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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.

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.

In this post:

What is multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimising websites for multiple languages to rank higher in search engine results 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. This is a missed opportunity for businesses that 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

Understanding the difference between multilingual SEO, international SEO, and SEO translation is important. 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 worldwide 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 is SEO translation?

You could say that SEO translation is a subset of multilingual SEO. However, it’s only just one of the various aspects that a multilingual SEO strategy can cover.

SEO translation is the practice of translating and localising content to improve its visibility in search engine results pages for foreign markets. The aim is to make your content more accessible and relevant to users who speak different languages, which can ultimately lead to increased traffic and conversions.

This process involves more than just translating text from one language to another. It also includes researching keywords, optimising title tags and meta descriptions, identifying culturally relevant topics, and more.

A comprehensive multilingual SEO strategy, whether domestic or international, will encompass these SEO translation activities and others beyond textual content, such as URL structure and domain name for each language, target-language SEO copywriting, link building, discovering and fixing crawl errors, among others.

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 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 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 findable 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.

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 expert SEO translator?

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.

Multilingual SEO best practices

Getting started with multilingual SEO can be daunting, but following some key best practices will help you get on the right track. Some of the most important best practices to keep in mind are:

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:

  • www.example.com/de/
  • www.example.com/es/
  • www.example.com/fr/

Another common method is to use subdomains for each language, like so:

  • de.example.com
  • es.example.com
  • fr.example.com

There are also a few other methods you can use, like using ccTLDs (country code top-level domains), which look like this:

  • www.example.de
  • www.example.es
  • www.example.fr

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.

Undertake 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:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-fr” href=”http://example.com/fr-fr”/>

Ensure you’re using canonical URLs in your hreflang tags

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.

If you’re not sure what a canonical URL is, it’s basically the ‘master’ URL for a particular piece of content on your site. So, if you have the same content available in multiple languages, the canonical URL would be the URL of the page in whichever language is your primary or default language.

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/”/>

Understand 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.

Avoid AI-written content

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 AI-written content on your website, especially for “extensive automation to produce content on many topics.”

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.

The 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.

Effective multilingual SEO is an essential part of any international expansion strategy

The intricate relationship between language, culture, and search engine algorithms means that effective multilingual SEO is a tricky – but essential – part of any international expansion strategy.

If done correctly, multilingual SEO can help you reach new markets, grow your customer base, and increase your revenue. But if it’s not done correctly, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money with little to show for it.

The key is to work with a professional multilingual SEO company that can help you navigate the complexities of international SEO and ensure that your website is visible to users in each target market.

This guide should have given you a good overview of what’s involved in multilingual SEO and how to go about it. By following the tips in this article, you can make sure that your website is visible to users in all of your target markets – and that you’re able to turn that traffic into customers.

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