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Google Algorithms And Updates Focusing On User Experience: A Timeline

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Google Algorithms And Updates Focusing On User Experience: A Timeline

As the role of search evolves to touch multiple marketing and consumer touchpoints, optimizing for the user has never been so important.

This is reflected in Google’s continual focus on the searcher experience. Whether in its core algorithmic updates, new features, products, or SERP format changes.

While some of these Google changes have involved updates targeting low-quality content, links, and spam, other updates aim to understand consumer behavior and intent.

For example, most recent updates have focused on page speed, Core Web Vitals, and product reviews.

Considering the massive competition for SERP real estate from brands, even slight drops in position will critically impact traffic, revenue, and conversions.

In this article, I examine a combination of some (not all) Google updates and technological advancements that significantly reflect the search engine’s focus on the human user and their experiences online – from Panda in 2011 through to Page and Product Experience in 2021 and 2022.

Google Panda (2011)

First launched in February 2011, subsequent updates were continuous and added to Google’s core algorithm.

Panda was announced to target sites with low-quality content; this was one of the first signals that Google focused on content for the user experience.

The focus: producing and optimizing unique and compelling content.

  • Avoid thin content and focus on producing high-quality information.
  • Measure quality over quantity.
  • Content length is not a significant factor but needs to contain information that answers the user’s needs.
  • Avoid duplicate content – initially a big concern for ecommerce sites. Most recently, Google’s John Mueller explained that duplicate content is not a negative ranking factor.

Google Hummingbird (2013)

Following the introduction of the Knowledge Graph came Hummingbird with a focus on semantic search.

Hummingbird was designed to help Google better understand the intent and context behind searches.

As users looked to enter queries more conversationally, it became essential to optimize for user experience by focusing on content beyond the keyword with a renewed focus on the long tail.

This was the first indication of Google using natural language processing (NLP) to identify black hat techniques and create personalized SERP results.

The focus: creating and optimizing content that audiences want and find helpful.

  • Long-tail keywords and intent model strategies became crucial.
  • Content creation is needed to address what users are interested in and would like to learn.
  • Expand keyword research to include conceptual and contextual factors.
  • Avoid keyword-stuffing and producing low-quality content to personalize experiences.
Image source: BrightEdge, July 2022

E-A-T (2014)

Although it gained attention in 2018, the Google E-A-T concept first appeared in 2014 in Google’s Quality Guidelines.

Now, it is part of Google’s guidelines on focusing on YMYL – your money or your life.

Marketers were advised to focus on content that could impact their readers’ future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.

Google established E-A-T guidelines to help marketers tailor on and off-page SEO and content strategies to provide users with an experience containing the most relevant content from sources they could trust.

In other words: Expertise, Authority, and Trust.

The focus: ensuring websites offer expert and authoritative content that users can trust.

  • Create content that shows expertise and knowledge of the subject matter.
  • Focus on the credibility and authority of websites publishing content.
  • Improve the overall quality of websites – structure and security.
  • Earn off-page press coverage on reputable sites, reviews, testimonials, and expert authors.

Mobile Update (2015)

This was the first time Google gave marketers a heads-up (or a warning, for many) that an update was coming.

Focusing on the user’s experience on mobile was a significant signal reflecting the growing use of mobile as part of the customer search journey.

Google clearly communicated that this update would prioritize mobile-friendly websites on mobile SERPs. Many more mobile updates followed.

The focus: mobile content and users’ mobile site experience.

  • Focus on design factors such as responsive design and mobile page structures.
  • Enhance site navigation, so mobile users can quickly find what they need.
  • Avoid format issues on mobile that were different from the desktop experience.
  • Confirm that websites are mobile-optimized.

Just after the mobile update went live, Google quietly issued a Quality update.

Websites that focused on the user experience by focusing on quality content and avoiding too much irrelevant user-generated content and too many ads did well. This was another sign that Google was putting the user experience first.

RankBrain (2015)

Like the Hummingbird principles and NLP mentioned earlier, Google RankBrain was more of a change to the algorithm.

It gave us an indication of how vital machine learning was in all marketing and technology forms.

Utilizing this to learn and predict user behavior, RankBrain powered search results based on an even better understanding of users’ intent.

The focus: ensuring that content reflects user intent and optimizing for conversational search.

