If you do business in a number of different countries or with customers who speak different languages, achieving international and multilingual SEO is more complicated than just trying to rank high in searches in English. If your goal is international e-commerce then you will most likely need to employ multiregional SEO strategies and/or multilingual SEO—both, in many cases.
Multilingual SEO is offering website content in a variety of languages that is optimised to rank high in the search engines. Multiregional SEO is the practice of tailoring website content multiple, specific geographic regions or countries to ensure high search rankings.
Often these strategies overlap and this is where it can get tricky. Therefore, your first step is to figure out what regions you are targeting and what languages you require. Doing this in advance helps you choose a domain name and URL structure that offers the best combination of SEO benefits, cost effectiveness, infrastructure levels and ease of use for your objectives.
The reason it is so important to figure out what language(s) and what country(ies) you are targeting is that as Google’s Official Webmaster Central blog says, “It’s difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis.” This means the best way to segment parts of your website for geotargeting is to use a URL structure or domain name that indicates language and region appropriately to the search engines.
There are essentially five different ways you can structure your site for international SEO:
Country-coded top level domains (e.g. .com, .net, .info, .biz, .edu, .info and .org) offer a number of benefits but also some disadvantages. They give Google clear geotargeting information because the domain is internationally targeted; for example, if your website was .fr, you would automatically get a ranking boost in France. They are also great for branding, web server location become irrelevant, and it’s easy to keep your sites separate, which generally speaking provides less legal complications. If you have a keyword rich domain name, this also gives you the option of translating the keyword for the applicable language.
However, the disadvantages include the fact that you might not be able to get your domain name in all your country codes (due to these not being available and already being taken). It will also require more infrastructure, which makes it more costly.
Subdomains on a single global Top Level Domain (e.g. us.website.com, de.website.com, etc.) are a popular choice for many reasons. They are easy to set up (and geotargeting can be easily applied through Google Webmaster Tools), you can have different server locations and easy separation of sites. One of the main disadvantages is that users may not be able to tell the geotargeting simply from the URL i.e. does de.site.com mean Deutsch (i.e. German) or possibly Denmark (country)? However, in the grand scheme of things, this is not a huge issue.
Subdirectories or subfolders on a single gLTD (e.g. website.com/us, website.com/de, etc.) is one of the most cost effective ways to do international SEO as it is low maintenance, because all your subdirectories can be hosted by the same provider. Like subdomains, it is easy to set up and you can use Webmaster Tools for geotargeting. However, you can only have one server location and the separation of sites becomes less clear, which can cause legal issues when operating internationally.
URL parameters (g. site.com?loc=us) are not recommended as segmentation based on URLs is complex, due mostly to the fact that one cannot use geotargeting in Webmaster Tools, thus making it nearly impossible to get any sustained international SEO traction.
Cookies can be used to control the language, but you will still need to set up your website using one of the other methods above, otherwise Google will be unable to index your site. Be aware too that many internet users these days use VPNs to control their privacy and may be connecting to the internet via a VPN in a country with a different language (e.g. a U.S. VPN user connecting through Norway). So this can reduce the effectiveness of relying solely on cookies for language settings.
CMS considerations for multilingual SEO
If you’re currently considering translating your website and going multilingual, now is an opportune time to consider a redesign of your existing site. Several modern Content Management Systems (CMS) such as WordPress will allow you to create websites in different languages with a shared database, which can save you many headaches in the future. For example, if you redevelop or redesign one site, all your sites will be updated simultaneously, and it will reduce hosting space requirements.
If your current site is in a CMS that only works in one language and you don’t want to change CMS you might be able to copy your text and have it translated. This will mean that you will end up with two separate databases.
I cannot stress this enough: Your content must be translated manually. Do not rely on tools like Google Translate; although such tools are improving in accuracy daily, they are still nowhere good enough. Most importantly, it is likely to get your content marked as spam. Hire a translator.
You will find it easier to remove SEO keywords from your existing content and then get the raw text translated. Once this is done you can then optimise the new translated content with the right keywords. This approach works best because keywords often don’t translate directly into a different language. For example, in the UK 117,000 people search for the term “last minute holidays” each month. Compare that to a rather underwhelming 8,400 people per month in France searching for the translated version of that phrase.
Rather than just translating your existing SEO keywords, use Ahrefs Keyword Explorer tool for international keyword search volume, monitor only a couple of keywords for each new language per webpage and tweak as necessary. Don’t forget to also update your Metatags in the new language.
Incoming links are also a key part of Google’s website ranking algorithms so you will also need to work on creating some quality incoming links and these backlinks should be in the same language (i.e. Mandarin links going to your Chinese site/dub-domain or page, Italian links going to your Italian site, etc.)
Finally, never use more than one language on the same webpage. It confuses not only Google but also your audience and waters down both your branding and your search rankings. Multilingual and multiregional SEO is a very big topic and I have only given you a high level overview here. To find out more you can refer to Google Search Console’s article on multiregional websites.