A Straightforward Guide to Multilingual SEO

Last Updated on February 22, 2023 by 11 Comments

A Straightforward Guide to Multilingual SEO
Blog / Marketing / A Straightforward Guide to Multilingual SEO

When targeting international markets, you need to make it easy for users of different languages to find the right version of your site via search engines.

In short, you must publish only perfectly translated, SEO optimized pages and then ensure they are accessible to the right users. In this article, you will look at best practices in multilingual SEO, which will help you reach new audiences.

What Is Multilingual SEO?

First, it’s important to clarify the difference between multiregional and multilingual SEO. The former refers to SEO processes that optimize a site for users in different geographical areas. The latter, which is the topic of this guide, refers to the process of optimizing a site that is available in multiple languages. However, we will touch upon multiregional SEO too because the two practices are often used together.

Let’s look at what you need to consider when implementing multilingual SEO.

Choose Your URL with Care

The structure of a multilingual URL should be translated in the early stages of your project.

What are your options?

There are three approaches you can take when structuring a multilingual URL:

· You can use country-code top-level domains
· You can use subdomains
· You can use subdirectories

Each approach has implications in terms of SEO benefits, cost, impact for the local brand, maintenance, and hosting. Let’s look at each approach in turn, weighing up their pros and cons.

Sometimes, targeting a particular area will be synonymous with targeting a particular language – but other times, this won’t be the case. For instance, there are English speakers all over the world, so if you want to reach people with English as a first language, it would not make sense to only engage only with Australian users.

1. Country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs)

ccTLDs are two-letter codes that tell search engines and users where the website is registered. For instance, Google owns google.fr and google.de, which are targeted to users in France and Germany respectively.

On the plus side, this approach permits clear geotargeting, makes it simple to separate your sites, and it means you don’t have to worry about where your servers are located. Most users will be able to tell by looking at the URL whether they are your intended audience.

For SEO purposes, using a ccTLD is the most effective way of letting search engines know that your content is designed for people living in a specific area, rather than those speaking a specific language. This means that your content will appear in SERPs relevant to the area.

On the other hand, registering multiple ccTLDs and hosting multiple websites can be expensive. In addition, not all ccTLDs may be available, which could create confusion if users assume that you own a ccTLD for each country in which you operate. Before registering a domain, check local laws to make sure you are entitled to do so. In some areas, you may need to have a personal or business residence in the region.

Using ccTLDs is also relatively high-maintenance approach, because you will need to run multiple sites. Finally, because your sites will be separate, you will have to build content and authority from the ground up in each instance.

However, the most important thing to remember is that a ccTLD isn’t appropriate if you only want to target by language, not by region. It is best reserved for companies who are generating new content that is tailored for a new country.

2. Subdomains with regional generic top level domain names (gTLDs)

Alternatively, you can insert the relevant two-letter code into your top-level domain to create a subdomain. This can resolve availability issues. For instance, fr.site.com and au.site.com would target French and Australian users respectively.

As with ccTLDs, this approach makes it easy to build separate sites for each of your target regions. You can use servers in different locations, and subdomains in general are simple to set up. Google’s Webmaster Tools enable you to target specific geographical areas.

On the downside, your visitors may find subdomains more confusing than ccTLDs. For example, they might be unsure whether the letters refer to a country or a language. From an SEO perspective, gTLDs send a weaker signal to Google and other search engines.

3. Subdirectories with gTLDs

The third option is to create a website that contains subdirectories. For instance, if you wanted to target users in Australia, you would create sitename.com/au/. It’s easy to set up new subdirectories and you can use Google’s Webmaster tools for geotargeting. It’s also a low-maintenance option because you will use only one hosting service.

From an SEO point of view, this method has a major advantage – it allows you to consolidate your domain authority. You can therefore capitalize on the SEO work you have put into your existing site. It’s also easy to add new content in other languages over time.

On the downside, this approach ties you to a single server location. It also requires more time and effort to separate your websites. In addition, as with gTLDs, users might not recognize the target region just by looking at the URL.

Sometimes, depending on the size of your company and the region in which you are working, it may be necessary to vary your strategy. You can see this in the examples below.

How do big companies structure their multilingual URLs?

To see how these principles work in practice, let’s look at two case studies: NIVEA and Philips. They illustrate that structuring multilingual URLs sometimes requires a flexible approach.

Example #1: NIVEA

NIVEA is an international cosmetics company that operates in almost 100 countries. Upon visiting nivea.com, you are invited to select a local website by clicking on the name of your target country. Their homepage lists each country in the local language plus the English translation, if applicable.

If you click on “China,” you are directed to nivea.com.cn, a subdomain that is written in Chinese. NIVEA also use subdomains for many other international sites. However, in other cases, they use ccTLDs. For example, their German website URL is nivea.de.

In the case of Canada, NIVEA have elected to use subdirectories that drill down further – this enables them to offer their website in two languages. The French version is nivea.ca/fr-ca/, whereas the English version is available at nivea.ca/en-ca.

