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Best Multilingual SEO Practices: Your Ultimate Guide

A man utilizing a laptop to implement best multilingual SEO practices.


All of us have purchased items from online stores that are actually in foreign countries. In fact, we may not even know they are located somewhere else. Their website is in perfect English; the purchases are made in U.S. dollars, and the only hint may be a longer-than-normal shipping time.

These foreign businesses understand that, if they are to grow, they have to expand beyond their geographical and language borders. The same goes for you.

Expanding your business into foreign markets is a big undertaking, but, once you do, the one critical element is being “found” by those foreign audiences.

And the best way to be found is no different than in your native land – SEO. If your target audience can find you through a generic search in their own languages, they can then get to your website, written in their language, and begin to explore the products and services you have to offer.

In short, you need to know the best practices of multilingual SEO, so that you can use them and rank well on search engine results.

First, a Bit of Background

If you are wondering if you should expand beyond your native language and geography, consider this: only 13% of the world’s population speaks English, and not all of those are fluent. As the world’s population growth continues, that percentage will only decline further.

Couple this data with the fact that, in developing countries, there are growing middle-class populations – people who are becoming consumers of Western products and services. In fact, the growth of these middle-class populations is predicted to be about 6% or more annually, according to a Brookings report. At the same time, the growth of the middle class in developed countries is predicted to be between ½ to 1%. Obviously, businesses that want to grow will have to move beyond their languages and regions.

SEO Basics

If you have been involved in SEO in your native language/country, you already understand the basics you need to cover:

  • Do the research and find the most popular keywords and keyword phrases consumers use to search for your products or services. This task is easily done with WebCEO’s Keyword Suggestions tool.
  • Have a blog with great content that your targeted audience likes and shares.
  • Be on social media to spread your brand and get links back to your website pages. Getting those backlinks tells search engines that you are providing value.

SEO for multilingual websites is not much different than what you are currently doing. The difference is in the way in which you use these strategies as you appeal to a foreign speaking audience.

Benefits of Going Multilingual

The obvious benefit, if your current website is in English, is that you can reach a huge number of potential customers who prefer to access the Internet and shop in their own languages. This builds trust on the part of consumers.

When you provide a better user experience, that user will spend more time on your website. More time does not just translate to more conversions – it also works to increase you SEO rankings.

If your content includes key search terms that your target audience uses in their own language, your SEO improves as well.

You have a number of decisions to make as you consider multilingual and multi-regional SEO. And a lot of them will be specific to your targets.

But let’s start at the beginning.

1. What is Your Strategy?

Before you move forward on any multilingual and multiregional SEO, you have some serious work to do.

1. Where is there an international market for your product or service?

There are several sources for information on this. A lot of businesses have been selling on Amazon. If this is you, then check out where your customers are coming from. Are there certain countries or regions that stand out? If not, check out Google Analytics “Audience” feature – if you click on the “Geo” link, you will find such things as the countries resided in and the languages used by consumers of your product(s) or service.

Google Analytics - Audience - Geo - Language and Location.

Beyond this, and perhaps more important is finding someone who is a native of the languages and/or countries you may be seeking to target and put that person to work for you. They can do the investigations into how popular the products or services you offer are with those audiences. And they can also give you solid information on what your competition looks like in those regions or languages.

You may even want to find several different natives so that you can evaluate which countries/regions/languages you should target first. You cannot do it all at once – you are not Coca-Cola.

Once the research is complete, select one or two to begin with – no more. International expansion takes time and deliberate action. And SEO for multilingual websites is a process, not an overnight success.

2. Do You Target Languages, Countries, Regions, or All Three?

One of the keys to multilingual SEO best practices is this decision.

  • Regions:

It is extremely difficult to target regions because you will be dealing with multiple languages in most instances. Consider just Southeast Asia, for example. While there are cultural similarities that localization of a website would certainly have appeal, you would have to target Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, and Lao in terms of languages.

The same applies to Western or Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Targeting any of these regions will probably be too challenging if you are just starting out.

  • Countries:

Many companies target specific countries because of the nature of their businesses. A major hotel chain, for example, that has hotels/resorts in vacation spots in specific countries, will want to establish a strong online presence in those countries. Airbnb is another multi-national enterprise that will be present in numerous countries and that will present themselves in multiple languages in those countries, based upon the specific demographics.

