Multilingual SEO

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If you’re a native English speaker, then you may believe that the internet is dominated by the English language. Almost all of the computer code, social networking, e-commerce and news sites that are most popular with English speakers were developed in the English-speaking world, and they mesh seamlessly with the language. However, while slightly more than half the web’s content is still written in English, that won’t be true for long. Only around a quarter of internet users have English as their primary language and internet usage of this demographic is growing at a much faster rate.

Most people require or prefer web content that’s written in their native language. For international businesses to really engage with customers they need to have versions of their websites written in each of the languages their customers speak. In some parts of the world, even local businesses have to engage with more than one language group.

You’ll see this in Canada where many websites have English and French versions. A website that’s available in several languages is referred to as “multilingual”. Multinational businesses often maintain a web presence around the world. Their sites are referred to as “multi-regional”, and most multi-regional sites are also multilingual.

To make the highest return on our investment as possible we need to give ourselves the best chance of getting the right content in front of the right people at the right time. That is we optimise the content on the site and tailor marketing activities to make our pages appear in the Search Engines Results Page (SERPs) in the highest possible place, this is Search Engine Optimisation.

Adding into this mix the aspect of appealing to an international audience and we have Multilingual SEO. This is a growing speciality, and anyone managing a multi-regional site should make themselves aware of the basics.

The first rule is to make sure that your site functions perfectly in one language before creating copies or variations in other languages. Having to fix the same problem on multiple, multilingual sites can quickly become very time consuming as issues are multiplied across regions. When it’s time to move on to multilingual mirror sites or multi-regional variations, plans for effective Multilingual SEO should be in place. They’ll influence everything from domain names to marketing strategy, and there should be solid research behind every decision.

Matching URLs to target markets

Although they’ve not quite dominated the world (yet) the leading search engine, Google is tailored to most world markets, and Google has specific advice on how to design multilingual and multi-regional sites for SEO. They’ve posted an article entitled Multi-regional and multilingual sites, and would recommend that you read it. The key is ensuring that each version of the site is easy to find in native language searches. That means making provision for the search engines to identify the language each version of the site is written in or the national market it’s aimed at.

Google’s advice boils down to this: the site for each language needs to be separate and independent, preferably cross-linked with the other versions so that people who have landed on the wrong site can easily switch over to their preferred language. Don’t use cookies to assign languages and don’t use side-by-side translations. How is it best to identify the language or market in the URLs? Here are three options. The second two options, using subdomains or subdirectories tend to be the least expensive options however we’ve seen more success on projects when using option 1.

  1. Use local domain names for each version of the site, along with a geotargeting strategy. This builds trust by making each site look and feel local. Example: for the UK, for Germany and for France.
  2. Use subdomains and country-code top-level domain names (ccTLDs). Example: for the UK, for France and for Germany.
  3. Use subdirectories. Example: for the UK, for France and for Germany.

Google recognises geotargeting settings, and it’s a good idea to use them for websites that target a language group in a specific region. Using Google Places for local business can also help to boost search rankings. Finally, beware of using the location of the computer to dictate the language. People use VPNs, they travel, people immigrate and people work and study abroad. Its best to let the user decide.

WordPress for multilingual sites

WordPress is a very popular platform for both blogs and business sites. It’s flexible and easy to set up.

Unfortunately, it has no built-in support for multilingual or multi-regional sites. There are, however, plug-ins that can make managing a multilingual WordPress site much easier. There’s an article on called Multilingual WordPress that can point you in the right direction. Multilingual and multi-regional SEO strategies can be implemented with the help of plug-ins like Multisite Language Switcher and Multilingual Press.

Language-specific keyword analysis

Once the systems for managing the site content in each language are in place, it’s time to think about creating and refining the content. This is where keyword strategy comes into play. When you think about it, it’s obvious that simply translating keywords will not necessarily give you the kind of results you’re looking for in regional and language-specific keyword searches. The idioms and associations in each language are often very subtle but very important, and you will only find the specific search terms that people in different countries and language groups use by performing a separate Google keyword analysis for each version of the site.

Tailored strategies for blogs and social media

The targeted marketing strategies for each version of the site should not be limited to the keyword analyses. If guest posts and blog-based promotions are part of the marketing strategy, then the blogs that the site engages with will obviously be different for each language.

For a truly robust marketing strategy, they should be selected based on real marketing research, not simply on general popularity and topic matching across language groups. Solicit guest posts and place blog-based promotions based on the actual reading habits of people in each language-based or national target market. For example, imagine that you’re managing a multilingual band site for an act that first became popular in the 1960s. Your market research tells you that the band’s followers are mostly baby-boomers in the UK, but mostly teenagers in Japan. You need to be working with different types of bloggers in these two markets.

Your social media strategy will also need to be anchored by same-language groups and pages. For example, each version of the site might be linked to an associated same-language Facebook page and Twitter account. Your language-specific social media accounts are best designed and managed by native speakers who understand the local markets.

Measurement and refinement

With separate content, separate social media accounts and separate affiliate programs for each market, it shouldn’t be difficult to track the effectiveness of your marketing by language group. Make sure that your stats package can give you straightforward feedback by language or national market.

You’ll want to track social media and affiliate-associated engagement by language or country, too. Each version of the site may require a slightly different marketing strategy and if you’re receiving clear and well-defined feedback, it will be possible to respond to the idiosyncrasies of the culture and the web environment in each market. For effective Multilingual SEO, you need specific and effective feedback for each of your multilingual sites.

Helpful and engaging content in every language

Of course, successful Multilingual SEO is always based on high-quality content that provides valuable information to readers and engages the people who are most likely to become customers. That’s why you should avoid low-quality translations and invest the money and effort needed to produce unique, well written and well-targeted content for each of your target markets. Larger companies may be able to hire a seasoned marketing expert and writing staff for each market, but even start-ups can afford to pay freelancers for high quality, customer-focused content in each language. If you want to win customer trust, it’s best if you seem local. However, even a site that’s obviously multinational will be effective if you’re paying attention, you’ve done your research, you use the right language and you care about the specific needs of the people in each of your multilingual or multi-regional markets.