International Expansion – How, When and Why

  ●   February 23, 2023 | SEO
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February 23, 2023 | SEO

On Thursday 23rd February, we had the pleasure of sponsoring Figaro Digital’s SEO, PPC and Paid Social Seminar. Alongside my colleague, Nicholas Randall, we offered some practical recommendations on how brands can successfully expand into new markets. Read on for further insights or download our top tips now.

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With an increasingly digitalised and globalised economy, deciding if and when to expand into other markets can be the key to supercharging your business and smashing your KPIs. 

However, there are several factors that need to be considered when making the decision to internationalise your domain, all of which can have a wholesale impact on how your website performs internationally. As such, you will require a clear understanding of these considerations in advance of taking the plunge and going international.

Here we take you through the core elements to consider and work on, as you move through your international journey.

What’s in this article?

Making the decision 

When deciding on when to expand internationally, there are several fundamental factors to consider.

Understanding demand

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, understanding the demand for your product or service and your brand in other markets is an important step. This can be done via a variety of methods, such as market research or social listening. However, from an organic search perspective, we recommend starting with an initial review of search demand, covering both core brand terms, and a small (~50) set of priority generic keywords that users currently use to reach your site. For example, at Semetrical, we may use some of the keywords below:

  1. Semetrical
  2. Semetrical digital marketing agency
  3. SEO agency
  4. Paid media agency
  5. Digital PR agency
  6. Analytics agency
  7. Content creation services
  8. Digital marketing services
  9. Technical seo agency
  10. International seo agency
  11. google analytics agency
  12. seo copywriting
  13. technical seo services
  14. google ads agency
  15. ga4 best practices
  16. seo content writing
  17. seo gap analysis
  18. content marketing trends 2023
  19. web analytics agency
  20. keyword research agency

Before reviewing the search demand of these keywords (or their translations for non-English speaking markets), this process can be done using a range of different methods, such as using the Keyword Planner tool on Google Ads, paid research tools such as SEMrush, or free chrome extensions, such as Keyword Surfer

The name of the game here is to look at the average monthly search demand for this subset of keywords. This will give you an indication of whether there is sufficient demand for them in any potential market to warrant the time and effort to expand into that market.

Can your current domain rank in your target market?

The second key factor to consider is whether your current domain can rank in your target market with its current set up – this is potentially the case when your target market shares the same language as your original market (i.e. a UK brand expanding in to the U.s., Canada or Australia), and your current domain has a generic top level domain (such as .com or .io). 

We recommend reviewing the search engine results pages (SERPs), and seeing what kind of setup is owning the top positions. This can be quickly done via paid tools, such as SEMrush or SEOmonitor, however, it can also be done by simply searching for the keywords identified in the first step and clicking through on the top results. 

What we’re looking for here is any key themes in the kind of pages that are ranking well for the target keywords. If we take the Semetrical website (, which sits on a .com Top Level Domain (TLD) and review the top 10 results on the U.S. search engine results pages for each of the above queries, we see a variety of TLDs performing well. However, over 95% of these are generic TLDs (.com, .io etc) with only 4.9% of these being market or language specific. This indicates that if we were to correctly optimise our web pages to target U.S. keywords, we would be able to rank with the current set up, and save the resource and time required to build out a new element of the website.

However, if we were to re-run a similar analysis on a non-English speaking market, like France, it’s very likely that we would get a different set of results, highlighting that our generic, English focused, domain is unlikely to perform well in the market. Therefore, to target potential customers in France, several updates to the domain would be required.

Organising your domain

The next consideration is how to best organise your domain to allow for the additional pages to be neatly added to the site architecture. There are three core ways of doing this:

1.       Using a Country Code Top Level Domain – for example,

2.       Using a Subdomain – for example,

3.       Using a Subfolder – for example,

All three potential options here have their own pros and cons, however, in our experience the easiest and safest option, with the largest potential benefit, is to utilise a subfolder set up. This is for several reasons, including:

  • It pools authority within the root domain, instead of a separate property as would be the case with both other options.
  • Contextual Indexing – search engines already understand that you’re an expert in the product/service area on the basis of your existing site. This should be leveraged to boost performance in the new market.
  • Keeping everything in a single property can reduce time and resources required to maintain the new area of the site.
  • Any technical issues can be fixed in one go.  

