SEO for Non-English Websites: Tips for Multilingual Optimization

The first thing we should do is to understand if it is really necessary to create different versions of a site for different languages. Generally, it is recommended that a site have different URLs for each language. This is because search engines crawl and index URLs. By using different URLs for different languages, a webmaster can ensure that each version of the site will be treated as a unique page. This also allows each version of the site to be indexed in different languages. Although the use of different language-based URLs is recommended, it is still possible to achieve strong coverage in search results using automatic translation without creating a separate version of a site. If this is the case, it is still recommended that the site be indexed as a subdirectory in the main URL (e.g. [Link] instead of a proxy like the translation provided by many search engines.

As European websites try to expand their presence throughout the web, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure internet search results across countries and languages, a process known as global SEO. However, global SEO is much harder and more complex than optimizing a site in just one language, especially when creating and maintaining websites in multiple languages. This article will offer a set of SEO tips that are designed to help multilingual website owners give themselves the best chances for strong positions in internet search results.

Importance of Multilingual Optimization

Not everyone is bilingual, much less literate in more than one language. Some of your potential site visitors may not even know a single word of English. There are millions of people who are much more comfortable reading in their native language, whatever it may be. Even those who are competent in English may prefer to search in their native language. A non-English speaker may search for the same thing as an English speaker, but due to the high levels of competition in English language SEO, they may find that the search results are less relevant or find themselves unable to locate what they were seeking. By having a multilingual site that is well-optimized, you increase the likelihood of these people finding your site, in turn increasing the relevancy of your traffic and potentially raising your conversion rates.

It is a given that a global audience is larger than any one country’s demographic, but not everyone comprehends just how much potential business lies in foreign countries. Although many English sites do rank highly in the search engine result pages (SERPs), one must consider the competitiveness of these pages. It’s true that English markets can be highly competitive, yet there are many foreign markets that are far less competitive with lower search numbers. By having foreign language pages that are optimized for these lower competitive markets, it offers a greater ROI. This opportunity exists in many smaller countries for nearly every industry. Spanish SEO is often an underdeveloped market in the SEO industry, even though it is a heavily spoken language with a high number of internet users. The same can be said with many other languages. The cost of entry can be far less in terms of both money and effort to break into these markets. With tight competition in the English language market, some companies may find that a small investment in SEO for foreign language markets may yield better results than their current efforts.

Reach a Global Audience

By breaking down these barriers and communicating to people in a variety of countries in their own languages, you can reach out to new and exciting audiences. Providing speakers of your newly chosen language a local or a country-specific friendly URL can increase that feeling of being spoken to in their own language. This can be achieved by using country-specific TLDs, but this can be quite costly and require a lot of SEO work to get going. Most people can’t afford to do this, so sub-directories or sub-domains are the next best thing. Sub-directories are generally better because the server can just about always manage the folders regardless of language. Language-specific CSS can also help users feel more at home. With strong global marketing, brand recognition, and of course, link building, you’ll soon find your traffic from non-English websites rivaling that of your local traffic. This is when the need for multilingual optimization really starts to kick in.

Reaching a global audience is the most obvious and the most common reason for wanting to globalize your website. Whether your site is commercial or non-commercial, there are key benefits to be gained by users worldwide. If you are a business, the wider the audience you reach, the more chances you have to sell your product or service. For non-profit organizations, you will be able to spread your cause and message further. You may find new supporters or volunteers, and of course, it’s likely that you’ll want to provide information to people, no matter what language they speak. For personal websites, perhaps you have a hobby or a passion you wish to share with the world. Language, cultural, and regional barriers can be frustrating.

Increase Website Traffic

Statistical data shows that websites receiving traffic from non-English speaking countries often face the issue of having that traffic exit the site due to language barriers. This means that there is great potential to market to non-English speaking countries if it is possible to overcome the language barrier. This may be very difficult and not viable for some websites to translate their entire site into another language.

