It’s my view that the web is global and any online strategy requires a language element to some extent. To explain this, let me first address what SEO is, and then we can move on to examining multilingual considerations.

What is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. It is the process of optimizing your website to make it appear higher on the results page of your search engine of choice. The higher your website ranks, the more relevant visitors your site will have. As Brian Clarke says, “The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of the Google search results.”  If your users can’t find you, they’ll never be able to consume your content.

Richard Brooks
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Richard Brooks

Lots of research and debate go into what makes a page rank in a particular place in a search engine at a particular time. Each search engine has a series of algorithms which determine the position. This process has been shrouded in secrecy, and changes over time. There is a tremendous potential payback to ranking highly for the right search terms, and terms with a high search volume are extremely valuable. A huge industry has grown up around getting your page to rank in the highest possible place.

I run a website translation company. That means we localize our customers websites for different languages, and then make them suitable for new consumers all over the world. As a result, I get to be involved in some complex global SEO strategies and get to see what works.

This article is intended as a starting point, to help you to develop a strategy, experiment with getting your online content enjoyed around the world, and maybe even make the jump to publishing your content in a different language.

Why does it need to be multilingual?

What’s the official language of the United States? It’s a trick question… there isn’t an official one. Data from the 2015 US Census puts English in first place with Spanish second (up 200% to over 37 million native speakers since the last census). So even for the home US market, you’ll have linguistic considerations.

There are over 3 billion people online (40% of the world population, up from 1% in 1995). And it’s no surprise that the growth is coming from developing economies. This list shows the top ten countries currently online (screenshot from

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Look at India ranked third after China and the United States! There are almost 250 million people online, and that’s less than 20% of the country’s population. With the number of Indian internet users growing at 14%, it looks like it will be at the top in a few years.

Once you zoom in on a particular region, then you can consider how that country interacts with the internet. For example, some are desktop-based, but most growth is coming from mobile. Google has taken notice. Their latest mobile algorithm update boosts mobile-friendly pages to the top of the mobile search results.

Your SEO strategy will change depending on which market and demographic your content will be aimed at. Different users in different countries use different search engines. Each one has its own set of rules. The good news is that there are similar rules for each, so we can put the basics of an international campaign together as we drill down into each sector.

Search outside of the US

In the US, your search traffic will probably be in this order: Google, Yahoo, and then Bing. They all publish fairly good webmaster tools (information to help you appear in their search engines), and all are following a pattern of tenaciously fighting spam.

To give you an insight into where some quick wins will be, look first at your own weblogs and analytics. You might notice that some of your content is attracting visitors from a particular region or country. From there, you can start to think about your keywords. Your keywords are the search terms people use to find you. You’ll need to localize them, given the context in which you want the new content to appear. For instance, the new target audience might be a different demographic. At this point, it’s helpful to start a Google Alert for any localized keywords (even if you’re not ready to translate) and to secure the local domain names if budgets allow.

Search outside the US doesn’t always come from Google. Let’s have a look at a few examples to show you that the whole world doesn’t use Google, and that each engine is similar but does have its own nuances to consider.

  • Naver. In South Korea, the most popular search platform is Naver. Once upon a time it was powered by Yahoo’s Overture system, but this has now changed as they have their own engine and adword system. Their webmaster tools here are only currently in Korean but there is an unofficial translation.
  • Yandex. This is the search engine of choice for Russia. Last year, they claimed they didn’t use links as an indicator of popularity, but later admitted they do. Their engine is supposed to be intelligent which means it will use data from user experience to ‘learn’ about which pages are more relevant for each search. Considerations need to be given to things like the click-through rate and dwell time more so than the traditional engines. An English translation of their webmaster tools is here.
  • Seznam. This search engine is used in the Czech Republic claims it’s the most popular in the country. It’s hard to find hard data supporting this claim, but if you are in this region it will deliver traffic. I couldn’t find any published guidelines (even in Czech), and there’s very little talk in the local SEO community. That said, looking at what ranks for competitive keywords, I’d say on-page optimization is more important that Google’s on-page optimization, links from .cz domains count for more, and an Exact Match Domain (i.e. a domain that describes your product/service) works well.

Local Signifiers

You’ll need to tell the search engines which region the content is intended for. Here’s how.

How to Host

You have 3 choices.

  • (subdomains)
  • (subdirectories)
  • www.domain.xx (ccTLDs)

Where xx is the country code (eg .fr for France), be aware that some codes are not country specific and shouldn’t really be used on their own to signify a site’s intended target audience. There are positives and negatives attached to each choice. For example:

Subdomains. It’s great because the cost is low, and they have minimum maintenance issues. The bad news is that subdomains tend not to rank as well in search engines, and they might dilute domain authority.