Additional considerations

The next factors to consider before expanding internationally are focused more on practicalities, and should be some of your final checks before deciding to take the leap into international expansion:

  • What is the competitive landscape? Are there any major competitors that would make seeing real growth in the new market difficult? For example, a new recipe site focused on the UK market would struggle to outperform sites like BBC Good Food without substantial investment, time and effort.
  • Do you have sufficient dev and content resources – with any larger changes to the domain such as this, significant development and content resources will be required, both within the initial launch period and for on-going maintenance. You’ll need to decide whether your internal teams are ready to handle this additional work or if you will require external support.
  • Do you have native speakers available to review content? Whilst online translation tools have seen large improvements over the last few years, we would still heavily recommend that any changes are reviewed by a native speaker before being published on the domain.
  • Are there any broader business considerations that need to be factored in? Can your product be easily and quickly delivered to the new market – are there any legal or financial regulations that need to be adhered to? Whilst we can’t provide our usual expert advice here, these are important considerations to understand before expanding internationally. 

Now that all of the initial checks and reviews have been undertaken, and the decision to press ahead with your exciting international expansion journey has been made, there is one (we promise) final step, namely deciding when to expand.

Finding the optimal time to expand internationally

Whilst there is no clear cut answer on the exact time to expand internationally, there are a number of factors we suggest basing this decision on. 

Firstly, seasonality – every product or service will have peak periods, and times of lower demand. Ideally, any larger structural changes to the domain (such as international expansion) should be undertaken at periods of lower demand to ensure that any impact on conversions or sales is as limited as possible. Where in the year this period falls, will be business dependent, however, typically, we see it as Q1 for ecomm domains. Whereas, other verticals such as property tend to see this seasonal decline across Q4. 

The second factor to consider here is your team’s internal capabilities – are there other big projects on the horizon? A new product launch or similar will likely eat a large amount of your development and content teams time, and therefore planning your international expansion project alongside this larger project may cause difficulties. However, on the other side of this, international expansion can fit well alongside other structural changes, such as migrations. 

Now that you have taken the data-driven, and well researched, decision to expand internationally, the next step on your journey is to ensure the new elements of your domain are well built. 

Technical FUNdamentals 

It wouldn’t be an SEO blog post without at least one lame joke, so here it is…the technical SEO FUNdamentals – get it? Cause it’s going to be fun. 

Whilst there are a fair amount of technical considerations when you decide to add elements to the domain, the vast majority of these are typical considerations that you will (hopefully) already be working towards; does the page load quickly? Is it crawlable and indexable? Are the meta tags in place, and used properly? All of these elements are key when expanding internationally and need to be maintained throughout the process, however, there are two key areas that anyone entering a new market needs to consider: 

Hreflang tags: 

Simply put, hreflang tags are a way of letting search engines know which version of each URL should be served to users who are searching in different locations. The easiest example of this would be a domain that has content in both English and French, targeting users across the UK, France and North America.

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

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-ca” />

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

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”fr-fr” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”fr-ca” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”x-default” />

The above code, inserted to the HTML head element or included within the XML sitemap, shows search engines that we have five versions of the Semetrical homepage, 3 targeting English (en) speakers in the United Kingdom (gb), Canada (ca) and the United States (us), and two versions in French (fr), targeting French speakers in both France (fr) and Canada(ca). At the same time, we want any user accessing the domain in other languages or from other locations (for example Australia) to be served our “x-default” version, the UK site. This setup ensures that users in each region land on the correct content for them, improving user experience, increasing sales and benefit performance. 

