Michael is the International Managing Director for SEM International, where he provides expert multilingual search engine marketing and management for global advertising agencies, search engine marketing companies and Fortune 100 firms.
Linda: Every online business wants to know what's better, one domain that serves all countries, or country-specific domains (top level domains like .co.uk, .ca, .it etc). How does a business decide which approach is best for them?
Michael: Having a country-specific domain the best choice. Country-specific domains allow for a "localization trust factor," (searchers perceive localized domains as more relevant to them), they can attract links from the target country, and are therefore your best bet for organic SEO in the target country. However, if having international top level domains are not feasible, sub-directories can work too, but not as well. Sub-domains are better than sub-folders, which should be your last option. Also, pay attention to create sub-directories country by country, not language by language, or else you'll face the duplicate content problem.
Linda: Duplicate content is a major concern for site owners running multiple geographic stores in the same language. Is the fear warranted? How can this risk be minimized?
Michael: Yes, duplicate content is a big problem. It's not a "penalty" from Google's standpoint, however when you find your US pages ranking better than your UK pages in Google.co.uk...you've got a problem. A separate site with a separate country-specific domain along with unique re-written content will help reduce the duplicate content issue. Also, have your in-country address on the site, and make sure your Google Webmaster Tools also reflect your intentions by telling Google what sites (subdirectories/folders) belong where. Once all the localized content pieces are fixed, make sure you have a matching link building strategy with in-country links from relevant sites and in country directories linking to them.
Linda: It's great that search engines support geo-targeting of domains in Google Webmaster Tools, it's such a quick win for webmasters.
Linda: Many large brands have splash pages with country selectors, which force the user to choose their country before entering the store. What is your opinion of this practice? Does this hurt search ranking (or usability) more than help?
Michael: I would say that its not that great for usability and can hurt search ranking. Splash pages with country selectors are common with big brands. Quite often they are sensitive to having a splash page for analytic and usability reasons. Since splash pages with country selectors typically come from well known brands, they're brand names - and brand products will likely always rank well (even if they had a blank page). On the other hand, I have rarely seen a non-brand with country selectors rank, so what I would suggest is to use an IP redirect to the correct site with options on the page to change languages.
Linda: Good advice. We have an article on IP geolocation that provides a few more reasons, besides SEO, why IP redirection is helpful.
Linda: How useful is site translation software? Is there a tool/service you recommend, or is manual translation by a native speaker always the best solution?
Michael: Site translation software is a big no-no in my opinion. There are some great translation agencies that have very good machine based translation systems. However, it is far, far better to have a native localization expert do the translation. Keep in mind, i'ts not about translating (even though most of the time machine based translation gives bad results), its about "localization." What that means is the content needs to "culturally" touch the users of the target country as well as translation. For example, if you just translated your site word-for-word and launched it in the German market, you may be in for a rude awakening when you find out that your site didn't understand how quality is more important than cost to the Germans. Yet your US to German translated site did nothing but talk about price.
Linda: Sounds like the costs to your brand and credibility of translation bloopers may be greater than the costs of a native translator!
Linda: Do you have any tips on international keyword research? Or a favorite tool?
Michael: International keyword research works similar to localization. I have often found that many words that are translated from your English keywords end up not at all being what the users in that country look for. Translate "car insurance" in France and you will find it's not the translated term but another term that they use. Even using the Google suggestion tool may not find the related words in that country. Providing your localization expert with your seed list is the best way for them to do research and come up with a list of keywords. You will also soon find out that most languages are not as rich in vocabulary as English, so don't be disappointed if the keyword lists aren't as vast.
Linda: I guess there's no getting around using a native speaker at this time. Perhaps there's room in the competitive SEM software space for internationalized keyword research tools...perhaps it won't be long before Google offers it to Adwords advertisers.
Thanks again to Michael Bonflis, you can catch Michael's panel Managing a Global SEO Campaign on Day 1 of SES Toronto (June 9-11, 2010), or follow him on Twitter @michaelbonflis or contact him by email at michael.bonflis @ seminternational.com.