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Guide To A Successful Multilingual SEO Strategy

Posted on September 25, 2014

When the World Wide Web was young, many businesses rushed to put up websites with no other strategy than “if I build it, they will come.” Decades later, businesses spend billions to drive searchers to their site rather than their competitors’. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics include writing, designing, coding, and updating websites to rank highly on search engines. In reality, similar efforts should be put into your foreign-language websites if you want them to be found by foreign-language searchers. Regrettably, many businesses continue to translate their websites without attention to multilingual SEO.

Here are some tips for a successful foreign-language SEO strategy.

Specify your targets

Be clear about who your foreign-language sites are targeting. Do you want to serve all speakers of a particular language (for example, Spanish, French, and German are spoken in multiple countries, across several continents)? Or are you targeting a particular country, like Argentina, or a broader region, like Latin America? The answers to these basic questions will affect all of your decisions about multilingual SEO.

Choose your URL structure

There are three ways that you can structure the URLs of your foreign-language sites:

  • Subdomains (for example,
  • Separate country URLs (
  • Subdirectories (

The use of subdomains makes it easier to track the statistics for each site with tools like Google Analytics, but some experts argue against this method on the grounds that any authority your own site has with search engines will not automatically pass to the subdomains.

Separate country URLs make use of what are known as ccTLDs or country code top level domains, such as “.fr” for France, “.de” for Germany. This may be the best approach if you are targeting a specific country. Search engines will favor these domains for searches conducted in that country. You should be aware, however, that there are restrictions on who can register for ccTLDs for some countries. You may be required to be registered as a business, or at least have a representative, in the relevant country. You should check on these requirements before deciding on your approach.

Subdirectories are probably the most common way to structure multilingual websites. The foreign language site is simply in a subfolder under your own site. The drawback here is that the sites cannot be hosted on separate servers, which is something you may want to do in certain situations.

Whatever you decide, be consistent. Use the same URL structure for all your foreign language sites to make it easier for search engines to relate them to each other.

Decide where to host sites

When you are targeting certain countries or regions, hosting your site on a server in that area can help your search standings. If the target area is some distance away from your main server, having the foreign-language site hosted elsewhere can also help increase the site’s speed, enhancing the user experience. Again, there can be restrictions on hosting in some countries, or other legal requirements on businesses that use such hosting, so you should do your research first. Sites using ccTLDs should be hosted in the relevant country.

Assess your existing site

Before moving on to localization, review your website first. Determine what content you want to have translated. There may be content that won’t be relevant for some of the countries or languages you are targeting..

You should also make sure that all the key English pages are already well-written and search engine optimized before you start translation.

A cultural assessment of the English site prior to localization can be helpful in deciding what content should be translated. It will also flag any content that may be problematic in certain cultures and might need to be changed in the English version or substantially adapted or “transcreated” in some languages.

Conduct multilingual keyword analysis

Simply translating your existing keywords may give you a list of terms that has little search traffic in that languages and/or country. Instead you should have keyword research and analysis done in each language to identify the best keywords in that language based on relevance and search volume. For best results use in-country researchers who are native speakers of the language to conduct the analysis.

In doing this research, don’t automatically assume that Google is the only search engine to consult. There are places where other search engines are dominant or have a large share of the search traffic. Baidu in China and Yahoo in Japan are just two examples. Web Certain publishes an annual report on the use of search engines and social media in different countries.

Use the proper encoding

The character encoding for your site should be UTF-8. This is a Unicode standard that will allow all languages to display properly. Luckily, many common content management systems, such as WordPress and Drupal, use UTF-8 as their default.

Specify the language−and country, if relevant−in the html tag in your header using the proper two-letter codes.

You should also use Google’s hreflang annotation in your HTTP header, HTML header or xml sitemap. The hreflang annotation allows you to specify languages (and countries) for all parallel sites so that Google can determine what content to serve up to a specific searcher based on their language preference and location.

Translate and localize the site

You should always use professional translators who are native speakers of the target language. Those translators should also be creative writers who can transcreate your content as necessary instead of sticking to a close translation of your English site. In particular, content should be re-written to use any alternate foreign-language keywords derived from your keyword research. Your translation partner should offer all of these services.

Make sure that everything is translated – not just what you see on your browser. Search engines scan and use all content in evaluating your site. Here are some things that are often overlooked and can be important for SEO:

  • Meta page titles, descriptions and keywords (Many developers are dispensing with meta keywords since U.S. search engines generally don’t consider them anymore. But some foreign search engines, including Baidu, reportedly still use meta keywords in determining search results.)
  • Descriptive tag attributes like the “alt” attribute for images and “title” attributes.
  • Page URL addresses

Graphic elements containing text should be localized. Ideally, any videos should also be localized with foreign-language voice-overs or subtitles. In other words, the foreign-language user should have a seamless experience, adding to your site’s appeal.

Decide how to link the sites

Add a language menu to make it easy for users to switch between languages. Depending upon the number of languages involved, this could be something like direct links to each foreign-language site at the top or sidebar of each page, or it could be a drop-down list. The links should have the name of each language in that language. Do not use flags unless the sites are for particular countries. You may also consider having the site automatically detect the user’s browser setting for preferred language and automatically direct them to that language site.

Prepare for off-page SEO

Once your foreign-language sites are ready, you should still pay attention to the other factors that affect your site’s rankings and searchability. Things like backlinks from other sites in the same language, mentions in news media and social networks, and pay-per-click advertising to drive initial traffic play the same role in foreign markets that they do in the U.S. Make the most of your optimized site by instituting a strong multilingual off-page SEM campaign.