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What you need to know about international SEO

If you’re looking to expand your business for an international audience, you probably already know there are two ways to grow: paid channels and organic channels.

One of the most powerful channels to grow your business is SEO (or search engine optimization). Whether your buyers live in the United States, Argentina, or Japan, they’re searching for information, products, and services like yours already. SEO makes sure your site is found.

The more your website is optimized for search, the more traffic you’ll drive to your site.

The localization process is an important component of entering new markets and writing new content. Your site may already be optimized for search engines in your native language. But as you grow your business into international markets, you’ll need to prep it for multilingual SEO, also known as international SEO.

What is multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimizing a website for search engines in multiple languages. While Google claims the majority of market share (93% globally), it’s important to drill down into your target markets to determine which search engines you want to optimize for. Besides Bing (3% globally) and Yahoo (2% globally), international search engines like Baidu (China), and Yandex (Russia) are important to consider if they’re target countries.

Google claims 80% market share in the United States, but only 53% in Russia and 6% in China. Worldwide numbers are a great place to start, but as with any localization strategy, you need to adapt based on your target markets. Search behavior may look very different based on each country, region, and language.

Let’s get some quick definitions out of the way before we dive deeper:

International SEO Expands your search efforts into international markets, optimizing your content not just in your native language but also in foreign languages. For example, international SEO involves optimizing your content for Switzerland, Italy, and France.
Regional SEO Regional SEO involves optimizing your content for a specific area, typically within a country, like a canton within Switzerland. Examples of multi-regional SEO that are also multi-lingual exist in many countries where people speak more than one language, such as approaching the Swiss market overall. This is where localizing for your target audience is important — French spoken in Canada is very different from Swiss French, for example. Targeting regional nuances requires detailed keyword research and a laser focus on your audience (more on that later).
Local SEO Focuses on brick-and-mortar locations for “near me” searches that are locale-specific, like when you search for a restaurant, attraction, or vendor that operates in your immediate area. Like regional SEO, local SEO focuses on a specific area. It’s much more relevant to small businesses, such as a fondue restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland looking to entice local diners. Local SEO can be part of your international SEO strategy but requires a much more specific approach.

 

How to build an international SEO strategy

International SEO is an extension of your content marketing strategy for an international audience. When done right, it can provide a seamless user experience for visitors from different languages, so they’re automatically seeing your site in their target language.

There are two different aspects of international SEO that website owners need to consider when building a comprehensive strategy. You can focus on the technical aspects of the website (also known as technical SEO) — structure, coding, tags, and hierarchy — or you can focus on the content — keywords, readability, and quality. For best results, you should do both.

Any multilingual SEO strategy should take into account:

  • Which target markets matter
  • Cultural differences within and between those markets
  • Searching and browsing behaviors within those markets
  • Where people get information about your industry in that market
  • The competitive landscape for that market

Once you know how you’ll expand and where, you’re ready to start optimizing your website. Here’s a step-by-step process for getting started with multilingual SEO.

1. Research region-specific keywords

The first place to start with any international SEO efforts is with targeted keyword research. The best way to rank on search engines, regardless of the different countries you want to rank in, is to target your content toward a specific audience.

Successful international SEO hinges on the use of localized keywords, or search terms within your translated content that are tailored to specific countries. This goes for regional SEO, too.

That’s where the difference between localization and translation comes into play. A direct translation of a given word or phrase may be technically correct, but if it’s not how people are typing the term into Google, then you’re unlikely to drive traffic through that keyword. If you’re targeting Germany, for example, then you need to know how Germans talk about your product or industry, not just how you think they talk about it. That comes in the keyword research phase with tools like Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Moz.

Just as you do your keyword research in your native language considering your target audience, what they search for, and how they’re searching, you also need to do the same for each market. Similar words can have very different meanings in another language.

2. Use dedicated URLs by language

Once you know your markets and the keyword terms to optimize, it’s important to get the structure of your website ready for multilingual content. Focus on the languages (rather than the countries) within a given market, since multilingual speakers exist in every country.

That’s because, without adapting the structure of your website, you risk creating an issue with duplicate content. This is when Google registers two or more pages with content that are too similar to one another (even if each is written in another language). This is an issue because Google won’t know which article to choose for the given keyword, meaning website owners can suffer losses in traffic and rankings.

Avoid this by adjusting the URL structure you use by language. Site structure is the foundation of any proper international SEO strategy. You have multiple options when it comes to site structure for international SEO:

ccTLDs (“country-code top-level domains”) This is a common way to separate sites with a two-letter code so that each language has a different domain name, such as yoursite.de, yoursite.es, or yoursite.com, based on the language. This allows for clear geotargeting, automatically directing someone searching on google.de to the German version of your site. However, this option is mainly for targeting a specific country, rather than a language, and takes a greater financial investment.
gTLDs (“generic top-level domains”) with subdomains This looks like de.yoursite.com, es.yoursite.com, or uk.yoursite.com, which differentiates the specific languages within one overarching site. This is another way to easily separate your sites, but it may be more challenging for users to know which language is which.
gTLDs with subfolders Also known as subdirectories, this is another popular option, though it can make separating your sites a little more challenging. This uses the same host site (.com, for example), and uses a sitemap to create a network of languages within that site. It looks like yoursite.com/de, yoursite.com/es, or yoursite.com/uk. The biggest drawback of this approach is that it’s not as clear to search engines, though between the three options, it’s the easiest to maintain.

Read more about the different kinds of ways to structure your site on Google Webmasters, or look at the documentation within your CMS to determine which site structure is the best for you.

3. Add hreflang tags

Once you’ve chosen how you’ll organize your URLs, add hreflang tags to tell Google and other search engines what languages are available for a given piece of content. Hreflang tags are a tool designed to let search engines know which language you’re using on a given page, which creates a map of where to send users based on the language of their browser. Then, they’re directed to the correct content URL based on their preferred language.

