Operating a multinational company have never been easy. But it comes with great benefits if you know how to manage it. And despite the fact that many things have become easier with eCommerce we are still faced with most of the same challenges – on top of a bunch of new ones. 

In this article we explore the most important issues you have to deal with creating a multinational and multilingual eCommerce business with Shopify.

There are no Europeans!

A few years ago I was featured as speaker at a large US marketing-conference in a session about international SEO. The American attendies wanted to know how to market their business in Europe – to Europeans, the best possible way.

I had to disappoint them with my opening statement: There are no Europeans!

We do have a political union with the EU but besides a few fanatics we essentially do not feel or act as ” a nation of Europeans”. We are Germans, French and Danes.

We speak different languages, eat different foods, many local laws are different, we use different payment systems, we have different religions and we laugh at different jokes.

We are very different and to some extent hate each other. In fact, for the better part of the past 1000 years we have been trying to kill each other.

The EU have probably helped make Europe a more peaceful region and we sure have better and more unified trading laws now but from a marketing and sales perspective there are no Europeans. If you try to sell to us as Europeans you are doomed to fail.

And the same thing is true for most other larger regions. It is not just Americans that get this wrong. Europeans do to. We think we can sell in one unified way to all Americans, Asians or Africans. That is not the case!

But then how do you approach a region such as Europe? Lets break it down and look at some of the practical challenges …

Technical challnges

There are many local technical differences – from the kind of payment methods most local consumers use, preferred shipping, which external services you should connect to and even things like required fields in forms.

For example – in Ireland they do not use normal zip-codes, so if that’s required in forms and checkout in your shop they can’t fill it out. Also, in some countries (such as Sweden where my family used to have a house) some adresses do not use a street name and number. Same is true for other countries. If order forms do not adapt to these variations you will loose sales.

Having the payment options available that local consumers prefer is crucial. First of all you need to have the options available that your local prospects expect. And a good tip is to list the most used first.

For example, in Denmark – where we live, most consumers use a local debit card called “DanKort”. However, as this is most often coupled with Visa, you can often get away with that. However, more and more Danish consumers also like to pay with our local mobile pay solution called: “MobilePay”. If you do not include that you could miss a lot of sales.

You should also consider which social media you connect with – they are not all equally dominating and in some countries there are very strong local social media that no one outside this country have ever heard of.

The same is true for shipping. What consumers in one country expect may be very different from another.

The better you adapt the easier it is for your local prospects to convert – and it also demonstrate that you know and understand their region. Local respect. This is relatively easy to find out about. Not always as easy to implement.

Legal challenges

The law is by no means the same in all countries – even within a trading union such as the EU. As a Danish customer I often laugh at the global (often US-based) TOS many sites are using. Much of it makes absolutely no sense to us and can’t even be enforced here if it came to that. It shows very little local understanding and respect for us. It hurt conversions!

It is easy to find out about this – any local consumer lawyer can tell you the rules and regulations and they are most often easy to implement.

Cultural challenges

This is without a doubt the hardest part! But maybe also, if done right, what can have the biggest impact on both SEO and sales.

First of all you need to understand local language. Not just technically (which keywords do prospects locally use) – but culturally. If you just translate your English keyword research and body copy it won’t work.

How should you speak to engage and sell? For example in the US you have to speak very “loud”. In Denmark you fail if you do that (we hate that loud sales talk)!

What they find funny or acceptable in one country may be very offending in another. In Denmark and UK we love ironi. With all respect, the average US consumer just don’t get that.

You can’t look up all relevant local cultural aspects in a global database. The only way to get this right is to engage with local copy writers, marketing and communication experts. Don’t be arrogant about this and think you know it all. You don’t! None of us do.

Many webshops have made that mistake and lost many sales.

Shopify Multi Store or Clone Shops?

There are basically two ways to setup and run a Shopify multinational webshop:

  • Multi site
  • Clone shop

With a multi site solution you just have one instance of Shopify – one account and within that assign sections of the site to different regions and languages.

With a clone shop you have one install – one account for each shop.

There are pros and cons of both solutions. So lets take a closer look at them.

Shopify Multi Store solution

The multi store option is at first glance the most easy and cheap solution. You only pay for one Shopify solution and everything – orders, stock etc. is managed in one interface.

However, a multi store solution also comes with a lot of serious limitations, such as:

  • It can be more difficult to manage local pricing
  • You cannot adapt to special local payment options
  • The shop will have the same design/theme in all regions
  • Checkout will – for all – be in the same language (not localized)
  • Product and page URL’s will not be localized
  • Currencies (and possible exchange costs) are more tricky to deal with
  • Some tracking issues, product feeds for advertising etc. becomes a lot more tricky

Shopify have an option for multi store shops called “Markets” that is supposed to address some of the above issues. However, so far it is far from perfect.

Shopify Clone Shop solution

Setting up individual shops to target each country appear to be – all in all the best strategy on Shopify. At least that is what most large shops do.

This will give you the best options to adapt locally. However, this also introduce some challenges. The first one is off course the price. More individual shops cost more.

Many of the largest shops use Shopify Plus where you can host up to 10 shops for the same price. But for a small business just starting out that is most often too expensive.

But even though Shopify Clone Shops solves many of the problems you are facing with Multi Store shops there are a few ones you gain.

One of them is Hreflang data.

Hreflang is a very important SEO-element for optimization of multi-language and -region sites. It makes it much more likely that Google show the right links to local users. And it can help transfer authority from products and collections in one language to the same products and collections in other languages. That is a huge help when launching new markets!

Hreflang data is structured data and as such have to be 100% correct to work. Even minor errors can have a dramatic negative impact.  And the sad fact is that over 80% of all Hreflang-data on the web have serious errors.

I was just dealing with a huge global B2B client that had most of their international sites completely disappear in Google. I found the errors in the Hreflang data we fixed and they are now back – more visible than ever.

But with Shopify Clone Shops how do you deal with Hreflang?

If you do not localize URL it is easy to crawl all your local sites, with a service such as Hreflang Builder, and have them create XML-files with the Hreflang-data. However, if you do localize URLs – as we highly recommend you do, then that becomes much more difficult.

With localized URLs there are really just two ways to solve this:

  • Manualle map all your pages
  • Map your products via the Shopify API or an App

The first solution is OK if you have very few products but if you have many (hundreds or thousands) and often add new that is not a viable solution.

The good news is that with our Hreflang Manager App (coming soon) you get an automated way to map all products across two or more Clone Shops and create the correct Hreflang-file for you. We also include an easy interface to manually map the pages that can not be automatically mapped (collections, pages and blog posts).

The best internal site structure for SEO

There are basically three ways you can structure your international site:

  • Using one global domain (often a .com domain) and then have each country in separate sub-folders (/dk/, /fr/, /se/ etc.)
  • Using separate country domains (domain.dk, domain.se, domain.fr etc.)
  • Using separate subdomains (dk.domain.com, se.domain.com, fr.domain.com etc.)

From an SEO point of view all the above structures can work well. And they can all be implemented with both Shopify Multi Store and Clone Shops.

What you should, however keep in mind is that if you use separate domains (top level og sub-domains) you need to build enough authority (links) to each of them to be able to rank well in Google. With the first – one domain, strategy, the authority for the domain flows to all regional versions.

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