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Some decisions to take beforehand on multilingual SEO strategies

Hold on! Sure, you’re excited to get your content online, but stop asking for a site to be built, and think about its audience. There are many things to consider and decisions to make, especially when it comes to international SEO.

Image by Koshyk from Flickr.

Multilingual is not multiregional

A language does not represent a country / region and the reverse. We already have a post explaining how tricky this can be. How does this affect your site? Several ways, for example:

Many language switchers use flags to make it more visually appealing – not my favorite option. Does a Portuguese flag represent Brazilian Portuguese language? US’s flag UK English? Spain’s flag Argentinean Spanish? NO and we don’t want to offend people by making assumptions. The devil is in the details.

Strategy: One domain or several ones?

If you have resources enough to go for several sites under different ccTLDs like mysite.co.uk, miweb.es, monweb.fr and such, you don’t really need to make your site multilingual, just a plain installation for every domain – unless you are targeting countries like Belgium where Dutch (1st: ~56%, 2nd: 15%), French (1st: ~38%, 2nd: ~48%) and German (1st: ~1%, 2nd: 27%) are official.

If your resources are limited and the right strategy for you is a single site, then we are in the scenario where your site has to be tweaked to support several languages, organized in directories by language (like mysite.com/ru/, mysite.com/fr/, mysite.com/cn/, mysite.com/de/), while keeping it scalable at low or no cost on the technical side of things.

The only advantage of subdomains by language/country is that you can allocate them in different servers placed in the targeted country, although this is not a big deal for most of the countries where major search engines dominate.

China and Russia are exceptions and it is likely mandatory to have web servers there.

This is a very important decision to ponder. There are always solutions for every problem that originated in a bad decision, but some are way more expensive than others.

Content in parallel or (mostly) not

In a perfect world, you would like to have every single page of your site perfectly translated to the rest of the languages your site offers. An honorable goal, though almost impossible to achieve – as I’ve seen in many years of dealing with multilingual sites, especially in medium / large companies.

Maybe the person in charge for the copywriting can do it in two languages but what most likely happens is he/she has to wait for the text to be translated. If your CMS forces you to publish in all languages at the same time, you are generating many pages with no content.

The way content is organized in one language may not fit the preferences of users navigating in other languages. With time and analysis, you will find that people from different cultures / languages make a different use of the content in your site. The most popular sections or articles are not so across languages.

One of the myths to debunk is that visitors continuously change languages while navigating a site, so all similar pages must be horizontally linked and the language selector at the top has to take you to the same exact page in the other language, instead taking you to the root of the site. Wrong!

Someone might land in a site but not in the preferred language. This person changes language right away and that’s it. He or she has a task in mind (book a room, buy something, find some content) and no time to waste.

Again, if your CMS forces you to follow their content structure then you are breaking the first rule: adapt to potential clients preferences.

On top of that, every time I’ve had the chance to test parallel and non-parallel content structures, the latter has increased conversions.

A good article on a similar note is UX Testing and Cultural Preferences : Are you designing webpages with culture in mind?

Automated translations

Some multilingual plugins come from translation companies. Those plugins also facilitates an automatic translation of content using third party services like Google Translate.

Not a good idea, three reasons:

  • Some are not available any more like Google Translate API v1 (Google Translate API v2 is now available as a paid service only)
  • Google is pretty good at detecting automated translations and that can be considered spammy as they explain in this video
  • Most important, it looks cheap having so many grammar errors and breaks one important rules of International SEO: language localization

‘Don’t use cookies to show translated versions’, ‘Avoid automatic redirection based on user’s language’ and other misconceptions

Be careful when reading articles about SEO, and especially international SEO, as it is easy to be fooled.

I found these two pieces of advice here while doing a bit of research for our article Internationalization: Making your WordPress site Multilingual and they are completely wrong. I’ve even seen Googlers giving inaccurate advice like ‘don’t auto-redirect’.

What is it that prevents multilingual sites from using such technology to produce an enhanced user experience? Nothing. On the contrary, they should. However, redirections based on browser language can do more harm than good, if not properly setup. Be wary.

Another example of misconception: “New top-level domains to trump .com in Google search results” that Matt Cutts debunks right away.

In sum, do it right

A perfect combination of usability, cultural respect, performance, and SEO is possible at global scenarios. Don’t rush, internationalization of your business is no trivial matter, so you better be cautious pondering all aspects.


  • elizabeth

    Hola Ani,
    I’m confused about your comment re: sub-directories by language.  It seems Google (Matt Cutts) would prefer to NOT mix languages on a single domain (or ideally page!), but create sub-domains and keep all pages / content for that language within each structure.  http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/subdomains-and-subdirectories/
    Elizabeth

  • http://www.touristlink.com/ DavidUrmann

    It seems from these examples its okay to do that
    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2010/03/working-with-multilingual-websites.html 
    Seems like advantages to going with sub-directory as you keep strength of main domain

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