Multilingual SEO: A comprehensive strategy and implementation guide

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13 min read

According to one recent study, a massive 68% of all online experiences between a brand and its audiences still begin with a search engine. Search engine optimisation, also called SEO for short, is the collection of processes and best practices that help you lean into this, increasing your site’s visibility on engines like Google. All told, SEO drives literally 1,000% more traffic than organic social media and is something that 60% of marketers say is the source of the highest quality leads, too.

But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a big world out there beyond the exclusively English-speaking portions of it. What happens if you’re trying to reach a few different audiences, each of which speaks in its own distinct language? This is not uncommon in certain parts of the world, like Europe.

Or what if you’re trying to get noticed in a new country where people may all speak the same language, but there are certain language variations depending on which region a person lives in?

How do you account for the various geographic location considerations that might exist from one place to the next?

Yes, you could always offer multilingual versions of your site, including through the use of different URLs for different language versions. But for true SEO optimisation, you need to go deeper than that. Remember that over 68% of all clicks go to just the top three organic search results on the front page of Google.

Effectively addressing concerns like these is a big part of what multilingual site SEO is all about. It’s not exclusively about just translating content from one language to the next and making sure the appropriate number of keywords are present. It’s about making sense of language differences, market distinctions, cultural specifications, and more – all while doing your best to put only the highest quality content out into the world at the same time.

Getting to this point isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require you to keep a number of essential things in mind along the way.

Understanding Multilingual SEO: What It Is and Why It Matters

In an overarching sense, multilingual search engine optimization is all about incorporating localised keywords, search terms, and other elements into the content on your brand’s website, all to make sure that people can not only find it, but that they can easily do so in their native language.

With traditional SEO, you would do your research to find out as much about your target audience as possible and what types of searches they would need to perform on the Internet to find a business like yours. After compiling a detailed list of keywords and other search terms, you would make sure they were present on your website as often (while still remaining organic) as possible. You would also craft new content around those terms to help further increase and maintain visibility.

Why, then, can you not just take content that is already performing well in one language, translate it into another, and publish it as-is? For a surprisingly large list of reasons:

    • Search volumes can differ dramatically from one area to the next. There are three elements that make up keyword search volume: the popularity of the keyword in question, the current competition for that keyword, and the potential traffic that can be created by becoming number one with that keyword. People in different cultures have vastly different questions to answer or problems to solve. Competition can look totally different from one city to the next. All these things impact how people perform searches on engines like Google.
    • People who speak different languages may have different intents when searching. Search intent is all about understanding not just what someone is searching for, but why. One study indicated that 99% of all search terms are either informational, navigational, commercial, or transactional. Someone in Region A could have a totally different intent behind their search compared to someone in Region B, even though they’re both searching for the same thing. This needs to inform the type of content you publish.
    • Messaging will always need to be adjusted depending on the location. Cultural differences play a huge role in determining how people in different areas interact with the content they consume online. Think about how different your average American is from someone living in the heart of London in many ways – even though they both likely speak English as a primary language. There would be certain cultural references or intricacies that one would be looking for that the other would miss entirely or be confused by, and vice versa.
    • Even search engine use varies depending on the region. In the United States, for example, Bing has an 8.24% market share. In the United Kingdom, that market share is only 3.78%. Different regions rely on different search engines, and each search engine has its own unique algorithm that determines rankings. Therefore, there is no “one size fits all” approach to SEO in different languages based on this idea alone. Different languages and locations could also have different marker distributions.

    That’s why an effective SEO for multilingual website strategy goes far deeper than just a 1:1 translation. If you’re trying to establish a foothold in six different markets, you essentially need to tackle multilingual SEO six different times. This is because marketing success is dependent upon your ability to get the right message in front of the right person at the right time in the right way. How they need to be exposed to and digest that message will naturally vary depending on which part of the world you’re talking about, even if that core message itself remains unflinching.

