Multilingual SEO: How to Reach Global Audiences through Organic Search

Global business

Multilingual SEO is a set of best practices that can help your site rank high in search engines in different languages. Get to know them all.
Global business blog category featured image | Phrase

The internet has created a big playing field for businesses—one where the competition is global. Making your website available in multiple languages is a great first step to increasing your global reach.

Nevertheless, if you truly want to maximize the chances of your website being found by international audiences, you need to put some thought into multilingual SEO (search engine optimization) as well. This is essential for successfully marketing your product globally.

In this in-depth guide, we’ll look at how to make your website accessible and visible for search engines around the world. We'll cover both technical and content marketing implications so that your website ranks consistently high in every language.

What is multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO is the process of optimizing a multilingual website for search engines in different countries. The goal is to make your website rank higher in search results for each of the languages you target.

When you consider that 60% of all Google search queries are in English, international businesses need to make sure they’re not missing out on the other 40%. By not properly optimizing their site for foreign languages, they could be losing out on a lot of traffic and potential customers.

Multilingual SEO isn’t rocket science, but it'll require more than just translating your website into another language. If you want to reach international audiences, you need to think about both the technical and content marketing aspects of your strategy.

Throughout this guide, we’ll be talking about multilingual SEO as a strategy to reach users speaking different languages. A similar but slightly different concept is that of international SEO, also known as multiregional SEO. Unlike multilingual SEO, international SEO targets specific countries and regions, rather than people speaking particular languages.

Most of the technical and marketing considerations below will work for both international and multilingual SEO, but we’ll address them in the context of the latter.

Technical considerations

Search engines don’t want to frustrate users with content that’s meant for another region or that they simply don’t understand. That’s why you should optimize your website’s technical structure for search engines to properly index your content depending on the user’s language and location.

Things are easier for search engines when it comes to language as they’re quite apt at detecting language from text. When it comes to regions, though, things are quite a bit trickier: There’s no easy way for a computer to figure out which country a particular webpage is meant for by analyzing its content.

To establish the region of a given webpage, search engines resort to several signals, which we’ll cover in the sections below:

  • URL structure
  • Server location
  • Webmaster Tools
  • hreflang tags

URL structure

The structure of the URLs that you use to differentiate between different language/regional versions of the same content is one of the most important technical factors to consider. There are 3 common approaches to this:

  • ccTLDs, or country-code top-level domains: Some examples of ccTLDs are .uk for the UK, .fr for France, or .es for Spain. Using ccTLDs allows search engines to easily understand the region of a given website. The downside is that ccTLDs are pretty expensive to buy and manage, so it’s not very practical for smaller companies.
  • Subdomains: This is the part of the URL that goes right after “https://” and before the domain name, e.g., “en.example.com,” “de.example.com,” etc. This is a much more affordable option than ccTLDs, and it’s also easier to manage.
  • Subdirectories: You can also put your language versions in subdirectories, e.g., “example.com/en/,” “example.com/de/,” etc. A major difference between subdirectories and subdomains is that subdirectories are all hosted on the same server. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your needs and capabilities.

There’s a lot of debate about whether subdomains or subdirectories are better for SEO. Although Google itself claims that there’s no difference between the two, some SEO experts still prefer subdirectories.

Server location

Search engines can also use the server location where your website is hosted as a hint to identify the region. This used to be a major signal, but with the advent of content delivery networks (CDNs), you can now host your website virtually anywhere and it will be served to users in whatever region you choose.

That being said, there’s still an advantage to hosting your website relatively close to your target audience. The impact for SEO, in this case, is more about speed rather than detecting a region, as page loading speed is a major ranking factor for search engines.

Webmaster Tools

Where automatic detection fails, you can also use manual methods to tell search engines about your website. One of them is Webmaster Tools, a set of tools offered by Google and some other search engines where you can specify the languages and geographic locations for each page.

This can be useful if you have a gTLD—generic top-level domain—that you only want to target specific countries. For example, if you’re using a “.com” domain for your American business only, you might want to manually specify that only queries from the USA trigger the .com version of your website.

hreflang tags

Another manual way to tell search engines about your website’s language and region versions is by using hreflang tags. These tags tell the search engine which one of the different versions of your website it should serve for different languages. For example, for Spanish, the hreflang tag will show “es” (the code for Spanish) followed by the webpage version ending in “/es/”.

Unlike the previous option, this is done not in an external tool but right in the source code of your website.

