If you need to grow your business beyond your domestic market, you must be prepared to make your online content visible and relatable to foreign audiences. The first step to doing that is localizing the content into foreign languages and cultures. The second and the most important step is making the localized content discoverable through generic search in foreign locations. If target audiences cannot get to your website, regardless of whether it is written in their language or not, the chance that they will find the products and/or services that you intend to market through the website is minimal. Your website needs to rank well on search engine results, which means that you must invest substantially in multilingual SEO.
What Is Multilingual SEO?
Multilingual SEO is the process of optimizing web content for multiple languages and multiple locations. Is it complicated? Yes and no. Let’s elaborate with an example:
You have an online fashion shop where you sell to an American audience. You now want to target French fashion enthusiasts. To do that, you translate and localize your content from English to French and create a French version of your website. Now you run two websites, so you optimize them independently. French shoppers living in France will be directed by Google (or whichever search engine they use) to the French website and Americans will be directed to the English version. All target audiences will be happy. Pretty straightforward!
But it can be more complicated than that. Take the same example:
Your fashion e-commerce website is in English and specifically targets a US-based audience. However, there are over 700 million English speakers outside the US. Optimizing your online shop for Americans only will obviously leave out many potential English-speaking clients.
Still regarding the same example, there are many American citizens who speak English as their second language. To generate utmost appeal to American Hispanics, for example, you will need to translate your content into Spanish, or at least create a few Spanish webpages for them, despite the fact that they understand English. But then, if you only optimize the translated webpages for the Hispanics living in the US, you will be blocking out Spanish speakers living elsewhere, for example in Mexico and Spain. The same happens with other languages. If you optimize French webpages for users living in France, you leave out French audiences in West Africa. If you optimize German for Germans, you leave out users from Switzerland.
Clearly, maintaining a multilingual website will require you to do a balancing act between multiple factors, and that makes it more complicated than it may seem on the surface. In that case, in order to provide value to your visitors regardless of the language they speak, you have to implement a multilingual SEO strategy.
Multilingual SEO: How to Build and Optimize Your Site for Different Languages
The biggest challenge you’ll face when designing a multilingual SEO strategy is aligning it with your broader digital marketing strategy. The strategy will obviously overlap with your social media marketing as well as international and global SEO plans. Besides, beyond translating your content and your SEO metadata into the languages that your audiences speak, you have to factor in different internet habits, internet regulations, and cultures that make up your multilingual audience. With that in mind, use these 8 tips to develop a solid SEO plan for your multilingual site:
1. Identify target languages/regions/countries
Just because a language is popular doesn’t mean that your business will benefit from targeting its speakers. For example: There are over 1.4 billion Hindu speakers in India, but as big as the Indian market is, optimizing your food business for Hindu will be of no importance if you sell meat products. You need to figure out which regions want your products/services so that you don’t waste resources optimizing your website for people who couldn’t care less about whatever you publish.
Use Google Analytics to review your current site’s analytics before everything else. Let’s say your English website receives many visitors from Spanish-speaking countries/regions. If those people are going through all the trouble just to visit your site, imagine how happy they’d be if you translated your content into their native language? They’ll even recommend the site to their folks who don’t understand any English, and that will increase your traffic and conversions.
2. Prioritize the main pages to translate
For those non-English speakers visiting your site, exactly which pages are they spending time navigating? Those are the pages that will drive most SEO traffic and conversions, so they should be at the top of your localizing/translating list. Next, look for and translate pages with keywords that get most of searches in the language you want to translate into.
3. Create content for international sites
Your options are two: Either write new content for each language, or adapt existing content to new languages. Whichever choice you make, to maintain good SEO, always ensure that any content development process is preceded by thorough keyword research. Avoid the temptation of translating your keywords using Google Translate or any other online translation tool because keywords aren’t universal. Your new audiences probably have different search and internet behavior from the audience you are used to.
Translating content is also dangerous because some words can spell the same but have different meanings in different places. You don’t want a single translation mishap (e.g. a wrongly translated vulgar word) to spoil your multilingual SEO efforts. Also, languages used in multiple countries/regions are in most cases divided into multiple slangs and dialects, so your translation might not make sense to a target audience if it is not in their dialect. Arabs in North Africa, for example, will not understand Saudi Arabia’s or UAE’s Arabic.
Bottom line: Hire language experts in your target market to localize your content, and then use Google Analytics to search for keywords that different audiences can relate with.
4. Use dedicated URLs
Once you know which languages and pages to prioritize in your multilingual SEO strategy, the next step is to help search engines and target audiences to identify your site’s optimized pages/content. You will do that by dedicating URLs per the regions you are targeting, e.g. using Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs).
Examples of ccTLDs are www.multilingualsite.com.de or www.multilingualsite.com.fr. Both URLs are derived from an original page www.multilingualsite.com, with the first one targeted for a German audience (de) and the second one targeted for a French audience (fr).
If you don’t have the resources to create a ccTLD, your other options are Subdomains (e.g. www.fr.multilingualsite.com or www.de.multilingualsite.com) or Subdirectories (e.g. www.multilingualsite.com/fr/).
Note that when targeting a given language, you might be forced to create two separate URLs for the same language, but for different regions. A good example is when you want to target Portuguese speakers in Portugal, Europe, and Portuguese speakers in Brazil, South America. In such a case, you could end up duplicating the same content for the two target groups, only changing a few keywords and images. Search engines can misinterpret that to mean you’ve duplicated the same content on two different websites, and that can harm your ranking.
To avoid being penalized for duplicity, it is best that you use subdomains in your dedicated URLs. That is because Google ranking algorithm is able to recognize subdomains as extensions of parent domains, so you will not be penalized for duplicating content. www.br.multilingualsite.com (Brazil), for example, can carry the same content as www.pt.multilingualsite.com (Portugal).
5. Translate metadata
If metadata has helped your webpages to rank better for the domestic audience, you can bet that it will do the same with the new languages/countries. However, you should refrain from translating the metadata word for word for the same reasons as (3) above. Research about the keywords that trend in your target language and use them to create strong metadata.
6. Leverage hreflang tags
Hreflang tags help Google know which region(s) your translated content is intended for. For example, you can use a hreflang tag to reference a German page intended for German readers in Switzerland, or a French page intended for Senegalese readers.
7. Promote the translated content
Start by doing link building for your translated pages. You, however, need to reach out to new authority websites because the ones you are currently back-linking from might not carry the same authenticity in foreign markets as they do in your domestic market. You will find such websites from international directories and review sites, or through a thorough backlink analysis of your new competitors in the new markets.
Another way of marketing your localized content is through social media platforms. If you have a Spanish website/webpages, for example, it will help if you open Spanish social media pages and partner with Spanish social influencers to popularize your website. You should also do internal linking for it enables visitors to seamlessly switch between different languages when on your site.
8. Legal and cultural considerations
On the other hand, the slogans, images, or humor you use in your domestic market could be insulting to a different audience. Get a local expert to review your content for the target languages and weed out anything that could pass as offensive or disrespectful.
Most people prefer to access the Internet and shop in their own languages. For this reason, anyone wishing to build trust with foreign customers and make inroads in the global market must learn how to do SEO for multilingual websites. After all, it is only by optimizing your pages for multilingual audiences that you’ll provide a better user experience, get people spending more time on your website, increase your SEO rankings, and get more conversions.