There are all sorts of challenges when dealing with international SEO, such as what domain extension to use, how to structure multiple target countries on a single domain, dealing with country selection without losing link value, how to build incoming links across all countries, and so on.
There have never been any hard rules on how search engines deal with international SEO, leaving optimisers with trial and error exercises to discover the right approach for their sites.
Now Google is lending a helping hand with an extensive post on their Webmaster Central blog, which explains how they attempt to handle different geotargeting factors such as domains & subdomains, directory structure, and Webmaster Tools settings.
For experienced SEOs there aren’t many surprises: Country-level domains are important and probably the best way to target different countries if you can spare the expense. Subdomains are a good alternative, as are country-specific directories on your website.
Duplicate content issues have plagued international SEOs since the dawn of the web. Often it’s extremely hard to avoid duplicate content when your business operates internationally in Europe. Many countries use the same language, so if you want to effectively target all your operating markets you will eventually end up duplicating content in the same language for different countries.
Google doesn’t recommend hiding this duplicate content with robots.txt or noindex tags – I’ve never been a fan of hiding content in this way either, as every page on your website may convey some ranking benefit and I feel you should let search engines crawl the full length and breadth of your content.
What you should do is pick one ‘preferred’ version (ideally the version with the largest target market) and ensure all duplicate versions of that content use the canonical tag to point to the preferred version.
Google does have one interesting revelation though in their geotargeting recommendations:
“Note that we do not use locational meta tags (like “geo.position” or “distribution”) or HTML attributes for geotargeting. While these may be useful in other regards, we’ve found that they are generally not reliable enough to use for geotargeting.” (Emphasis added)
This might mean that the ‘lang’ HTML attribute conveys no geotargeting benefit, though it’s undoubtedly a useful attribute for browsers and other UAs and helps with multilingual websites.
In upcoming blog posts Google will take a look at multilingual websites and special situations with global websites, so I recommend keeping a sharp eye on the Webmaster Central blog, and I’ll be discussing things here as well.