  • Place greater focus and emphasis on creating content that matches the user’s intent.
  • Ensure that all aspects of technical SEO are updated (such as schema markup, for example).
  • Google signified that RankBrain was the third-most important ranking signal.

Google Mobile-First Indexing (2018)

The Mobile-First Indexing Update meant that Google would use the mobile version of a webpage for indexation and ranking.

Once again, this was aimed to help enhance the user experience and help users find what they are looking for.

Producing content for mobile and focusing on speed and performance became paramount to success.

The focus: re-affirming the importance of mobile optimization, content, speed, and mobile site performance.

  • Improve AMP and mobile page speed and performance.
  • Ensure that URL structures for mobile and desktop sites meet Google requirements.
  • Add structured data for both desktop and mobile versions.
  • Make sure the mobile site contains the same content as the desktop site.

Google has said that March 2021 is the rollout date for its mobile-first index.

Shortly afterward, Google made mobile page speed a ranking factor so website owners would focus on load times and page speed to enhance the user experience.

Broad Core Algorithm Updates (2018)

2018 was a year in which Google released lots of core algorithm updates covering areas such as social signals and the so-called medic update.

After the August update, in particular, Google’s John Mueller suggested making content more relevant.

While there was some confusion on ranking factors and fixing specific issues, it did bring the concept of E-A-T and content for the user top of mind for many SEO professionals and content marketers.

On the topic of rater guidelines being key to the broad update, Google’s Danny Sullivan suggested:

“Want to do better with a broad change? Have great content. Yeah, the same boring answer. But if you want a better idea of what we consider great content, read our raters guidelines. That’s like almost 200 pages of things to consider.”

BERT (2019)

Following RankBrain, this neural network-based method for natural language processing allowed Google to understand conversational queries better.

BERT allows users to find valuable and accurate information more easily.

According to Google, this represented the most significant leap forward in the past five years and one of the greatest in search history.

The focus: improving the understanding of consumer intent through conversational type search themes.

  • Increase the depth and specifics of the content.
  • Work more with long-tail queries and phrases using more than three words.
  • Ensure that content addresses the users’ questions or queries and is optimized correctly.
  • Focus on writing for humans clearly and concisely so that it is easy to understand.

Read more on BERT and SMITH here.

COVID-19 Pandemic (March 2020)

The global pandemic meant that consumer behavior and search patterns changed forever as Google continued to focus on E-A-T signals.

Google began to emphasize YMYL signals as the internet struggled to cope with misinformation and SEO pros struggled to keep up with the rapid shifts and dips in consumer behavior.

From setting up 24-hour incident response teams with the World Health Organization and policing content to helping people find helpful information and avoiding misinformation, the user’s needs never became so important.

The demand for SEO rose to an all-time high, and Google released a COVID-19 playbook.

Google Page Experience Update And Core Web Vitals Announced (May 2020)

Focusing on a site’s technical health and metrics to measure the user experience of a page metrics include looking at how quickly page content loads, how quickly a browser loading a webpage can respond to a user’s input, and how unstable the content is as it loads in the browser.

The focus: integrating new Core Web Vitals metrics to measure and improve on-page experiences.

  • Mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS, and intrusive interstitials – The Google Page Experience Signal.
  • LCP (Largest Contentful Paint): Improve page load times for large images and video backgrounds.
  • FID (First Input Delay): Ensure your browser responds quickly to a user’s first interaction with a page.
  • CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift): Include the size attributes on your images and video elements or reserve the space with CSS aspect ratio boxes and ensure content is never inserted above existing content, except in response to user interaction.

Broad Core Algorithm Updates (2020)

The third Google core algorithm update of the year rolled out in December 2020. This came in the form of slight changes that affect the order and weight of certain (not always disclosed) ranking signals.

According to SEJ Contributor Ryan Jones:

“Google aims to serve content that provides the best and most complete answers to searchers’ queries. Relevance is the one ranking factor that will always win out over all others.”

Read more on December’s Core Update here.

Passage Ranking (February 2021)

Google officially rolled out its passage-based indexing, designed to help users find answers to specific questions.

You’ve probably seen this in the wild, but essentially this allows Google to highlight pertinent elements of a passage within a piece of content that fits the question.

This means long-form content that may not be skimmable but provides valuable answers could be surfaced as a result.

Ultimately, this makes it easier for Google to connect users to content without making them hunt for the specific answer to their questions when they click on a page.

