The Multilingual SEO Playbook for 2023: A Marketer’s Essential Guide
Contrary to the notion that “a global business” is only about exporting products to international markets, the truth is that by existing online, you are already reaching a global audience, whether you’ve planned for it or not. So, if you want to make sure that your digital assets are welcoming the world with open arms, then a multilingual SEO strategy should be an essential part of your marketing plan for 2023.
Here, we’ll be exploring what exactly multilingual SEO is, why it matters, and what the key steps are to creating and executing an effective multilingual SEO strategy.
In this post:
- What is multilingual SEO?
- Why is multilingual SEO important?
- Multilingual SEO vs international SEO: What’s the difference?
- Why does culture matter in multilingual SEO?
- How to choose what countries to target with your multilingual SEO
- Putting together a multilingual SEO team
- Multilingual SEO best practices
- To conclude
What is multilingual SEO?
Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimising websites – linguistically, visually, and functionally – for multiple languages to rank higher in search engine result pages for foreign markets. It’s a branch of SEO concerned with making websites more visible and accessible to users who speak different languages.
There are several methods to achieve this, from translating and localising content to building international link profiles and developing country-specific domains. The aim is always the same: to improve the visibility of a website in search engine results pages (SERPs) for users in foreign countries.
Why is multilingual SEO important?
Multilingual SEO is global businesses’ key to unlocking new markets and reaching new customers. Consider this: more than 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today.
But over 60% of the internet is in English. This means that a huge portion of the world’s population is effectively excluded from most online content: People tend to search for products and services in their local language first!
This is a missed opportunity for businesses that want to reach new customers in foreign markets. And of those who’ve already made the leap into international markets, many are ill-equipped to capitalise on their potential. For example, they see simple website translation – even machine translation – as enough to support their international growth.
Multilingual SEO emerges as an opportunity to get ahead in foreign markets with an effective, long-term strategy.
Multilingual SEO vs international SEO: What’s the difference?
Though they are often used interchangeably, international SEO and multilingual SEO actually refer to two different things.
International SEO targets people worldwide (i.e., more than one market) but doesn’t necessarily involve multilingual content; an example of this would be targeting only English-speaking markets across the globe.
And then we have multilingual SEO, which is SEO that targets multiple languages. Because there are countries with more than one official language, multilingual SEO could well be constrained by geographical boundaries to only one country.
Therefore, we can have:
- Domestic multilingual SEO
- Domestic monolingual SEO
- International multilingual SEO
- International monolingual SEO
Within multilingual SEO, whether domestic or international, we can then find SEO localisation as a sub-discipline.
Why does culture matter in multilingual SEO?
For years, it was believed that culture only influenced consumer behaviour in relation to environmentally sensitive products such as food, where international companies are forced to respond to the nation’s different tastes (Keegan and Schlegelmilc, 2001).
However, culture is pervasive and influences much more than what we eat: It influences how we think, how we communicate, the way we purchase… and even what keywords we use to search online.
For example, a study by Xu et at. (2016) found that travellers from the United Kingdom and China (two culturally diametric countries taken to represent values from the Western and Asian cultures) enjoyed beach holidays and preferred to eat the local food of the destination, but they also showed significant differences.
For example, the Chinese group thought it more important to see the famous sights, while the British were more concerned to have fun, socialise, and enjoy the challenges of outdoor adventure.
Understanding cultural cues can help you create content that is more relevant and engaging to local audiences. In the example above, this could include providing detailed information on the best places to visit, eating experiences that are unique to the area, and activities like outdoor sports or adventure tours.
How to choose what countries to target with your multilingual SEO
Expanding your reach to new markets can be a lucrative endeavour, but it requires careful planning and consideration. Here are 11 tips on how to choose the countries that are right for your business:
Analyse your current website traffic
Start by analysing your website traffic data. Look at where your existing traffic is coming from. Tools like Google Analytics can provide valuable insights into your audience’s geographical location. Identify the countries or regions that are already generating organic traffic to your site even without any multilingual SEO efforts.
Assess market size and potential
Research the market size and potential of the countries where you have significant traffic. Consider factors such as population size, GDP, current market saturation, and whether there is a need for your product or service in the target market.
Consider emerging markets
Emerging markets can be an interesting opportunity to explore when it comes to multilingual SEO. While they may not offer as much potential for immediate ROI, if you are thinking long-term they can be a great way to establish a presence and grow your business.
Analyse competitor presence
Investigate whether your competitors are already targeting specific countries or regions with multilingual SEO efforts. Competition can be an indicator of market viability. Entering a market with established competitors can be a sign that there’s a demand for your products or services.
Consider cultural relevance
Beyond just traffic numbers, think about the cultural relevance of your content in different countries. Some markets may require more extensive localisation efforts to resonate with local audiences.
Evaluate local keywords
Conduct keyword research for each target country. Identify the keywords and phrases that are relevant to your business and have high search volume in the local language. This will help you understand the SEO landscape in each market.
