How to design and optimise a site for multilingual SEO.

If you have a business that operates in multiple countries and areas, or a business that targets tourists and people of various nationalities, then there's a good chance that you will want a site that uses multiple languages or targets multiple regions.

When you begin to design, develop or optimise (SEO) a site that targets multiple languages or regions, there are suddenly a lot more factors that you need to take into account. In this article I hope to explain simply some of the things you will probably need to consider (or make sure that your web designer considers) so that you can provide a good experience to your audience, and place well in Google's search results.

Multilingual SEO vs Multiregional SEO

Multilingual SEO and Multiregional SEO are not the same thing - but the two have a lot of techniques and considerations in common, which is why I mention both of them here.

  • Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimising a site for more than one language. You could have a site for tourists in Lanzarote - the business is in one location, but your clients will likely speak a mix of Spanish, English and German (primarily). You'll want to provide each of them with content in their language.
  • Multiregional SEO is more similiar to Local SEO when you're deal with multiple branches (but in different countries). You might have a business that has branches in both England and Australia, for example. Both sites will be in English, but you will have different information for the different areas that you cover.

Where are you targeting?

As always with web design and SEO, the first thing to decide is who you are targeting and where they will be. It's always important to know your audience, so that you can provide them with the most appropriate content.

What language are you targeting?

It's also important to keep in mind the language you want to target. This may seem obvious - but as you will see, this is more than just ensuring that your websites main content is in your chosen language. To have a properly optimised site you will need to make sure that all your efforts are focused on the correct language. All of your site's content, menus, images and technical data should be translated - and most of your backlinks, listings and citations (mentions of your site on other sites) should also be in the correct language.

Managing and creating multiple versions

The first thing you will need to do is to create multiple versions of your site. For multi-region this means creating pages that are relevant to each geographical area that your business covers.

For a multilingual site, you will need to create your site's content in each language you want to provide. I would strongly recommend against using automatic or cheap translation services, and suggest that you find someone who can actually speak the language you want to provide. Automatically or cheaply-translated content is often very obvious, and doesn't give a great impression to your potential clients.

I can personally work on sites in English and Spanish to a high level, and for other languages I can provide or help you find a professional, high-quality translator.

Make the language obvious.

  • Google (and your visitors) needs to know what language each page is in, so that it can provide the correct results to the correct people. If someone is searching in Italian, Google will return pages in Italian. If Google can't tell what language your page is in, then it won't be able to show your page to the correct people - or worse still, it won't show it at all. There are technical ways to specify the language of a page (and I will cover these below), but Google mostly ignores these. Google will try to guess the language of a page based on the text that it can see - and so will your visitors, so make the language of each page obvious.

    img This example is from a real site whose name I've hidden. It's not terrible from the point of view of the user - but Google won't be able to work out what language this page is in, and therefore it's unlikely to show up in the search results.

  • Translate as much as possible - it's important to translate the main text of your articles, but to give your visitors a really good experience you should try to translate all the other elements of the page, the images, the titles, the menus. You might even have a different layout or style for different languages.
  • Don't mix languages on one page! I have seen far too many pages that have two languages side-by-side on one page, sometimes in different colours to distinguish. I know this is a really easy way to set up a site for two or more languages, but this is a horrible experience for your users, and will be absolutely fatal for your multilingual SEO. Please don't do it!

    img Please don't do this.. This is provides a terrible experience for your visitors and will really harm your search engine rankings.

Make it easy to switch languages

Now that your visitors (and search engines) can easily tell which language your pages are in - make it easy for them to switch if it's not the correct one for them!

  • Don't force a language on your visitors. Some websites show a particular language or redirect the visitor based on their location. This might seem like a helpful thing to do, but depending on how it's done it might stop users from being able to easily switch between the different languages of your site. There's also a good chance of you getting it wrong - Geographical IP targeting (the technique often used to do this) is not completely reliable, and just because a user is in a particular location doesn't necessarily imply the language that they will speak. There are good ways to do automatic redirections that will help your visitors, but you have to be careful, and always ensure that your visitors have an easy and obvious way to choose their region or language if they want to.
  • Don't use cookies or URL parameters to determine the language. Cookies are small information files that you store on the visitor's computer to save their preferences, and URL parameters look like this: "?lang=english" at the end of your web address. These can seem like good ways of letting your user choose and save their preference for a language, but it can make it hard (or imposible) for search engines to find and distinguish between the different language versions of your site.
  • Don't use multiple languages at the same address. If you use cookies, URL parameters, javascript, or other similar method to determine a pages language then you will always run into the same problem. Different language versions of your page will be available at the same location. If you click on the link at the top of this page to view the Spanish version, you will see that it goes to a different web address.

