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The Ultimate Guide to Multilingual SEO in 2022: How to Turn International Traffic into Customers

We would normally begin an article like this with a huge claim: “If you’re not doing multilingual SEO, you’re missing out on 80% of the world’s search traffic!” Or we would try to scare you with stats about how much money you could be losing by ignoring foreign markets.

But we’re not going to do that. Because we know that you’re already aware of the importance of multilingual SEO. You wouldn’t be reading this post if you weren’t.

What you really need is a step-by-step guide that will show you exactly how to dominate foreign markets with your SEO strategy. And that’s exactly what we’re going to give you. We’ve prepared this guide to provide a clear, concise approach to the fundamentals of SEO translation and multilingual SEO, whether you’re just getting started or you’re looking to take your existing strategy to the next level.

By the end of this guide, you’ll be able to answer the following questions:

What is multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimising websites for multiple languages so that they can rank higher in search engine results pages for foreign markets.

It’s a branch of SEO that is concerned with making websites more visible and accessible to users who speak different languages.

What is multilingual SEO important?

Multilingual SEO is global businesses’ key to unlocking new markets and reaching new customers.

Consider this: there are more than 7,000 languages 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 the majority of online content. This is a missed opportunity for businesses who want to reach new customers in foreign markets.

Website translation statistics for multilingual SEO
Most commonly used languages on the internet vs share of the world population that speaks the language

Multilingual SEO vs international SEO vs SEO translation

When it comes to SEO, nobody will blame you for feeling confused about different SEO strategies. Often, not even seasoned marketers know exactly what distinguishes the several approaches SEO has to offer.

Suppose one wanted to divide SEO into the broadest possible categories. In that case, SEO divisions could be based on the geographic location (international vs domestic/local SEO) and on which languages you’re optimising for (multilingual SEO vs. monolingual SEO).

International SEO targets people all over the world 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

What about SEO translation, then? Well, as mentioned before, SEO translation is a subset of multilingual SEO, just one of the various aspects that a multilingual SEO strategy can cover.

A comprehensive multilingual SEO strategy, whether domestic or international, will encompass optimisation efforts that go beyond translation, such as URL structure and domain name for each language, target-language SEO copywriting, link building, and more. SEO translation, on the other hand, is strictly limited to the localisation of content to make it SEO-friendly in another language.

Who needs multilingual SEO?

International businesses who understand the utmost importance of localisation in a globalised world know that there’s no point in localising their marketing collateral if nobody can find it in the target market. Just like the source language copy needs to rank high on search engines, so do their several localised versions.

However, multinational companies are not the only ones with a growing interest in multilingual SEO. We very often come across business owners who originally expected their market to be regional or national, create a website and find that they are receiving international inquiries about their services, or receiving orders from other countries. They then decide to launch a multilingual website or app and to create content in several languages – this is where multilingual SEO and SEO translation come into the picture.

Benefits of multilingual SEO

There are plenty of reasons why you should consider optimising your website for multiple languages. Here are a few of the most significant benefits that a well executed multilingual SEO strategy can bring to your business:

Increased brand awareness and reach

When you make your website available in different languages, you’re increasing its reach and visibility. You’ll also be able to show up for searches in multiple languages, which will help you reach new audiences and boost brand awareness.

Increased traffic and ROI

If executed correctly, a multilingual SEO strategy can do wonders for your website’s traffic and ROI. A website that’s optimised for multiple languages is bound to have a higher ROI than a monolingual one.

Improved customer satisfaction and loyalty

Localisation helps you create a better user experience for foreign visitors to your website, which in turn positively impacts customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Increased leads and conversions

By increasing brand awareness and reach, you’ll also be able to increase leads and conversions. And since you’ll be able to target multiple languages, the sky’s the limit when it comes to potential conversions.

Lower bounce rates and higher dwell times

Have you ever clicked on a link to a website, only to be greeted by a page that’s in a language you don’t understand? If so, you probably immediately bounced off the site. The same thing happens when foreign visitors land on your website and find out that it’s not available in their language. However, if they can find content in their language, they’re more likely to stick around. This lowers bounce rates and increases dwell times, which translates into even better SEO results.