Passage Ranking (February 2021)Screenshot from blog.google, July 2022

The key to success with passage ranking goes back to focusing on creating great content for the user.

Read more on the 16 Key Points You Should Know here.

Product Reviews Update (April 2021)

This new product review update was designed to improve a user’s experience when searching for product reviews.

Marketers were advised to focus on avoiding creating thin content as this update will reward content that users find most helpful.

The focus: rewarding creators who provide users with authentic and detailed review content

Google shared nine helpful questions to consider when creating and publishing product reviews.

  • Show expert knowledge about products.
  • Differentiate your product compared to competitors.
  • Highlight benefits and any drawbacks clearly and concisely.
  • Show how the product has evolved to fit the needs of the user.

Read more here.

MUM (May 2021)

Following RankBrain and BERT, MUM (Multitask Unified Model) technology utilizes AI and NLP to improve information retrieval.

For the end user, this technological advancement helps provide better information and results as it processes multiple media formats such as video, images, and audio.

Pandu Nayak, Google fellow and vice president of Search, said:

“But with a new technology called Multitask Unified Model, or MUM, we’re getting closer to helping you with these types of complex needs. So in the future, you’ll need fewer searches to get things done.”

Read more here.

Page Experience Update And Core Web Vitals (CWV) Rollout (June 2021)

The much-anticipated Page Experience Update, including Core Web Vitals, rolled out, with further updates to desktop following in March 2022.

Nine months after the rollout of Google’s Core Web Vitals and over a year since BrightEdge launched pre-roll predictive research, new research showed how many industries are adapting and improving their Core Web Vitals.

The focus: improving Pages Experiences for users with speed and precision.

 

The focus: improving Pages Experiences for users with speed and precision.Image source: BrightEdge, July 2022
  • Retail giants have made significant strides in improving experiences.
  • In cases like Retail, CWV metrics like input delay have been cut in half.
  • Although Finance was the best prepared last year, it made the least performance gains in the categories ​evaluated.

Spam Update (June 2021) And Link Spam Algorithm Update (July 2021)

Spam updateImage source: BrightEdge July 2022

Ensuring users get the right results based on their searches is foundational to a good experience.

In addition, updates and algorithm changes help protect users’ privacy to keep searches safe and secure.

The focus: keeping user experiences safe.

Learn more in this video from Google here.

Local Search Update (November 2021))

Google has always provided local search updates for local search users and fine-tuned its algorithm for better user results.

Local search is a huge channel, not to be underestimated, but a whole other post.

This also includes guidance on how businesses can improve their local ranking for improved customer experiences.

Read more here.

Product Algorithm Update (March 2022)

On March 23, 2022, Google provided an instruction update based on how product reviews are performing in one year.

This also informed the community of improved rollout updates that will help users surface accurate and relevant information to help with purchasing decisions.

The focus: user experience and surfacing results that help users make purchasing easier.

Google Algorithms & Updates Focused On User Experience: A TimelineScreenshot from Google Search Central blog, July 2022
  • As always, showcase your expertise and ensure the content is authentic.
  • Share why you recommend products with evidence to support it.

Read more advice here and here.

Conclusion

A successful user experience requires a combination of content and technical expertise. Updates and guidance help marketers create content for the user.

In addition, algorithms and technological advancements help Google surface better results and showcase accurate, relevant, and trustworthy content.

Google will continue to focus on improving experiences for its user.

As a marketer who wants to optimize for both, ensuring your website (from navigation, speed, and reliability) and focusing on content is vital.

Many of Google’s updates signal that technical SEO, data science, and content marketing excellence are coming together.

Stay up to date and read through all of Google’s Updates here on SEJ.

More Resources:


Featured Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock



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WP Rocket WordPress Plugin Now Optimizes LCP Core Web Vitals Metric

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WP Rocket WordPress Plugin Now Optimizes LCP Core Web Vitals Metric

WP Rocket, the WordPress page speed performance plugin, just announced the release of a new version that will help publishers optimize for Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), an important Core Web Vitals metric.

Large Contentful Paint (LCP)

LCP is a page speed metric that’s designed to show how fast it takes for a user to perceive that the page is loaded and read to be interacted with. This metric measures the time it takes for the main content elements has fully loaded. This gives an idea of how usable a webpage is. The faster the LCP the better the user experience will be.

