Multilingual SEO: Beginners Guide

Localization

Chidinma Egwuogu

17 Jan 2024

16 min. read

Contents

So, you're noticing more international traffic on your website. Great news! Now, it's time to capitalize on this opportunity by implementing multilingual SEO.

This guide will help you learn what multilingual SEO is and how to do it right.

What is multilingual SEO?

What is multilingual SEO? Multilingual SEO is the practice of improving the search engine rankings of a website across its multiple language versions. It allows people in overseas markets to find your website by using their local search. Multilingual SEO optimization involves translating and localizing your website content, metadata, and other on-page SEO elements.

For example, if you're targeting the French market, multilingual SEO would mean having dedicated localized pages for this region with translated website content and incorporated local keywords. This would require a deep understanding of search intent - what locals search for and how they do it.

Understanding and catering to the search behaviors of your international audience ensures your website is not only discoverable but also readable and relevant to people worldwide.

Why do you need a multilingual SEO strategy?

Put simply, you need a multilingual SEO strategy to do more international business. When content meets your audience in their native language, it boosts engagement, improves local search rankings, and enhances the overall user experience. This leads to increased brand visibility and potentially more conversions from international markets.

How to boost multilingual SEO

Now, let's see how to perform multilingual search engine optimization:

Step 1: Pick your target countries

Identify the countries and markets you should target by analyzing traffic on your website and competitors’ websites.

Analyze your traffic

Start by analyzing your website's current international traffic to identify where your visitors are coming from. Use tools like Google Analytics to see which countries give you a high number of visitors but low engagement or conversion rates. These countries might be ripe for multilingual SEO.

Analyze competitors’ traffic

Keep an eye on your competitors and their SEO strategies. What keywords are they targeting? What kind of content do they produce? This will give you an insight into what works in these markets.

Ahrefs' Site Explorer feature can help you analyze local competitors and their SEO strategies, revealing keywords they target and the kind of content they produce.

Note: Some countries can have a shared language but different local preferences. Therefore, make sure to tailor your content not just to a language, but to the specific region where that language is spoken.

Screenshot of Ahrefs’ site explorer feature Don’t forget about legal considerations.

Different countries have varying laws regarding online content, advertising, and data privacy. For example, Europe's GDPR affects how you handle user data. It's vital to ensure your SEO strategies comply with these laws.

Tools like OneTrust or TrustArc can help you handle this tricky part, ensuring you're aware of and compliant with relevant regulations.

Step 2: Perform keyword research

Screenshot of Ahrefs’ keyword explorer Once you've pinpointed your target countries and understood what you’re up against, the next step is keyword research. This is where you identify the specific terms and phrases your target audience is using in their online searches. It goes like this:

  • Translate content. Start by translating your best-performing content into the target language. Tools like Google Translate can be a starting point, but their output should always be refined by professionals.
  • Use local keyword research tools. Use Ahrefs or other SEO tools to explore popular search terms in various countries and languages. Such tools also provide insight into keyword competition, search volume, and the traffic potential of the topic. Using tools like Google Trends can also help you gauge the popularity of search terms in specific regions.
  • Understand search intent. To understand the search intent, examine the top search results page (SERP) for the keywords you are interested in. Pay attention to the tiltes, content structure inside the pages, coverage of related sub-topics and depth of knowledge across each article.
  • Consider long-tail keywords. Focus on main keywords first, but also include long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords are specific, longer phrases with less traffic, so they shouldn't be your main focus at the start. However, they're useful as secondary keywords in your content. They have less competition and bring in targeted visitors.

Step 3: Pick a URL structure

The URL structure you choose plays a crucial role in how search engines index your site and how users interact with it across different languages. A wrong URL can cause you to disappear from search engine results. URLs range from separate domains to subdomains, subdirectories, subfolders, and more.

Separate domains or country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)

These are unique domain names assigned to specific countries. Using ccTLDs means setting up a completely separate domain for each target country.

