Multilingual SEO – The Word De Jour
Search engine optimization can be complex enough when you have to worry just about one region and language. Introducing new ones is much more complicated than just having a couple of pages translated.
Not only can it be difficult to rank in the new language, if you are not careful, duplicate content issues, improper redirects, and a myriad of other issues could easily result in you losing what rankings you did have across the board, that is to say even in the original region/language.
Multilingual VS Multiregional SEO
Before we move on to actual techniques you can use to reach new audiences, we need to make a distinction between multilingual and multiregional SEO. Namely, the former refers to optimization that simply focuses on making your site rank for keywords in different languages, while the latter denominates the practice of trying to improve your rankings in different countries.
So, for instance, trying to rank in Hong Kong for both Cantonese and English would be an example of multilingual SEO; trying to rank in Cantonese in both Hong Kong and China an example of multiregional; and trying to rank both in Cantonese and English, both in Hong Kong and China a combination of the two.
There are some risks and peculiarities inherent to both types, and we’ll make sure to address them as we go along.
While language considerations don’t really come into the equation when it comes to the choice of hosting you are going to use, a region that you are trying to target can be important.
It is old news that page loading speed is one of the major factors in your ranking, and even older that the location of your servers can have an impact on that speed. While the influence of your server’s location is not as drastic as it used to be, if you are trying to reach an audience on another continent, you can be sure that the difference will be noticeable.
Depending on how you chose to separate the different versions of your site (more on that later), you could choose to host them on different servers, but a much more elegant and universal solution is found in using cloud hosting or complement your shared, dedicated or VPN plan with a content distribution network like Cloudflare, both of which would ensure that your content is served to visitors from all parts of the world with similar speed.
How to separate the different versions
Targeting several regions or languages will require major changes in how your site is structured. There are three valid and Google-recommended methods of doing this:
- Creating country/language specific subfolders on your main site. So, the homepage of the English version of your site would like something like example.com/en/, the homepage in German would be found on example.com/de/ and so on. This is one of the simpler methods, doesn’t require you to mess around with hosting or basic site setup, and allows for geotargeting in Google Console, which makes it one of the most popular methods of specifying the region targeted by segments of your website.
- Using subdomains. Like in the previous method, you don’t change your root domain, but instead of creating subfolders, you instead create subdomains for each country or language you want to increase your visibility in. So, your site in English would be reached through en.example.com, while the version in German would have to be accessed through de.example.com. While this method is a bit more complex than the previous one, it allows for greater freedom. For instance, you can decide to use different servers for each version of the site and have a much greater degree of autonomy between them, making it easier to decide which of the versions you want to link to from which of the external resources. You can use geotargeting with this method as well, and Google has confirmed that they are just as likely to rank a page found on a subdomain as they are one in a subfolder.
- Different ccTLDs for each version. This option gives you the most freedom but is also the most expensive and complex to implement. Basically, you have a different site for each language, example.co.uk for the site targeted at United Kingdom, and example.de for the one intended for your audience in Germany.
There are other options like using cookies, IP identification and dynamic content serving to try and identify where a visitor is coming from and present them with an appropriate version of the site, but since pages set up in this manner can be difficult to index and have a number of other potential issues, this method is best avoided.
Backlinks and anchors
While it does stand to reason that you would benefit the most from getting backlinks from sites in the language you are targeting, with anchors in the same language, this is not always necessarily true.
Everything else being the same, we’d recommend this approach in 99% of the cases, but everything else simply isn’t the same. If you take a look at the statistics showing the percentage of sites using different languages, you’ll notice a serious gap. English, as the most commonly used language, is found on a staggering 54% of all the sites in the world. The second most represented language, Russian, is used only on 6% of websites. They are followed by German, with 5.9%, Spanish with 5% and French with 4%.
This means that if you decided to focus just on links from, for instance, China, not only would you have much, much less websites to choose from, you’d have to deal with the peculiarities of the Chinese blogosphere (one of the differences being that bloggers in China are much less likely to publish your guest post without asking for payment).
That’s why insisting on getting backlinks from the sites with language matching that of your own site can result in:
- Not being able to get as many links as you otherwise could
- Having to compromise on the quality of the links you are building
- Wasting inordinate amounts of time and resources on trying to learn the peculiarities of a new market
This is why you shouldn’t give up on a high-quality link just because it’s not from a site in a language you’d prefer, or conversely, insist on creating a link on a terrible website, just because it’s in an appropriate language.
A relevant link from an influential, authoritative site will improve your domain rating regardless of the language of the site or the anchor they used, as long as it makes sense where it is, as it is. In other words, while search engines need local cues like language of the anchor text when identifying you as an entity and confirming what they think they know about you, that’s not all they care about. A link with an anchor in English to a page in any other language may not be as informative to search engines as it ideally might have been, but they won’t treat it as less valid of a recommendation just because of that mismatch.
Cultural adaptation and relevance
We’ve already mentioned how just translating a site is by no means enough. People in different countries don’t just use different languages, they have different cultures, different habits, values and standards.
So, while you might want to use an informal register when writing about a topic in one language, the same issue might require quite a bit more gravitas in a different country. Similarly, laws that apply in one country might be significantly different in another, closing some of the promotional venues or tactics that you used to rely on, or opening new ones.
One of the major problems with trying to reach audiences in different countries is the fact that not all of them are likely to use the same search engine to look up whatever it is that they are interested in. So, while Google or Bing would be appropriate for US audiences, if you want to target China, you’d instead try to please Baidu, the Chinese search engine of choice, just like you would aim to meet Yandex’s standards if you wanted to make it big in Russia. While there are things that you can do to improve your rankings on all of the listed search engines (for instance, all of them consider incoming links to be an indicator of quality) there are also actions that would, while recommending you to one search engine, make you less appealing to another.
While a basic element of any multilingual or multiregional setup, people still make mistakes when trying to indicate to search engines which language is the site focused on.
Most common ways of associating a particular page with a language include using the appropriate HTML tags in the page’s header; returning the appropriate HTTP header when a page is requested, and associating the URLs in our sitemap with the adequate location.
The thing to remember is that you need to list all of the alternative versions of your pages on each of the sites/versions of the site, as this prevents page hijacking by outside parties – in other words, someone creating a page and listing it as an alternative version of your page.
One of the main benefits of promoting or even doing your business online is the fact that you are not just limited to your country or region, however, to exploit that, you need to know how to approach different countries and different search engines.
Among other things, this includes knowing:
- The difference between promoting your site in an alternative language and promoting in a different country.
- How to choose the host that will be equally adequate for all of your potential visitors
- How to make the distinction between different versions of your site, or between the individual pages, including hreflang implementation and creating separate folders, domains or subdomains
- Which sites to use for off-site optimization and which anchors to focus on
- The particularities of the culture that you are trying to reach, and of the search engines you will need to impress
While this might seem like a fair amount of work, we probably don’t need to explain the potential benefits of reaching a whole new segment of the audience, so we’ll conclude the post by reminding you that if you find the entire matter too complex or time-consuming, we would be more than happy to take care of everything for you, you just need to contact us, and explain what it is that you are hoping to achieve.