July 30th, 2019

Maybe you have one website and all your content is in English, but you’ve realised that you have a lot of customers visiting your site from China. Or maybe you are expanding your services beyond your native country’s borders, and want to target English-speakers worldwide, and not just in England or America. When you are looking to implement SEO for a multi-language website, you’ll need to look into language targeting. 

Language targeting is when you market your services or products towards users across the globe who all speak the same language – such as English, French or Mandarin Chinese. The main components to get right in language targeting are your website structure, translations and language tagging. When done incorrectly, they can cause serious issues with your user experience and indexation, potentially jeopardising your site’s ability to rank and customer retention rates. We want to prevent that, so we’ve set out your best options for language targeting and implementing multi-language SEO strategies across your site. 

How To Do Multilingual SEO

Like with country targeting, language targeting or multilingual SEO gives you multiple options for adjusting your site structure in order to target your new audience effectively. 

Subfolders

A subfolder (sometimes known as a subdirectory) is a section of your subdomain or domain that is marked by trailing slash in the URL (e.g. www.iheartpancakes.com/fr). The benefit of using subfolders for multilingual SEO is that they will allow you to create a structure which can be used in the future for ccTLDs (country-specific, top level domains). This is useful if you decide later down the line that you want to target audiences in specific countries instead of by language, factoring in potential business growth. For language targeting, a subfolder with geo-targeting and hreflang tagging (more on this below) should do the trick if you’re wanting to target users who speak the same language globally – for instance, English speakers from England, America, Canada, and Australia. 

The advantages of using subfolders are they are low maintenance, easy to set up, and inherit all the site authority and link juice from your main domain. This will save you a lot of headaches and frustration as your main domain’s good reputation and search presence will naturally be carried over to your subfolder. This means that you won’t be starting from scratch every time you begin targeting a new language.

Parameters

A parameter is a modifier of a URL that either tracks a user’s path to different content on your site or changes the content on the page based on the parameters in the URL to begin with. They are often used to indicate the language of a page, e.g. www.weareyellowball.com/page1/lang=fr, lang being the parameter. 

Parameters allow you to have a backup system in case your tagging fails, as the parameters will still tell Google that the content is being translated even if the other tags are lost. It’s also scalable for future plans and makes tagging a piece of cake. But you can’t geo-target in Google Search Console using parameters, making targeting specific audiences damn right difficult. Also, users might not recognise geo-targeting from the URL alone. Google also actively recommends that you do not use parameters for international targeting at all. If that wasn’t enough reason to not choose this option, parameters also make your URLs look messy, unprofessional, and quite frankly ugly  – it’s not exactly a clean looking URL structure that’s easy on the eyes. 

Subdomains

A subdomain is a major section of your domain that is often indicated by character change before the root domain in the URL (e.g. fr.iheartpancakes.com/). You should only use subdomains for language targeting if it’s the only option left open to you. 

In order to keep the same structure for each country, you’d have to use ccTLDs which are costly and require higher levels of maintenance. ccTLDs are country code top-level domains, meaning that they are assigned to a particular country in the world, so for targeting users who speak the same language but live in multiple countries across the globe. From an SEO point of view, subdomains just create more work for yourself as you’ll need to start from the ground up for every single country in order to build up your search presence, online reputation and domain authority. 

Translation

It goes without saying, but never, ever machine translate. You may have been able to blag your way through your French GCSE with Google Translate, but that does not mean you can use an automated translator for your website content. You should always hire a professional translator to convert your content into a new language correctly. This not only ensures that the content is readable and sounds authentic, but helps to make sure you are targeting the correct target keywords for your product or service. 

Users in other countries may call a certain service something different to its directly translated version such as colloquial or slang terms that users are more likely to search. Or you might find that two services are searched using the same keyword, so you’ll have to differentiate between these two services in some way. For example, a hairdresser in French is a ‘coiffeuse’, which is also the same word used to refer to a hair stylist. Differentiating between beauty professionals who offer hair styling services (such as blow dries and updos), and those who offer hair cuts may prove difficult and may require careful content tailoring to ensure search engines understand exactly what service is being offered. If you Google translate your services, you won’t have these insights and you will probably end up missing a trick, losing out on the potential organic traffic you could generate as a result. 

Language tagging

Hreflang tags are HTML attributes that let search engines know that a page is translated into a specific language. They need to be implemented on every translated page. This can either be done by putting the hreflang tag in your XML Sitemap to keep the tagging off the page, or input the tags onto every page of your website. Once your tagging is live, make sure you check for issues with Google Search Console. 

Keep in mind that language tagging goes beyond hreflang tags and meta language. Hreflang tags are only used by Google, so if you get a considerable amount of traffic from Bing, it’s useful to know that they use a different tag called the ‘meta language tag’ which you’ll need to also implement.

Ode to hreflang tags

Let’s get one thing straight, hreflang tags are not a quick fix for language targeting. They are not meant to help Google work out who the content on your pages is specifically targeting. They are only supposed to help Google understand when two pages are exactly the same, but are translated into different languages – A.K.A multiple versions of one page with slight changes (the language). In order to show Google you’re targeting different language speakers, you need to always make substantial changes to the content to effectively target the new audience, treating it as a wholly new market. This is why a professional translator is so instrumental, as they can help you tailor your content to your new target audience.   

Whether you’re targeting English speakers worldwide or are looking to branch out into all the major online languages, language targeting is often a more complicated process that needs to be dealt with by experienced hands. Otherwise, it can all end up a bit of a mess quite quickly. If you’re looking for multilingual SEO services, get in touch with our experienced team on 0203 176 7662 or email us to find out how we can help you.

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