Such companies will also offer multiple languages on the main website as well, providing users with choices of language. But because many of these types of enterprises offer different services in different countries, it may make sense to have entirely different websites for each country. They will have to have separate strategies for SEO multilingual websites too. The search terms will be different; in many cases, the popular search engines will be different.

  • Languages:

Most small-to-medium sized companies that offer the same products or services no matter where they market, will find that targeting specific languages will probably work best. As we continue to move into a more global society, with pockets of “foreign speaking” communities within so many countries, targeting languages may actually provide a broader reach. Even Facebook, with its fully global reach, offers its platforms in languages, rather than countries.

Consider, for example, the French language. Of course, it is the major language in France, but it is also spoken in Morocco, Algeria, and Canada by large segments of those populations.

  • Countries and Languages Both:

Sometimes, it makes sense to target both countries and languages. Online banks and payment processors often do this. They are doing business in specific countries, and in those countries more than one language is spoken. And so, they give users the options of choosing both a country and a language. PayPal and Stripe are both examples of this.

Here is how Stripe does this:

The best way to approach the language choice is to let users choose both the language and the country.

Once a user selects a country, he is then prompted to choose a language spoken within that country, if there are multiple ones there.

So, if you intend to target specific countries, because your research shows that there is a good market for your product or service, you need to also look at good sized pockets of foreign-speaking audiences there, because you’re your multilingual SEO best practices will ultimately have to include those populations too.

2. Time to Select Your Domain and URL

Multilingual and multi-regional SEO really come into play as you consider your domain name and your URL. Remember, consumers are searching in their own languages, and search engines are looking for websites in their languages as they pull up results. Getting this right will really be important, and it is not as simple as you might think. Here are your options, as well as their pros and cons:

How to choose a domain for your multilingual site.

To summarize: If you have a large site and you are offering different products/services based upon countries, you will want to use ccTLD’s. But if you are targeting languages, not countries, then use subdirectories.

3. Setting Up and Organizing Languages for SEO

This is one of the most critical elements of multilingual SEO best practices. These elements involve both translation and localization, and they are two very different activities.

  • Translation

There are machines (e.g. Google Translate) that can translate text, and they are getting much better than they used to be. Most of these machines are imbedded with artificial intelligence and machine learning, so, over time, they pick up idiomatic expressions. But they are not really perfect.

Then there are human translators, many of whom work for translation agencies. These agencies may also use machine translations or a combination of machine and human translators.

You can find a listing of the top agencies at Pick Writers, if you plan to use one rather than an individual freelance translator or just a free machine, like Google’s.

  • Localization

Every culture has its beliefs, social mores, principles, etc., based upon its long history. And as websites are translated and modified for countries or languages, it will be important to understand those cultural aspects of a people.

For example, in Western culture, the color white is a symbol of purity and innocence. In the Japanese culture, it is a symbol of death and mourning. The same goes for an owl. Westerners use it as a symbol of intelligence; in some cultures, though, it is an evil omen.

Also, specific phrases, when translated literally, can be offensive to another culture. All of these things have to be taken into account when preparing a website for another language.

Here are some key suggestions that will improve your SEO for foreign language-speaking searchers:

1. Use an individual or agency that has human translators.

And insist that any translator used is a native of the target language.

Just being fluent in a foreign language does not make a translator aware of all of the cultural nuances that will be so important in a website modification. You can find individual freelance translators on sites like Upwork or Guru, but make certain that any you select are native to the language.

If you choose to use an agency, make sure your translator is native and can advise you on the key cultural aspects and make recommendations for wording, images, etc.

Do not scrimp on this to try to save money. It is just too important.

2. Definitely create a sitemap for your translated/localized website.

First, it keeps users happy, because they can easily navigate around. If they can easily navigate, they are far more prone to spend more time on your site.

Second, it makes search engines happy, because they can easily index your pages. Plus, if they see visitors lingering on your site and accessing many pages, they will assume that you are providing lots of value to those visitors. Your rankings will improve.

3. Use hreflang tags.

These tags tell search engines that you have pages that are similar in meaning but that are targeted for different languages. By using these tags, (e.g., en-us or en-gb, or indicating languages, such as en, de, or fr) you tell sites like Google that websites are all distinct rather than just duplicate content. So, each site will then be indexed and ranked separately.

