When entering a new market, you might not yet have the resources to hire a team that speaks the language, and are probably going to be stuck working with keywords you don’t understand. Whether you do this yourself or hire an agency for it, doing keyword research in a foreign language is weird and frustrating but very rewarding.

There are many different aspects to international SEO and tons of benefits to it, but most SEOs agree that it’s a bit of a pain. And it’s very likely that you, an SEO in a global business, are going to work with keywords in languages you don’t speak.

In my career in SEO I’ve had to do keyword research across lots of different European markets including Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and even Finland.

International keyword research was a very big part of my day to day, so I had to develop a methodology of my own to make it easier and ensure that I was aiming for the best keywords for the business.

International keyword research in three steps

In this article I’m going to share my methodology on how to do keyword research for languages I don’t speak, covering the different situations a global business might find themselves in, how to make the most of your available resources and validating your findings with full confidence.

1. Find your keyword sources

When you’re trying to do international keyword research you are in one of these situations:

  • You already have a keyword list. Either a client or some other team has provided you with a keyword list, or you’re already operating within the market and can use your own ranking keywords. In this situation, you need to expand your keyword list.
  • You’re starting from scratch. If you’re new to the market, you need to perform a keyword gap analysis and calculate the relevancy score of those keywords.

Depending on what your situation is, you will have to get your keywords from different sources. Since we don’t understand the keywords we’re reading, it’s important to stick to a process that we trust and will allow us to get an accurate keyword list.

2. Research your keywords from scratch (with template)

The easiest way to do keyword research for your international site is to identify your competitors and perform a keyword gap analysis.

You can identify your competitors using tools such as SISTRIX, SEMrush and Ahrefs. You might also have people within your business that have researched the market you’re targeting and can offer you some interesting insights.

Depending on the tool you choose to use, you might need to download your chosen competitor’s top keywords or you might perform a gap analysis directly on the tool and then download it. Personally, I really like using Ahrefs for this.

Once you’ve downloaded the keywords, place them in rows, with your competitors' rankings in columns. Filter your dataset to remove branded keywords and keywords only one competitor is ranking for.

In the last column I am going to calculate a Keyword Relevance Score. We’re aiming to measure how meaningful the keywords we have chosen are in our market by using our competitors' rankings.

Here’s the logic behind it (don’t worry, I’ll give you a formula you can copy and paste):

  • When one of our competitors is not ranking for a specific keyword, we’ll assign it a rank of 101.
  • We’re going to add all the ranks for each keyword. A perfectly relevant keyword on a dataset of 4 competitors would have a score of 10 (the result from adding up 1+2+3+4). The least relevant keyword would have a score of 404 (the result from adding up 101+101+101+101).
  • To turn this into a score, we’re going to find how far away from a score of 404 those keywords are and turn it into a percentage. We’ll subtract the total score from 404, divide it by 404 and multiply by 100.

If you just want to get it done: =(404-SUM(A2:D2))/404

If you’re hot for numbers:

We’ve created a Keyword Relevance Score calculation template you can copy and use for your own keyword gap analysis.

Now we’re going to use the Keyword Relevance Score to make sure we only look at relevant keywords. Where you set the bar is up to you, but I don’t recommend using keywords under 30%. For new markets, I will set the minimum at 50%.

If your keyword list is still too long to manage, you can reduce your list in a few different ways:

  • Only use the top 100 keywords by search volume.
  • Raise the Keyword Relevancy Score bar to only accept keywords over 60%.
  • Only use keywords that three or more competitors rank for.

3. Expand your keyword list

You don’t speak the language, but your target audience does. And there are many tools you can use to learn what they’re searching for. Use your preferred keyword research tools here. My favourite for this is SEMrush. For this example, I’m going to use SEMrush and the keyword data from a travel company that operates in Germany.

  • Put your keyword list on the Keyword Magic Tool and explore your keyword variations on broad or phrase match.
  • Copy the column on the left hand side for most repeated terms on Google Sheets and use the Google Translate formula to translate them to English.
  • Classify the terms by whether they are relevant or not. For terms you need to know more about you can manually look up the translation or ask someone in your team.
  • Add the irrelevant terms on the “Exclude” tab. Use your best judgement to limit the lower end of keyword volume.
  • You’ve got your keyword list! Send it to a native speaker within your business for sign off.

Once you’ve got your keyword list ready, treat it as you would any other. You can use keyword clustering tools or categorisation tools to classify them and then pop them on your favourite tracker!

I hope this article has helped you become more confident in your international keyword research skills and made the whole process a lot less painful. If you have any questions feel free to slide into my DMs or contact me on Twitter.