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In 2020, global online sales increased by 24%, reaching an all-time high of more than 4 trillion US dollars. And these potential sales from overseas users are more accessible than ever given the growth of mobile search accessibility and overall internet usage.
Through a process called multilingual SEO, you can tap into overseas markets and expand your customer base. Techniques like content translation, URL optimization, and geotargeting can help you connect with international customers and grow your brand visibility at the same time. Here’s how.
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What is multilingual SEO?
Multilingual SEO (search engine optimization) is the process of optimizing your website for multiple languages and regions around the world, with the ultimate goal of improving your visibility in search engines. It is an ideal content marketing approach for businesses that can offer goods/services to diverse users.
Google categorizes a site as either multilingual, multi-regional, or a combination of the two. A multilingual site has content in several languages while a multi-regional site has content for several specific locations.
- Multilingual website example: Your water bottle-making business has web pages in English, Japanese, and Spanish.
- Multi-regional website example: Your business ships water bottles to the US, Japan, and Spain.
There is frequent crossover between the two. In other words, a business that has web pages in English, Japanese, and Spanish probably also does business in England, Japan, and Spain.
A multilingual SEO approach is important for capturing a share of your target market in other regions. Simply put, people want content in their native language. And optimizing for the language of your target audience increases the chances that they’ll see your content in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Multilingual SEO best practices according to Google
Because Google wants relevant content for its users, it has published best practices for multilingual SEO. These guidelines come directly from Google and include additional tips from other top-ranking content on the web.
Before you make any changes to your web pages, you want to take your time learning how to implement these strategies. Making a website multilingual requires accuracy (especially on the technical end). If you aren’t careful with these techniques, you can negatively impact your site’s current rankings in the process.
Use unique URLs for different language versions
Get your content to an international audience by using language-specific URLs. Imagine you sell swimsuits in the United States and Europe and have a web page for bikinis.
Your URL in the USA might look like this: https://example.com/bikinis-for-sale-america.html
The same web page might look like this for searchers in France: https://example.com/bikinis-for-sale-france.html
Having different URLs for American English and French content makes Google search results more accurate. This is a simple and effective way to signal multilingual content to search engine crawlers.
If you choose to make separate URLs, use a hreflang tag to denote which page belongs to which language.
The page for English speakers would have this tag in its HTML:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us”
And the French page would have this included in its HTML:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr”
Doing this helps eliminate the possibility that Google links to the wrong language version in the SERP. With more accurate results, users have a better search experience.
Make the page language obvious
When Google crawls a page, it uses the content to determine the target language. You need to make the page language obvious if you want the right users to find it.
Translation technology oftentimes creates mixed-language content. This means that some parts get translated while others remain in the original language. Google recommends that you don’t rely on automated translation for multilingual content generation.
Many times, machine technology also translates text word-for-word, failing to take context into account. This creates confusing web pages which can damage your brand reputation.
If you do use auto-translation for any reason, make sure that the search engine doesn’t crawl those web pages. You can do this by using a robots.txt file:
This technical SEO component blocks crawlers from indexing certain web pages. You use a disallow directive to tell the search engine not to access specific pieces of content.
Remember, SEO can’t make poor content rank. That’s why you should always translate the content before implementing SEO best practices. Hire multilingual copywriters or a translating service that can ensure high-quality content.
Using this approach prevents auto-translated content (which may have errors or inaccuracies) from being indexed. Overall, this is a simple method that can ensure that only the best pieces of multilingual SEO content factor into your SERP rankings.
Let users choose the page language
To account for all potential users, make all of your translated pages available for them to view. You can do this by adding hyperlinks to different versions of the web page. Many sites may have a language option at the bottom of the screen as well.
Multilingual ecommerce websites typically give users a language choice when they first join the site. Here’s an example from Patagonia.com:
Users can click on the hyperlinked button (above) to reveal this location and language selection menu:
Determine your target keywords in both the original language and the translation language. Identify similar phrases/words that you can use in the new content as well. If you aren’t familiar with the local language or need new ideas for the target region, use an SEO keyword research tool like the Google Keyword Planner:
This, along with Google Analytics data and other tools like WordPress plugins for SEO, will help you find queries with high search volumes. It can be a major time-saver as you explore new markets.
As you translate your content, make sure to include the keywords you’ve chosen throughout the page. This includes using them within the title tag and meta description, written content, headers, etc. All of these elements combine to make your content easier for the search engine to understand.
Target your site content to a specific country
Geotargeting is when you optimize your content for a specific country. There are many ways to do this, including:
- Having a link building strategy for each country
- Running a social media account for the target region
- Using local currencies (English pounds vs. American dollars) on your site
- Researching international keywords
- Localizing your meta tags for the specific country
- Appealing to the local values and customs
Localization is an important part of a multilingual SEO strategy because it helps you connect with your target audience on a deeper level. If you disregard a country’s culture when you develop content for its users, your message won’t resonate with visitors.
Don’t assume that users in Japan have the same search intent as users in America. Users in these two countries have distinct preferences when it comes to the content they view. Taking culture into account increases your content’s relevance and may increase its potential conversion rate as well.
Also, don’t forget to adhere to the digital marketing regulations in your target country. You may have to disclose certain information upfront to avoid hefty fines and potential banishment from the local online market.
Use language-specific URLs
You can customize your URL structure to match the target language. There are a few different types of URLs that you can choose from:
- Subdomains: de.example.com
- Subdirectories: www.example.com/de/
- Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs): www.example.de
For multilingual SEO, using a subdirectory may be better than having a subdomain. Although subdomains are great for language-specific URLs, they can be more difficult to manage. Search engines tend to treat subdomains as separate websites when they rank content.
For a large website like Wikipedia, subdomains are important for organizing the vast number of web pages and information they have. Each language gets its own subdomain, ensuring that users find the exact version of your site that they want.
Say you want to create a product page for German speakers. A German subdomain may not be able to capitalize on the SEO visibility that you’ve already created on your original website. This means that you’re starting from scratch in terms of brand awareness. Having a subdirectory, however, keeps your German page under the existing domain name when Google indexes and ranks the web page.
No matter which method you use, a language-specific URL is going to distinguish your multilingual content from your original web pages. This makes it more obvious to users that they’re viewing international content and gives the search engine more context clues as well.
Consider using locale-specific URLs
Another multilingual SEO technique is having URLs for the different countries or regions that you want to target. This may increase your presence in international markets where the search engine wants to show local content to users.
Here are Google’s official pros and cons for each type of location-specific URL:
Setting up locale-specific URLs sends signals to the search engine about who should see your content. This, combined with other content like name, address, phone number (NAP) information and server locations, increases your potential rankings.
Use the canonical tag and hreflang to control for duplicate content
Having duplicate content on your website can have a major impact on your rankings. Search rankings depend on the information that crawlers index. When crawlers index identical or near-identical content from a single site, this creates confusion.
This is a common issue that can occur when you implement a multilingual SEO strategy. Luckily, you can tell Google about multiple page versions using a canonical tag. This HTML attribute denotes which web page is the “master copy” of a duplicated set. When crawlers encounter a canonical tag, they will attribute all the backlinks and page metrics to the primary web page that you’ve designated.
Specifically for multilingual SEO, hreflang tags tell the search engine all of the language variations of a page. In the case that you don’t have a sitemap, these tags help the search engine find landing pages for different regions, as well.
Get a complimentary SEO audit
Before you implement any multilingual SEO techniques, plan out your international strategy. Make sure you research your target audience and understand where adjustments need to be made. Multilingual web pages will help you present more relevant, authentic content to users and increase your chances for better SERP rankings abroad.
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