Every minute Google receives more than 4 million search queries. By 2014 almost 1 billion websites have been online according to Statista. Nearly 2.1 trillion search queries have been placed on Google the same year. How can you make sure that users will find exactly your website within this flood of websites and content? How can you ensure that users are directed to the version of your website localized for their perceived country/language?
URL Structures – Pros & Cons
There are various guidelines helping you to optimize SEO for multilingual websites. Start by optimizing your URL as it’s the first part of your website seen by users. Carefully consider the choice of URL as it provides users with information about the language of your content. Hands off URL parameters! They are not supported by Google!
Hint!Translating words in URLs or using an internationalized domain name is no problem at all. Just make sure to use UTF-8 encoding in the URL (example.ca/en/mountainbike -> example.ca/fr/vélo-de-montagne).
Top Level Domains (TLD)
When localizing by country it’s recommended to use top level country domains, like example.com, example.at, example.fr etc.
- For geotargeting purposes top level domains can be connected to Google’s Search Console.
- The location of the web server is not relevant.
- Running separate websites in the same language, like example.com.ca and example.com.au, may create duplicate content with some slight spelling differences. However, this won’t affect your ranking negatively!
- Buying various domains can be expensive and annoying, especially when dealing with squatters.
- Cookies cannot be shared across multiple locales, so users have to log in separately to each site.
- TLDs often don’t match the language code, thus users may be confused. It’s better not to use them for localization by language!
If you’re looking for a cheaper option compared to TLDs, sub-domains are the right choice. Once a single domain like example.com is bought, sub-domains (en.example.com, fr.example.com) can be used for locales.
- Sub-domains can be used for both localization by country or by language.
- They are easy to set up and can be connected to Google’s Search Console.
- By pointing DNS to a web server, which is located close to your user, hosting can be localized.
- Sharing cookies across all locales is possible, thus a smoother user experience is created!
- The domain name itself cannot be localized.
- Sub-domains may not be identified as locales by users at first glance.
Last but not least sub-directories complete the list of URL structures. Adding sub-directories to a single domain (example.com/en, example.com/fr) allows you to use multiple alternate URLS.
They are quite similar to sub-domains and so are the pros & cons. The only difference is that there’s only one DNS entry. Consequently, hosting a website in multiple countries for different locales is prohibited.
‘hreflang’ for Language and Regional URLs
The next step is to let Google know which locales serve which target users. Google uses the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” attributes to list the relevant locale in search results.
Imagine you’re offering content on your website in English (example.com) and German (de.example.com). Google now offers three ways to indicate that de.example.com is the German equivalent to the English page:
- Inserting a HTML link element in the header of example.com points out that de.example.com is the German version.
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”http://de.example.com/” />
- When publishing non-HTML files a HTTP header can be used.
Link: <http://de.example.com/>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”de”
- Information about different language versions can also be submitted as a sitemap.
When multiple language versions of an URL are used, every single language page must identify all language versions including itself.
When several URLs are targeted at users speaking the same language but living in different countries it’s good to provide a generic one for geographically unspecified users. Assume that separate URLs for users in Ireland, Canada and Australia are used. In that case all other English speakers should see the generic English page. To annotate this information a sitemap or HTML link tags like the following ones can be used.
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-ie” hreflang=”en-ie” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-ca” hreflang=”en-ca” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-au” hreflang=”en-au” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en” hreflang=”en” />
The value of the hreflang attribute provides information about the language and region on an alternate URL as the following examples show:
de: German content, no region defined
en-IE: English content for users in Ireland
nl-BE: Dutch content for Belgium users
fr-BE: French content for Belgium users
Hint!ISO 639-1 format is required for languages and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for regions.
Optimizing SEO for multilingual Websites – Dos & Don’ts
Besides guidelines for URLs there are other important ones too. Considering the following dos & don’ts will help you to be displayed on top of Google’s result page!
- Help Google to correctly determine the language of your website by using a single language for content and navigation on each page.
- Don’t use lang attributes. Google exclusively uses visible content to detect the language of your website. No code-level language information is used.
- Avoid side-by-side translation to help search engines determining your website’s language.
- Translating only the boilerplate text can create a bad user experience as the majority of your content remains in a single language.
- Be careful on pages featuring user-generated content as content in various languages may be generated! Make sure the website language is obvious!
- Use robots.txt to block search engines from crawling automatically translated pages. Automated translations mostly don’t make sense and can affect your website’s reputation.
- Cross-linking the different language versions of your websites helps users to navigate the website in their preferred language, just in case they have been misdirected.
- Avoid automatic redirection based on your user’s perceived language. It can prevent users and search engines from viewing all the versions of your awesome website.
- Use ccTLD or Search Console’s geotargeting tool to set up geotargeting, so you don’t need to worry about the server location. Always make sure your website is hosted in a way that will give your users fast access.
Within a flood of content generated every minute good SEO is the key to guide users to a website. A stand-out website won’t get the traffic it deserves when it’s ranked in the very bottom of Google’s result pages. SEO for multilingual websites takes it even a step further and provides users with localized content.
When defining a SEO strategy it’s crucial to be up to date. So please feel invited to comment any news or additional information to this article! 🙂