How Search Engines Manage International Cannibalization

In the digital universe, this maxim translates into the fact that both online businesses and search engine users can and should expect search engines to deliver the most relevant content in terms of geographical location. “Local content for local people” should be the rule. Unfortunately, it is not always the case.

It so happens that a most unwelcoming and damaging wrench thrown into the search engine works means that non-local content is sometimes served to your local search engine users. This is called external cannibalization. How well are you being protected from cannibalization by your target search engines? This is a question all multi-regional and multilingual site owners should consider when devising their global strategy.

What is external cannibalization and how you should avoid it at all cost?

So what is external cannibalization? Imagine you own a range of multi-regional and multilingual sites, including site A: www.yoursite.co.uk and site B: www.yoursite.com. You would expect site A to show up in U.K. search engines and site B in U.S. search engines, but the sites keep appearing in the wrong intended search engine for the targeted keywords.
This potentially embarrassing and damaging phenomenon affecting multi-regional and multilingual sites is called external cannibalization. This issue could be affecting all your sites and often remains hidden and therefore unsolved.

In this example, the U.S. homepage appears above the local U.K. homepage in a Google U.K. search for a branded search of a global beverage company. Note the term “Global” and the “.com” domain, which clearly indicate this is not a U.K. page and will therefore have a negative impact on click-through rates and brand image.

The effects of external cannibalization are not to be underestimated. External cannibalization often impacts multi-regional and multilingual sites not only in terms of traffic, but also in terms of visitor engagement and ultimately revenue. The rule of thumb is that non-local traffic is less engaged and converts less than local traffic.

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Strategies available to avoid external cannibalization

The main areas to address within your anti-cannibalization strategy are geo-targeting and duplicate content management, both to be considered when optimizing your multi-regional sites for the main search engines.

Duplicate content management

Duplicate content management is about ensuring that only a single version of a page is made available to search engines in order to avoid duplicate content penalties. In this context, it also has the added dimension of ensuring that however similar the content of two pages is in two different regional domains they are both served in the correct search results.

This can be achieved by the use of 301 redirects and canonical links, two methods readily recommended by Google, Bing/Yahoo, Yandex, Baidu and Naver.

A third crucial geo-targeting method is also recommended by both Google and Yandex: rel-alternate-hreflang. In Google’s own words “This annotation enables Google and other search engines to serve the correct language or regional version of pages to searchers, which can lead to increased user satisfaction.”

Google and Yandex are the only two search engines supporting and actively promoting the use of the rel-alternate-hreflang annotation. The other large search engines considered in this study, Bing/Yahoo, Baidu and Naver only recommend a combination of 301 redirects, canonical links and other geo-targeting techniques to improve country targeting and reduce cannibalization levels.

The rel-alternate-hreflang annotation can be added to your sites in three ways: via a HTML link element in the HTML <Head> section of your pages; via HTTP header for non-HTML pages; and via a sitemap. Both Google and Yandex advocate the use of these three methods altogether.

Google has recently improved reporting to detect hreflang implementation issues in Google Webmaster Tools. The International Targeting section acts as a debug tool by pointing out common errors, such as “missing return links” or “incorrect hreflang values.”

Geo-targeting or how to target your site content to a specific country

The second way you can help search engines to serve the correct regional URL in the search results is to target your site content to a specific country. This all-too-obvious advice is surprisingly not followed by many multi-regional site owners, often caught up in a “global is good enough” mentality. To help reach their targeted audience, search engines actively encourage the use of a number of geo-targeting techniques.

These techniques range from basic structural elements such as the choice of the CC TLD and server location to the choice of the correct language declaration in the HTML and the correct geo-targeting settings in webmaster tools offered by Google, Yahoo, Bing and Yandex. The icing on the cake is the creation of good, unique content fully localized and optimized for the local market. The biggest challenge faced by marketers takes a new dimension when considered in the context of multi-regional sites. Quality also becomes synonym with relevancy to the local language and search trends, adding yet another level of complexity.Keywords

While Google claims to use the page content to detect a page’s language and not the language declaration per se, it also advocates all the available geo-targeting options mentioned above, including country-code top-level domain names (CC TLDs) rather than subdomains and subdirectories, submission in Google Webmaster Tools to the correct target country, local server location, as well as the submission to the local Google directory.

Bing and Yahoo are much more granular in terms of geo-targeting in the sense that they allow you to define a country audience for an entire website or for sections of the website at the domain, sub-domain, and folder and even down to the page level.

Using Chinese web hosting and domain (such as .com.eu) will make your website more visible on Baidu, and even improve your website’s loading speed for Chinese users. Secondary geo-targeting strategies recommended by the Chinese giant also include links from local domains and a local IP address.

Actionable Insights

It must be apparent at this point that anti-cannibalization strategies come in a variety of flavors. There is no single recipe to achieve accurate international targeting and each search engines capacity and willingness to avoid cannibalization vary greatly. As a result, wise marketers should carefully consider the tools and methods recommended by every search engine and apply them to the mix to achieve the best possible international targeting. This includes Google, Bing/Yahoo and Yandex, as well as the rising search engine stars. Keep an eye on the international targeting tools offered within Webmaster Tools to make sure you target the right Internet users.