International SEO eCommerce: common pitfalls explained

Lewis Koch | 14th March 2023 | Organic

Put simply, international SEO refers to a particular set of SEO best practices that, when followed, will optimise your website to target a selected country or language. This provides a significant advantage over competitors who lack international SEO.

Search engines want to tailor their results to the user as much as they can including language and location. It’s about presenting results that are as relevant as possible.

So if you’re an eCommerce business that is planning on operating in another market[s], with international SEO you’ll be able to make search engines aware that your products are catered to a certain user in a certain country and/or language.  

In this blog, I’ll be taking you through key Google best practices on how you can optimize Google Search results for your site alongside common SEO pitfalls that could cost you when seeking to expand your website overseas. 

What are the three most common international SEO pitfalls?

1. Choosing the wrong or too many URL structures 

Choosing a URL format that Google understands is vital in ensuring that search engines know where it should be serving your content and in what language.  

Below is a good run-down of the options alongside the SEO implications which Google doesn’t mention in their documentation

Clear geotargeting
Server location irrelevant
Easy separation of sites

Acquire ccTLD
Target a single country
SEO considerations
It’s clear to both the user and Google what country is being targeted. 

However, if you’re building a ccTLD from scratch, it can be costly and may take time to rank. 

You’ll need to build authority through digital PR and link building activities.  
Subfolder gTLDs
Easy to set upLow maintenance (same host)

Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone*
Single server location**
Separation of sites harder

SEO considerations
*It’s less obvious to a user and Google which location you’re targeting – but this can be strengthened through good SEO. 

**This can be negated through the use of a CDN 

Any new subfolder will share the domain authority of the existing domain. This can help with quicker results after launch. 
Subdomain gTLDs
Easy to set up
Allows different server locations
Easy separation of sites

Cons Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL
SEO considerations
Similar to Subfolders gTLDs, these are easy to set up. 

However, similar to ccTLD’s, they will not share domain authority meaning it can take time to rank for the same target queries in another country. 
Not recommended.If you’re currently using this format to target other countries, we advise you to seek help from an international SEO agency

Most recently, we were asked to investigate why the below UK eCommerce website had seen its rankings, traffic and revenue plummet in the US market. 

As you can see from the below Sistrix graph, initially it was performing relatively well using the subdomain gTLD format (.com/us/)- ranking 7th for its main target keyword. 

However, after a change in CMS and a few botched migrations, we can see that there were actually up to 4 versions of the same US website; (subdomain), (subfolder gTLD) & (ccTLD). 

This resulted in the ranks of the .us (ccTLD) domain plummeting and generating a fraction of the traffic and revenue practically overnight.   

2. Ensure Hreflang annotations are set-up correctly  

In theory, when setting up versions of a website to target a different country, all we’re doing is making a duplicate of your current website and then tailoring it to the specific country. 

We know the issues around duplicate content for SEO so it’s important that we tell search engines the relationship of the pages through hreflang annotation. This can be complex as Google’s John Mueller summarises here:  

Each language and region has its own ISO code that Google recognises. APAC and EU are not valid hreflang regions!  You can use this guide for country and language codes. 

Tip: You can check whether your website has hreflang annotation setup correctly with the Hreflang Tags Testing Tool or Hreflang Tag Checker (Chrome Extension). 

3. Ensure correct use of language 

Language should not only be tailored to the user with the translation of content but should also be used within the URLs wherever possible. 

For example, all results on the first page for the search term ‘herrenrasierer’ (translates to ‘mens razors’) include the german translation within the URL whilst the first result to use the English version is sitting 12th. See below. 


Again, consistency is key. The more you can strengthen the signals of one particular language across your website, the better Google will understand the page and therefore the higher it will rank. 

Tip: Only use one language per page. If you have multiple languages for one location, add a language selector. See Adidas example below: 

Hopefully, this blog will allow your business to broaden its horizons whilst avoiding common pitfalls with international SEO. We recommend consulting an SEO agency when targeting other countries, as we know how to increase the exposure of your product or service in worldwide markets in the most cost-efficient way.

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