  • Example: For Spanish, use www.example.es instead of your main site’s www.example.com.
  • Advantages: It is familiar to users. Search engines treat local domains better .
  • Challenges: It requires managing multiple domains and more resources for SEO. It is more difficult to build domain authority.

Note: If you want something more globally oriented, use Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) like (.com) or (.org). Combining a gTLD with language-specific subdirectories or subdomains might be more appropriate when you're targeting multiple countries and want to maintain a more international presence.

Subdomains

Subdomains function as separate branches of your main site and can be used to host different language versions. They offer a balance between total separation and connection to your main domain.

  • Example: For the French market, you might use fr.example.com.
  • Advantages: Search engines treat subdomains as dedicated local domains; helps maintain brand identity.
  • Challenges: Subdomains require heavy link-building from scratch; more complex to manage.

Subfolders (subdirectories)

These are separate folders within the same domain. To add a new language to your site, simply create a new subfolder.

  • Example: www.example.com/fr
  • Advantages: Extremely easy to create and maintain; instantly gain domain authority for new pages; less effort for link-building
  • Challenges: Offers fewer website customization options.

Note: The ideal URL structure for your multilingual site depends on various factors like your business budget, IT resources, and specific target market regulations. While subdirectories are often the most straightforward, it's important to assess your needs and capabilities before deciding.

Step 4: Content translation and localization

Content translation is the conversion of your website's content from one language to another. Localization goes a step further by adapting the content to suit the cultural context of your target audience. This includes modifying cultural references, images, and even currencies to make the content more relatable and authentic for users from different regions.

Localize numbers and visuals

Localization goes deeper than translation. It includes all aspects that make your content feel homegrown in a new market. Some items to localize include:

  • Numbers, currencies, and units: Adapt pricing into local currencies and convert measurements to local units. Learn more in our number localization guide.
  • Visuals: Localize UI elements and images to align with your new locale.
  • Cultural context: Modify content to include local references, holidays, and events relevant to each region.
  • Timing: Schedule your content releases according to local time zones, especially for time-sensitive information like promotions.

Localize content

Now it’s time to localize your website content.

While machine translation tools can kickstart the process, they often miss the subtleties of language and culture. The best approach is to pre-translate your content with DeepL or Google Translate and have it refined by human editors.

Here’s how to localize your website content using a professional localization management platform, Centus:

  1. Import your content to Centus
  2. Translate the content instantly with DeepL or Google Translate
  3. Assign the content to an editor
  4. Track and manage the editing process
  5. Export the translated content

Centus’ dashboard

Step 5: Localize on-page SEO elements

Optimizing on-page SEO for multilingual websites involves translating and adjusting elements like title tags, meta descriptions, URL slugs, alt texts, and even internal links to suit each language's audience. This process ensures your website is both searchable and user-friendly across your different target regions.

Here’s how to localize on-page SEO elements:

Title tags

Localized title tags should capture the essence of your page in the target language. You should keep them within 50-60 characters for optimal display in search results and include relevant, localized keywords. It's recommended to take in account pixels limitation - title has a cut off point of around 580 pixels in the desktop results and around 485 pixels for mobile results.

You can test your title view in SERP with the MOZ tool or preview it with SEO plugins.

Here’s an example of what a title tag should look like: Screenshot of a Centus title tag However, avoid overstuffing title tags with keywords or creating misleading titles that don't reflect the actual content of the page.

Meta descriptions

These are short snippets of text (around 155-160 characters) that summarize your web page content and appear under your page title on search engine results pages (SERPs). It is important to create unique meta descriptions for each language your website targets. This ensures the descriptions are relevant and appealing to users searching in those languages.

Incorporate localized keywords strategically and include a compelling call to action to encourage clicks.  Screenshot of a Centus' blog post meta description Avoid duplicating the same meta description across different pages, and don’t overuse keywords, as this can be off-putting to readers and search engines alike.