Optimizing your website so that search engines are able to locate, index, and serve your site to potential visitors has a direct impact on traffic. This is because most people who are searching for information, services, or products online will utilize a search engine to find what they are looking for.

Search engines have become the primary tool used to find information, services, and products online. For the vast majority of websites, search engines are the main source of traffic. This is why SEO is often a very important and ongoing effort.

Businesses that have both a virtual and brick and mortar sales location often talk about increasing “foot traffic” into their store. The same idea holds true for website traffic. Whether your website generates revenue through sales, services, advertising, or the display of information, more traffic will always improve the potential for revenue. Branding and awareness campaigns for large corporations or small businesses also aim to increase consumer awareness.

While the purpose of many websites is to provide information, generate sales, or initiate communication, the vast majority of websites are designed to attract as many visitors as possible. Increasing traffic from your target audience will help to improve your overall results, whether your goals are information dissemination, sales, branding, or communication.

Improve User Experience

Ultimately, once your site is successful in delivering the right users to the right content in the right language with a user-friendly method, you will foster a sense of trust in your brand and encourage users to return while also recommending your site to others. According to a survey by Eurobarometer, 9 out of 10 internet users said that when given a choice, they always visited a website in their own language. Meanwhile, 42 percent said they never purchase products or services in other languages. With the competitive environment of increasing globalization, users are likely to spend their money on a site that best meets their individual needs. On a strategic note, users who are impressed with your site are more likely to become valuable links. Building the right content for the right links will be greatly explored in the next section on “Increasing the Findability of Your Content”.

There are few things more important to users than being able to find the best information available on the internet, and providing this to them will improve the overall user experience of your website. Users who are satisfied with the information provided on your site will be more likely to convert and become loyal customers. By gaining a true understanding of your searchers’ language and using the right keywords to deliver them to your site, you greatly improve user experience. This can be done by publishing related content in several languages, which can be indicated by flags or links. If your site is large, consider using a dynamic language script which will automatically deliver users to the content in their language or provide them with language options. This will prevent the user from becoming frustrated and clicking on a link that delivers them to a page with content in a language they cannot understand. Also, bear in mind that searchers from different cultures will have varying needs and the way information is presented can make a big difference. For example, Japanese users might prefer more images with less text.

Key Strategies for Multilingual Optimization

Keyword research is the foundation of any search marketing campaign and is especially important for multi-language SEO. The objective of keyword research is to discover which phrases your potential visitors are likely to use when searching for your site. Correctly guessing what these keywords are is very hit and miss; it’s much more effective to ask actual people who speak the language, in this case, potential visitors to your site. If you know any native speakers of the language, ask them if they would use your words when searching for your product. Alternatively, ask friends or family to ask their work colleagues or carry out surveys in online communities. With a large enough budget, you could also use an online keyword research tool. A good free tool is the Yahoo! Search term suggestion tool, which provides keyword popularity ratings in a variety of different countries. Use all of these methods to create a comprehensive list of keywords for each language.

Consider your language strategy. First and foremost, consider the benefits and disadvantages of a single language versus a multi-language site. As a basic rule of thumb, a single language is simpler. It only needs one set of keywords and only needs to be optimized for one search engine. However, its audience is restricted to speakers of that language. A multi-language site opens up many new opportunities, however, it could potentially create much more work. For each additional language, you will need to develop a new set of keywords and may need to re-optimize each page in order to attain high rankings in each language. In addition, a multi-language site may be tough to manage and could lead to problems with duplicate content; a French page duplicating content from the English page, for example.

Conduct Keyword Research in Multiple Languages

Cross-checking with click-through and impression data, if you have it, can also give you a good idea as to whether the keywords you have chosen are worth targeting in terms of traffic volume.

