Why multilingual SEO is important
If you’re looking to bring a truly global audience to your content, there’s no substitute for a content strategy that includes multiple languages.
The importance of having a multilingual content and SEO strategy has only grown as the internet connectivity penetrates the entire world. In 1996, approximately 80% of the internet was written in English, but by 2005 this percentage had fallen to 45%. Despite its value, the challenges of creating multilingual content can hold you back. To help you get started, we’ve put together a basic guide to demystify the process and give you the tools you need to succeed.
What is multilingual SEO?
SEO generally refers to the improvement of a website’s ability to be found in search engine ranking pages. Multilingual SEO has the same goal as standard SEO but with the added goal of ranking for searches in multiple regions and in multiple languages.
To help searchers find results that are most relevant to their local circumstances and needs, search engines like Google have created localized versions of their search engine rankings. This not only allows users to find information in their preferred language, but it also allows for the delivery of localized search results.
By optimizing a website’s structure, content, and metadata, you can gain access to the 75% of internet users across the globe who don’t speak or read English.
Step 1: Choose the Right Domain Structure
In order for websites to take advantage of the ability of search engines to deliver these localized results, they must first decide on a domain structure that best suits their situation. There are two types of domains: ccTLD (country code top-level domain) and gTLD (generic top level domain). These two choices give us three main domain structure options to choose from. For easy reference, the below chart includes the pros and cons for each as provided by Google.
Another thing to consider before deciding on a domain structure is the interaction between region and language. Although many countries have an official language spoken by the majority of residents, some have large bilingual or multilingual populations. It’s important to not confuse region and language within your domain structure.
To avoid this, you can use a combination of the structures outlined above (i.e., sitename.de/en for an English version of a German site with the ccTLD structure or sitename.com/hk-en for an English version of a Hong Kong site following the subdirectory structure.)
Step 2: Transcreate Keywords
Now that we’ve figured out how to determine the right structure for our website, we can move on to its content. This makes up the bulk of the work involved in the process (in terms of time spent) and requires skilled translators for every language you plan to support.
The best way to approach this step is to begin with keyword research. Make sure your keywords are mapped out for the original version of your site. This helps avoid keyword duplication across your website and provides a “master” version that you can give to the linguists who will perform the keyword transcreation part of the process.
The keyword transcreation process is more than just translating the keywords that you have in your master keyword list. Because of the differences in language, culture, and how searcher interact with search engines differently around the world, each keyword needs an equivalent (or equivalents) that will satisfy search intent, has sufficient search volume, and aligns with a website’s traffic goals.
To complete this keyword transcreation, it’s best to work with linguists who are skilled at translation, but also show some basic understanding of SEO practices and willingness to be trained in keyword research.
Step 3: Transcreate Titles, Meta Descriptions, and Page Content
After the keyword list has been transcreated for every supported language, transcreation and localization of the rest of the content can begin. Give both your master keyword list and the corresponding transcreated keywords to your translator or translation agency so they can incorporate them into their translations as they work.
For titles and meta descriptions, SEO best practices still apply. Make sure you conform to the following guidelines when transcreating titles and meta descriptions:
- Stay within SERP width limits
- Titles should be between 200 and 480 pixels wide
- Meta descriptions should be between 700 and 920 pixels wide
- Use copy that is relevant and engaging for potential users to click on
- Do not duplicate titles and meta descriptions
- Do not use double quotation marks in meta descriptions (which are used in HTML to indicate where the meta description begins and ends)
Because all languages are not equally “compact,” content in different languages may take up more or less space on the page. This isn’t a problem for standard page content, which effectively has no limit, but it sometimes has a very noticeable impact when it comes to titles and meta descriptions.
The hard pixel width limit for titles and meta descriptions generally means that languages that are more compact can contain more information (such as Chinese), while others (like German) might need to be truncated to fit within these limits.
Due to the cost involved in hiring professional translators to complete the transcreation and localization process, you may be tempted to resort to the much cheaper option of machine translation. Although this technology has come a long way, it still produces results that are far inferior to that produced by skilled human translators.
And poor translations not only have the potential to put off users from reading your content, it can also lead to a penalty from Google. If you don’t have the budget to transcreate and localize your site into all the languages you want to target, don’t cut corners with machines translation. Instead, consider working on one language at a time or waiting until you can secure the budget needed to do the job right.
Step 4: Implement Hreflang Tags for All Pages
Hreflang tags are a critical part of implementing multilingual SEO. An hreflang tag is a type of markup that is applied to pages on your website. It tells search engines to target your content to users who use a designated language in a designated region. This means that, for example, when users in Spain search for your website, they’ll get the version that you have specifically localized for them.
Hreflang tags let you completely customize your content to different audiences around the world, which not only allows users to easily find content in their preferred language but also can lead to much lower bounce rates and increased conversion rates.
Due to their technical nature, the specific steps of how to implement hreflang tags are beyond the scope of this basic guide to multilingual SEO. If you’re interested in the “nitty gritty” of adding hreflang tags to your localized content, we recommend reading through Yoast’s very detailed guide on the subject.
Putting It All Together
As technology makes the world a smaller and more connected place, the need for a global marketing strategy that includes multilingual SEO is increasingly important. Although the effort required can seem daunting, the payoff to properly implementing multilingual SEO is such that many websites simply can’t afford to not do it.
If you want to know more about how to best get started with multilingual SEO on your website, feel free to contact us. We’re happy to answer any and all of your questions!
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