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4 technical things you need to know about multilingual SEO localization

These days, if you want your brand or business to be visible to consumers in new markets, it’s not just about hanging a shiny sign outside your door, launching a TV advertising campaign or even getting a local celebrity to endorse your services.

It’s all about getting friendly with the algorithms. 

By algorithms we mean the search engine algorithms that analyse your website and decide where to rank it in user searches for particular terms and phrases. And, as you’ll already know, the process of building or adapting a website to ensure higher ranking in relevant searches is known as search engine optimization. Or SEO for short. 

We’ve already looked at how using carefully chosen SEO keywords– selected by humans with local cultural and linguistic insight – is an essential part of the SEO process. Why, for example, people in Spain searching for a computer use the term “ordenadora” but in Argentina they type “computadora” into their search engine of choice (OK, probably Google). 

However, getting the multilingual keywords right is only part of the story. In fact, there are a whole range of other factors to consider that are equally as important in ensuring your website ranks highly in different markets. 

Factors that can get a little technical at times, so we’ve kept it bite-sized. Here’s our quick guide to some of the other elements you’ll need to consider. This stuff is important. After all, who looks at page 8 of the search results?

  1. URL structure

If you’re looking to launch a website or even just web content in a new market (and potentially a new language), you’ll need to decide on your URL structure – the address at which your content can be found on the internet. 

Basically, there are three options:

  1. Top-level domain: these are country-specific domain names such as the UK), Germany) or Japan). These are distinct websites in their own right, separate from your original site.
  2. Subdomain:these are country-specific sub-websites hosted within an overarching original-language site. They use country identifiers in the prefixes of addresses, such as it.mylocalizedbusiness.comin Italy or cn.mylocalizedbusiness.comin China.
  3. Subfolders:these are pages stored in folders within the structure of your original-language website, identified by URL formats such as Russia or for United Arab Emirates.

Put simply, each of these web domain choices has its advantages and disadvantages, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. 

For example, top-level domains show that a business is really serious about its online presence in a market. It’s a brand new website in its own right, so it can be customized specifically for the target audience. It can also be hosted locally, which means a faster load speed. It’s what most of the very big brands choose.

However, top-level domains require more time and resources to build and maintain. They also mean you have to start your search engine ranking from scratch – all your original site traffic won’t be counted by Google or other search engines.

Subdomains are easier to build and maintain, since they form (a distinct) part of your original site using the same content management system and server. They can be indexed for recognition by search engines for specific geographical areas (known as geo-targeting), and they’ll draw traffic from your original site too. The disadvantage is that it still takes time to build this geographically specific ranking and, psychologically, some users can distrust a prefix to a domain name they know and trust.

Subfolders are the quickest and simplest option – this is really just adding new pages to your original site. If you’ve got really strong SEO, your new pages will benefit from the ranking of your original content, its history and backlinks. Nevertheless, it’s not ideal for brands that want to build a really strong local presence and, stored on a non-local server, page load times can be compromised too.

  • Local backlinks

Search engine algorithms love backlinks. They’re the incoming links that drive traffic from external websites to your webpages. If you want to rank highly in a specific language and/or region, local backlinks are digital gold.

To a search engine, a large number of relevant backlinks shows that your website has useful, relevant and trustworthy content. It builds relationships, drives traffic, and in terms of multilingual SEO, it’s a great way of enhancing your ranking.

But to get it right, you’ll need to identify relevant, authentic websites within your sector area and target geographical region. You’ll also need to find ways to “earn” links from them. There are lots of ways to do this, but the very basic ones are good quality content (in the local language) which is updated regularly, carefully chosen keywords, strategic outbound links (in particular to those websites you’d like to get backlinks from) and a strong social media presence.  

  • Sitemaps and site indexes

Even search engines like to have an idea of where they’re going before they get there. When creating a multilingual site, it’s important to include a sitemap (in XML format) or sitemap index which provides details of exactly how your different language versions fit within the overall structure.  This helps search engines determine which pages (or websites) are assigned to particular languages and countries (or even regions within countries).

Where exactly you put your sitemap depends on whether your multilingual content is hosted in a top-level domain, sub-domain or sub-folder (contact usif you’d like to discuss these technical bits further). 

Once you’ve created your sitemap or sitemap index, there are two more important stages to complete. You’ll need to point out the sitemap or sitemap index to spiderbots (or web crawlers as they’re sometimes known) by creating a robots.txt file. You’ll also need to send your sitemap to the relevant search engines you want to be listed on.

  • Hreflang tags

Hreflang tags sound pretty complicated but the concept is actually pretty simple. They’re pieces of code embedded in your website that tell search engines if the same content has been produced in different languages – and which content belongs to which language.

If you code one page with the hreflang tag hreflang=”en” (for English) and another hreflang=”es” (for Spanish), Google knows the same content has been produced for different audiences. And hreflang tags are also region specific – you’ll need to know that hreflang=”es-es” is used for Spain while content for Mexican audiences should be tagged with hreflang=”es-mx”.

Making life easy for your search engine

In terms of multilingual localization, a little time devoted to SEO goes a long way. Alongside multilingual keywords, these top technical tips for SEO localization will help you get your website to rank highly in the search engines that matter. If you want your content to be seen by your target audiences, it is worth investing your valuable time and effort.

If you’d like to talk to us further about any aspect of multilingual SEO, drop us an email at