January 17 2020

SEO Best Practices for Multilingual Sites

multilingual SEO best practicesFor sites with content in multiple languages, optimizing the site for search engine rankings can be difficult. Search engines penalize websites when they have duplicate content, so if multilingual SEO best practices aren’t followed, a site can unintentionally drop in organic rankings. Explore SEO best practices for multi-language websites so that you can plan your site strategy accordingly.

Domains/URLs for Multilingual Websites

There are several approaches that a site owner can take when it comes to handling the domains/URL structure for a multilingual website. Some approaches are better than others when it comes to search engine ranking, so let’s explore these options.

I. Subdirectories with Generic Top-Level Domain (TLD)

The most common approach is to create separate subdirectories within your top level domain (TLD) for each language. This form of TLD is a recommended approach for maintaining domain authority since all content is within the domain itself. For example, Spanish-translated pages would reside in a directory like www.examplesite.com/es/. Another reason why this approach is highly recommended is because you can connect your subdirectories within the TLD to Google Search Console and geotarget users located in the region you are targeting. You can also run separate websites within the same language with this approach. Even though this can technically create duplicate content, it won't negatively impact your rankings.

II. Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD)

If you are targeting an audience based on a country, then the country code top-level domain might be a be a smart approach. For example, if you want to target civilians in Mexico, the ccTLD would appear as www.examplesite.com.mx. Reference this full list of TLD examples based on country targeting. You will need to first purchase and configure all country code top level domains (ccTLD) for the country sites you want to create. For some content management systems and hosting environments, there are additional cost considerations that you will need be aware of when taking this approach.

Having a separate site for each country may be the right strategic approach for your site but understand that search engines will treat each site separately and therefore, you will need to earn domain authority for each domain.  It's important to note that this approach is best for those looking to target a specific country – but not language, making it different from subdirectories with a generic top-level domain. According to MOZ, when a site uses ccTLD, it tells Google that the content is relevant to the desired geographic region and therefore, should appear in SERPs in that area. 

III. Subdomains with Top-Level Domain (TLD)

A third approach is to establish a subdomain for each translated site, such as en.examplesite.com or fr.examplesite.com. Subdomains are great because they can be used to target an audience both by country and by language. Another benefit of using this approach is that it can also easily be connected to Google's Search Console, and hosting can be localized by pointing the DNS to a web server. However, a potential downfall of this approach is that the domain name itself cannot be localized, which often which makes site owners users weary. This approach has also been found to prevent Google from being able to find and crawl all your variations in some cases. According to Google, this is because the Googlebot crawler usually originates from America, and often sends HTTP requests without setting Accept-Language in the request header. In summary, this is an approach best suited for companies who have a lot of familiarity in using subdomains with multilingual sites.

Google will most likely not crawl all of your variations. To help control what Google crawls, you can use a robots.txt file to block search engines from crawling automatically translated pages on your site. Google's search console explains how using a robots.txt in this instance can prevent your content from getting viewed as spam since automated translations aren't always accurate. If content is crawled automatically, Google may view this content as spam and make it less visible, so it’s important to have full control of what pages Google can and can’t crawl. 

How to Indicate Language to Search Engines

Multilingual websites have the same content repeated in multiple languages. One way to prevent Google from reading your multilingual content as duplicate content is by adding the Hreflang code snippet. This code allows you to specify which URLs are different and indicate to Google that your Spanish page is an alternate version of your English page. Think of it as a canonical URL, but for languages. Google provides thorough directions on how you can implement hreflang to better identify your page language, whether that be through HTML tags, HTTP headers, or a sitemap.

For Bing, you have to alter this process slightly to avoid a duplicate content penalty. While Google recognizes the hreflang tag, Bing prefers meta language content. Therefore, Bing recommends you use the "content-language" meta tag to embed your preferred location in the <head> section of your pages or documents. For a Spanish version of a United States-based site, it would look like the following:

<meta http-equiv=" content-language" content="es-us">

Another option would be to embed the document location in either the <html> or the <title> element. For the same Spanish, United States-based site it would look like the following:

<html lang="es-us”>
<title lang="es-us”>

Once you've created a working hreflang setup, you need to monitor and maintain those changes continuously. For instance, every time you delete one version of a page, make sure to check whether the other has been deleted as well. Similarly, when you redirect a page, you need to change the hreflang URLs on its corresponding page(s).

Multilanguage Meta Data

Your site’s meta data can help you rank better for new countries you are targeting, but simply translating meta data from English to another language word for word isn’t the right approach. Instead, you will want to do keyword research in the country you are targeting and write new translated meta tags for the translated page. When conducting this research, it's often best to create a spreadsheet including the English words you’re targeting as well as its translation. Make sure to include a column to represent the search volume and difficulty, so you understand which keyword to include in your tags. Using Google’s keyword planner or a third-party keyword research tool is important in their process.

It's vital to understand that now that you are targeting customers with a different language, they may be using a different search engine than Google. Google is obviously a popular search engine in many countries, however that doesn’t mean it’s your target customer’s preferred search engine. For instance, Baidu is the largest search engine in China – and also the third most popular search engine in the world. In order to rank well with this search engine, there are alternate strategies you should use. These tips include using simple Chinese terms in the page titles and meta tags, a .cn domain, and hosting your site in China. Keep in mind, SEO best practices will differ depending on the search engine being used, so it’s best to check with the search engine itself to learn which web URLs are considered valuable, and how to best write meta tags so your content remains visible.

Language Selector Best Practices

Once you choose to create a multilingual website, don’t make the mistake of assuming which language your audience prefers. Instead, provide website visitors with the opportunity to select the language themselves. Offering the ideal dialect option for your users will minimize the chance of them bouncing back to the search results, and in turn, help your rankings. For assistance with strategizing your content and exploring our multilingual SEO services, contact us. We are happy to discuss your multilingual marketing strategy.

  • Content
  • Copywriting
  • SEO

posted by
Carley Gritzuk
Carley Gritzuk
Digital Strategist

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
Related Article
SEO Best Practice: Incorporating Intent-based Keyword Research