The vast majority of SEO advice on the Internet applies to English-language sites with a specific focus on the United States. England and Australia can put much of the advice to use, with regional preferences and spelling, but still; the fact remains that multilingual and foreign sites are in the minority when it comes to SEO advice.
The world is, in part because of the Internet, growing increasingly globalized. Your English site may have users in other countries and speaking other languages. An increasing number of sites are catering to other regions and other languages by producing multilingual and multiregional sites. The question becomes, then, how do you reach a multilingual audience with proper SEO utilization? In other words, how do you stay within Google’s boundaries using more than one language?
The first thing you need to determine is what languages and regions you’re targeting. If you’re based in the United States, are you far enough to the north that it’s’ beneficial to include French Canadian versions of pages? Are you in the south, where a sizable Spanish population resides? Are you hoping to expand globally, and can benefit from Portuguese as you target Brazil? Are you more European, where French, Spanish, German and Russian are all worthwhile investments? Are you in tech, where you may benefit from one of the numerous Asian languages?
Select the regions and languages you need to target and base your project on them.
You have a number of options when it comes to your domain name.
ccTLDs are the top level domains for countries. You would create a different version of your site for each ccTLD. For example, you would own www.mybusiness.com, www.mybusiness.fr and www.mybusiness.de to target multiple regions. The .com address may be replaced with a .co.uk for added clarity. This method is very clear for geotargeting purposes and allows you to maintain separation between each version of the site. There will be no confusion regarding which version a user is using. On the other hand, maintaining several sites is expensive, and you occasionally must fulfill specific requirements to own a ccTLD in a certain country.
gTLD Subdomains are an easy scheme to set up using generic top level domains. Examples would include us.mybusiness.com, fr.mybusiness.com and de.mybusiness.com. You can use Google’s Webmaster Tools to geotarget with subdomains easily, and you can segregate server location by subdomain for the fastest response times for each version of the site. On the other hand, some subdomains are unclear in their meaning.
gTLD Directories are another implementation of region codes in the URL. In this case, you would use a scheme such as www.mybusiness.com/us/, www.mybusiness.com/de/ and www.mybusiness.com/fr/ to distinguish between each version of the site. This method is also easy to set up and usable with Webmaster Tools for geotargeting. It is also low maintenance, as it just involves segregating content via subdirectory. On the other hand, you won’t be able to use a different host for each directory. Some users also may not recognize the country code and assume the subdirectory is part of the URL for another reason.
The method you choose is up to your business and depends largely upon your investment budget. If you have the capability to maintain multiple sites using ccTLDs, it is probably the best choice. Otherwise, the choice you follow depends on how important server response times are for you. The exception is if you are trying to track all of the different domains with a single SEO analytics suite. Top level domains make tracking tricky.
If your only purpose is to target a specific country, know that you can use the Webmaster Tools can manage geotargeting without needing specific domains. ccTLDs are perfectly valid if you want to use the look they give, but they are not strictly necessary.
A Note on gTLDs
Generic top level domains are varied, though most businesses opt for the standard .com extension. In actuality, you have significant choice, including .aero, .coop, .int, .mil, .name and others. You are not strictly limited to one; occasionally purchasing alternate domain names and redirecting to your hub page is a valuable way to avoid confusion or phishers. Also, the .eu and .asia regional domains are treated by Google as if they were generic TLDs, rather than regionally-limited domains.
One often mentioned factor in SEO is website response times. In years past, the best way to get a fast response time in a foreign region was to purchase server space in that region. Today, this isn’t always the case. Many web hosts use distribution technology to serve your site as quickly as possible regardless of physical server location. Cloud content distribution networks alleviate the need to worry overmuch about physical server location. About the only industry that needs to care specifically is high frequency trading, where the microseconds lost through a longer cable can affect revenues directly.
Hosting pages on specific domains tells the user what region a piece of content is likely to be targeting. The URL alone doesn’t necessarily tell a search engine about the region, however. This is particularly true among sites that use country code TLDs to create words out of URLs. This isn’t common practice with businesses, but it’s something to be aware of. In order to tell the search engines what region a piece of content targets, you need to implement code in that portion of your site.
The primary method used is to implement an HTML link in the header of each page. In this ongoing example, www.mybusiness.com is your primary English language site. To direct Google towards your French version of the site, you would need to insert code within the <head> section of the page. The code in particular would look something like <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr” href=www.mybusiness.com/fr/>. This code, in order, tells the search engine that the following link is an alternate version of the page, that it’s language is French, and that it’s this particular link.
It’s important to note that there are several variations of each country code. To find any individual country code or regional code, search Google Webmaster Support.
Multilingual Site Maps
Establishing a multilingual site map is another way you can assist a search engine with identifying regional content. This method works for both the search engines and for users, if you set it up properly.
Option one is the HTML option. First, you will want to create an HTML site map. This will be a visual page that includes links to each individual portion of your site, or to each piece of content if your site is smaller. You can create one for each language your site caters to, with one small tweak in the primary English site map. You will need to use the above rel=”alternate” tags to identify the alternate language versions of the page.
Option two is the XML option. An XML site map is specifically for search engines, and does not appear for users. It will be a simple list of each page on your site, with a rel=”alternate” tag identifying each different language version of the page.
Why Identify Languages?
You should use rel=”alternate” tags primarily for two reasons. The first is to tell Google which version of a page to serve up to a specific user. If a Spanish user searches for your site, you want to serve the Spanish version of your pages to them, not your English pages.
The second reason is primarily based in SEO. Duplicate content is an issue for webmasters, and using rel=”alternate” tags will identify duplicate content with a legitimate purpose. This eliminates any possible penalty stemming from multilingual content. In an increasingly globalized world of ecommerce, investing in multilingual pages is a good idea for many businesses. This is how they protect themselves.