The challenges of multilingual SEO

Understanding the challenges of multilingual SEO can help digital marketers produce search strategies that maximize rankings across multiple countries, search engines and languages.

Multilingual SEO (MSEO), also known as international SEO, can be a daunting undertaking: Contending with regional audiences, language barriers and local publisher relationships are amongst some of the challenges MSEO’s face – Search Engine Marketers like Aleyda Solis have discussed various Do’s and Don’ts for international SEO. Understanding the challenges can help digital marketers plan ahead, producing innovative search engine marketing strategies that tackle these issues and produce elegant solutions to help maximize rankings across multiple countries, search engines and languages.

Understanding regional audiences

An interested article from Moz posted by Eli Schwartz, discusses how making assumptions can be costly when performing MSEO. A couple of things that I believe that any international strategy should define from the beginning are:

  • The preferred online language (Can be taken from Analytics demographics by browser)
  • Differences in the core market (Trends is a good place to start with this)
  • Differences in purchase behaviour (There’s tons of journals on this, plus regional websites serve as great case studies)

Finding someone who appreciates the local culture can be invaluable when working on multilingual SEO, especially if there is multiple pieces of content that need updating. Understanding the difference in market and purchase behaviour will help prioritize the areas that are most likely to generate the largest return on investment.

Regional research

In order to understand the audience it’s important to research and analyse the target demographic. Talking to native speakers is one of the best ways of discovering information (although not always possible), and utilizing tools such as Google Trends and Analytics can show online market trends.

'Wind Power' search interest for the UK, USA and Germany over last 12 months

An example report from Google Trends: ‘Wind Power’ search interest for the UK, USA and Germany over the last 12 months

It’s important to note that simply sticking the best performing English language phrases into Google Trends and reviewing for each country isn’t enough – Different regions and countries will have different markets and focus areas – Identifying relevant phrases should only begin once you understand regional market variants.

Identifying relevant phrases

Identifying relevant content for your site’s on-page SEO is an important process. Once you know which areas to focus on you can begin reviewing keyword competition and popularity. Of cause, keywords are no longer the focus of SEO (although content is still king) but knowing which concepts are most engaging to regional audiences will help start content creation process.

Realistically, each market will have multiple pieces of content that you’ll want to optimise. Identifying each of these will allow you to produce a viable site map – submitting to Webmaster tools will help your SEO even more.

Don’t forget that keywords won’t always translate well from English, so knowing some background about the market, along with a native speaker who also understands the market, will be a great help here. Google Analytics may also help identify where different regions are spending most of their time on the existing site.

Alternative search engines

Of cause, Google’s Keywords tool is great for identifying keywords, but there are other search engines out there, too. Alongside Yahoo and Bing there is more regional search engines – For example Yandex in Russia. Make sure you know the percentage share of each search area for the region you’re focusing on, and use any of the tools they have available to maximise your content research.

Multilingual content

As well as keyword research, developing a regional content strategy will help increase domain authority and brand familiarity in unexplored regions. It may be as simple as re-recording webinars in local languages, or translating white papers or case studies.

Having native language websites is a must (as are regional landing pages) and will certainly increase conversion rates. Multilingual websites do come with their own set of challenges however – and it’s important not to overlook content administration, authorships and workflows during the development of these sites.

Example language selection menu

Two example language selection menu’s for a website… Don’t forget that flags represent nations, not languages.

Multilingual CMS

If you’re running your site through almost any modern Content Management System (CMS) it’s likely there will be multilingual functionality either out of the box or easily implemented through plugins.

Umbraco has multilingual functionality readily available, but as a WordPress advocate I have to admire the variety of multilingual plugins available for the CMS. Multilingual-press brings workflow functionality and easy content administration to any WordPress powered site. Google has a host of information and best practices for setting up your site’s multilingual functionality.

Website architecture

Another important factor of SEO is site architecture. There’s lots of ways to handle multiple site versions, and the main challenge is to concatenate content so search engine’s doesn’t think it’s duplicate.

Using domain extensions to manage different languages seems to be the best solution in most cases, and Google prefers this method to some others (especially subdomains). Although more expensive, this method allows sites to be quickly identified and defines a clear structure for search engines to crawl.

Crawling and indexing

On the subject of crawling and indexing, try to avoid predictive redirects. These horrible little things let you go to the main .com before redirecting users with regional cookies set in their browsers to regional versions. Keeping content on separate URL’s is a much better solution. Using cookies to present translated content on the same domain is also frowned upon (will be difficult to crawl) and the use of automatic translations will not be well received by Google due to their unpredictable and usually inaccurate output.

Local publication relationships

Building relationships with key publishers is a big part of a successful content strategy, but can be challenging if not familiar with local publishers. Regional assistants may be aware of some, but looking for inbound referral traffic from specific regions may give additional insights. This can be accomplished using Google Analytics.

Additionally, check for regional versions of existing publishers. Magazines are usually owned by larger organisations – And it’s likely these will have more than one Child Company, in multiple different areas

Multilingual social strategy

Social media, part of many successful content strategies, also needs considering as some countries (especially those in the far east) restrict access to some social platforms. However in most cases there are regional variants, which can replace the familiar social platforms. Tools like Hootsuite allow easy management of multiple social platforms, so if you have various Twitter accounts (one for each country, for example) then tools like this will help keep resource requirements down.

John Alexander Rowley

An enthusiastic digital marketing professional passionately dedicated to increasing the online presence of businesses and individuals in order to improve engagement and ROI.

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