Consider search engine preferences
Different countries have different search engine preferences. Research the market share of each search engine in the target country and choose which ones you would like to focus on for multilingual SEO efforts.
Assess technical feasibility
Consider the technical aspects of implementing multilingual SEO. For example, if you’re considering targeting a market with left-to-right languages, you may need to implement a different website design and layout. Ask yourself: Can your website easily support multiple languages and regions? Can your current hosting provider ensure speedy delivery for the market you’re considering? Will you need to invest in additional resources?
Prioritise based on resources
Take into account your available resources, including budget and human power. Expanding into multiple countries requires a commitment of time and resources. Prioritise markets that align with your available resources and long-term business goals.
Test and iterate
Start with a few target countries initially, and then expand as you gain experience and gather data. Monitor the performance of your multilingual SEO efforts in each market and be prepared to make adjustments based on the results.
Seek professional guidance
If you’re unsure about which countries to prioritise or how to execute a multilingual SEO strategy effectively, consider consulting with SEO experts or agencies experienced in international SEO (hiya!) Their expertise can be invaluable in making informed decisions.
Putting together a multilingual SEO team
You’re convinced of the benefits and want to start optimising your website for multiple languages. But how do you even begin? The first step is to put together a team of multilingual SEO experts and specialised SEO translators that will be responsible for creating and executing your strategy.
A multilingual SEO team is ideally composed of international marketers, content creators, web developers and designers, and SEO translators.
- International marketers are responsible for identifying target markets, understanding the needs of foreign users, and devising strategies for reaching them.
- Content creators produce content for the domestic and foreign markets. Some companies have content creators write only in the original market’s language, with SEO-savvy linguists then producing SEO-translated content for different languages. Other companies have separate content creators for each market.
- Web developers are responsible for ensuring that the website is optimised for multiple languages and that all foreign-language pages are properly indexed by search engines. They also work with web designers to ensure that the website is user-friendly in all target markets – UX can vary greatly from one culture to another.
- SEO translators are responsible for generated SEO-translated content in different languages while preserving the original meaning and SEO value. This can be a challenging task, as certain concepts may not have an equivalent in other languages. They also sometimes carry out keyword research in their native language (while some companies choose to appoint a dedicated SEO strategist/researcher for each market).
Multilingual SEO best practices
Creating a successful multilingual SEO strategy involves more than just translating and localising content. Here are the key steps you should take to ensure an optimised approach.
Optimise website architecture for multiple languages
Ideally, you should organise your website in a way that makes it easy for search engines to understand which pages are in which language. One common way to do this is to use subdirectories for each language, like so:
Another common method is to use subdomains for each language, like so:
There are also a few other methods you can use, like using ccTLDs (country code top-level domains), which look like this:
No method is inherently better than any other, so you should choose the one that makes the most sense for your website.
Stick to one language per page
Whatever method you choose to organise your website, it’s important that each page only contains content in one language. Mixing languages on a single page can be confusing for both users and search engines, and it can hurt your rankings.
Conduct keyword research for each target market
One of the most important aspects of any SEO campaign is keyword research, and this is no different for multilingual SEO. You need to make sure you are targeting the right keywords for each target market – people in different countries tend to search for things using different terms depending on cultural factors, so don’t assume that the keywords you use in your home market will be effective in other countries.
For example, users from cultures where price is a major consideration are more likely to use terms like ‘cheap’, ‘discount’, or ‘budget’, while users from cultures where quality is more important are more likely to use terms like ‘luxury’, ‘designer’, or ‘high-end’.
Another example: If you’re localising a blog post about a piece of technology in the early adopter phase in the US, it’s possible that other countries aren’t yet searching for that keyword, or are using the English word instead of the local word. Open banking technology falls in this category – searches in Spain are predominantly in English, with “banca abierta” showing very few results every month.
The bottom line is that you should meet your users where they are in their journey and use keywords that they’re actually searching for.
Use hreflang tags to indicate language versions of your pages
Hreflang tags help Google understand which version of your site is intended for which audience. These tags should be included in the <head> section of each page on your site, and they should specify the language and region of the page. Hreflang uses a combination of a 2-letter ISO 639 language code, followed by a dash and the appropriate 2-letter ISO 3166 country code.
For example, if you have a page in French intended for users in France, your hreflang tag would look like this:
“Hi Google, I speak French and I want to be indexed. Here are my cousins from other countries. Can you please index them too?”
This basically tells Google : This page exists in 3 versions to be served to different users, so don’t panic, this is not duplicate content, rank them all equally.
Use hreflang tags only for canonical URLs
A canonical URL is the URL of the best representative page from a group of pages that are nearly identical within the same language. For example, if you have multiple pages with similar content or slight variations, such as different sorting options or filtering methods, you would choose one page as the canonical URL. The canonical URL tells search engines that this particular page is the primary or preferred version when indexing and ranking your content.
“Hi Google, please index me and not my alter egos.”
