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The Ultimate Guide to Multilingual Website SEO

Developing your website successfully is not easy. Here's the Multilingual Website SEO guide to building your website SEO-friendly and increase your website traffic.

As a responsible website owner or manager, you likely pay a lot of attention to SEO.

But what if I told you you’re missing out on thousands of potential users who don’t speak your website’s language?

In a world that’s constantly expanding it’s very common to strategize to reach an international level. That’s what multilingual SEO is all about: targeting new locations to rank in other languages as well to reach new markets for your online business.

In the case of multilingual websites, outdated SEO strategies won't work. The SEO world has changed.

This is an ultimate guide to everything related to planning and implementing a multilingual website SEO strategy to get new customers from a target region.

What is Multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO is the practice of offering optimized website content in various languages to boost traffic, and, ultimately, conversions and sales.

While at a glance it is as simple as finding a good translator for your website, it is actually a lot more complex and nuanced than that, and requires that you make some significant decisions.

Let’s discuss how to go about a multilingual SEO strategy in more detail.

Why is multilingual SEO important?

Now you might be thinking: “Why do I even need to implement a multilingual SEO strategy if everyone in the world speaks English?”

However, though English might be the current “international language,” consider that firstly, plenty of people just don’t know it, and even the ones that do, don’t know it to a degree that would allow you to make a sale.

Secondly, a lot of people prefer, and appreciate, getting information in their native language, localized with consideration for culture, and current trends.

In the end, refusal to put the extra effort into implementing multilingual SEO leads to a loss of potential clients. That’s why it’s so important for your business, and website. So if you really want to beat your competitors, you should take into account meticulously.

Indeed, there are also cases in which you just don’t need multilingual SEO. For example, the majority of small websites that haven’t even tapped into their current target market, and don’t get much traffic just don’t need it.

How to make sure you’re targeting the right country

Once the decision to devise and implement a multilingual SEO strategy has been made, you need to decide which language or region to go after first. To make that decision, you need to assess your website’s current situation.

Look into your website’s analytics using Google Analytics, or an equivalent tool. See which countries don’t “speak” your website’s default language you get the most traffic from.

Users from those countries already somehow find your website, but some of them may close it because they don’t understand its content sufficiently well.

Also consider that the users from that country that do speak English and use your site can’t recommend it to their non-English speaker friends; You’re losing potential word-of-mouth.

These countries are good potential target countries.

Alternatively, think about which countries you want your client base to be from. These are also good potential targets, if the plan to expand into that market is viable.

To see if the country is a viable target, conduct a simple keyword search in that country by your website’s most popular keywords using Ahrefs Keyword Explorer. If the search volume in that country is sufficient, there’s a lot of potentials there.

It may also be useful to check which countries provide your main competitors’ traffic, and take them into account in your analysis.

The languages you want your multilingual SEO strategy to include should mainly come from a combination of these sources.

Which CMS is best for a multilingual website?

An open source CMS, such as WordPress or Drupal, works best for multilingual websites.

Besides powering most of the existing websites, WordPress also allows you to have a shared database.

This means that you can set up a website with separate domains, sub-domains, and sub-folders using the same database, which is a huge advantage for making it multilingual: You can change some component of design, or functionality, and have it automatically appear in all versions of your site.

Besides, you can easily link up all the pages to their equivalent in other languages, which benefits SEO.

If your website is not on a CMS with a shared database, you can switch to one, or create a separate website for another language.

Do I need an international host for multilingual SEO?

No, you don’t. The only reason why you’d need to host a version of your website with a local provider is a slight decrease in load time, which is frankly not worth it.

Otherwise, Google uses a whole number of factors when determining a business’s location, including website language, and address mentions on the page, so hosting locally is not something you need to worry about.

Should I use separate sub-folders, sub-domains or domains?

Once you’re set on translating your website into a language, you need to decide how to organize and present the different versions of your site. Using separate database sub-folders for different countries looks something like this:

  • www.website.com/fr
  • www.website.com/am
  • www.website.com/uk

Using domains is more like:

  • www.website.co.uk
  • www.website.fr
  • www.website.de

Creating separate domains, however, is expensive and requires extensive infrastructure.

Separate sub-domains are:

  • fr.website.com
  • de.website.com
  • ru.website.com

Sub-domains or domains are separate websites, which means they require as much SEO work as your main site.

Subfolders don’t have that issue: You can’t split a lot of the content. Google will crawl it all as the same site. In most cases, go with subfolders for easier SEO.

While all of these division methods can work, make sure to avoid:

  • Having the same URL or anchors in all languages
    • If all your multilingual websites have an website.com/aboutus or website.com/aboutus#anchor1, Google will index only one of them.
  • Having all languages on the same page
    • A page can only have one Meta Title or Meta Description, so having all languages on the same page is a bad SEO practice.

How to translate a page for SEO?