    As an aside, this is also a step that many of your competitors are not likely to make. If they’re not unknowingly falling into the trap of simply translating content from one language to the next and publishing it without further consideration, they’re doing so intentionally to save time and money. They may see short-term results, but over the long-term their search rankings, traffic, conversions, and other important metrics will begin to suffer, and they’ll likely have no idea why.

    From that point-of-view, proper multilingual SEO services become a hugely effective way to not only establish yourself as an authority in your market, but to separate yourself from a significant portion of your competitors in the eyes of your audience, too.

    The Risks of Improper Targeting and Implementation

    Multilingual SEO: A comprehensive strategy and implementation guide 1

    Overall, it’s important to acknowledge the stakes of handling multilingual SEO poorly. Improper targeting and implementation isn’t just a lateral move, or a situation where you’re essentially right back where you started and all you’ve wasted is your time. It can actually do more harm than attempting nothing at all in terms of visibility.

    According to another recent study, about 90% of all people never make it beyond the second page of Google in the search results. If proper multilingual site SEO drives you up the Google results page, improper targeting and implementation will drive you down it – to the point where it’s almost like your brand’s website isn’t on the Internet at all.

    A big part of this has to do with the fact that it creates issues with crawlability. Google’s crawlers and fetchers, otherwise known as “spiders,” browse the content on your site to look for certain markers in terms of relevancy, authority, and more. That is a part of how Google’s search rankings are determined. If Google can’t crawl your website, those sites – and possibly even your domain – won’t rank as highly, if they’re able to rank at all.

    Another one of the major risks that you expose yourself to has to do with indexing issues that stem from improper implementation. If Google can’t properly index your site because you’re using the wrong parameters, it cannot “understand” it and therefore cannot serve it up to users when they perform searches. Again, this is a situation where you’re doing far more harm than good.

    Maybe the most immediate issue that you run into when you improperly implement this type of search engine optimisation takes the form of duplicate content issues. When you simply take a piece of content and translate it from one language to the other without making any other modifications, you increase the chances of running into one of Google’s plagiarism penalties. This means that, in addition to ineffective SEO, you’ll suffer from poor rankings, worse online visibility, and other damage that can be difficult (and time-consuming) to recover from.

    Why run the risk of that when you can adjust the content through proper multilanguage site SEO while also creating a better experience for users at the same time?

    But even if you don’t run afoul of any search engine-related issues in a technical sense, improper targeting and implementation still runs the risk of creating a massive amount of confusion within the various landscapes you’re trying to serve. Incorrect content will be served in the wrong geographic locations, which can make it unclear to people who you are, what you do, and most importantly why they should care.

    Regardless of which way you look at it, all of this still ends with unmet traffic expectations – a situation you would do well to avoid at all costs.

    Multilingual and International SEO: Bringing in the Experts

    By now, it’s important to acknowledge that if multilingual SEO and international search engine optimisation seems like it will take a tremendous amount of time, effort, and expense to get right, that’s largely because it will.

    Again – the majority of people online will find your business for the first time via a search engine. The closer you are to the top of the search results, the more likely it is that yours is the business they choose. At that point, your products and services can speak for themselves, taking a one-time customer and turning them into a long-term loyal brand advocate.

    If you miss someone at that initial point of discovery, as you likely will without a multilingual SEO strategy, there is little you can do to get that attention back.

    Because the stakes are so high, and because of the sheer amount of effort involved, many organisations of all sizes and in all industries choose to enlist the help of multilingual SEO services providers as opposed to handling everything in-house. It’s a step that about 66% of big brands and 37% of small businesses take on a regular basis.