Using tools such as Google’s Keyword Tool, Buzzlogix, or Wordtracker, first compile a list of translated keywords that you think people are using to find the types of products or services that your website is offering. You can also use the tools to further research those words to find out whether there are more popular search terms that can be used instead. Often times, you may need to repeat this process a few times to find the best terms to target.

Conducting keyword research in more than one language adds a level of complexity to multilingual SEO that many overlook. While it may be tempting to simply translate the keywords that you have already researched for your English site, you may find that direct translations are not used in the same way by your international audience. You may also find that there are commonly used industry-specific terms that are non-existent in other languages.

Implement Language-Specific URLs

For multilingual website optimization, it’s important to develop pages that are specifically and solely for individual languages. This will help search engines understand the language by specifying the pages with language-specific URLs. This also means not using a generic top-level domain such as .com, .org, or .net, but instead using country-specific top-level domains like .ca for Canada using English or .fr for France using French. If your site is using a generic TLD, consider using subdomains specifically for individual languages. Using a file structure while storing various language versions of a page is also an acceptable practice. If this is the case, be sure to check and make sure that the Meta tag’s “content-language” is supported by the actual content of the page. And finally, avoid using the same page and dynamically changing the content based on the user’s IP or browser language settings. This setup provides no explicit indication to search engine spiders as to what specific language the page is. This could lead to possible mix-ups with different language versions of the same page.

Provide Accurate and Relevant Translations

Accurate translations are a particularly important part of this process. Some website owners opt for “auto-translation”. This is particularly common when a non-English website will use English as their second language. This involves using a software tool to automatically translate on-page content into different languages. While this is adequate for casual needs, it has been shown to be ineffective within SEO terms. Automated translation tools and software are not equipped to render context or the double entendres of words, resulting in a somewhat confusing or sometimes completely incorrect translation. This is obviously not ideal. To circumvent this problem, the use of a professional translation service is required. Using native-speaking professionals is a must to ensure that translated content retains the context and meaning of the original text. Professional translation is generally quite costly to undertake, but the benefits it provides make it a worthy investment for any serious website. Another method is to hire a native speaker to rewrite your content using their own words. This is particularly effective for sales-focused content as different cultures will respond to different sales triggers or buyer principles. Ask any webmaster that’s been paid on a commission basis to sell a product in a language that wasn’t their own, and they will tell you that this method is the most effective.

Optimize Meta Tags and Descriptions

An often problematic issue with tag translation involves translating a keyword that was researched in English to another keyword that does not have the same meaning or the same search volume in the target language. This is why it is important to conduct keyword research in the language being targeted. Create translated title and description tags based on keywords that were researched in the targeted language. This increases the chances of the page receiving search engine traffic from the keyword translated in the title tag and description tag.

A common mistake when creating translated title tags and description tags is failing to consider character byte size and differences in keyword search frequency. A brief statement in English may need to be shortened to fit within the 65-character limit.

The title tag should optimally contain the keywords that you are targeting on that specific page. It should also concisely describe the content of the page. The title tag for each page should be unique and should not exceed 65 characters. Keep in mind the maximum length of the title tag when translating it into other languages.

When creating title tags and description tags for translated pages, it is important to focus on the content of the page that they are associated with. Do not simply translate the title tag and description tag from the original page.

Meta tags and descriptions should be optimized for every language that your site targets. This includes the title tag and the description tag. The title tag and the description tag are used to display your site in search engine results. Well-written title and description tags can increase click-through from the search engine results to your site. This, in turn, can increase the amount of traffic your site receives from search engines.

Best Practices for Multilingual SEO

When using different URLs, new content should be located at those specific URLs (not via IP detection or browser settings) as Google needs to be able to crawl and index this content. At each URL, simply include a link with the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” attributes. For instance, the Spanish homepage would include a link to the French homepage with hreflang=”fr”. This link should be confirmed between pages, so for the French page, there should be a link to the Spanish page with hreflang=”es”. Remember to avoid any form of redirection based on IP detection or browser settings, as this could cause problems for Googlebot in accessing the alternatives.