There are 3 options for placing the hreflang tags:

In the <head> section of your HTML code:

<head>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”https://example.com/en/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”https://example.com/de/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr” href=”https://example.com/fr/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=”https://example.com/es/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ja” href=”https://example.com/ja/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”zh-hans” href=”https://example.com/zh-hans/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”zh-hant” href=”https://example.com/zh-hant/”>

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ko” href=”https://example.com/ko/”>

</head>

In the HTTP response header:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK

Content-Type: application/pdf

Link: <https://example.com/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”en”,

<https://example.com/de/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”de”,

<https://example.com/fr/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”fr”,

<https://example.com/es/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”es”,

<https://example.com/ja/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”ja”,

<https://example.com/zh-Hans/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”zh-Hans”,

<https://example.com/zh-Hant/whitepaper.pdf>; rel=”alternate”;hreflang=”zh-Hant”,

In the XML sitemap:

<url>

    <loc>https://example.com/blog/sample-blog-article/</loc>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”https://example.com/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”https://example.com/de/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr” href=”https://example.com/fr/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=”https://example.com/es/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”it” href=”https://example.com/it/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

    <xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”nl” href=”https://example.com/nl/blog/sample-blog-article/”/>

</url>

The choice between the 3 options depends on the structure of your website. If you have a large website with many pages, it’s easier to manage hreflang tags in an XML sitemap. Managing them in the HTML code, though, makes it easier to change them if you need to. Finally, HTTP headers are a good option if the document in question doesn’t have HTML as such—say if it’s a PDF file.

Note that you don’t only specify the language of the current page but also that of all the other language/regional versions of the same page. This lets search engines know that the pages are different versions of each other. One of the benefits here is that they share the same ranking signals, so if one page ranks well in search results, the others will, too.

There are a lot of details to consider when using hreflang tags, so you might want to involve an SEO expert in the process before implementing them. This is especially important if your website is large and complex.

The above covers the technical basics of multilingual SEO, so what about the marketing side of things?

Market research

Multilingual SEO is more than just making sure that your content is available and well-indexed in different languages. To make your website relevant to people speaking a particular language or living in a particular country, you need to find out what customers really want, i.e. consider their needs, expectations, and behaviors.

Before launching in the international marketplace, it makes sense to determine if your targeted market is the right fit for your product. Here are some aspects to take into account.

Locally relevant topics

One of the best ways to make your content relevant to a particular market is to write about topics that are specific to that market. This could be anything from local news and events to cultural differences or common problems people in that market face. More on that below.

Naturally, not all kinds of businesses and products will have locally relevant topics to write about. However, even when simply retargeting an existing blog post or piece of content, adding a local angle can make it much more relevant and engaging for people in that market. For example, if you’re shipping software as a service (SaaS) for managing social media accounts, you would want to focus on different social media platforms in different markets, e.g. Facebook and Twitter in the US, WeChat in China, etc.

User habits

People in different markets have different user habits, which means they expect different things from the websites they visit.

For example, the UAE has a mobile internet penetration rate of 95%, while in India only 32% of people report owning a smartphone at all. So your UAE and Indian versions of the website should approach mobile optimization differently.

Other aspects that can differ from country to country are the median age of the population, their level of education, and even internet speed. All these factors can influence how people interact with your website and what they expect from it

Pew Research Center provides some interesting data on internet usage around the world, which can be useful for understanding user habits in different markets.

Competitor research

Your competitors are targeting the same market as you, so a shortcut to understanding what works in that market is to look at what they’re doing. This includes everything from the topics they write about and how they optimize their website for different user habits to the backlinks they have and where those links come from.

Competitor research can be done manually by looking at their website and social media accounts, or by using a tool like Semrush or Ahrefs to understand their SEO and link-building efforts.

Nonetheless, keep in mind that to beat your competitors in their home field, you need to be one step ahead of them—so don’t just copy what they’re doing. Always try to find ways to improve on it.

For example, if your competitor is targeting a certain keyword and ranking quite high for it, but  their content isn’t very comprehensive, you could write a longer and more detailed article on the same topic to outrank them.

Naturally, you'd first need to conduct keyword research to make sure that the keyword you’re targeting is actually worth going after—so let’s look at that next.

Multilingual SEO keywords research

Keyword research is a process of finding the right multilingual SEO keywords and phrases that people use to search for the products and services you offer. The goal is to find keywords that have a high enough monthly search volume to be worth targeting, but not so much competition that it would be difficult or expensive to rank for them.

In the case of multilingual SEO, keywords used in one country or region might not be relevant in another. That’s why you’ll likely need to adapt your keyword research process to each new market.

Here are some tips for conducting multilingual keyword research:

1. Localize your SEO strategy

When conducting keyword research for a new market, it’s important to think about how people in that market search. Different markets can use different keywords for the same product. A farmer looking for a pest control solution in the UK might search for "pesticide for mice", and a literal translation of this keyword might not work in markets where mice aren't a common problem.

An easy way to find out how people in a new market search is by looking at Google Ads Keyword Planner, which shows you the monthly search volume for various keywords and phrases. Another useful tool is Google Trends, which lets you compare search volume for different keywords over time.