What you don’t want is for a search engine to pick up all of your websites as just duplicates of the same content. Plus, that search engine will be able to provide the correct site for searchers, dependent upon the language they want.

4. Give the option for language selections on your main sites – languages, not countries – via a drop-down menu.

Foreign-speaking individuals can easily see if their language is available, and link to it quickly. And when you do offer foreign languages, put the spelling of those languages in their native form – thus, not French, but francais (note, no capital letter because in French languages are not capitalized – these little things matter too).

5. Now – about those keywords.

Whether a foreign speaker is on Google in their native language or any popular more localized search engine, keywords and those long-tail keyword phrases are just as important as your own native site. You can spend a great deal of time researching keywords in another language. If you happen to speak it fluently, you can dig around int hat language and find the most popular for your niches.

The only other option is to use a native speaker to dig for you. This is another one of those multilingual SEO best practices that you don’t want to scrimp on. If you simply try to have your native keywords translated literally, you won’t have the right ones, and you may just offend someone.

For instance, when Kentucky Fried Chicken first went into China, it used its famous slogan, “Finger-Lickin’ Good” translated literally. Unfortunately, in Mandarin, it translated as “Eat Your Fingers Off.” If they had used a native human translator, this would not have happened.

6. Be especially mindful about images and music.

You want them to be culturally appropriate. Remember, you want visitors to stay on your site, to navigate around, to linger – all good for SEO indexing. If they find offensive images or music, they will not stay. Again, check these things out with a native of the language.

7. Setting up different currencies for payment.

It’s not, in itself, tough. Major payment processors will do this for you. However, the fact that a language may be spoken in several different countries means that you may have to provide for multiple currencies. Farsi, for example, is a language that originated in Persia (today’s Iran) and is also the major language in Afghanistan. While you may not be targeting customer in those two countries, there are large populations who speak this language in Western European countries, and in North America.

The same goes for French. There are French-speaking natives in Canada, Morocco, and Algeria. You will need to do your research and offer multiple currencies, based on where large segments of the language exist.

These are the key elements of multilingual SEO best practices. But a guide on setting up foreign-speaking websites and other content to appeal to foreign audiences would not be complete without the mention of a few other key elements, especially mistakes to avoid. Because these mistakes can negate all of your efforts to reach out to these audiences.

1. Legal considerations. A language you have selected will generally be the predominant one in a specific country. You will need to research (or have someone research for you) any laws or regulations in that country. For example, in Europe, there are new regulations regarding your use of cookies. If your target language is German, then you must comply and notify visitors, in their own language, that you do use cookies, and give them the option to continue or to leave your site.

2. Make no assumptions about the nuances of idiomatic expressions, slogans, keywords, or images. Get a local expert to review all that you are attempting to include on a site or in your other content for the target languages. Schweppes, the drink manufacturer, wanted to expand into Italy with its tonic water product. Unfortunately, the literal translation of “tonic water” in Italian was “toilet water” – not an attractive drinking option for Italians. Likewise, Starbucks has many products that contain the term “latte.” It’s fine in most languages, but in German it is a slang term for “erection.”

3. A re-mention of hreflang tags: You must let search engines know that you are not just duplicating content with your translated and localized websites. They need to know that you are setting up different websites for different languages. Otherwise, they will be confused, and your rankings will suffer.

4. Be mindful about targeting countries or languages. Remember, unless you are offering different products in different countries, it is always best to target a language rather than a country. This differentiation is a key element in multilingual SEO best practices.

Summing It All Up

Expanding into foreign-speaking audiences provides an exciting opportunity for international recognition of your brand and, ultimately, traffic and sales. But there is a lot of work to do before you launch your site(s).

  • Only deep research will tell you if you really have a foreign-speaking audience. If you don’t do this up front, you can expend a lot of time, energy, and money for naught.
  • The decision to target countries, languages, or both will be critical. And based upon your decision, use the list above to determine the best domains and URLs.
  • Throughout the entire process, you must enlist the services of natives to the language and/or country – from translation, to images, to music, to keywords and keyword phrases. Without this native expertise, you will make many mistakes.

This guide is meant to get you started on your international expansion efforts. It is by no means complete for your unique niche, product, or service. Even the “big boys” make mistakes sometimes. Over time, you will get much better at this whole multilingual SEO thing – you’ll learn as you go.

This article was originally published by our friends at WebCEO.

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