Multilingual SEO Best Practices – a Guide to Multiregional SEO
Have you purchased anything from an online store that was actually operated by a foreign company? Many of us have. The store is international and uses an international language to sell to foreign customers. Also, it means that you’re comfortable with buying and browsing product offers in English. Many people aren’t like that, though. In fact, surveys showed that more than 72 percent of consumers buy products from a website in their own language. There are countries famously known for not speaking English. That’s why offering content to users in their native languages is an important consideration for online businesses. Optimizing this content for Google search is also necessary. It’s called multilingual SEO.
So every business going international should consider this strategy to reach more customers and optimize search engine ranking. If you’re looking to learn what is multilingual SEO as well as how to do it properly, look no further. Let’s begin with the essentials and work our way down to specific optimization techniques.
Multilingual and Multiregional SEO – The Basics
Chances are you’ve probably heard these terms before, and people sometimes get them wrong by thinking about what they’re basically the same thing. Well, they’re not. Multilingual SEO is the process of optimizing a website’s content that is available in multiple languages. The content is also optimized, and it’s offered to visitors in more than language. A simple example of this would be a Canadian-based online store that has content in French and English.
On the other hand, multiregional SEO is the optimization of content specifically for different geographical regions. The ultimate purpose here is to target visitors in various regions or even different countries with optimized and relevant content. For example, a Canada-based online store that offers content in both English and French has multilingual customer support as well as the ability to pay for products in both U.S. and Canadian currencies is a multiregional website.
Difference Between These Two
The difference between the two is often subtle but nevertheless important. For example, a multilingual website provides the same or similar content in different languages, but a multiregional one may provide unique experiences for visitors from different geographical locations by offering country or region-specific content, products, and services. Since multiregional websites have the potential to provide a better experience for customers from various areas and countries, the majority of international eCommerce businesses have them.
For example, try visiting the website of a well-known international brand in your country and then switch to a version for a foreign country, and you’ll notice the difference. In addition to the localized content, you’ll notice locally relevant information, local currencies, dates, etc. However, to implement multilingual and multiregional SEO properly, you have to identify the regions to target along with the languages you’ll be using to implement the strategy. Even though this means that both of them are related – and they are, in many ways – but the process of execution depends on proper planning. That’s why we’re starting our guide with planning.
Multilingual SEO – Planning and Implementation
If you’ve been involved in doing SEO in your native language, you know the process. For example, these are the most essential areas that you cover.
- Keyword research to identify the most popular keywords that your target customers use to find businesses and products like yours
- SEO-optimized writing. This includes engaging content written to help solve specific problems for the target audience
- Social media activity. Being on social media and spreading the word about your business to get more website traffic and raise brand awareness is a must for eCommerce businesses.
Doing SEO for multilingual websites involves pretty much the same techniques. However, in this case, you would have to translate your content in the languages of your target customers as well as let the search engines know that specific pages on your website have the translated text. Here’s where to start.
Multilingual SEO – Determine the Languages to Target
As mentioned, the success of doing SEO for multilingual websites heavily depends on proper planning. That’s why the first step to take here is to decide the languages to target with your content. These are the native languages of your audience. To do so, you should take a look at your website’s analytics and see where the visitors come from.
For example, let’s suppose that you’re a UK-based online store in English and you target people in your native country as well as consumers in the U.S. However, when you sat down with your marketing team to analyze the site’s analytics, you saw that you’re getting a lot of visitors from Portugal (even though many of them speak English, their native language is Portuguese). Also, as you look at customer support email requests and calls, you notice that many of them come from numbers with Portuguese area codes and emails.
In this case, optimizing your website’s content to meet the needs of the customers in this country by doing SEO for multilingual websites would be a natural next step to develop your business. Even though many Portuguese people speak English very well, they’re still “getting by” because English is not their native language (but it’s the only one available at your store).
Why Is One-Language Business Losing?
As a result, your business might be losing. The reasons are as follows.
- You’re losing potential visitors. Your products attract some interest from a Portuguese-speaking community, but the reach is limited by those who speak English. According to research, only 27 percent of the country’s population speaks English, which is just a small part. This means that you’re losing a great opportunity to increase website traffic
- You’re losing more conversion opportunities. As mentioned in the intro, the vast majority of online shoppers still prefer to get product-related information in their own language. This suggests that the English version of your store might not have the same impact even on Portugal-based visitors who speak English
- You’re losing the opportunity to get customer referrals. It’s a fact that consumers often rely on the experience of their friends and family with a product they’re interested in. Business2Community reported that 83 percent of shoppers say they “either completely or somewhat trust recommendations from friends, colleagues, and friends about products and services.” For you, this means that many Portuguese people visiting your store won’t recommend it to their friends and family members who don’t speak English.
