Top 10 SEO Tips for Managing a Multilingual Site

Author Benjamin Denis
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Top 10 SEO Tips for Managing a Multilingual Site

There are many cases where you need to provide multiple languages on the same website. For some, adding languages is synonymous with exporting products or services internationally. In many countries, though, publishing a website in multiple languages is the norm because there are many official languages. Even in the USA, there is an increasing trend for brands to translate their sites into Spanish and give users the choice between English and Spanish versions of every page.

Handling more than one language on a website will add new challenges, especially if you do not speak one of the languages! Translating all the pages of a website will double the number of pages on the website and it can easily double your SEO work!

So here are 10 SEO tips on managing multilingual sites that we hope will help you manage a multilingual site project.

1. Check which search engines you should target

You can use StatCounter’s global market data to find which search engines are the most popular per country. According to this data, Google has 92% market share in search worldwide but it may not be the only search engine used in every country you want to target. In China for example, Google is used for only 2.41 % of searches. The main search engine is Baidu with 76% market share and there is also a second search engine, Sogou, that you may need to target.

StatCounter has search engine usage data for most countries
StatCounter has search engine usage data for most countries

2. Use specialist tools to check foreign SERPs

It can be difficult to see localized search engine results when you are not physically in the country you are targeting. To see accurate Google search results from other countries, we recommend using BrightLocal’s local search results checker or a VPN.

Rank checking tools, such as SEOPress Insights, use similar techniques to provide accurate position tracking from different countries.

3. Use top-level domains (TLDs) for countries, not languages

An alternative to having multiple languages on one domain is to use multiple domains. For example, using mysite.de and mysite.fr rather than mysite.com/de/ and mysite.com/fr/.

A top-level domain (TLD) like .de targets a country (Germany) rather than a language (German). Having a .de should give you an advantage for ranking on Google.de, but it may be a disadvantage for ranking in other German-speaking countries like Austria.

If you want to provide your website for German-speaking users worldwide, you should use mysite.com/de/.

4. Don’t translate keywords, localize them

If you have done some SEO research in one language, you have probably produced a list of keywords to target and track over time. Keywords were probably chosen to target the most popular searches in your country. Rather than asking a translator to translate these keywords you should ask them to localize them, making sure that they take into account search volumes in the translations they propose.

5. Do not mix languages on the same page

Search engines match URLs with a single language. Google can automatically determine a language for each URL it finds on your site based on the page’s content and it uses this language as a ranking factor. It can be tempting to provide translations on the same page, and you may consider this a good user experience. But because search engines are trying to determine a single language for each page, doing this will cause all sorts of problems for your SEO.

6. Provide a URL for each language version of a page

You should ensure that every version of a page has a unique URL, translated into the language it is targeting. The best practice is to use a folder for each language (but you can also use a subdomain) and treat the first level as the home page of your site in this language.

For example

  • mysite.com/en/ – English home page
  • mysite.com/fr/ – French home page
  • Permalinks should be translated. For example,
  • mysite.com/en/how-to-create-multilingual-wordpress-site/
  • mysite.com/fr/comment-creer-site-wordpress-multilingue/

Avoid using parameters to indicate translated versions. The URL mysite.com/how-to-create-multilingual-wordpress-site/?loc=fr is not optimized for ranking in French.

7. Do not use Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing tool to quickly translate text between languages. Some WordPress plugins use it to create translated versions of your website automatically. However, because machine translation is not 100% reliable this is a dangerous option. It is believed that Google Search can easily detect text produced by Google Translate and may consider content produced using this tool as low quality or spam.

Google even goes as far as recommending that you block machine translated pages from indexation by using robots.txt.

8. Provide a language selector

Good practice for multilingual web sites is to provide links between different language versions of the same page. So for example a product page in English on a site that exists in English, French and Spanish should have links to the Spanish and French versions of the product page.

Language selectors provided by plugins are a good solution for this but bear in mind that national flags are not always the best indicator of languages. Imagine a North American site that wants to target French-speaking Canadians and Spanish-speaking Americans. The British, Spanish and French flags are not appropriate for these audiences.

Some sites use ISO 639 codes to indicate language choices. This is a standardized nomenclature used to classify languages. English is EN, French is FR and Castilian Spanish is ES.

9. Implement HREFLANG to help search engines understand translations

HREFLANG is a way of telling search engines about different language versions of pages. You can think of it as a coded version of a language selector. For one version of a page, HREFLANG indicates the URLs of the other language versions.

HREFLANG is used by Google and Yandex to make sure that the correct version of a page shows up in localized search results.

Most commonly, HREFLANG codes are added as HTML tags to each page individually, but you can also send information through a sitemap. These codes should be handled by your translation plugin, but you may be interested in Google’s guide on HREFLANG or this explanatory video.

Expanding your site to more languages – YouTube

HREFLANG also uses ISO 639 language codes (EN, FR, ES, etc.) to indicate language choices for pages. It also allows more precise geotargeting by combining these language codes with country codes (in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format). This can be very useful if you want to provide country-specific content in the same language. For example, different versions of pages in English for British, American or Australian audiences would use the codes en-gb, en-us and en-au.

10. Use a WordPress translation plugin

Thankfully, many of the technical issues detailed above are handled by specialized WordPress plugins. See our article All You Need to Know About Creating a Multilingual WordPress Site for an introduction to the most popular choices. Make sure that your final choice satisfies all your needs.

By Benjamin Denis

CEO of SEOPress. 12 years of experience with WordPress. Founder of WP Admin UI & WP Cloudy plugins. Co-organizer of WP BootCamp.

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