The Global Guide to International SEO

An Interview with Chris Raulf

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood chats with Chris Raulf, seasoned International SEO expert and owner of Boulder SEO marketing. Chris talks about his 20-year journey in the world of SEO and talks us through the many aspects of successfully doing International SEO.

Read this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next steaming cup of E-coffee.

We’re actually getting away from traditional SEO. We’ve achieved tremendous results for our clients by taking off our SEO hat and donning our content marketing & storytelling hats to communicate with the audience.

Chris Raulf, Owner
Boulder SEO marketing
Hello everyone, how's it going? My guest today is a multilingual international and global SEO expert, Chris Raulf. Originally from Switzerland, he is the founder of Boulder SEO Marketing. He is a training expert and also teaches university students at the University of Strasbourg. Chris, excited to have you with us. It would be great if you could please Introduce yourself. And tell us about the exciting things you're involved with.

I’ll keep it short and sweet. My name is Chris Ralph. I’m originally from Basel, Switzerland moved to Boulder, Colorado about 20 years ago, for six month. Still here. I love it! So it’s a very quaint town.

It’s now called silicon mountain. Because Google has set up shop here, a lot of tech is here, which is a great fit for my line of business. So I got into search engine optimization, even before Google was called Google. They were called BackRub back then.

So yeah, I got into SEO at the very beginning. And basically grew up with SEO over the decades. It’s hard to say but that’s the honest reality. So I taught everything myself, I learned what is needed to be successful with search engine optimization, digital marketing.

When I moved to Colorado about 20 years ago, I worked on the client side. I was a marketing executive for software companies. And then at some point, I just had enough with corporate America.One day, I read my horoscope and it said, “if you don’t change your life today, you’ll regret it forever.” I made a decision that I’ll quit my job. I got out of shower with my towel around, wrote my letter of resignation, and put up a website. And I guess six weeks later, I was like, already profitable. Started with trainings. That’s what I love to do.

I had an agency that was growing relatively fast, and my passion was always to teach and speak about SEO, digital marketing. So I guess over the years, I have made a name for myself. I now get invited all over the world about digital marketing, SEO, international SEO. That gets a lot of exposure. So I never really have to do sales. People really want to work with us. It’s a great position to be in. Yeah, that’s a little bit about myself.

I would like to start the discussion with the uncertainty that coronavirus pandemic has created. What are the good niches to work with these days according to you? And how do you retain clients?

All right, so the first question obviously ecommerce businesses are thriving. Any website that has supplies that we need right now, they are doing amazing.
Then, the food industry, groceries, any sites that deliver food, basically any service that’s needed right now they are doing great business.

I’ve been seeing a lot of restaurants have been reaching out because their website was not at par with what’s happening right now. They have to update their website. They have to make sure that they have takeaway menus and are up to date etc.

The stuff that’s needed right now, which are the essentials, you have to make sure that your website is updated, optimize for search with the right keywords. Because that’s what we’re looking for right now.

And then, how do you retain clients?

Well, I would say,if you’re in the digital space, we probably lost 40 to 60% of our business right now because a lot of businesses that are our clients are not prepared for what is happening right now.
Dentists, sports studios, we work with them and they have shut shop for now. All these businesses, they don’t have money coming in right now, or a very limited amount of money. So they’re asking to pause their campaign right now. You know, so we try not to lose them completely.

We’re trying to stay in touch, educate them. So we’re doing a lot of complimentary webinars right now, just to keep in touch with our existing clients because the cost to acquire a new client is so high.

You don’t want to lose that. So make sure you over service them, provide free guides, do video tutorials for them, just keep them engaged, because they will come back if you keep that momentum going with them.

So Chris, I know that you love international SEO, you speak a lot about it. And that's what I want to discuss with you today. Because enough is always said about local SEO. But we never talk about international SEO, which is a different ball game altogether. And you're one of the few experts we have out there. So my first question would be, which type of business should actually look at international SEO? And how do you do the cost benefit analysis?