There are a number of ways that this can be used, focused on locations (as shown in the above example) but also focused on language, such as: 

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”fr” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”es” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”de” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”x-default” />

Hreflang tags, whilst not as influential as they once were, are still fundamental elements to optimise in advance of any international launch, and can help speed the indexing process and search engine’s understanding of your new pages. They do, however, require a fair amount of organisation, and there are a number of potential pitfalls that you should bear in mind during any implementation: 

  • Hreflang tags are bidirectional, and need to match up.
    • If the English version of our page highlights the French version, then the French version must return the favour. 
  • Hreflang tags should include a self-reference.
    • The hreflang tag should always include a reference to the page it is sitting on, using the French and English example hreflang tag above, the tags on just note itself: 

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

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-ca” />

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

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”fr-fr” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”fr-ca” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”x-default” />

  • X-default tags do not have to be in place, but they can make life a lot easier.
    • The x-default tag, mentioned above, purely informs search engines which version of the URL to show when there isn’t an exact match for the user’s location/language. Whilst there is no formal requirement to have these in place, it does give you a lot more control over what your end user ends up seeing, and we would definitely recommend taking advantage of it. 
  • Hreflang tags need to target live, non-canonical pages.
    • Any URL included in the hreflang tags needs to be a live, indexable URL – any URL that is search engines are currently unable to index (redirected, broken, non-indexed or canonicalised etc) will cause issues and result in the hreflang breaking. 

User experience 

Whilst your amazing hreflang tags will stop the vast majority of users reaching the incorrect location or language landing page, we still need to ensure that on the off chance that this does happen, users can quickly reach the correct version. There are a number of ways of doing this: 

  • GEO IP redirects – essentially, this involves automatically taking users to their correct versions of the content. Whilst this, in theory, seems like a great idea, we do have a simple issue here – Google predominantly crawls from the U.S., meaning that they might just interact with the US version of the content and ignore the other variants. 
  • Pop ups – alerting users that they are interacting with the wrong version of the content, and alerting them to the correct version. Whilst this can work well, the inclusion of new elements on the site can impact page speed, and it can impact user journey. 

A strong internal linking structure – this can be as simple as including an additional drop down or accordion within the main navigation to allow users to quickly bounce between the different market/language content. This is the least invasive on user journey, least impactful on page speed and improves the link equity being shared between the different elements, and as such, would be our preferred method going forward.

Content and international expansion


Keyword research

Words or phrases can often have different meanings across markets. Additionally, there can be opportunities in other markets that may not have search volume in your current market, or topics that don’t relate cross-culturally. 

For example, take the term “trainers for women”. In the UK this term can be considered the standard definition of women’s casual shoes, with 165,000 monthly searches across the market. However, in the US, we see a huge shift in the way we talk about this product, with “trainers for women” having only 2400 m/s and “sneakers for women” with 165,000. 

This example is pretty straightforward, however, not every market, sector or product type will have such well-known differences. This is why extensive keyword research is critical to understanding whether there are different ways of searching for your product, services or key topics in different regions. 

New international markets must be treated as new research projects to ensure all opportunities are capitalised on. 

Intent analysis and gap analysis

To put it simply, SERPs look different in different markets. Various types of content are prioritised across different regions, whether this be the structure or form of content or perhaps the intent is entirely unique across regions.

This can be the case for all types of user intent, such as transactional products or informational articles. For example, the term “female trainers” in the UK, shows a SERP full of transactional product pages, listing trainers from various brands. However, in the U.S., the SERP is mixed. Many articles provide information about the best female workout trainers to follow on Instagram and other similar posts. In this instance, the term is the same, however, if you tried to target “female trainers” in the U.S. market, you will likely find it difficult to rank, or you will not be serving the user with what they are searching for. In this instance, you may be better targeting your U.S. page with an alternative keyword.