Savings on paid search campaigns

The magic of SEO is that content that ranks high on SERPs is essentially free advertising. Once you’ve managed to achieve a top position, all you have to do is maintain it. Paid search campaigns, on the other hand, are ongoing costs that can quickly eat into your budget. By ranking high on SERPs, you can save money on paid search campaigns and invest those savings into other areas of your marketing strategy.

A cutting edge over the competition

If you’re targeting foreign markets, chances are your competition is too. By optimising your website for multiple languages with a careful and well executed multilingual SEO strategy, you can give yourself a cutting edge over the competition. After all, users are more likely to trust a website that’s available in their language than one that isn’t.

How is a multilingual SEO team formed?

You’re convinced by 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 multilingual SEO team that will be responsible for creating and executing your strategy.

You’re convinced by 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 multilingual SEO team 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 translators then localising the content into 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 translating content into 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).

What qualifies someone as an SEO translation expert?

SEO-specialised marketing translators and copywriters will examine things such as the popular search engines in a specific country, local search behaviour, cultural influence on searching habits, etc., to optimise content for each target market (which results in higher rankings, more traffic, and more sales).

Despite many translators and copywriters claiming to be ‘SEO experts’, there aren’t many true experts capable of advising clients beyond keywords.

Real SEO connoisseurs are well versed in content SEO (the optimisation of copy with the intention to bring in traffic from organic search), in ‘back-end’ or ‘technical’ SEO (like improving page speed, internal linking, or usability), and in ‘off-page’ SEO (actions taken outside of the website itself, such as backlinks, social media strategy, influencer marketing, etc.)

If their knowledge of technical SEO is not proficient, true SEO translation virtuosos will, at least, be proficient users of content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, which include an SEO-friendly back-end, and of SEO software, which adds to the service that they provide through competitor analysis, site auditing, back-link analysis, and other features.

This comprehensive knowledge will allow SEO translators to advise their clients on whether potential problems with SEO ranking in target markets are due to content optimisation issues (e.g., an unfavourable choice of keywords, which they can fix themselves) or too technical or strategic factors related to web development or the company’s overall marketing approach.

Specialists of this kind are highly sought after and very hard to find because very few self-proclaimed SEO translators or SEO copywriters have the skills and the verifiable expertise (in the form of high conversion metrics in foreign markets as a result of their services) necessary to skyrocket their clients’ ROI.

True SEO experts know where and how to look at how people are finding competitor pages, at dwell time (how long visitors spend on your page), bounce rates (percentage of one-page sessions), how people move through a site, if they’re doing what the client wants them to do, etc.

Tips for marketing translators doing multilingual SEO

We’ve compiled a list of the 8 most important SEO translation strategies that anyone who praises themselves for offering top-quality SEO services should master. These are:

1. Research like your life depends on it

Research is at the core of any marketing strategy. For example, researching product-market fit ensures that the product under development meets a real customer need and does so in a way that is markedly superior to the company’s competitors in the target market. Similarly, user research gathers insights on users and understands their needs, behaviours, and attitudes as consumers to positively impact the user experience.

When it comes to SEO, keyword research can provide you with essential information related to how you rank for certain keywords, which keywords to optimise for, and which keywords your competitors are ranking for. There are keyword research tools that allow you to do all of this and more, like find topic ideas that people are searching for.

2. Team up with your client’s copywriters and the rest of the multilingual SEO crew

The ideal scenario for SEO translators is, of course, that the client’s source language copywriting team “write for translation.” This means that they don’t take translation or localisation as an afterthought but, rather, include it at the beginning of the content planning and deployment process.