Let’s take a step back and say, the Internet has completely changed how anybody can do business nowadays. So nowadays you can be a one man shop or you can be an International, multilingual global business, right? It’s so easy nowadays to put up a website to translate and localize it. There are machine translation tools that are now actually producing translated content of quality that is incredible. For example, one website is called Deepl.I believe it’s way better than Google Translate. I’ve done a few tests with my site where I translated a blog post from English into German, and shockingly high quality, so anybody can actually create a multilingual website you have to take into consideration keyword research, keyword trends creation, you can’t just translate keywords, you have to transcreate them, you have to find the equivalent. Let me give you an example. When I moved to the US, I went to a technology store and I asked, Where can I buy a handy? And you would think I was talking about a handycam? But no, that’s a term that we use in Switzerland for a smartphone. So that is the key word transcription process, right? You can’t just assume that people in a different culture or locale use the same term. Sometimes people use branded terms.So you gotta find the equivalent of the keywords from English to whatever language. That’s called keyword transcreation, because then only then you can properly optimize the localized translated versions of your website.There’s so much more to that process, of course like local link earning you need to acquire. Let’s say, if I promote my business in Germany, I would want to get links from German companies relevant German. So there’s so much more to it.

Chris, how would you assess if a business should go for International SEO? How would you do your first audit?

Great question!

The first part is anybody can do international SEO right now.

The more challenging question, I guess, is for larger corporations. If you start to sell your product on a global scale, you need to have the infrastructure in place to service those clients.

So we have partner companies that help with the analysis of going global strategy, etc. We’re not experts in that. We’re really good at helping the companies succeed once they make that decision with the international multilingual SEO. So we do have strategic partners in place, they’re really good at consulting with these kinds of companies. They will take a look at everything possible required to make sure that the company eventually is ready to be able to go global. I used to work in the localization translation industry and I can tell you localizing your website, getting it ready for global markets, that’s just a small piece of the puzzle. So is lingual SEO, setting up structure, being ready in house to going global, it’s a massive undertaking, and the bigger the company, the bigger that undertaking
.So to answer your question. We have strategic partners that we pull in as needed.

Just a follow up question, you said that there are tools like Deepl which give you very good quality content. So would you still think that I need to have native writers for different languages? As an agency, I'm just trying to understand the team structure. So you would say that tools like Deepl do a decent enough job?

So it depends, Deepl may be a great option for a one man show, right? Because you can simply hire a linguist to edit and proofread the content.

If you’re a bigger company, you’re gonna have to hire a localization translation company that does it professionally because they work with tools such as translation, memory, glossaries, etc.

That over time, reduces the cost of translation. So if you’re a bigger company, my advice is don’t build your own translation team in house just outsource it.They have a localization manager that coordinates that effort. And then oftentimes with these bigger clients, we work with the localization manager or team at that fortune 500 company, or whatever size it is, because they will coordinate the optimization of localized content. So big companies have in house localization teams, but most companies will outsource that process to localization companies.

What is the difference, you know, between optimizing for, let's say, Google versus Baidu versus Yandex because when you're talking about international SEO, that challenge also will come in some cases. So how, you know, in terms of algos and processes, how different is it?

Algorithms across the board, they’re very similar, right? If you go to China, you’re going to have to optimize for Baidu. Obviously, Ross, Russia, Yandex, South Korea, Naver, etc. So you’re gonna have to at the very least claim their equivalent of the Search Console, the Google Webmaster Tools.

Then there are very specific things such as you know, I know for a fact Baidu loves local links from other Chinese companies, they value them way higher than a link from another country. There’s also some sort of certificate you have to add to your website. So there are some nuances. It’s not rocket science, it just has to be done. It’s basically a checklist that you’ll have to go through and make sure it’s done by the book. If you go into those countries, you’re gonna have to accommodate for those local search engines as well.

How does your international SEO audit process look like? Because I think that is the first step you have to start for doing the SEO, so how does the audit look like for you?

