SEO requires more time and energy when you’re dealing with multiple languages. But that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. We break down what you need to know to make sure you are reaching the right users with the right content.

In the previous two blogs in our international SEO series, we looked at how to identify your global audience and how to choose the right site structure to fit your strategy (check out our recommendations here and here).

The next step towards a successful international expansion is to make sure that each of your language and/or country versions can be crawled, indexed and served by Google or the local search engine. This will help you to reach your audience more effectively and – if done correctly – will enhance the user experience and business results.

MAKE YOUR WEBSITE CRAWLABLE AGAIN

In comparison, making monolingual websites crawlable and indexable is relatively straightforward. Once you’ve taken care of basic SEO hygiene, in theory there’s nothing stopping Google from understanding and indexing your content.

However, multilingual websites require a bit more work.

Most people are instinctively aware that localizing body copy, product descriptions, About Us sections and maybe even FAQs are vital to having a fully functional website in another language.

But the often forgotten nuts and bolts of your website are just as important. URLs, titles, meta descriptions, image ALT descriptions, reviews, pricing and any other elements outside of the core content all need to be localized as well.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Local Relevance – Each localised element helps search engines understand the various parts of the site in each language, making it easier to serve the right information
  2. User Experience – Full localisation improves the user experience. URLs, for example, are often one of the first things a user will see on your page. If a user has clicked on a link to a French page and sees English content, this will cause confusion. They may even click off the page again, impacting both bounce rates and conversion rates.
  3. Branding – It looks unprofessional if parts of your website are in different languages, which could harm your brand image

When localizing these sections, remember to use the right character encoding to prevent strange symbols cropping up on your website. UTF-8 is generally recommended as it supports the majority of languages and ensures they display well.

HELLO, IT’S ME YOU’RE LOOKING FOR

If you’ve decided to target your audience by country then it’s important to set up your website to geo-target accurately. This helps Google to serve up the most relevant information to your intended audience.

So, how can you geo-target more effectively?

ccTLDs are the most straightforward option as they geo-target automatically, but if you’re using subdomains or subdirectories with a generic top-level domain name instead, all is not lost.

Search engines including Bing and Google feature a Webmaster Tools type function that you can set to target specific countries. Changing your preferences in Google Search Console will also help. Make sure each location subdomain is verified as a separate property. Then go to ‘Search Traffic’, click on ‘International Targeting’ and select the relevant location targeting.

Updating each of these settings will help ensure that users see the most relevant information based on location.

HREFLANGS

If the bulk of your traffic comes from Google and your website features language variations on separate URL’s, then rel=“alternate” hreflang=“x” tags – or hreflang tags for short – are for you. (If Bing is your preferred search engine, then focus on meta tags instead).

Introduced by Google in 2010, hreflang tags allow websites to tell Google which version of a page is the right one for a particular language or country. That way, people are shown the most appropriate content, improving their user experience and your conversion rates in the process.

Hreflang tags can be added in one of three places:

  1. The on-page markup
  2. The HTTP header
  3. A Hreflang XML sitemap

There are pros and cons to each option, so deciding which one is best for your company will ultimately be a technical consideration. If you’re not sure, Yoast has written a useful article highlighting the benefits and drawbacks here.

Regardless of where you decide to place your hreflangs, each tag should include both a reference to itself and to each alternate page. For example, if Wordbank had French and German versions of its English homepage, the hreflang tag would look like this:

<link rel=“alternate” href=“https://www.wordbank.com/uk” hreflang=“en-gb” />
<link rel=“alternate” href=“https://www.wordbank.com/uk/fr” hreflang=“fr-fr” />
<link rel= “alternate” href=“https://www.wordbank.com/uk/de” hreflang=“de-de” />

The tag would also look the same on the French and German sites.

Helpfully, as you can see in the example above, hreflang tags can be used to set languages (in ISO 639-1 format) or language variants (in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format), so you can be as specific as you need to be when targeting your audience. Don’t just assume the code though – double-check to avoid pasting the wrong tag all over your site. UK English, for example, takes “gb”, not “uk” or “en”.

Of course, some web pages may not need to be targeted to a specific audience. This can happen if there are multiple languages on a page (generally not recommended) or you’re using a language selector landing page. In these cases, you can use an “x-default” hreflang tag to show that the page is neutral i.e. not tailored to a specific country or language. This tag isn’t meant to identify the “original” page though, which is a common mistake that can seriously hamper your SEO efforts.

Once your tagged pages are live, you can use Google Search Console to make sure everything is present and correct. Any tagging errors can then be quickly and easily corrected to ensure that they function as intended.

HOME TIME

Of course, even if you’ve set up your geo-targeting perfectly, there will still be times when it’s unclear which language a particular user will want to read your website in.

Adding hreflang tags and configuring geo targeting setting in Webmaster tools will help place users on the right page from search, but what about direct visits when a user types in your brand’s URL?

For example, perhaps a French speaker is using a German laptop from a coffee shop in London. Or what if someone visits one of your websites directly from their browser, without going through a search engine? Which version of your website should you show them?

Thankfully, applying specific rules to your homepage or landing pages can help to clear up any confusion.

By setting these pages up with international users in mind, you can take control of user experience and make sure that everyone can easily find the information they need.

There are three common options for you to choose from:

  1. SHOW EVERYONE THE SAME CONTENT

You might decide that the easiest thing to do is to serve content for just one specific country or language. For example, if you’re a British firm, maybe you’d prefer to keep the homepage in English to highlight your Britishness.

If that’s the case, then you can easily create a discreet banner that points non-English users to the most appropriate language version for them. The banner’s recommendation would be based on the user’s language and country settings, as well as their IP address. But if the data’s misleading and the user would actually prefer to see the original version, then they’re free to do so.

  1. LET USERS DECIDE WHICH VERSION THEY WANT

If you’d rather give users complete freedom to choose which version they want from the get-go, you could turn your homepage into a country selector landing page. From there, the user can decide themselves where to go, removing the possibility of accidentally directing them to the wrong place. This approach can be particularly helpful for e-commerce sites that are active in a lot of countries – it’s what Ikea has done.

It’s also a great example of when you should use the “x-default” hreflang tag. The page won’t be targeted to a specific language or country, so using this tag will tell Google not to treat it as such.

  1. AUTOMATICALLY REDIRECT USERS

This is the simplest (yet most autocratic) approach to international homepages. Based on the users’ settings, you can automatically redirect them to the version of the website that’s perceived to be the most relevant to them.

This can potentially make the user experience smoother, but it’s not without difficulties. For example, how do you treat a Chinese user if you don’t have a Chinese version of the website?

Also, if you’re a French user who actually wants to access the Spanish site, being redirected to the French site automatically can be frustrating. So if you do opt for this approach, make sure to offer an easily identifiable dropdown menu from which people can choose the version they want.

This approach can also cause considerable indexation issues as Google commonly crawls from a US IP address. If not correctly implemented, you could end up with only US content being indexed.

So which rules should you apply to your landing pages? Again, there’s no one right answer. Each option has its own pros and cons, so it’s up to you to decide which option will work best for you, your platform, and your target audience

However you decide to set up your international website, as long as your decisions are backed up by thorough research and careful consideration, it shouldn’t be long before you’re visible in each of your target markets.

If you’d like some advice on the best approach for your company, please do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you.

ABOUT Gary Reilly

Originally from Sydney, I'm an international digital marketer with over seven years' experience. I help global brands achieve their goals with integrated digital solutions. And I'm passionate about deciphering user intent to create relevant content that's accessible, visible and delivers ROI.

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