Subdirectories. It’s great because they are low cost, easy to setup, and will improve the overall domain (in essence, all inbound links belong to the same domain). It’s bad because they are a weak signal to local search engines and users.

ccTLDs. This is the method of choice if your budget stretches to it, as you’ll have to purchase and administer a LOT of domains on a big project. Cost is the restricting factor here as you are, in effect, running different sites. Research suggests that users are more likely to buy from a localized domain. Also, depending on your business model, it might be worth localizing the domain name.

Use Common Sense

Use the method listed in webmaster tools to tell each search engine which region each site (or subdirectory or subdomain) has been created for. Google has a good explanation about how to do this. The IP address is no longer an indicator of audience, so your site can be physically hosted anywhere provided that it doesn’t interfere with load times (which will negatively impact rank position in the long term).

Even Google admits this isn’t an exact science and you should use ‘common sense’. Additional indicators to recommend are:

  • Localize your social media strategy. Social media use changes over time (e.g. Facebook is shrinking and Tumblr is doubling each year), and also varies depending on region. Use the appropriate social media sites to reach out to people in the relevant communities. This, in turn, builds local links, local interest, and local user engagement.
  • Make the language on the page obvious. The search engines will look at the visible content on the page, then index that with the corresponding language tag. Think about improving the user experience as much as possible by translating the whole page (not just the navigation), having dedicated pages for each language, and cross-linking to other language variants of your site.
  • Translate all relevant metadata.
  • Build local links. Never, ever buy links. It’s bad practice. If you get caught buying them you’ll get banned from the search engines. Reach out to local influencers in their own language. Create great content that adds value that people will want to link to and share with their network.

Using the hreflang annotation

Duplicate content is considered spam. So, does translated content fall into this category? What about content which is very similar to the original but different because it’s targeted for a different region (such as different currency or spelling)? Since 2012, there has been a solution. The answer is to use the hreflang attribute solution. Using this, you’ll be able to create localized versions for different regions or languages of your website without damaging the original content.

A great application for this is when you want to target English speakers in the UK, US, China (research suggests there’s a large middle class population who’ll buy in English), and Ireland. You can do this by inserting the hreflang code into the top of your HTML (in the <head> tag), in this instance that would look like this:

Or you can now create an hreflang sitemap. The team at Media Flow created a nice tool for creating a hreflang sitemap which makes the process a lot easier.

Measure Your Results

Results pages are different in each country, so you should track each site’s performance against the competition independently. Be sure to look at how your site ranks in the local search engine of choice, and see who’s above you. From here, you can reverse engineer strategies to see where they get their links from, who they link to, and even what their internal link structure looks like.

You can either ask a local SEO company to report on this for you or use the tools available. Some favorites of mine include:

Base your marketing decisions on the results. See what’s working, then gradually improve it over time. Soon, you’ll be on the top of all the search engines all over the world.

Can I use Google Translate?

I work in the localization industry. All the time, I get asked, “Why can’t I just use Google Translate? Why do I need a professional translator?” The truth is, it depends on a lot of things. It would be sour grapes to dismiss the technology and say it’s terrible, because it isn’t. Sometimes machine translation works, but sometimes it’s just not suitable. A lot of it depends on the content creation process you adopt.

A fun test I like to play with is to putting copy into an online translator of choice, then take the translated copy, and translate that translation again into another language you can read. Take the second translation, and translate the content back to the original language. This video is THE best explanation of what happens when you do that. It’s worrying, because it’s using their own language rules to create the language, You can see how content gets distorted!

Sadly, Google’s own advice is inconsistent. Here’s a post from them trying to get you to install a widget to automatically translate your website using their machine translation tool:

However, in their Google Webmaster Tools they suggest that ‘automated translations don’t always make sense and could be viewed as spam’. OK, I suppose that’s open to interpretation, but if I wanted my site to appear in the SERPs (search engine result pages), I would not use automated translations on any of my company’s website(s). And depending on your online content strategy, the translated sections of your pages might reflect on the main content.

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From Google’s Webmaster Tools

I’m not just picking on Google Translate, as there are lots of other automated translations (like Bing Translator, Collins Translator, and Systran Translator) out there. My advice would be to avoid low quality content altogether.

To sum up, creating content for a global audience is far from simple. Getting it right involves taking complex cultural differences into account, as well as ensuring you have the technical expertise to deliver a great website experience for your visitors.

We have produced a free digital guide called the Digital Content Guide to International Business Expansion that shows you the best practices for developing successful international online content.

Good luck, and if you ever want to talk about anything at all, send me a tweet at @RichardMBrooks.

List of tools and further reading