This is also true for informational pages. In some markets content may not be relevant, whether that’s because of regulations or laws, or simply because the user base requires something different. In the UK, an in-depth review may work best, but in the U.S. a snappy “how-to” list-type article may see the most success. Without exploring your SERPs with proper intent and gap analysis, it could be easy to miss out on key findings. 

The number one tip for successfully analysing a SERP, is to simply type your keywords in and explore Google. Do the cross-country SERPs match? Is there a different kind of content? If there are differences, what do these look like? How can you optimise your pages, or create new ones to target this?

Asking these questions is the first stage to international SEO success

Writing and on-page content

Types of content

As referenced above, the types of content that perform well across the market can differ hugely. The types of content you may need to create includes:

  • In-depth explainer pieces
  • Listicles
  • Videos 
  • How to guides
  • Review pages 

Each market will vary significantly, but ensuring you’re focusing your content production on the right market for certain topics will help you engage your audience and rank for SEO. 

Product Page Considerations

There are a number of things to consider when optimising product pages across regions, including:

  • The language used, for example, ‘Postcodes’ vs ‘ZIP codes’
  • Prices and currency 
  • Duties and taxes information
  • Core values of the market, for example, do you prioritise sustainability in your descriptions? Or do you focus on the quality of materials?

In addition to various other factors, those listed above are all ways to build trust with your customer base, and also show Google your site is relevant to the market you are expanding into. If your customer thinks you are primarily based in another country, and you provide no guidance to your new market, customers can lose faith in your brand and are less likely to convert. 

Thinking about your product pages, how they are structured and the content on them is key to SEO success. 

Tone of voice

Even if the same type of content is needed across markets, how the content is written may be different across markets to appeal to different audiences. For example, for B2B markets in the U.S. successful articles tend to be “how-to” guides and listicles, focusing on the facts and methods behind undertaking tasks. However, in the UK longer explainer pieces covering the topic in detail perform best.

In collectivist cultures, such as Portugal or Japan, the community is prioritised over the individual. In these communities, brand messaging that focuses on family values, community and social norms performs best in many cases. In this instance for a more reserved or humble individual, an exclusive or individualistic brand may come across as arrogant or inaccessible.

Alternatively, in individualistic societies like the UK, the U.S. or Australia, a “breaking the mould” approach may appeal to a market more. Prioritising uniqueness and self-expression is more likely to get customers to interact with your brand. 

Therefore, it is very important to consider the tone of voice, not only for keywords and the technicalities of language, but also to engage your audience and reduce the risk of offence.

Another important consideration with the tone of voice is whether you can actually utilise your current tone of voice to appeal to a new market. If you are a quintessentially British brand, this can actually be very appealing to an American audience. With the rise in popularity of British culture in the U.S. brought on by the popularity of the Great British Bakeoff to the Royal Family connections, Britishness can be capitalised on in the American market. 

A recent study showed that if a product had a “Made in Britain” label, three out of four Americans were more likely to make a purchase. Americans are almost twice as likely as British consumers to associate “Britishness” with “Stylishness”. In this instance, if you are expanding across the pond, using British language and shouting about the British nature of a brand could be lucrative. 

Translation of Content for Cross-Language Expansion

When it comes to expanding into markets that have a different first language to your current brand, you’ll need to consider investing in proper content translation. 

There are countless examples of direct translation going wrong with regards to international expansion. For example, KFC’s expansion to China in the 1980s pushed the direct translation of their classic brand phrase “finger licking good”, which unfortunately had cannibalistic tones in their new market directly reading “eat your fingers off”. 

A similar campaign by Pepsi went with the tagline “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation” resulting in the very insensitive direct translation of “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Finally, when Coors Light pushed to Spanish-speaking markets, their message of “turn it loose” appeared on billboards as “suffer from diarrhoea”. 

These are extreme examples, but they are still only taglines for a wider marketing campaign. Imagine what mistakes could be made and how poorly your messaging could come across over a whole site. If you want to avoid potential bad press and awkward conversations with your CEO, we recommend avoiding the direct translation tactic. 

