If you do business in a number of different countries or with customers who speak different languages, achieving international and multilingual SEO is more than complicated than just trying to rank high in searches in English for your industry in say Melbourne or even Australia-wide.
If your goal is international e-commerce then you will most likely need to employ multiregional SEO strategies and/or multilingual SEO (in many cases both).
What is multilingual and multiregional SEO?
Multilingual SEO is offering website content in a variety of languages that is optimised to rank high in the search engines. Multiregional SEO is the practice of tailoring website content multiple, specific geographic regions or countries to ensure high search rankings.
Often these strategies overlap and this is where it can get tricky. Therefore, your first step is to figure out what regions you are targeting and what languages you require. Doing this in advance helps you choose a domain name and URL structure that offers the best combination of SEO benefits, cost effectiveness, infrastructure levels and ease of use for your objectives.
If you’re reading this article most likely your website content SEO needs will be one of the following scenarios:
- One language serving multiple countries (e.g. English for UK, Australia and New Zealand)
- Multiple languages serving the same country (e.g. English and French for Canada)
- Multiple languages serving no specific country
- Multiple languages serving multiple countries
Domain and URL structure
The reason it is so important to figure out what language(s) and what country(ies) you are targeting is that as Google’s Official Webmaster Central blog says, “It’s difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis.” This means the best way to segment parts of your website for geotargeting is to use a URL structure or domain name that indicates language and region appropriately to the search engines.
There are essentially five different ways you can structure your site for international SEO:
- Country-coded top-level domains e.g. website.de, website.us etc
- Subdomains on a single global Top Level Domain (gTLD) e.g. us.website.com, de.website.com etc
- Subfolders (subdirectories) on a single gLTD e.g. website.com/us, website.com/de etc
- Using cookies to control the language
- URL parameter
Country-coded top level domains (e.g. .com, .net, .info, .biz, .edu, .info and .org) offer a number of benefits but also some disadvantages. They give Google clear geotargeting information because the domain is internationally targeted which means that if your website was .fr for example, you would automatically get a ranking boost in France. They are also great for branding, web server location become irrelevant, and it’s easy to keep your sites separate which generally speaking provides less legal complications. However, the disadvantages include the fact that you might not be able to get your domain name in all your country codes (due to these not being available and already being taken) and it will require more infrastructure which makes it more costly. If you have a keyword rich domain name, this also gives you the option of translating the keyword for the applicable language.
Subdomains using gTLDs are a popular choice for many reasons. They are easy to set up (and geotargeting can be easily applied through Google Webmaster Tools), you can have different server locations and easy separation of sites. One of the main disadvantages is that users may not be able to tell the geotargeting simply from the URL i.e. does de.site.com mean Deutsch (language i.e. German) or possibly Denmark (country)? However, in the grand scheme of things, this is not a huge issue.
Subdirectories or subfolders is one of the most cost effective ways to do international SEO as it is low maintenance because all your subdirectories can be hosted by the same provider. This reduces maintenance and therefore cost. Like subdomains, it is easy to set up and you can use Webmaster Tools for geotargeting. However, you can only have one server location and the separation of sites becomes less clear which can cause legal issues when operating internationally.
URL parameters (e.g. site.com?loc=us) are not recommended as segmentation based on URLs is complex due mostly to the fact that one cannot use geotargeting in Webmaster Tools thus making it nearly impossible to get any sustained international SEO traction.
Cookies can be used to control the language, but you will still need to set up your website using one of the other methods above otherwise Google will be unable to index your site. Be aware too that many internet users these days use VPNs to control their privacy and may be connecting to the internet via a VPN in a country with a different language (e.g. a US internet user connecting to the internet via a VPN that routes through Norway). So this can reduce the effectiveness of relying solely on cookies for language settings.
How to set up Webmaster Tools Geotargeting
To set up geotargeting for your website go to Webmaster Tools’ home page, click on your site(s) and under site configuration, click settings. Then, in the geographic target section select the option you want.
About hreflang Tags
Aside from the language indicators already mentioned, you can insert hreflang tags into the coding of your page to specify both the language of the page and the intended region. Insert it into the header section of an original page and then submit your sitemap to Google. For example, if you wanted to use a hreflang to indicate that your page is in French for people in Canada you would use the following example code (but inserting your own URL):
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-ca” href=”http://website.com/fr/” />
CMS considerations for multilingual SEO
If you’re currently considering translating your website and going multilingual, then now is an opportune time to consider a redesign of your existing site. Several modern Content Management Systems (CMS) will allow you to create websites in different languages with a shared database which can save you many headaches in the future. For example, if you redevelop or redesign one site, all your sites will be updated simultaneously, and it will reduce hosting space requirements. Some of the most popular CMS systems that make multilingual websites relatively painless are:
Joomla, Magento, WordPress and Drupal.
If your current site is in a CMS that only works in one language and you don’t want to change CMS then you might be able to copy your text and have it translated. This will mean that you will end up with two separate databases.
How to do a webpage translation for SEO?
I cannot stress this enough – your content must be translated manually. Do not rely on tools like Google Translate to translate your content. Although such tools are improving in accuracy daily they are still nowhere good enough and most importantly using tools like this to translate your content is likely to get your content marked as spam. You must hire a translator to do this work for you.
You will find it easier to remove SEO keywords from your existing content first and then get the raw text translated first. Once, this is done you can then optimise the new translated content with the right keywords.
The reason this approach works best is that keywords often don’t translate directly into a different language. For example, in the UK 117,000 people search for the term “last minute holidays” each month. Compare that to a rather underwhelming search volume of only 8,400 people per month in France for the translated version of that search phrase. Rather than just translating your existing SEO keywords and assuming they will be successful, use Ahrefs Keyword Explorer tool for international keyword search volume. Focus on only a couple of keywords for each new language per webpage and monitor their performance and then tweak as necessary.
Don’t forget to also update your Metatags in the new language.
Incoming links are also a key part of Google’s website ranking algorithms so you wil also need to work on creating some quality incoming links and these backlinks should be in the same language (i.e. Mandarin links going to your Chinese site/dub-domain or page, Italian links going to your Italian site etc).
Finally, never use more than one language on the same webpage. It confuses not only Google but also your audience and waters down both your branding and your search rankings.
Multilingual and multiregional SEO is a very big topic and I have only given you a high level overview here. To find out more you can read this article from Search Engine Land or refer to Google Search Console’s article on multiregional websites.