Talking International SEO with Gabriella Sannino

If you’re at all familiar with international SEO, then you’re most likely familiar with Gabriella Sannino.

Gabriella is the owner of Level 343, an international marketing and SEO agency based in San Francisco. She has worked in marketing and multi media for over 20 years, starting out as a Web developer in 1994 when she founded Level 343.

In the ensuing years Gabriella donned many hats, including research and development specialist, brand strategist, and creative director before deciding to specialize in international marketing and SEO in 2005.

We were fortunate to grab some time with Gabriella to ask her about her experience with international SEO, and to share her insights into this somewhat rarified field.

What spurred your decision to specialize in international SEO?

As an Italian citizen, I grew up in the Middle East (Lebanon, to be exact). Therefore, I’ve always approached life, family and business a bit differently.

I feel my life’s experience is one of the reasons I’ve launched myself into international business.

Aside from the natural progression of speaking a variety of languages (five altogether), I have a firm grip on how far apart most businesses truly are in communicating from one culture to another: I see the gap in B2B (business-to-business) when communicating globally.

What have you found to be some of the biggest challenges when doing international SEO, as a whole?

One of the most important challenges is how to structure a domain name and your URL. There are 3 basic options: Top-Level Domains (TLDs), subdomains, and subdirectories.

Top-Level Domains (TLDs) mean using .fr for France, .it for Italy, .de for Germany, etc.

The second option is subdomains (e.g., Personally, I think this is the least beneficial method of using your URL name for global SEO — a few years ago, Google started treating subdomains as part of the root domain, rather than as separate domains.

On the other hand, if the site will be in different languages and hosted in a variety of locations, using subdomains may be a smart strategy.

For those countries that you’re not actively marketing in, I would suggest using subdirectories (e.g., for Italy).

The second challenge is keyword research. It depends on if the site is in English and needs to be localized or the other way around.

As a first step, you need the basic comprehension of the content in order to identify the topics that will align cohesively and semantically to the services or products offered. It’s no longer just a matter of translating the keywords from English to Italian, for example, since sometimes there is no literal translation. That’s why it’s important to either live in, be a part of, or otherwise intimately familiar with the target country — or consult with an SEO copywriter who is.

You’ve previously discussed understanding a region’s culture as a prerequisite for doing an effective international SEO audit. How would that apply to doing keyword research?

Mostly by asking the right questions not only about the keywords you will be using, but understanding the culture in which you will be using those keywords. For example:

  • Does the content satisfy my visitor’s needs?
  • Is the content answering specific questions?
  • Are you going to look at a specific age market? For example an 11 year old from the US is going to react differently than let’s say Koreans or Chinese kids

Then when you’re dealing with Standard English or BBC English in the UK, a variety of word/meaning differences arise, as well as the correct grammatical use of past tense versus present tense. It becomes a little overwhelming when you’re not familiar with UK grammar versus US or Canadian grammar.

For example:

US English – curb, UK English – kerb

US English – tire, UK English – tyre

US English – truck, UK English – lorry

What’s one thing about international SEO keyword research that you’ve found most problematic?

The most confusion I’ve seen is when people don’t use the hreflang annotations for the various versions of their global pages. It’s a simple way to indicate the country and language targeting for each of the pages.

(Editor’s note: Google discusses using hreflang for language and regional URLs here, and using hreflang annotations for multinational and multilingual website pages here).

The other thing is to make sure that when doing keyword research for different countries, you employ someone who is familiar with the local dialect, including the local spelling. Meaning, rather than using a machine translator, consult a human being who understands these subtle, yet crucial, nuances.

It’s also important to keep in mind that in some countries, Google isn’t even in the mix while in others, only Google keywords are available. Then there are languages where the keyword research is too small to give sufficient search volumes for specific keywords.

Do you have any resources you’d recommend for those interested in doing international SEO?

Yes! A few authorities I would recommend following is Aleyda SolisSante Achille for the European markets, and Doc Sheldon for the Latin American markets.

In regards to tools, I would suggest SEMrush, Wordtracker,, and Ubersuggest.

If there is one thing you know now that you wished you’d known when you started, what would that be?

I’ve been at this quite a while, so remembering the earliest stumbling blocks is challenging. I suppose I’d say that I wish I had realized how globalized business was destined to become, so that I could have been even earlier to the international SEO market.

Anything else you’d advise an aspiring international SEO copywriter?

Don’t assume that being fluent in a language is sufficient to enable you to compose compelling content… you need to be fluent in the culture, too. Religion, politics, social class distinctions, lifestyle, colloquialisms and more all contribute to your content’s ability to engage readers. These differences matter and they matter a lot for writing content that’s compelling in any language.

You can connect with Gabriella on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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