    The benefits of using multilingual and international SEO experts as opposed to handling everything yourself include but are certainly not limited to ones like:

    • Cost-savings. According to another recent study, an in-house SEO manager alone will make an average of about $72,000 per year. That’s before all the money they need to actually develop and execute a multilingual SEO strategy. Keep in mind that this is for one person. Bringing in a third party team of experts can help dramatically save money to that end.
    • Instant access to expertise. When you insist on keeping your search engine optimisation efforts in-house, you essentially need to become an expert in the space. That takes time, training, and resources. Time alone might be an expense you can’t afford if you’re trying to quickly enter a new market. Bringing in professionals gives you access to that dynamic experience right away, however, putting you in an excellent position to hit the ground running.
    • Faster results. Speaking of time, another one of the major benefits that comes with enlisting the help of professionals is that you free up as much of yours as possible. You don’t have to devote hours every day to experimentation. You don’t have to worry about how long it will take to course correct from the inevitable mistakes that you’ll make. You have a team of people who can handle things correctly the first time, all so that you can free up as much of your time and attention as possible to focus on those areas of running a successful business where you’re truly needed.

    Crafting Your Multilingual SEO Strategy: Breaking Things Down

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    First, you must acknowledge that there isn’t necessarily “one right way” to craft your multilingual SEO strategy. As is true with search engine optimisation in general, it’s not about stuffing content with as many keywords as possible. It’s about a combination of techniques that all work in tandem. Because of this, you need to start by answering a few basic questions:

    • Who are the people in my audience that I am talking to, specifically?
    • What do they need to hear at this moment in the consumer journey?
    • What do they like?
    • What problems do they have that I can help them solve?
    • How do I present my message to them in the most effective way possible?

    Don’t start with the content and work your way back to the audience. Start with the audience and a deep understanding with them. Then, the type of content you need to create – and use as part of your SEO for multi language website strategy – will become clear.

    For example, does the content you’re currently working on need to be adjusted based on language differences from one audience to the next, or is it location-based? Language differences are more straightforward, but you’ll still have to make sure everything reads as naturally as possible. Location-based changes will require more extensive modifications as you account for cultural differences and other points of reference that may not make sense from one location to the next.

    Always start with market research within each location/language that you’re focused on. Never assume that what you know about Region A will automatically translate into Region B. Start from square one each time – almost as if each location or language is the only one you’ve ever concerned yourself with.

    This will also help you better understand which content should be translated at all. You won’t need to fully replicate every last page on your site during your multilingual site SEO efforts. Understanding what needs to be adjusted and what can remain as-is will save a significant amount of time.

    While all this is going on, you’ll also need to think about how the website should be organised for the best usability on a location-by-location or language-by-language basis. Different countries have different preferences in terms of how information is laid out, how to easily navigate from one part of a domain to another, and more. Familiarise yourself with the best practices of the location you are targeting and lean into them wherever possible.

    More often than not, this won’t result in any one major change, but will be more about a series of smaller and more strategic ones. They may not seem like much, but they will add up enormously when it comes to creating the most organic (and specific) site experience possible for your users.

    The Multilingual SEO Best Practices to Be Aware Of

    Data privacy laws vary (sometimes dramatically) around the world, so always be mindful of remaining in compliance as you build out your multilingual SEO strategy. Obviously, the GDPR is one of the biggest examples of this. But other countries have similar laws that you must address, including ones like:

    • The Privacy Amendment to the Privacy Act in Australia.
    • The Lei Geral de Portecao de Dados (LGPD) in Brazil
    • The Digital Charter Implementation Act in Canada.

    In Chile, data privacy is literally considered to be a human right under the constitution. Needless to say, this is an element of your strategy that you do not want to neglect.

    Throughout your efforts, you must also make content quality a number one priority. Google in particular has long emphasised the importance of creating “helpful, reliable, people-first content” as a part of your search engine optimisation strategy. If the world’s biggest search engine thinks it is important, you need to think it is, too.

    That’s part of the reason why you must make sure that content isn’t just translated, but also localised. A straight, 1:1 translation can be “correct” in a technical sense but still be filled with oddities that will only push audiences away, not bring them in. If spending more time properly localising a piece of content creates a better and more helpful experience than translation alone, that is a step you must be comfortable taking.