WP Rocket 3.16

WP Rocket is a caching plugin that helps a site perform faster. The way page caching generally works is that the website will store frequently accessed webpages and resources so that when someone visits the page the website doesn’t have to fetch the data from the database, which takes time, but instead will serve the webpage from the cache. This is super important when a website has a lot of site visitors because that can use a lot of server resources to fetch and build the same website over and over for every visitor.

The lastest version of WP Rocket (3.16) now contains Automatic LCP optimization, which means that it will optimize the on-page elements from the main content so that they are served first thereby raising the LCP scores and providing a better user experience.

Because it’s automatic there’s really nothing to fiddle around with or fine tune.

According to WP Rocket:

  • Automatic LCP Optimization: Optimizes the Largest Contentful Paint, a critical metric for website speed, automatically enhancing overall PageSpeed scores.
  • Smart Management of Above-the-Fold Images: Automatically detects and prioritizes critical above-the-fold images, loading them immediately to improve user experience and performance metrics.

All new functionalities operate seamlessly in the background, requiring no direct intervention from the user. Upon installing or upgrading to WP Rocket 3.16, these optimizations are automatically enabled, though customization options remain accessible for those who prefer manual control.”

Read the official announcement:

WP Rocket 3.16: Improving LCP and PageSpeed Score Automatically

Featured Image by Shutterstock/ICONMAN66

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Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint: A Step-By-Step Guide

This post was sponsored by DebugBear. The opinions expressed in this article are the sponsor’s own.

Keeping your website fast is important for user experience and SEO.

The Core Web Vitals initiative by Google provides a set of metrics to help you understand the performance of your website.

The three Core Web Vitals metrics are:

This post focuses on the recently introduced INP metric and what you can do to improve it.

How Is Interaction To Next Paint Measured?

INP measures how quickly your website responds to user interactions – for example, a click on a button. More specifically, INP measures the time in milliseconds between the user input and when the browser has finished processing the interaction and is ready to display any visual updates on the page.

Your website needs to complete this process in under 200 milliseconds to get a “Good” score. Values over half a second are considered “Poor”. A poor score in a Core Web Vitals metric can negatively impact your search engine rankings.

Google collects INP data from real visitors on your website as part of the Chrome User Experience Report (CrUX). This CrUX data is what ultimately impacts rankings.

Image created by DebugBear, May 2024

How To Identify & Fix Slow INP Times

The factors causing poor Interaction to Next Paint can often be complex and hard to figure out. Follow this step-by-step guide to understand slow interactions on your website and find potential optimizations.

1. How To Identify A Page With Slow INP Times

Different pages on your website will have different Core Web Vitals scores. So you need to identify a slow page and then investigate what’s causing it to be slow.

Using Google Search Console

One easy way to check your INP scores is using the Core Web Vitals section in Google Search Console, which reports data based on the Google CrUX data we’ve discussed before.

By default, page URLs are grouped into URL groups that cover many different pages. Be careful here – not all pages might have the problem that Google is reporting. Instead, click on each URL group to see if URL-specific data is available for some pages and then focus on those.

1716368164 358 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of Google Search Console, May 2024

Using A Real-User Monitoring (RUM) Service

Google won’t report Core Web Vitals data for every page on your website, and it only provides the raw measurements without any details to help you understand and fix the issues. To get that you can use a real-user monitoring tool like DebugBear.

Real-user monitoring works by installing an analytics snippet on your website that measures how fast your website is for your visitors. Once that’s set up you’ll have access to an Interaction to Next Paint dashboard like this:

1716368164 404 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear Interaction to Next Paint dashboard, May 2024

You can identify pages you want to optimize in the list, hover over the URL, and click the funnel icon to look at data for that specific page only.

1716368164 975 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideImage created by DebugBear, May 2024

2. Figure Out What Element Interactions Are Slow

Different visitors on the same page will have different experiences. A lot of that depends on how they interact with the page: if they click on a background image there’s no risk of the page suddenly freezing, but if they click on a button that starts some heavy processing then that’s more likely. And users in that second scenario will experience much higher INP.

To help with that, RUM data provides a breakdown of what page elements users interacted with and how big the interaction delays were.

1716368164 348 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP Elements view, May 2024

The screenshot above shows different INP interactions sorted by how frequent these user interactions are. To make optimizations as easy as possible you’ll want to focus on a slow interaction that affects many users.

In DebugBear, you can click on the page element to add it to your filters and continue your investigation.