Once again, that’s the ideal scenario; copywriters should ask themselves questions like:

  • Is the meaning clear of what I’m writing?
  • Is there room for expanding the text if need be? (there are languages with longer words that might struggle with character limitation, for example).
  • Will this topic raise interest at a global scale or just in my market?
  • Is this piece of content consistent? Have I used one term to refer to the same concept throughout the copy, or am I going to confuse the translator?
  • Are there too many regionalisms, which I should probably try and minimise?
  • Are there too many puns and plays of words that might prove difficult to translate?
  • Am I using too many acronyms that might not have a 1 to 1 equivalent in other languages?
  • Etc.

If the source copy has been produced with all these questions in mind, things will run smoothly. HOWEVER: there’s not much that marketing and SEO translators can do to control this, because it’s ultimately the copywriting team that should be actioning on it. Therefore, SEO translation will very often involve creatively solving cultural and linguistic translation challenges while ensuring that the output remains SEO-friendly.

3. Brush up your writing skills

It’s no secret that SEO and content go hand-in-hand. You can have a wonderful SEO strategy in place backed-up by great research, but your first-page ranking can only do so much if your content post-click is below par. After all, for Google, users and their experience come first.

In the words of Neil Patel:

Thriving in your online business means that you must go beyond simply “writing content.” Your content needs to accomplish two goals: first, appeal to the end-user (customers, clients, prospects, readers, etc.) and second, solve a particular problem. [The goal is to craft] content that prompts the reader/end-user to either buy a product, subscribe to a list, take a test drive or take some other action that will benefit you.Neil Patel, SEO Copywriting: How to Write Content For People and Optimize For Google

4. Multilingual SEO experts are headline and metadata wizards

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, 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.

A true SEO translation specialist will already have done their keyword and consumer behaviour research for the target culture at this stage, so they will know what keywords to optimise for and how to write attractive tags and headlines.

Moreover, this re-writing should be done at the end of having translated or transcreated the rest of the content, so that no critical points are left out of the meta tags.

5. Localise external links and include internal ones

Any link included in the source copy that points to an external site should be localised. Imagine that users are reading a translated version of a site, e.g. in Italian, and then click on a link and are taken to a site that is in English. That is really really bad for user experience, and bad UX harms your SEO strategy.

Naturally, external link localisation is something that has to be discussed with the client beforehand, because they usually provide the localised version of each link or they provide alternative links in the target language, or they let you find good links to include.

In terms of internal links, they are the ones that point to other pages on the same website we are optimising. Users that arrive in our website from a search engine rarely land directly at the desired page, but they often get close; to avoid high bounce rates, we should have a powerful internal link structure in place.

6. Break the rules!

We know: breaking the rules is not easy for us, translators, who have trained for years to abide by best practices. On the contrary, we like style guides, and glossaries, and dictionaries, and translation memories. In SEO translation, however, you can (AND SHOULD!) break the rules.

Yes, you can make minor omissions if some content is irrelevant for the target culture or because of character limitation. Yes, you can 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). Yes, you can 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. Just don’t marry them.

7. Learn how to pick the best images

It’s not just content that should be optimised; visuals should also appeal to the target customers and to search engines. Without proper image optimisation, you’re wasting a valuable SEO asset.

Image optimisation in SEO translation goes beyond writing proper alt tags and file names, choosing the right file types, or optimising image dimensions.

8. Test, test, test

Split or A/B testing is the go-to way to assess whether your SEO optimisation efforts are working as well as you’d like. This is also the case in SEO translation — you should join efforts with your client to implement split testing in your target language.

Split testing takes place by dividing traffic to two different versions of the same page. As people interact with the separate pages, you can collect data about which page is more effective in terms of title tags, linking structures, layouts, images, copy length, CTAs, etc.

SEO tester software is generally used to run SEO tests and track the distinct actions of users in each version, but Google Optimize offers free, accessible SEO testing.

Practice and research make perfect

And this also holds true for SEO translation: the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Just remember to keep up with the latest trends and best practices, and to partner up with SEO experts (if you’re not one yourself).

We hope this guide has given you a glimpse into the world of multilingual SEO and some useful tips to get started. As always, if you have any questions or comments, let us know in the section below or reach out to us directly!

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