This is why it is essential to undertake market-specific keyword research, gap analysis and have fluent language speakers undertaking campaigns. Not only will this ensure the correct tone of voice and relevant messaging across markets, but may also avoid customers not being able to understand your site. 

Cross-country Content Calendars

If tone of voice is adjusted across markets, and proper translation is considered for pages, this is a great first step. However, if you want to see real international success, regardless of the type of brand you are, it is essential to consider cross-country content calendars. 

Each market or country will have different festivals, dates or celebrations that you could leverage to tie in with times to launch sales across markets. For example, Thanksgiving or Black Friday in the U.S.. You should also consider other events, like the differing summer times in the southern hemisphere, which would mean summer-related content should be pushed at a different time of the year. 

Truly understanding your market, what they are looking for at different times of the year and serving the content that is right for them at that moment is a key to international success, and building organic brand affinity and trust in new markets. 

Additional factors and considerations

Link Building

Another important element of international SEO success is building trust in different markets. We have discussed trust in terms of your audience, however, when it comes to SEO another key area where trust must be considered is with Google itself. 

One of the most effective ways to build trust signals to your site is through link building, which will also have a positive impact on your rankings. Link building tactics tend to work similarly across UK and U.S. markets, however, the U.S. media tend to focus predominantly on U.S. stories. As such, if data collection is not appropriately undertaken in the market, campaigns will likely not be picked up. Additionally, the U.S. press works using newswires and aggregate news sites to mass publish PR stories, which isn’t really practised in the UK. 

Time Zones are also a key factor, making sure that you’re timely with pushing your stories is essential to getting picked up in different markets. Therefore, it is important to consider a bespoke link building strategy for the new market you wish to expand into. 

When putting together a strategy for our global remittance client, we were tasked with building links to a number of corridors, including Mexico, Brazil, India, and the Philippines. To execute an effective strategy, we needed to tailor our outreach list to target applicable, local media – and make sure the content we were sending resonated with their audience. In doing so, we were able to build links to these subsequent corridor pages by keeping in mind the regional relevance.

Local SEO

Finally, if your business is expanding to new brick-and-mortar locations, local SEO will likely play a vital role in ensuring your business’s success. 

Making sure you have your Google Business profile effectively optimised with the correct name, address, and phone number details is essential. This will enable customers to easily find your site, visit your location and leave reviews to encourage others to visit. Getting featured in local directories, gaining links from geo-specific publications and having an appropriate social media setup for your new locations are all ways to aid link-building and local SEO.


In summary, there are a huge number of considerations required for a successful international digital expansion. SEO is one of the key underpinnings of online marketing success, and if this isn’t carefully considered within an expansion strategy, the full potential of your results will not be seen. 

You’re only as good as your plan

Don’t jump into an international expansion blind. Even if you update your brand positioning, and start advertising and shipping in a new market, this does not mean you will see success, especially if your website does not reflect your expansion. If your website’s content is not optimised for a new market then it will not rank on Google. If the language, tone of voice or currencies do not appeal to your potential customer base then you won’t appeal to the new market. Additionally, as one of the most essential factors, if you do not have your website’s technical setup in check, Google may not be able to properly index and serve your content, meaning users will not be able to access your site. 

Do your research

Ensure that you have data to back up decisions you’re making. It is essential that you conduct keyword research, intent analysis, backlink research and technical audits on your site before expanding internationally. This makes sure you know what your audience wants and what Google needs from your website. 

Harmonise don’t standardise

It is essential to approach expansion without a boilerplate template. What might work for one market, product type or content topic may not work for another. It is very important to treat each market as an individual, and proceed with your research processes and audits accordingly. 

Build strong foundations

Ensuring your website has the appropriate technical setup, an effectively planned content calendar, and optimised pages for your new market are the building blocks to international SEO success. If these factors are not considered carefully, then it is likely that your website will never reach its full potential and you will be considerably hindering your international expansion. 

Check out our international SEO services or get in touch for more information.

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