Conduct Keyword Research
Okay, when you have the target languages identified, you need to translate the keywords you’re using for the default version of your website. “Translating the keywords using machine translation is a risky strategy, though,” says Bruna Sousa, a localization expert from IsAccurate. “Word-to-word translation may result in something that makes no sense or sounds weird, so going with a human translator, preferably a native speaker, is definitely the best bet for eCommerce businesses.” When you have this done, check the volume that the translated keywords have with a tool like Google Adwords Keyword Planner. There, you can also get more ideas of both short- and long-tail keywords.
Multilingual SEO – Translate Content
Now that you know what to target, you can translate the original content into the language of the foreign audience. If you’re going with the multilingual approach, you don’t have to localize the content by considering unique cultural norms and expectations as well as regional standards. Make sure to place the keywords you’ve selected in the translated content in a natural way to improve its ability to rank.
For many businesses, a simple translation with a basic localization works just fine. Their CTAs are just as powerful in multiple languages and they don’t need to extend the localization to things like cultural expectations. However, it’s a good idea to monitor the performance of multilingual content. If you like what you’re seeing, then applying additional localization or doing multiregional SEO might not be required for you. On the other hand, if you see that the response from the target audience is quite weak, then consider improving your content.
Choose URL Carefully
Indicating translated pages is a must for multilingual SEO because that’s how you let the search engines know that you don’t have duplicate content, which is a big no-no. Google penalizes websites for duplicate content and even those who have content that appears within multiple URLs. To avoid that, your site needs to allow a search engine to identify the language of the page from the URL alone. For example, if www.mysuperstore.com is your home page, then the Portuguese version could be www.mysuperstore.com/pt.
There are multiple ways to go about placing the language indicator in the URL.
- Country-specific (not language specific) top-level domain (ccTLD), e.g. www.mysuperstore.pt
- Sub-level domain, e.g. www.pt.mysuperstore.com
- A subdirectory, e.g. www.mysuperstore.com/pt.
Each of them has its advantages and disadvantages for multilingual SEO, so talk about them in more detail so you know the best option to go for your business.
This is the best method to indicate that a page is for targeting a specific country. For example, if a search engine encounters www.mysuperstore.com/pt, it’ll interpret it as a website with content for Portugal. Perhaps the best example of the importance of having a top-level domain is China, where it would be extremely difficult to rank on the most popular local search engine – Baidu – without having .cn at the end of the website’s URL.
Note that while being a country-specific website version, a top-level domain doesn’t necessarily mean that the content has also been translated or localized. In some cases, a country’s law may require foreign businesses to have a local domain to sell products and services. Many international companies use this method. For example, here’s the URL of the Canadian version of the official website of Mercedes.
While this is the strongest method for a translated page indication, maintaining different top domain pages can be quite expensive. In addition, each top domain page comes with its own backlink profile, which also needs proper maintenance. That’s why most of the companies relying on top domains are either large or medium-sized.
This is also a common implementation for multilingual SEO that has been applied by many businesses. A sub-level domain is also a good indicator of localized pages for search engines because it allows building out the country- or language-specific websites.
Hotels.com, a well-known website for hotel bookings, is a prominent international business. It uses sub-level domains to indicate different website versions for search engines. For example, here’s the URL of the Portuguese version. On the other hand, there’s one major downside: in many cases, a search engine views subdomains as a new website domain. As a result, the owner of the website needs to build SEO for that subdomain from scratch, which means more time and financial investments.
From the viewpoint of technical implementation, this option is the easiest to roll out, so businesses on a budget prefer to start with it. The main advantage of subdirectories to a website’s position in the search results is that they retain the ranking as well as the ranking value of the root domain. For example, a well-known carmaker Volvo uses subdirectories for their official site. On the other hand, there’s one disadvantage to this method. There have been cases of websites with subdirectories losing some of the local appearances in SERP.
Multiregional SEO – Planning and Implementation
Okay, now it’s time to talk about multiregional SEO. The ultimate purpose here is to target countries and regions with unique content. Obviously, the ability to produce locally relevant and customized content to directly target people in a certain region is tremendously important here.