3. Identify What INP Component Contributes The Most To Slow Interactions

INP delays can be broken down into three different components:

  • Input Delay: Background code that blocks the interaction from being processed.
  • Processing Time: The time spent directly handling the interaction.
  • Presentation Delay: Displaying the visual updates to the screen.

You should focus on which INP component is the biggest contributor to the slow INP time, and ensure you keep that in mind during your investigation.

1716368164 193 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP Components, May 2024

In this scenario, Processing Time is the biggest contributor to the slow INP time for the set of pages you’re looking at, but you need to dig deeper to understand why.

High processing time indicates that there is code intercepting the user interaction and running slow performing code. If instead you saw a high input delay, that suggests that there are background tasks blocking the interaction from being processed, for example due to third-party scripts.

4. Check Which Scripts Are Contributing To Slow INP

Sometimes browsers report specific scripts that are contributing to a slow interaction. Your website likely contains both first-party and third-party scripts, both of which can contribute to slow INP times.

A RUM tool like DebugBear can collect and surface this data. The main thing you want to look at is whether you mostly see your own website code or code from third parties.

1716368164 369 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Primary Script Domain Grouping in DebugBear, May 2024

Tip: When you see a script, or source code function marked as “N/A”, this can indicate that the script comes from a different origin and has additional security restrictions that prevent RUM tools from capturing more detailed information.

This now begins to tell a story: it appears that analytics/third-party scripts are the biggest contributors to the slow INP times.

5. Identify Why Those Scripts Are Running

At this point, you now have a strong suspicion that most of the INP delay, at least on the pages and elements you’re looking at, is due to third-party scripts. But how can you tell whether those are general tracking scripts or if they actually have a role in handling the interaction?

DebugBear offers a breakdown that helps see why the code is running, called the INP Primary Script Invoker breakdown. That’s a bit of a mouthful – multiple different scripts can be involved in slowing down an interaction, and here you just see the biggest contributor. The “Invoker” is just a value that the browser reports about what caused this code to run.

1716368165 263 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Primary Script Invoker Grouping in DebugBear, May 2024

The following invoker names are examples of page-wide event handlers:

  • onclick
  • onmousedown
  • onpointerup

You can see those a lot in the screenshot above, which tells you that the analytics script is tracking clicks anywhere on the page.

In contrast, if you saw invoker names like these that would indicate event handlers for a specific element on the page:

  • .load_more.onclick
  • #logo.onclick

6. Review Specific Page Views

A lot of the data you’ve seen so far is aggregated. It’s now time to look at the individual INP events, to form a definitive conclusion about what’s causing slow INP in this example.

Real user monitoring tools like DebugBear generally offer a way to review specific user experiences. For example, you can see what browser they used, how big their screen is, and what element led to the slowest interaction.

1716368165 545 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of a Page View in DebugBear Real User Monitoring, May 2024

As mentioned before, multiple scripts can contribute to overall slow INP. The INP Scripts section shows you the scripts that were run during the INP interaction:

1716368165 981 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP script breakdown, May 2024

You can review each of these scripts in more detail to understand why they run and what’s causing them to take longer to finish.

7. Use The DevTools Profiler For More Information

Real user monitoring tools have access to a lot of data, but for performance and security reasons they can access nowhere near all the available data. That’s why it’s a good idea to also use Chrome DevTools to measure your page performance.

To debug INP in DevTools you can measure how the browser processes one of the slow interactions you’ve identified before. DevTools then shows you exactly how the browser is spending its time handling the interaction.

1716368165 526 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of a performance profile in Chrome DevTools, May 2024

How You Might Resolve This Issue

In this example, you or your development team could resolve this issue by:

  • Working with the third-party script provider to optimize their script.
  • Removing the script if it is not essential to the website, or finding an alternative provider.
  • Adjusting how your own code interacts with the script

How To Investigate High Input Delay

In the previous example most of the INP time was spent running code in response to the interaction. But often the browser is already busy running other code when a user interaction happens. When investigating the INP components you’ll then see a high input delay value.

This can happen for various reasons, for example:

  • The user interacted with the website while it was still loading.
  • A scheduled task is running on the page, for example an ongoing animation.
  • The page is loading and rendering new content.

To understand what’s happening, you can review the invoker name and the INP scripts section of individual user experiences.

1716368165 86 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Component breakdown within DebugBear, May 2024

In this screenshot, you can see that a timer is running code that coincides with the start of a user interaction.