Canonical URLs are the only URLs that you should use in your hreflang tags – non-canonical URLs can result in your hreflang tags being ignored by Google because they send conflicting signals about your website’s content.
Use x-default hreflang tags
X-default hreflang tags tell search engines what to do if they can’t determine the user’s language or location. Forgetting to use them is a common error in multilingual SEO. These tags should point to your site’s homepage in your primary or default language, like so:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x-default” href=”http://example.com/”/>
Consider the search engines used in each target market
Not all countries use Google as their primary search engine – in China, for example, the most popular search engine is Baidu, while in Russia it’s Yandex.
It’s important to understand the search engines that are used in each of your target markets so you can optimise your website accordingly. Each search engine has its own ranking factors and algorithms, so what works on Google might not work on Yandex, and vice versa. For example, Bing and Baidu recommend using the content-language tag instead of hreflang tags.
Use international link building tactics
Link building is an important part of any SEO campaign, but it can be especially challenging when trying to build links to international websites. You’ll need the help of an in-country link building partner who can identify websites that are popular in your target country and that are relevant to your industry.
Just like you’ve invested time and effort into building links to your domestic website, you’ll need to do the same for your international website – there’s no shortcut to success.
Localise internal and external links
As a user, few things are more frustrating than clicking on a link to find yourself taken to a page that’s in a language you don’t understand. Just translating the anchor text of your external links isn’t enough – you need to make sure that the links themselves point to the correct language version of the page, or to a relevant equivalent page if one doesn’t exist.
The same goes for your website’s internal links – make sure these are all pointing to the correct language versions of each page. Not only will this help improve the user experience on your site, but it will also send strong signals to search engines about the content of your pages.
Localise all content on your site, not just the obvious stuff
It’s important to adapt all content on your website – not just the text, but also things like dates, phone numbers, currency, and measurements. Users in different countries are used to seeing these things formatted differently, so it’s important to make sure your site conforms to local conventions.
Moreover, avoid leaving low-visibility content – like terms and conditions, privacy policies, checkout pages, error messages, and newsletter sign-up forms – untranslated. It might not seem like a big deal, but even small pieces of content can have a big impact on the user experience.
Craft meta data from scratch
Meta tags (title tags and meta descriptions) and headlines should be basically crafted from scratch in the target language and not just translated. They should be appealing and engaging, and include the primary keyword. As a matter of fact, a lot of website pages with high impressions but low click-through rates (a common SEO problem) can be fixed by replacing their metadata with titles and descriptions that pack a punch.
Break traditional translation rules
Good SEO translators will make minor omissions if some content is irrelevant for the target culture, or because of character limitation. They’ll also introduce minor terminological inconsistencies for the sake of synonymity (Google loves synonyms, remember that variations of a keyword are part of SEO optimisation, so you do want some inconsistencies here and there). And they’ll add information to a phrase to make it clearer. Google loves good readability and clarity.
Good SEO relies on good user experience, after all. And the best UX is connected to copy that provides users with decision-making clarity when interacting with a product or environment. You can’t be writing, or translating, within a set of (industry-imposed?) limitations that narrow down your options and confine your creativity. The bottom line is that dictionaries, glossaries, and translation memories should only serve as general guidance.
Be careful with AI-written content
When it comes to creating content for your website, it’s important to be aware of Google’s policy regarding AI-written content. Google, being a major search engine, has specific guidelines in place.
For example, in August 2022, Google released its “Helpful content” update, which “aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience.” This update is thought to be in response to the increasing use of AI-generated content, which often lacks the nuance and subtlety needed to provide a truly satisfying user experience.
For this reason, it’s important to avoid using unedited AI-written content on your website whenever possible, especially for “extensive automation to produce content on many topics,” because Google might not consider it high-quality, unique, and valuable content for users. This means that solely relying on AI-generated content without proper human review and editing may not meet Google’s standards.
Avoid machine translation
However ironic it is that Google owns Google Translate, the company has been clear that machine translation is not a good way to localise your website content. The UX of machine translation is poor, and it often leads to errors that can confuse or even offend users.
If you’re going to invest in translating your website content, make sure it’s done by a professional human translator who is a native speaker of the target language – and a specialist in SEO and marketing translation.
Hire professional multilingual SEO services
The best way to ensure that your international SEO campaign is successful is to hire professional multilingual SEO services. A good multilingual SEO company (hello!) will have a team of international SEO experts who are native speakers of the languages you’re targeting and who understand the nuances of local search engine algorithms.
A multilingual SEO agency will also be able to help you with other aspects of your international expansion, such as market research, social media marketing, and pay-per-click advertising.
Multilingual SEO is essential for any business that wants to expand internationally. With a strong technical infrastructure, localised content, and professional services that can help you make the most of your international SEO opportunities, you can reach new audiences and generate more leads from around the globe.
And if you need a helping hand, we’re here! We’re specialist team of SEO translators for most European languages working as a hybrid company: you can hire one of us as a freelancer, or all of us as a boutique agency. Reach out to us!
Author: Maria Scheibengraf
Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.