Alright, as you probably know, there’s about 250 plus main ranking signals in Google’s algorithm. Thousands of soft ranking signals. So we can place these 250 main ranking signals into five buckets: technical health of website, the functionality, on page SEO, off page SEO, social media.

Social media is a big part of SEO, the foundation is content marketing. So we basically go through all these components and take a look at everything as much as we can. It’s just like assessing what is the current state, take a look at the overall landscape in relation to all these ranking signals. So that’s basically how we approach these audits. And that’s reality, the better we address all of these ranking signals, the better we’ll rank in the search engine results pages.

Talking about content which everyone knows is the main thing, do you use specific densities and parameters for word count, keyword density schema or just look at the top 10 and see how they are doing it?

We try to optimize each and every page for about three keywords. You don’t want to go crazy, especially with the latest algorithm updates, Bert and EAT. If you guys are not familiar with those updates, just do a Google search for Google Bert, Google EAT.

Google is getting smarter and smarter. So we’re actually getting away from traditional SEO. We still have to do those traditional things like keyword research, you would be mapping and optimizing the meta tags and then make sure that the keywords are included. But Google is getting smarter and smarter with their AI, with their rankbrain to understand context, and we’ve seen tremendous results by trying to take our SEO hat off and just put on our content marketing storytelling hat across all platforms that our clients are using to communicate with their clients.

Because if you have an all encompassing content marketing and storytelling strategy, that takes into consideration more traditional SEO strategies, like I just described, you will see results. tremendous results over a little bit longer term, but this is what it’s going to take to be successful for a long time. So there are no hacks, it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s infused by these SEO strategies that we think is still working and that will be working in the future.

Some languages increase or decrease characters like German versus Chinese. So does that have any impact on the number of keywords you're targeting on a page because maybe the title tag might get affected?

Great question. So oftentimes, what we see is that when people translate their website from English into German, usually it’s a 30% character increase over English. So we see the title tags way too long. Generally, you want to stick to about 40 to 60 characters in the title tag, and then the description tag about 140 to 160.

So naturally, when people just translate the content, way too big, then Google will just grab something off the page to create the SERP, the content and that’s displayed in SERP, so major problem, yes. So you need to take that into consideration. We’ll obviously have trained staff that specifically knows how to create those optimized meta tags in the new target language. That’s one issue. We usually try to stick to the same amount of keywords that we’re using.

Also, have you ever come across a situation where the page like, you know, intent or type changes countrywise?

When you localize or translate your website, you have to take cultural differences into consideration. For eg, with Arabic speaking countries, a lot of attention to certain cultural differences or in China the use of color is very different. So everything matters. So, you’re gonna have to address every new website according to that country. So things can naturally change. One service that sells in the USA may not even be known in all the countries. So yes, things can naturally change. And you have to address that.

How do you decide between sub directories vs sub domains vs entirely different domains?

Ideally, if you have all the time and resources and money in the world go with a top level country code, you know, like .de or .fr,that’s Google strategy. If you don’t have all the time and money, I would go with language and country folders. So boulderseomarketing.com/de for Germany, boulderseomarketing.com/ch for Switzerland. That’s probably the easiest way for any business to manage a multilingual website.

Do the link building efforts change, like across these different strategies?

So I do not like the word link building, I like the word link earning because we know link building is frowned upon. So I’d like to refer to it as link earning. So we want to earn links from reputable websites that actually make sense. And Google is going to crack down on that even more.So to answer your question, yes, we’re going to create the best possible content in whatever language we have to to earn those links. And yes, we are going to reach out to influencers in those languages. Because we’re not going to be too aggressive about it, but we want them to know that this is an amazing piece of content that we wrote for this website. We’re gonna try to get into all that. publications. So that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be done. And that’s the way that’s been working amazingly well, for our clients. We’ll reach out to very well known publications. And try to get a link in an article that leads back to that website.

One important aspect of International SEO is language tag.Some of the big companies you have worked with, I've read that, didn't get their hreflang right. So,what is the best practice or what are the key elements to keep in mind for that?