URL slugs

Customize URL slugs for each language and make sure they are easy to read. Also, include keywords relevant to the target language. Avoid using long or complicated slugs, as they can be confusing for users and search engines.

Alt text for images

Alt texts describe image content for people who may not be able to see that image. It also makes it easier for search engines to crawl your site and suggest it in search results. Always localize the alt text for each image in the target language.

Effective alt text is concise, descriptive, and may contain relevant keywords. Avoid overusing keywords in the alt text, as this can be seen as spammy by search engines.

An alt text for the image below would look like this:

alt= “Hands holding two sheets of papers with English and Chinese text, indicating content translation” Hands holding two sheets of papers with English and Chinese text, indicating content translation Source: Tarjama

Checkout pages, contact forms, and newsletter sign-up forms

These elements should be fully translated and localized, including all button texts, instructions, and error messages. Make sure the layout and content are adjusted according to the cultural preferences of your target market. Avoid using generic, non-localized forms, as they can lead to user frustration and reduced engagement.

Error messages

Error messages on your website need to be clear, understandable, and localized for different languages. This means translating error messages to match the language of each version of your site. Non-localized error messages can lead to confusion and a poor user experience, as visitors might not understand the message.

Internal linking

Maintain a structured internal linking system within each language version using relevant anchor texts. In this step, it is important to link to related content within the same language for a more enjoyable user experience. Avoid linking to irrelevant pages or overloading a single page with too many links, as this can dilute the value of each link and confuse your website visitors.

Step 6: Connect localized pages with hreflang tags

Hreflang tags are HTML attributes used to specify the language and geographical targeting of a webpage. When you have content in multiple languages and regions, hreflangs help search engines understand which version of a page is appropriate for users based on their language settings and location.

The use of hreflang tags helps prevent duplicate content penalties and ensures users see the most relevant version based on their language and location settings. For example, if someone in Spain searches for your services, hreflang allows them to find your Spanish-language page rather than the English one.

Usually, hreflang tags are added to the website with ready-to-use scripts or multilanguage SEO plugins automatically, when you create a localized version of the page. But it's recommended to understand how hreflangs should work and test their logic, especially when you need custom solutions, e.g. having the same language for different local URLs versions with geographical and language format hreflangs (e.g. en-GB).

Here’s how to use hreflang tags:

  • Determine when to use hreflang. Apply these tags when your content has multiple language or regional versions. This helps guide users to the version most appropriate for them based on their language preference or geographic location.
  • Select the correct placement for hreflang tags. You can place hreflang annotations directly in the HTML <head> of each page, within HTTP headers for non-HTML files, or in your XML sitemap. Stick with one method for consistency and to avoid confusing search engines.
  • Ensure complete hreflang annotations. Every language or regional variant of a page should contain a self-referential hreflang annotation, plus annotations for every other variant. This interlinks all versions and confirms their relationship to search engines.
  • Use the 'x-default' hreflang attribute. This is an optional catch-all entry for when no language or regional URL in the set is an exact match for the user's preferences. It's useful for guiding users who don't match any of the specified languages to a default page.
  • Use the correct codes. Follow the ISO 639-1 format for language codes and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for country codes.

Here are some examples of hreflang tags for a website that has English, Spanish, and French versions:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/en/page" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="https://www.example.com/es/page" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="https://www.example.com/fr/page" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="https://www.example.com/" />

In this example, each page specifies alternate versions in English (en), Spanish (es), and French (fr), as well as a default version (x-default) for users whose language preferences don't match any of the specified options.

For a detailed explanation and examples of how to implement hreflang tags correctly, check out Google’s guidelines.

Step 7: Build backlinks

Link building involves acquiring links from relevant and authoritative sources in the languages and countries you're targeting. Backlinks from high-traffic websites in specific regions can introduce your website to a broader audience within those target markets. Strong backlink profiles in multiple languages can also improve your website's ranking for relevant search queries in those languages.