The script can be opened to reveal the exact code that is run:

1716368165 114 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of INP script details in DebugBear, May 2024

The source code shown in the previous screenshot comes from a third-party user tracking script that is running on the page.

At this stage, you and your development team can continue with the INP workflow presented earlier in this article. For example, debugging with browser DevTools or contacting the third-party provider for support.

How To Investigate High Presentation Delay

Presentation delay tends to be more difficult to debug than input delay or processing time. Often it’s caused by browser behavior rather than a specific script. But as before, you still start by identifying a specific page and a specific interaction.

You can see an example interaction with high presentation delay here:

1716368165 665 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the an interaction with high presentation delay, May 2024

You see that this happens when the user enters text into a form field. In this example, many visitors pasted large amounts of text that the browser had to process.

Here the fix was to delay the processing, show a “Waiting…” message to the user, and then complete the processing later on. You can see how the INP score improves from May 3:

1716368165 845 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of an Interaction to Next Paint timeline in DebugBear, May 2024

Get The Data You Need To Improve Interaction To Next Paint

Setting up real user monitoring helps you understand how users experience your website and what you can do to improve it. Try DebugBear now by signing up for a free 14-day trial.

1716368165 494 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear Core Web Vitals dashboard, May 2024

Google’s CrUX data is aggregated over a 28-day period, which means that it’ll take a while before you notice a regression. With real-user monitoring you can see the impact of website changes right away and get alerted automatically when there’s a big change.

DebugBear monitors lab data, CrUX data, and real user data. That way you have all the data you need to optimize your Core Web Vitals in one place.

This article has been sponsored by DebugBear, and the views presented herein represent the sponsor’s perspective.

Ready to start optimizing your website? Sign up for DebugBear and get the data you need to deliver great user experiences.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Image by Redesign.co. Used with permission.

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International SEO For 2024: 9-Point Checklist For Success

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International SEO For 2024: 9-Point Checklist For Success

Getting your international SEO strategy right can be an elusive feat.

There are a lot more factors at play than people give credit for, and it’s often a thankless job.

A successful international SEO strategy requires a deep knowledge of your company’s commercial strategy as well as technical SEO knowledge, cultural sensitivity, and excellent data skills.

Yet the industry often regards international SEO as just your hreflang setup.

In this article, I will distill the complexities of international SEO success into an actionable step-by-step list that will take you from beginner to advanced practitioner. Let’s begin!

Part I: Be Commercially Aware

1. Understand Why Your Company Is Going International

Companies can grow by expanding their products and services, focusing on gaining market penetration or expanding into new markets.

While your team’s goal might be traffic, leads, or revenue, the leadership team is likely working under a different set of parameters. Most of the time, leadership’s ultimate goal is to maximize shareholder value.

  • In founder-owned companies, growth goals might be slower and more sustainable, usually aimed at maintaining and growing profitability.
  • VC-owned companies have high growth goals because they must provide their investors with a return that’s higher than the stock market. This is what is known as the alpha, or your company’s ability to beat the market in growth.
  • Publicly traded companies are likely aiming to grow their share value.
  • Startups, depending on their maturity stage, are likely looking to prove product-market fit or expand their reach fast to show that their operations are scalable and have the potential to be profitable in the future. The goal of this is to aid in raising further capital from investors.

Understanding why businesses go international is essential for informing your SEO decisions. What’s best practice for SEO isn’t always what’s best for business.

You must adapt your strategy to your company’s growth model.

  • Companies choosing to grow sustainably and maintain profitability will likely expand more slowly to a market that resembles their core market.
  • VC-owned companies will be able to invest in a wider range of countries, with a smaller concern for providing their users with an experience on par with that of their core markets.
  • Startups can try to beat their competitors to market by expanding quickly and throwing a lot of money at the project, or they might be concerned with cash flow and try to expand fast but cut corners by using automatic translation.

2. Stack Rank Your Target Markets To Prioritize Your Investment

I promise I’ll get to hreflang implementation soon, but so much about international SEO has to do with commercial awareness – so bear with me; this will make you a better professional.

Many companies have different market tiers to reflect how much of a priority each market is. Market prioritization can happen using many different metrics, such as:

  • Average order value or lifetime customer value.
  • Amount of investment required.
  • Market size.
  • And market similarity.