Example #2: Philips

Philips is a global electronics company. Their homepage is philips.com/global. This subdirectory page is in effect, the English version of their website. If you scroll to the bottom of the site, you will be given the option to choose another country or language.

Clicking on this link will take you to a page similar to NIVEA’s navigation page. However, unlike NIVEA, they list the language of each website next to its link. For example, “Polski” is listed next to “Polska,” and “English” is listed next to “Australia.” This makes the site more accessible for speakers of other languages.

Like NIVEA, Philips structures their multilingual URLs in several different ways. For instance, their Mexican website is philips.com.mx – a subdomain. However, their Italian site is philips.it. Just like NIVEA, they offer French and English versions of their Canadian website, but the base URL – philips.ca – is the same.

Harness The Power of Hreflang

Posting pages containing similar content, even if each version is in a different language, can hurt your rankings. The pages will end up in competition with one another. As a result, the ranking of each page will drop.

You can get around this problem by using hreflang tags. These tags are a form of markup that communicates to a search engine which version of a webpage should be shown to a user. They can be used to distinguish between pages tailored to different regions, pages written in different languages, or a mixture of both.

For instance, hreflang tags can be used to distinguish between French and English content on a Canadian website. The tags preserve your rankings by signalling to Google that you have intentionally created copies of content, but each copy is intentionally optimized for a different audience. Hreflang is a complex topic, but you can check out an in-depth guide.

How to Use Keywords in Multilingual SEO

Keyword research is an essential tool in any SEO strategy, and it is especially vital in multilingual SEO. When creating content in a new language, use a keyword tool such as Moz to carry out research in the new language. Ideally, you will find both short and long-tail keywords that have low competition and consistently high search volume.

Remember, you need to incorporate keywords into your backlinks along with your SEO strategy. Once you have found your keywords, you can either add them following website translation, or optimize your content during the translation process.

Either option can work well. Don’t forget to optimize ALT tags, internal links, and other on-page elements besides text. To help you stay organized, draw up a spreadsheet of keywords in English and their translation in the target language.

When building backlinks, submit content to sites written in the correct language. Google will penalize you if you try to game the system, for example by writing a Spanish article with English anchor text.

Why You Should Vary Your Site’s Content by Language & Region

Under no circumstances should you translate pages with no regard for the cultural norms and sensitivity of your audience. Words, imagery, and metaphors may carry different connotations in other countries, and references to popular culture or politics may not translate well. If in doubt, always work with a translator who is well-versed in both your target language and the needs of those who speak it.

Why You Should Avoid Using URL Parameters to Indicate Language

A URL parameter is the part of a site address that comes after an equals sign, an ampersand, or another attribute. URL parameters can, in theory, be used to manage multilingual sites.

By using a query string parameter that ends in a two-letter language code, you can direct a user to the right content. For instance, “site.com?lang=fr” can be used to send a visitor to the French version of a site.

Although many SEO experts believe URL parameters yield poor results for multilingual sites, many businesses nevertheless make use of them, possibly because it is an easy option.

Google recommends that you avoid it. This is because your parameters may or may not be indexed in a search engine. Use hreflang tags instead.

Key takeaways

Multilingual SEO requires a multifaceted approach that takes into consideration your audience’s location, language, and content preferences. You will need to consider your URL structure, keyword research strategy, and localization tactics. It may seem complex at first, but using a WordPress translation plugin can simplify the process greatly, especially when paired with a compatible SEO plugin. Always use a professional translator where possible, and take time to learn about web optimization if your expertise in this area is limited. Your efforts will pay off in the long run.


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  1. Thanks ! its really Awesome article about SEO stuff and new Strategies.. waiting for more new tricks and tools !

  2. The post is very useful for SEO.

  3. Hi,

    I would like to ask you, wich multilingual convertion solution is the best with Divi please?


  4. The subject of the post is more relevant to website designing. It is a unique topic the Author has taken normally not found in other web development and SEO blogs.

  5. Hi Kristin Savage!!

    Your blog is awesome! I love to read your article. I am really appreciating you to continue your hard work!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge & resource!!!
    Dinesh Shakhty from Syntricon Technologies.

  6. Nice information Kristin Savage
    Keep it up

  7. Thank you, Kristin. Many more questions but this is a good starting point. Any other resources you can recommend – translators, how to achieve translation with non-latin characters – would be so appreciated.

    • You can always turn to freelance translators who specialize in website translation. I have an extensive network of freelance translators and I’m happy to help out with contacts. What languages are you looking for?

      Also, the WPML blog and documentation is a great resource for the topic.

  8. Quite informative. Thank you! BUT I am STILL struggling, unable to use various alphabets on my WordPress site. Cyrillic or Chinese characters only show up as “?” – I have been looking for ways to have original names for various authors or musicians…
    Thank you for any tips about this basic key issue.

  9. Thank you for the Article.

    • With Google new style of daily updating that demote ranking now and then all we need is Multilingual SEO

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