It is like an approval stamp that lets Google know that you have some credibility. You can get backlinks through collaborations with complementary digital brands, guest posts, PR activities, and so on.

Here’s how it’s done:

Local directories and citations

Submit your site to local business directories and citation sites in the target region. Ensure your business listings are accurate and consistent across these platforms. For example, if you're targeting the Spanish market, you might list your business in directories like Paginas Amarillas, Google Business Profile, and Bing Places for Business.

Guest blogging and influencer collaborations

Contribute content to popular blogs and collaborate with influencers who have a presence in your target market. Guest posts should be high-quality, relevant, and provide value to the readers of the target language. For instance, a tech company might collaborate with a well-known tech blogger in Germany to reach a German-speaking audience.

PR on digital news sites

Try using paid PR to get featured in high-authority digital news outlets within your target countries. Press releases should be localized and newsworthy to catch the attention of local journalists and publications. Don't simply translate your main press release for each language; highlight how your story or product relates to specific issues or trends in the target country.

HARO requests

Use services like Help a Reporter Out (HARO) to connect with journalists looking for expert insights. Respond to queries related to your industry in different languages to gain backlinks from reputable websites. It’s important that you tailor your profiles and answers to each language you target, so you can showcase your expertise in that specific context.

Digital PR campaigns

Run digital PR campaigns to boost brand awareness and earn links from local media. Start by creating compelling, locally relevant content that resonates with your target audience in each region. Reach out to local media outlets, journalists, online communities, influencers, and bloggers who can share your story and provide valuable backlinks.

These links not only improve your website's authority but also its visibility in local search results, which is crucial for multi-language SEO.

Use analytics to track the impact of your PR efforts and refine your strategy for even better results in different linguistic markets.

Step 8: Don’t forget mobile

With over 4.32 billion active mobile internet users, optimizing for mobile is no longer optional. Mobile optimization ensures that users can access your website in any situation, regardless of location or device.

Here's what to focus on when performing multilingual SEO for mobile:

  • Responsive design. Implement a responsive web design that adjusts seamlessly to different screen sizes and resolutions. This makes your website easily accessible and navigable on a wide range of devices.
  • Mobile page load speed. Optimize your website's loading times for mobile users. This can be achieved by compressing images, using browser caching, and minifying CSS, JavaScript, and HTML. Tools like Google's PageSpeed Insights can provide recommendations on how to improve your page load speed.
  • Mobile navigation. Simplify your site's navigation for mobile users. Menus should be easy to access and use on smaller screens, and touch elements should be appropriately sized to prevent misclicks.

Step 9: Monitor and analyze SEO performance

SEO isn’t something you do once and forget about. There are so many factors that can affect your “fool-proof” strategy. To ensure your multilingual site SEO is effective, regularly check how well your website is performing, what new trends have emerged, and which keywords to re-target.

You can use tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console to track the performance of each language version of your site. This helps you see which parts are doing well and where improvements might be needed.

Also, after making significant updates to your site, it's a good idea to closely monitor how these changes affect your traffic and rankings.

By staying on top of your website's performance and being ready to tweak your strategy, you can make sure your site stays relevant and effective for users in different languages and regions.

Manage your multilingual SEO with Centus

Centus’ dashboard Multilingual SEO might seem like you’re juggling chainsaws on a speeding train. However, with a little guidance, elbow grease, and proper tools, you’ll start attracting foreign customers in no time. Speaking of proper tools: meet Centus.

With Centus, you can perform multilingual SEO without the nightmare of countless spreadsheets, scattered files, and lengthy email threads. Use this professional localization management platform to translate your website content, localize website images, and even perform quality checks—all in one place.

Centus integrates seamlessly with WordPress, Salesforce, Shopify, and other platforms, making it ideal for businesses looking to improve their international presence.

Discover how Centus can help you boost your multilingual SEO in our free demo.

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