American companies often prioritize developed English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, or Australia. These are most similar to their core market, and most of their market knowledge will be transferable.

After that, companies are likely to target large European economies, such as Germany and France. They might also target the LatAm market and Spain in the same effort.

The last prioritization tier can vary widely among companies, with a focus on the Nordic, Brazilian, or Asian markets.

Part II: Know Your Tech

3. Define Your International URL Structure

When doing international SEO, there are 4 different possible URL structures, each with its pros and cons.

ccTLD Structure

A ccTLD structure is set up to target different countries based on the domain type.

This structure is not ideal for companies that target different languages rather than different countries. For example, a .es website is targeting Spain, not the Spanish language.

An advantage to this kind of structure is that the ccTLD sends a very strong localization signal to search engines as to what market they are targeting, and they can lead to improved trust and CTR in your core country.

On the other hand, ccTLDs can dilute your site’s authority, as links will be spread across domains rather than concentrated on the .com.

gTLD With Subdirectories

This is my personal favorite when it comes to international SEO.

These URL structures can look like website.com/en if they’re targeting languages or website.com/en-gb if they’re targeting countries.

This configuration aggregates the authority you gain across your different territories into a single domain, it’s cheaper to maintain, and the .com TLD is widely recognizable by users worldwide.

On the other hand, this setup can look less personalized to people outside the US, who might wonder if you can service their markets.

gTLD With Subdomains

This setup involves placing international content on a subdomain like us.website.com. While once popular, it’s slipping in favor because it doesn’t bring anything unique to the table anymore.

This setup offers a clear signal to users and search engines about the intended audience of a specific subdomain.

However, subdomains often face issues with SEO, as Google tends to view them as separate entities. This separation can dilute link, similar to the ccTLD approach but without the geo-targeting advantages.

gTLD With Parameters

This is the setup where you add parameters at the end of the URL to indicate the language of the page, such as website.com/?lang=en.

I strongly advise against this setup, as it can present multiple technical SEO challenges and trust issues.

4. Understand Your Hreflang Setup

In the words of John Mueller: hreflang can be one of the most complex aspects of SEO.

Screenshot from Twitter, May 2024

Hreflang reminds me of a multilingual form of a canonical tag, where we tell search engines that one document is a version of the other and explain the relationship between them.

I find hreflang implementation very interesting from a technical point of view. Because development teams mostly manage it, and it can be very much hit or miss.

Often, hreflang is constructed from existing fields in your content management system (CMS) or content database.

You might find that your development team is pulling the HTML lang tag, which follows a different ISO standard than hreflang, leading to a broken implementation.

Other times, there is a field in your CMS that your development team pulls from to build your hreflang setup.

Finding out how your hreflang tags are generated can be extremely helpful in identifying the sources of different issues or mitigating potential risks.

So speak to your engineering team and ask them how you’re currently generating hreflang.

5. Implement Hreflang Without Errors

There are three ways to implement hreflang on your site:

  • On your sitemap.
  • Through your HTTP header.
  • On your HTML head.

The method most of us are most familiar with is the HTML head. And while you can use more than one method, they should match each other perfectly. Otherwise, you risk confusing search engines.

Here are some basic rules for getting it done correctly:

  • In your hreflang implementation, the URL must include domain and protocol.
  • You must follow the ISO 639-1 language codes – don’t go around making up your own.
  • Hreflang tags must be reciprocal. If the page you’re listing as a language alternative does not list you back, your implementation won’t work.
  • Audit your hreflang regularly. My favorite tool for this, since it added the hreflang cluster analysis and link graphs, is Ahrefs. For the record, Ahrefs is not paying me to say this; it’s a genuine recommendation and has helped me a lot in my work.
  • You should only have one page per language.
  • Your hreflang URLs should be self-canonicalizing and respond with a 200 code.

Follow the above rules, and you’ll avoid the most common hreflang mistakes that SEO pros make.

And if you’re interested in the technical SEO aspect beyond hreflang, I recommend reading Mind your language by Rob Owen.

Part III: Invest In Content Incrementally

6. Translate Your Top-performing Content Topics

Now that you have the basic commercial and technical knowledge covered, you’re ready to start creating a content strategy.

You likely have a wealth of content in your core market that can be recycled. But you want to focus on translating high-converting topics, not just any topic; otherwise, you might be wasting your budget!

Let’s go step by step.