Watch out for duplicate content

Duplicate content - having the same content on multiple pages - is generally one of the worst things you can do for your SEO. If a search engine detects that a page is a copy of another page it will usually only index one of those pages. If you have a lot of pages that are have very similar content then it can lead to your entire site being penalised.

With websites that are set up to provide information in different languages, you will have a lot of pages that appear to be duplicate content, but in different languages.

Luckily, there are very simple (technical) ways to avoid this problem (rel=”alternate” hreflang link element and x-default hreflang), and if implemented correctly, you should have no problems due to duplicate content.

For the technical among you, a correct hreflang declaration looks like this

<link rel="alternate" href="https://jack-webster.co.uk/en/" hreflang="en-gb" />
<link rel="alternate" href="https://jack-webster.co.uk/es/" hreflang="es" />

And yes, it is considered best practice to include the URL of the current page as one of the alternates.

Improving your Multi-language SEO

Choosing your Domain / Web Address

If you already have a domain or web address, you might be better to stick with the one you already have, but if not, then the languages and regions you want to cover should influence your choice of domain name, and how you organise your sites web addresses.

If you want to target a specific country, then one of the best signals to users and search engines is a country specific domain or "ccTLD" - these include .co.uk, .es, .ca (for the UK, Spain and Canada respectively). If you want to target multiple countries, it might be better to get an international domain, such as .com, .net or .org.

I generally recommend that the best way to organise your multi-language content is with subdirectories this means your site will be laid out like this:

  • http://jack-webster.co.uk/en/ - for the English language version of your website.
  • http://jack-webster.co.uk/es/ - for the Spanish language version of your website.
  • etcetera..

This is fairly easy to set up, and is easy for search engines (and users) to understand, allowing you to easily target and optimise each area of the site. Google also provides webmaster tools where you can set the language of each of these sections.

Server Location

It used to be considered important that your web server (web host) is based in the same location as your clients, so that the search engines would recognise it as a "local" result.

It is now commonly accepted (and Google have explicitly stated), that this is not an important signal for where your site/business is based.

Because of this, you can find plenty of articles giving the opinion that server location is no longer important at all. I think this is misleading - server location can still greatly affect the speed and performance of your site. Customers in the UK are going to find it noticably slower to access a site hosted in the USA than a site hosted in Birmingham, and this will affect their experience with your site.

If you need to provide a high-quality experience for customers in multiple countries, especially if they are far apart, I suggest that you consider using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) such as Cloudflare.

Page elements

Another very common mistake that people make is to only provide translations for the visible, written content on their page. If you want to effectively target multiple languages, so that you will appear in Google search results, then you need to translate all of the elements on the page.

This includes:

  • Titles (page title and headers!)
  • Images - any text in the image, image titles and "alt" attributes.
  • Links - link text and titles (the text that appears when you hold the cursor over a link).

And even invisible content - such as your meta keywords and descriptions.

Off-page SEO

If you really want to promote your page in another language or region, it is important to conduct all parts of your SEO campaign accordingly. It's not enough to simply provide a translation, and then continue all of the other work in English only (although it is still better than not providing a translation).

Off-page SEO are the things that effect your rankings that aren't on your site - these generally aren't directly under your control, but you can work towards improving them. This can include things such as:

  • Citations (name, address, phone number of your business) in directories and on other sites.
  • Backlinks, links to pages on your site from other websites.
  • Reviews on Google, Yelp, Facebook.

If you are serious about engaging customers in multiple languages and regions, you have to consider all of these things. You want to have reviews in different languages (and from different sites), you want to have links back from local or regional pages, relevant to the area in which you operate, and you may want to go as far as conducting your social media in multiple languages - some companies even have separate social media accounts for different regions and languages.


Phew! Thanks for reading all of that!

If you've read this far, I hope you've liked this article and found it useful. If you'd like to subscribe to my mailing list there's a form at the right of this page for you to receive notifications when there's a new article (I promise not to send you spam!).

Also, if you have any questions or comments about this article, or if you'd like to hire me to help with your web design or SEO, please give me a call or get in touch using the form below.

Jack Webster

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