“Not only you’ll have to write content in the audience’s target language, but also consider cultural expectations, norms, needs, holidays, shopping habits, and other factors,” says Samantha Casper, a senior copywriter at Trust My Paper. “Companies often start with multilingual SEO and later expand into multiregional SEO as they gain knowledge of the local market and specific customer groups.”
That’s why you should also begin your multiregional SEO tools strategy with thorough planning. In fact, you have serious work to do because you need to learn a lot about your target customers in other countries to be able to identify content ideas they could be interested in.
Multilingual SEO – Structure Multiregional Websites
The choice here is the same as for multilingual: country-specific top-level domains, subdomains, and subdirectories. While the advantages and disadvantages here are the same, your ultimate goal at this point is to make a detailed map of your website’s versions, countries, and languages.
Begin by creating a table with three columns for each of these areas.
- Version (domain). This is here because a website version can be placed in multiple subdirectories on the same domain (or even different domains).
- Country. Each version of your website targets users in a specific country, so list them.
- Language. In this column, list the versions of the site on domains or subdomains.
Hreflang Tags – Basics
There’s something else you should implement to let search engines know that a specific page targets a specific region. By something, I mean hreflang tags. Simply explained, they are HTML attributes that indicate the language as well as the geotarget of a specific webpage. For example, if you look for a website of Volvo in your country, Google will return the website specifically for that country. On the other hand, if you go to another country and look for their website, you’ll get a local version.
Hreflang tags were introduced in 2011 by Google to improve geotargeting and are also referred to as “language annotations.” In fact, the search engine has a detailed guide on hreflang tags where you can learn about this method directly from Google webmasters. Note that hreflang tags are Google’s invention, so other search engines don’t support them. Well, according to this guide, hreflang should be used in the following scenarios.
- If you localize only the template (website footer, navigation, etc.) but not the main content in a language.
- If you’d like to target regional variations of a language, e.g. English content for Ireland, the UK, and the US.
- If your site is fully translated in multiple languages.
Implementing Hreflang Tags
Google offers a number of ways to implement hreflang tags. You can check them out in their guide. However, let’s give you an easy one to explain the concept a bit more.
So, let’s begin with a sample HTML code: <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://mysuperstore.com” hreflang=”es-es” />, where
- <link rel=”alternate” is the indication that the language is alternative
- href=”http://mysuperstore.com” is the website’s URL
- hreflang=”es-es” /> is the indication that the version of the site is created for a specific audience. “Es-es” is actually a hreflang code, a value describing the region targeted by the domain. In this case, this is Spain – “Es,” and Spanish language – “Es” (they have the same attributes).
For a Portuguese version of the website using subdirectories, the code will look like the following: <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://mysuperstore.com/pt/” hreflang=”pt-pt” />
As you can see, each language and country has its own attribute (hreflang value). Hreflang tags are in XML sitemaps, HTTP headers, and header sections of HTML codes. For more information, please refer to the abovementioned Google guide.
Write Localized Content
Last but not least, you have to take care of the content. Poorly translated or localized content is one of the biggest challenges for both multiregional and multilingual websites. It results in a negative impact on customer experience as a subsequent low search engine ranking.
So, all your hard work with doing multiregional SEO can be wasted if the content is not properly localized. To ensure that your content is relevant, clear and useful for the target readers, consider the following tips.
- Invest a lot of effort into researching the topics a specific customer group can find relevant and engaging.
- Come up with a list of content ideas and run them by a content writer or a customer from the target country.
- Consider cultural differences and expectations when producing content to customize writing.
- Pay attention to small things like formats of dates, times, currencies, spelling in different English versions, etc.
Please remember: don’t underestimate the importance of research for content for multiregional websites. Customers in every culture, country, area, and even city have unique preferences and needs. So you can’t customize your writing without proper research.
Multilingual SEO – A Couple More Things Before You Go
There you go, the guide on multilingual and multiregional SEO. There are a couple more important things to share with you. Mobile-friendliness. With the recent so-called mobile-first indexing from Google, having a responsive design that improves user experience on smartphones and other mobile devices has become a must. Other search engines consider that, too.
Loading time. If your international website loads for more than five seconds, the bounce rate will be quite high. Use Google’s own PageSpeed Insights to check the performance of your website and get tips on improvement.