Cluster Your Website’s Content By Topic

  • Crawl your site using your favorite SEO tool and extract the URL and H1.
  • Use ChatGPT to classify that list of URLs into topics. You might already know what you usually write about, so include those topics in your prompt. You don’t want to have a classification that’s too granular, so you can prompt chatGPT to only create groups with a minimum of 10 URLs (adjust this to reflect the size of your website) and class everything else as other. This is an example of what your prompt might look like: “I will provide you with a list of article titles and their corresponding URL. Classify this list into the following topics: survey best practices, research and analysis, employee surveys, market research and others. Return this in a table format with the URL, title and group name.”
  • Start a spreadsheet with all your URLs in the first column, titles in the second column, and the group they belong to in the third column.

Measure Your Performance By Topic

  • Export your GSC data and use a =VLOOKUP formula to match your clicks to your URLs.
  • Export your conversion data and use a =VLOOKUP formula to match your conversions (leads, sales, sign-ups, or revenue) to the right URL.
  • You can then copy your topics column onto a new sheet. Remove duplicates and use the =SUMIF formula to aggregate your click data and conversion data by topic.

Choose What Topics You’ll Be Translating First

Using this data, you can now choose what topics are most likely to drive conversions based on your core market data. Choose how many topics or pieces of content you’ll be translating based on your budget.

Personally, I like translating one topic at a time because I’ve found that generating topical authority on one specific topic makes it easier for me to rank on an adjacent topic that I write about next.

7. Localize Your English Content

Once you’re set up with all your key pages and a few content topics, it’s time to evaluate your investment and see where you could be getting a bigger return.

At this stage, many companies have translated their content into a few different languages and likely copied the US content into their UK and Australian sites. Now that you’ve done some translation, it’s time to work on localization.

If you’ve just copied your US content into your UK and Australian sites, your Google Search Console indexing report might be screaming at you, “Duplicate, Google selected a different canonical than the user.”

A very easy fix that could yield great returns is to localize your English content to the nuances of those English-speaking markets.

You will want to instruct your translation and localization providers to adapt the spellings of certain words, change the choice of words, introduce local expressions, and update any cited statistic for the US with their local equivalent.

For example, if I’m targeting a British audience, “analyze” becomes “analyse,” a “stroller” becomes a “pram,” and “soccer” becomes “football.”

8. Invest In In-market Content

Once you’ve got the basics in place, you can start tackling the specific needs of other markets. This strategy is expensive, and you should only use it in your priority markets, but it can really set you apart from your competitors.

For this, you will need to work with a local linguist to identify pain points, use cases, or needs exclusive to your target market.

For example, if France suddenly made it mandatory to run a diversity and inclusion study for companies with over 250 employees, I’d want to know this and create some content on DEI surveys at SurveyMonkey.

9. Integrate With Other Content Workflows

In step six, we evaluated our top-performing content, chose the best articles to translate, and got it all down. But wait. Some of these source articles have been updated. And there is even more content now!

To run a successful international SEO campaign you must integrate with all the other teams publishing content within your organization.

Usually, the teams creating content in an organization are SEO, content, PR, product marketing, demand generation, customer marketing, customer service, customer education, or solutions engineering.

That’s a lot, and you won’t be able to integrate with everyone all at once. Prioritize the teams that create the most revenue-generating content, such as SEO, content, or product marketing.

Working with these teams, you will have to establish a process for what happens when they create a new piece, update some content, or remove an existing piece.

These processes can differ for everyone, but I can tell you what I do with my team and hope it inspires you.

  • When a piece of content that’s already been localized into international markets is updated, we get the content in a queue to be re-localized the next quarter.
  • When they create a new piece of content, we evaluate its performance, and if it’s performing above average, we add it to a localization queue for the next quarter.
  • When they change the URL of a piece of content or delete it, all international sites must follow suit at the same time, since due to some technical limitations, not making the change globally would create some hreflang issues.

Wrapping Up

International SEO is vast and complex, and no article can cover it all, but many interesting resources have been created by SEO pros across the community for those who want to learn more.

Navigating the complexities of international SEO is no small feat. It’s an intricate dance of aligning commercial strategies with technical precision, cultural insights, and data-driven decisions.

From understanding your company’s core motives for global expansion to meticulously implementing hreflang tags and localizing content, every step plays a crucial role in building a successful international presence.

More resources: 


Featured Image: BritCats Studio/Shutterstock



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