This is the easiest thing that you can do to get some of the most SEO points. Don’t neglect your hreflang tags. It’s basically a tag you put on your website on a page that tells Google to show a certain German piece of content needs to be shown to German people in German. And this German written piece is for people in Switzerland. So you can indicate that with those hreflang tags that we just mentioned, the easiest thing and then also this tag called the x-default hreflang tag. Let’s say if you serve clients in Australia, USA, UK, etc. You can send people from all their US English speaking countries to a specific page by defining that in the with the x default length. I’m not going to go deep into that, but this is definitely something that if you want to tackle this yourself, you know, this is something you need to address and get it done.

As an agency, who are the best clients to target for international SEO?Between companies who don't have presence in different countries versus companies who have multi country presence and maybe not doing it, who should an agency pitch to?

So you’re from an agency standpoint, right? First of all, you need to be able to deliver what you’re promising. Okay. I see so many agencies out there, they’re promising, you know, their clients that they can do international SEO. In and then you talk to them and they have no clue. You know, they will translate content, but they don’t do it, right. So it comes down to, you know, getting an expert in house, even if it’s just one person that can help you set up a structure so that you can actually handle international SEO, do that, and then define what you are able to offer. Don’t over promise and under deliver, because then you’re going to mess up their clients, you know, potentially success for the long term. So, you know, hire somebody that can help you with that, and then define what is going to be done and make sure that you can deliver those solutions.

No, absolutely. Like you said, You know, I mean, hreflang is not rocket science. But yeah, you know, we see, very often a lot of agencies not doing it, right.

And there’s also a lot of localization translation agencies out there. They are claiming that they will help their clients after you know, translating the website, also optimizing them. I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and I know for a fact very few actually really get it. So that’s why we’re getting a lot of requests from localization companies. They want to work with us, you know, in a partnership To make sure that their client actually gets a fully optimized and localized website.

Chris, is there any checklist you follow before initiating an international SEO project?

Yes, we have internal processes. It’s a long list that we put together over the years. SEO is not rocket science. It’s a process driven thing, that if you stick to your process, you will see the results. You know, this thing is not magic, or Pandora’s box. No, it’s just hard work, knowing, you know, keeping up with the algorithm updates, making changes to your process. Yeah, that’s basically it. And then, of course, having the right people to implement the right things.

I'm sure you have come across many challenges in your long career, but what has been the biggest challenge as far as SEO is concerned?

Gosh, I was at a point where I was going to hire an agency because simply I didn’t have time to do SEO myself when I was on the client side. And I made the mistake of hiring an agency without having full confidence. And then it was just like, I gotta do it, it’s gonna take time off my plate. But then that was back in the days they over promised and under delivered, they messed things up. So, you know, that was probably my biggest mistake that I made not fully investigating their capabilities and not staying on top of things because I was like, okay, one thing that I have to worry about less, right? Yeah, there’s so many agencies out there, you know, there’s a lot of good agencies out there. Hopefully, you know, yours and ours. There’s also a lot of agents out there anybody can say they’re an SEO expert. So, unfortunately,that was a mistake that I made.

Also, any tips you would want to give to agencies who want to try offering international SEO as a service?

You know, again, it comes back to the fact that you can outsource it. You can white label it by using a company like ours, or you build your in-house team. You know, international SEO is not for everybody. It’s usually big projects, they’re very intense, very labor intensive, takes a lot of time to set everything up. So if you don’t want to deal with that, don’t do it. I think, you know, once this COVID-19 thing is over, a lot of businesses need help with their source language SEO. So if you’re not 100% convinced that international SEO is right for you, don’t do it, you’re gonna get yourself in trouble. You can offer it but then find a good resource that you can contract with or white label with.

Chris, thank you so much for taking time and you know, being a part of this.

Absolutely. For resources. My personal website, Chris Ralph.com. Just go to the blog. There’s a lot of guides that I wrote. So, you know, feel free to go there for additional information. Yeah, and I look forward to staying in touch, you know, hopefully doing a panel, sharing additional knowledge. Thanks so much for having me. This was a blast.

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