2. Rely on local SEO experts

When conducting keyword research in a new language, it can be tempting to use machine translation tools to quickly translate your target keywords into the new language.

While modern machine translation can be incredibly helpful for certain tasks, a human localizer's judgment on whether a particular keyword or phrase will actually be used in a given market is still invaluable.

SEO experts with knowledge of the target market can help you figure out the user intent behind certain search queries. This will help you avoid targeting keywords that might get a lot of searches but not result in conversions.

3. Look at your existing traffic

If your website is already multilingual, you can use Google Analytics to see which keywords are already bringing visitors to your site. This data can give you some ideas for new keywords to target. For example, if you sell shoes and see that people are already searching for “buy shoes online” in French, you might want to target that keyword.

4. Target local search engines in each market

Although Google is the most popular search engine in many countries, it’s not necessarily the only one. In some markets, there are other locally-popular search engines that you should target as well, such as Baidu in China or Yahoo! Japan in Japan.

5. Optimize for app store search

If you have a mobile app, don’t forget about app store optimization—as most people use it to find new apps. You can do this manually by typing in a keyword and seeing what other suggestions pop up in the dropdown:

Spanish search query on a mobile screen | Phrase

You can also use tools like Sensor Tower or data.ai to get more data on which keywords are popular in different countries.

Link building

Backlinks are links from other websites to your own website. According to most sources, they’re among the highest ranking factors on search engines, and so getting high-quality links from relevant websites is an essential part of a successful SEO strategy.

When talking about international link building below, we assume that your content, written in English, already has many backlinks seeded around the web (if not, have a look at our 10 tips on how to write global-ready content).

Are those links optimized for multilingual SEO, though?

While your localized pages may enjoy some of the link equity from your main website, you may not rank much. This means finding websites that are relevant to the market you target and getting them to link to your localized pages.

Here are some of the most common and effective ways to make an “organic” case for other websites to link to yours:

  • Creating great content that people want to link to (e.g., blog posts, infographics, etc.)
  • Creating tools and resources that people want to link to (e.g., calculators, checklists, etc.)
  • Getting involved in the community by writing guest posts or participating in forums and Q&A sites
  • Creating partnerships with other websites in your niche or industry
  • Getting featured on popular blogs and news sites (e.g., by writing a guest post)

None of the above may be as simple as making a few technical changes to your website. It requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but the benefits speak for themselves—which brings us to perhaps the most important point for multilingual SEO: creating strong multilingual content.

Create strong multilingual content

Content is the foundation of any successful SEO strategy, whether local, multilingual, multi-regional, international, or global. If you don’t have strong content, it doesn’t matter how many hreflang tags you add or how locally relevant the topics you write about are.

When creating multilingual content, it’s key to make sure that your original content is “internationalized” from the start, i.e. written in a way that’s easy to translate. This means using simple language, avoiding idioms and slang, and making sure that even people who are not native speakers of your language can understand what you’re saying.

Next, you can start thinking about translation and localization, i.e. making sure that your content is relevant to the local market. These are complex processes that require an in-depth understanding of both the source and target languages as well as the subject matter. We could write volumes about the topic, but for now, we’ll just give you a few tips on how to get it right.

Rely on human translation

Automatic translation tools are great when you need to quickly translate a document for informational purposes, or when particular website content has low visibility. However, to produce high-quality content that will rank well on search engines and convert visitors into customers, machine translation is best coupled with post-editing by human experts who can adjust the output and localize the keywords. To make the best of it, make sure you hire professional translators who are native speakers of the target language and have a deep understanding of your industry.

Consider transcreation

If you’re targeting a country or region where the culture is very different from your own, it might be difficult to make a translation—however good it is—achieve the same effect as the original. In such cases, it might be a better idea to transcreate your content—adapt it to the target market while still maintaining its core message and meaning.

Use a glossary or term base

If you have a large website or blog, there’s a good chance that you use some industry-specific terms and phrases in your content. A multilingual glossary is a great way to ensure that your content is consistent across all languages and that your translators use the same terms and phrases in all of your content.

Multilingual SEO: Handle with care and reap the rewards

Multilingual SEO is a complex process that requires careful planning and execution. It’s not something you can do overnight, but if done right, it will pay off in the long run by increasing your reach and making your website more visible to international audiences.

The key point to remember is that, first and foremost, you need to create great content that’s relevant to the local market. You also need to spend some time on technical considerations, such as choosing the right URL structure or putting hreflang tags throughout your website code.

Finally, don’t try to cut corners on translation and localization. It might be tempting to use automatic translation tools or to hire a cheap translator, but this will likely lead to poor results. Instead, invest in professional translators who understand the nuances of both the source and target languages as well as your niche or industry.

If you want to further deepen your knowledge, check out the following guides: