazon decided to focus on Turkish language first. After the launch, it attracted the customers from both Turkey and Europe.


Note: Recently Amazon.tr launched and currently it is doing pretty well.


#10 TLD/Subdomain/Subfolder Selection


Here is the challenging part about URL scheme. As we are just to go over the common mistakes, it is hard to say which is right or wrong in general. On the other hand, there seem to be some criteria that you need to consider but the website structure needs to be consistent. For instance, it is not a good practice for users and search engines to use sub-domain for country X and a subfolder for country Y. This may cause conflict in terms of navigation and user experience.


Do you want to learn more about this? Then simply visit the article written by Rand Fishkin.


global brands with different site structure


#11 Not Changing HTML Language Accordingly


Most SEOs focus on only Google’s rules and ignore other search engines. It is a well-known fact that Google completely ignores the HTML lang attribute for determining the language and region of the page. However, for the other search engines, we need to have proper HTML lang attribute to help them to understand our content and region correctly.


john mueller google webmaster


Here is the correct usage of HTML lang attribute:


correct usage of HTML lang attribute


To sum up, it is not easy to maintain large international websites and keeping track of all the changes. However, as SEOs, we need to provide best practices for our clients. I hope after reading this article you are more aware of common mistakes and practices.if you have any questions or comments just let me know from here.

Emrecan Sanli About the author
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