Offering website content in multiple languages is no easy feat.

Firstly, research the keyword trends regarding your content in target countries using tools like Soovle or Google Keyword Planner. The popular keywords and their interrelations in a target country may be drastically different from those in your default country and original website.

Single out a couple of keywords you want to emphasise in your translated webpage. Make sure you include them at least once in your Meta Title, Meta Description, URL, and H1 title, as well as a few times in the actual text.

It also benefits SEO to translate your page’s URL but make sure to remove letters’ accents.

Then you need to translate the page—or, in most cases, hire a bright translator, preferably a native speaker, who can translate your content taking into account the specifics of local culture and zeitgeist.

Make sure that your content uses the right currency, measurement units, reference points, idioms, greeting forms, etc.

If you have enough resources, you can also create entirely new country-specific content for this version of your website.

In most cases, you should try to include both apt translations and entirely new content.

Geotargeting: Targeting site content to a specific country

Geotargeting is when search results adjust based on the user’s geolocation. Using the query-maker’s location determined by IP, WiFi spot, or GPS, Google renders results appropriate for that particular location.

It’s a useful technique for displaying the information most relevant to the local user.

For example, searching for “parks” on Google in Rome, Italy, and Rome, New York, results in the list of parks closest to very different spots on the map.

Hreflang is one aspect of proper geotagging. It’s HTML code you need to include in your webpages if you have the similar or same content in multiple languages to let Google know what’s most relevant for specific geolocation’s users. It can depend on both the country and the language of the webpage.

For example, if you’ve made a page in French for users accessing it from Canada and it should be different if accessed from France, you’ll add hreflang=”fr-ca” for the former and hreflang=”fr-fr” for the latter.

If you’re not sure you can manage to put the right hreflang tag or just want to make it easier for yourself, you can use this online tool.

You can put the hreflang marker either in the on-page markup or the HTTP header or the sitemap. The hreflang tag should include references to all the pages that serve as its equivalents in other languages.

For example, if a page needs to be available only for users opening it from France or Canada, your hreflang attributes will look like this:

<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com" hreflang="fr-ca" />

<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/fr/" hreflang="fr-fr" />

These tags also help you avoid the common SEO mistake of duplicate content. If, say, you have some content overlap between your pages in different languages, you can signal to Google that the page just has multilingual or international equivalents.

Keep in mind, however, that hreflang tags are there only as guidance for Google bots and other factors may override them.

If you use a generic ccTLD, such as .org or .com, you can also set a page’s target country in Google’s International Targeting report.

Using these two tags, as well as 301s and canonicals, will result in:

  • Less duplicate content.
  • A decrease in link dilution, since more people will be directed to the same page, improving its ranking.
  • A multilingual delivery system designed to help you reach business goals and avoid sabotaging your own efforts.

Multiple languages serving countries.

General recommendations for multilingual SEO are different on a case-by-case basis. There are three main cases to consider when creating multilingual countries.

Multiple languages serving the same country.

Many countries have more than one official languages. For example, Belgium has three: Dutch, French, and German. Here, you should:

  1. Include hreflang tags specifying language and country.
  2. Create backlinks from relevant sites in those three languages.
  3. Use sub-folders for the languages, for example /nl, /fr, and /de.
  4. Use that country’s ccTLD, in this case www.website.be.
  5. If possible, use a local host.

Multiple languages serving no specific country.

In this case, instead of targeting countries, you target languages.

For example, you can target French-speakers without caring whether they come from France or Canada or Madagascar or elsewhere.

Here you should:

  1. Include hreflang tags specifying language, but not country.
  2. Create backlinks from relevant sites in that particular language.
  3. Have a default website with select sub-folders for languages, for example /en, /fr, etc.
  4. Use a generic TLD, for example www.website.com.
  5. Host the website with an international CDS.

Multiple languages serving multiple countries.

You can also care both about which language people speak and which countries they come from. For example, you can have these sub-folders:

  • www.website.com (US, English)
  • www.website.com/ca/en (Canada, English)
  • www.website.com/ca/fr (Canada, French)
  • www.website.com/fr/fr (France, French)
  • www.website.com/md/fr (Madagascar, French)

Here we are using two languages for four different countries. In this case, you should:

  1. Include hreflang tags specifying language and country.
  2. Create backlinks from relevant sites in that particular language and from those particular locations.
  3. Have a default language and country. In this case, English and US.
  4. Have specific sub-folders for both languages and countries, for example /ca/fr, /fr/fr, etc.
  5. Use a generic TLD, such as www.website.com. It can target multiple countries.
  6. Host the website with an international CDS.

This guide covers pretty much everything you need to know to adapt your website to multiple languages and open up new opportunities for your business globally.

Is your website optimized for any foreign markets and, if so, which techniques have you used to achieve it? Are you planning any further expansions? Hopefully, 10web.io pros have answered your questions.

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