    From a technical standpoint, make sure the following elements are accounted for as you work to improve your business’ multilingual SEO:

    • Verify that the correct technical implementation is accounted for at all times. This includes Hreflang, which is an HTML attribute that is specifically used to denote which language and geographical region you are targeting with your content. Obviously, that will be enormously helpful in this context.
    • Make sure that you have access to the proper tools that will help make this as easy as possible. Search engine optimisation is no longer something you need to handle manually. WPML, for example, makes it easy to not only build multilingual sites, but to also run and maintain them moving forward. It is a WordPress plugin. There are also many content management systems that have specific multilingual features, like Optimizely, Acquia, and Contentful, to name a few. They can all help you create, publish, and even distribute helpful, relevant information in different languages and across different regions.
    • Verify that your website and all related content is set up properly for indexation. Using an XML sitemap, for example, gives search engines a comprehensive list of all the pages on your site. It tells crawlers where to go to discover relevant content, in essence. Use XML sitemaps with caution when it comes to hreflang. It is better not to implement one with hreflang, than to get it wrong!
    • Using the meta robots tag is also recommended, as it gives you more control over how search engines will crawl and index your site. You can tell engines like Google what should and should not be indexed, essentially allowing you to highlight those translated and localised pages in a way that allows them to rise to the top in their respective areas.

    In the End

    As is true with other aspects of your search engine optimisation efforts (and digital marketing in general), don’t buy into the myth that multilingual site SEO is not something that you “do once and forget about.” It’s not like, after accounting for all the best practices outlined above, your site will maintain the top spot on engines like Google forever. The Internet and its users are constantly evolving, and you need to be prepared to evolve right along with them.

    That is to say, pay attention to the specific locations you’re targeting to monitor for any changes that are taking place. If audience behaviours change, make timely adjustments to your on-site content to reflect them. This isn’t something you should be doing once or even twice a year. You need to be proactive about it, essentially adjusting your sites and their content in real-time.

    Likewise, any seasoned SEO veteran will tell you that consistency is king. You’ll put a lot of time and energy into crafting the type of compelling, relevant content needed to get you to the top of Google. If you want to stay there, you have to continue to do so moving forward. Another study indicated that companies that actively blog, for example, get 97% more backlinks than those that don’t. Backlinks are considered a sign of authority in the eyes of engines like Google, which is a major contributing factor for how your site ranks.

    Likewise, publishing 16+ pieces of content per month offers 4.5x the number of leads and 3.5x the amount of traffic than doing so less frequently. None of this changes because you’re talking about SEO in different languages as opposed to just one.

    But overall, you must also understand that multilingual search engine optimisation is just one small part of the much larger story that is your brand’s digital marketing campaign. It’s not a question of whether to handle SEO for multi language website or execute an off-site strategy. Both need to feed into one another.

    All those off-site techniques like link building, social media marketing, podcasting, video marketing, and others are still hugely relevant and effective. Google also updates its search algorithm and systems multiple times per year, essentially changing how SEO functions on a base level.

    That’s why your efforts to get noticed and gain attention online should start with SEO for multilingual website versions, but shouldn’t end there. Only by creating the most robust and action-oriented strategy that you can, will you be able to enjoy all the benefits of this process with as few of the potential downsides as possible.

    If you’d like to find out more information about what goes into an effective multilingual search engine optimisation strategy, or if you’d just like to discuss your organisation’s own needs with a team of multilingual SEO services professionals in a bit more detail, please don’t delay – contact us today.

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    Alona holds a masters degree in Linguistics & Cultural Studies from the Department of International Relationships. Alona has combined her academic knowledge of Social Sciences with her creative and strategic thinking to help her clients reach the toughest audiences through bespoke Digital Marketing Strategies. Alona's strategic approach adds several layers of complexity to the campaigns that enable them to perform time and time again.
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