This is where the global structure of the site starts to become important. If there are just a few pages that need to be targeted at a specific language or region, and they correspond directly with equivalent pages in the other languages, it may be best simply to use content negotiation and not bother with any special tags. See Google’s guide for determining the best solution in this case. However, for more complex multilingual sites, where there are numerous regional and language variations, it’s likely to make sense to use different URLs for each language or region. This is similar to what we discussed in the previous chapter about determining site structure, but it’s especially important for international sites because it allows all versions of the page to be crawled, and each URL can be specifically indexed.

Keep in mind also that Google algorithms can apply automated geo-targeting, which may be inexact, so it’s also a good idea to make URLs with parameters clearer. For example, where a site has versions of the same page targeted at different regions, make sure the page content is clearly differentiated to avoid any possible filtering as duplicate. This could be achieved through keeping the content on different URLs or by using the same URL and serving different content depending on user IP or browser settings.

Google introduced new markup to allow site owners to specify the language and geographical targeting of a URL. This was a useful move, but it also caused some confusion. Some sites are set up to target only speakers of a certain language or users in a certain country – not realizing that Google uses these settings to assist its algorithms.

Use hreflang Tags for Language and Regional Targeting

The hreflang attribute has a few optional URL attributes for regional targeting. This can be especially useful for YouTube and other video hosting locations that may be utilizing a country code top-level domain. To specify targeting with region and language, utilize the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” and rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x-y” link relationship method. This allows you to specify that a certain page is a translated or localized version of another page, and it helps ensure that Google knows about all available language and regional alternatives.

Google created the hreflang attribute and link element to serve localization. This is used as a hint to help Google understand the intended audience for your content, and is one of the best ways to ensure that your content is being targeted to the right audience. This is especially important for content with similar languages. For example, you might use “Spanish” to target users in the US, and “es-mx” to target users in Mexico. While the languages might be the same, there are cultural differences between the two audiences and you may have specific content for each. Using the hreflang attribute will ensure that Google directs users to the right version of your content. Do not use this attribute as a substitute for creating translated content; the best user experience is generally served by providing geographically or linguistically specific content. This attribute helps Google serve the correct content to the correct users and is a key component in providing a high-quality user experience. When using the hreflang attribute, make sure to include a self-referencing canonical link element in each version of the page.

Create Language-Specific Sitemaps

Using subdomains: An example of this would be for English, for German, and for French. This is a similar method to using different domains but with lower management costs and SEO workload. This method also allows for different country and language targeting in Google Webmaster Tools.

Using different domains: An example of this would be using for English, for German, and for French. The advantage of this is that each site can have a different country and language targeting in Google Webmaster Tools. The disadvantage would be the cost of purchasing and managing multiple domains, and this method also requires more SEO work due to link building being separated between domains.

There are a number of different URL structures that can be used for multilingual websites and the use of language-specific sitemaps. The choice of URL structure itself is not a huge deal as long as you use the correct sitemap in Google Webmaster Tools to tell Google which URLs correspond to which language. This can be achieved in a number of different ways such as:

Localize Content and Cultural References

Implementing the above may seem complicated and time-consuming, but the long-term results and improving the user experience will benefit multi-fold. This is not an exhaustive list of considerations when preparing a multilingual site – language-specific SEO will throw up its own set of challenges not covered here. Try to take a step back and put yourself in the position of a user, searching in your own language. What seems intuitive to you in English might not be the case when using a different language. Always be critical and try to eradicate elements of confusion.

When you create content in multiple languages, Google generally only provides one set of results (based on the user’s browser setting) regardless of whether this is for French users in Canada or France. In order to guide visitors to the most appropriate site, you should use client-side redirects to the page based on IP – giving users a clear choice when there is equivalent content. Try to avoid automatic redirects for those using Googlebot or other search engine crawlers.

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