If you’re going to use hreflang tags, make sure every single piece of content on your website has them — from your navigation pages to your site map. Accomplish this by adding hreflang tags to the <head> or XML sitemap of your site in the HTML. Each language variation available should have its own line of code, including the native language version of the page. The general format looks like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="language_code"... />

Here’s what it looks like, for a page that has three variations in American English, Spanish (Spain), and French (Canada):

 <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-gb” hreflang=”en-us” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-us” hreflang=”es-es” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-au” hreflang=”fr-ca” />

When no languages match, use hreflang=”x-default”. This isn’t meant to be set to your original domain, but only if you don’t have any translated content available for that piece of content.

You can grab the list of correct country codes from Google here.

In addition to the overarching hreflang tags, you’ll also want to designate one “master” URL as the canonical URL, usually the page that’s in your native language. This can be easily done through an SEO plugin like Yoast in a CMS tool, or by adding <link rel=”canonical” href=”sitename”>. Learn more about canonical tags with this handy Moz guide.

4. Build a web of links with international link building

An often-overlooked piece of international SEO is link building. Like traditional SEO, you’ll need to create a web of internal and external links that show your content’s relevancy to search engines.

Internal links

Internal link building is relatively easy since you can control it. Any piece of content you create should link to at least one other piece of content, whether that’s similar products or services or more information about a particular topic in another blog post.

For international SEO, you’ll want to only link to pages that are also translated into the same languages — otherwise, it’ll create a poor experience for your user.

Let’s look at an example article right here on Lokalise’s blog. One of our most popular posts around localization strategy (see what we did there?) naturally mentions designing products in Figma and Sketch, so we linked to our help documentation about those Lokalise integrations.

The most important thing to keep in mind with internal link building is to make it natural and relevant to the reader, whether that’s citing a statistic with internal research or including links to product pages, help documentation, or other related articles.

External links

External links take a little more effort. With international SEO, determine the most valuable and relevant websites and publications from which to receive links before starting outreach. Building external links requires patience and relationships with media, partners, and clients. To get started:

  1. Identify key partners, media outlets, and clients with enough reach in your target market to make it a high-quality link. One way to do this is to track mentions of your brand or your competitors on social media and around the Internet (a tool like Moz does this well) in your target markets.
  2. Draft a cold email template that introduces yourself, what your product or service is, and why your piece of content is worth being linked to from an existing piece of content (for each language you’re targeting). You’ll use this in your outreach to website owners when asking for links. Note that each market may have different cultural norms when it comes to cold outreach, so be sure to research beforehand what’s polite and what’s not when it comes to asking for a link.
  3. Look for listicles and other product-centric articles that list similar tools and products and ask to be included in a subsequent roundup or added to an existing list.
  4. Work with partners in your target markets to create content together, linking back to one another’s posts. This can take more effort but the quality will be much higher, especially if you’re both localizing your content into the same target markets.
  5. Evaluate your existing links for multilingual opportunities. Ask your current partners whether or not they localize their content, and provide localized links if they’re translating their content into multiple languages.
  6. Add link building into your international marketing strategy. Ensure it’s part of any PR campaign, event planning, social media strategy, or partner content efforts.

One mistake is to confuse the quantity of links with quality. Think of your link building efforts — whether it’s internal or external — like relationship building. Having a lot of friends is great, but it’s not the same as having one or two true friendships that last a lifetime.

5. Maintain the quality of your content regardless of language

Bear in mind that you should always write for people and prioritize their reading experience. Keyword density should not be your primary focus. After the BERT update, Google’s algorithm has become more powerful in terms of understanding semantics and context, which means you should focus on quality and continue with white-hat SEO practices. Forget about keyword stuffing.

Multilingual SEO requires a dedicated localization strategy and translators are a vital part of the process.

Finding high-quality translators gets easier when you invest in an easy-to-use translation management system (TMS). A translation management system is a software tool that supports the management and automation of the translation process. It helps to organize the localization workflow, track the progress of translation projects, and reduce manual tasks via automation.

To maintain the quality of your blog, regardless of language, you need to consider the entire user experience. The best way to do that is to use a TMS that gives you the flexibility to adapt your blog and webpage designs for each language. Hire native writers or professional translators with SEO experience — something you can easily do through Lokalise.

How multilingual SEO works with Lokalise

Lokalise can help with a straightforward TMS platform catered to marketers as well as translators and developers. Lokalise integrates seamlessly with popular CMS, content, and customer management tools that are already great at producing multilingual websites, like WordPress, Intercom, Contentful, and Zendesk Guide.

Here’s how it works: Import the content for translation from your CMS to Lokalise in a matter of seconds, and pull it back once the translation is ready. No more spreadsheets or tons of emails — assign tasks and automate notifications when certain actions are completed.

By centralizing your localization efforts, a team or whole company can maintain translation consistency, increase productivity, and deliver faster across different languages.

This makes it easy to ramp up a content generation engine that can go from production to ranking on search engines quickly.

Using a localization tool like Lokalise — or Lokalise’s professional translation service — can help keep every project organized, on track, and successful and eliminate monotonous and manual tasks, whether you’re running your website on WordPress or coding each page yourself.

Get started with multilingual SEO

The first step to building an international SEO strategy? Localizing your website, product, and content.

International SEO is an important element of your localization strategy and one that matters if you want to drive traffic to your site, generate leads, and get more business from international markets.

Optimizing your content for search engines in other languages takes investment in your technical setup and high-quality translation that accounts for cultural nuances and international keyword research.

Excited to localize your content and start working on international SEO? Sign up for a free trial or book a demo to give Lokalise a try.

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