International SEO for your multilingual website: The checklist

You’ve likely already put in a lot of hard work to make sure your current website ranks high in search engines, and maybe you’re sitting comfortably on the first page of Google (nice work). 

But, what happens when your company expands and you’re now tasked with having to complete the whole process again, but, ranking with new languages? Otherwise known as international SEO.

If you fail to focus your efforts on international search engine optimization just as you did in your original language, then you risk your website not being found or used in other countries.  

The prospect of international SEO can sound daunting, but with the right tools and strategies in place, your international site can start serving international audiences.

What is international SEO?

Just to clear up that question, international SEO is, in fact, really all about applying the same basic principles of standard SEO…But, with the addition of some guidelines to follow that will ensure the languages you’ve translated your website into, also benefit from your SEO efforts. 

It’s the practice of translating existing content into new languages and optimizing that content for SEO – to drive search traffic from your target country or location and help search engines recognize the language versions of your site.

That’s an important part of international SEO and one that differs from traditional SEO because you’ll need to make sure people are seeing the correct pages for their location. 

Much the same with standard SEO, there are no “magic tricks” to help accelerate your website to the first page of Google, Bing, or Baidu.

However, we’re here to guide you through the ins and outs of international SEO. 

We’ll first take a look at the content side of international SEO, which covers your translations, multilingual keywords, and metadata translation, finishing with international SEO link building. 

To finish, we’ll delve into the more technical side of things, with URL structure (subdomains vs subdirectories) taking center stage, as well as hreflang tags and language switching options.

Creating and optimizing your International SEO strategy

First things first, let’s look at the content side of things. 

We’re going to go ahead and assume you’ve already carried out extensive market research to decide which language(s) you’re translating your website into, which international markets you’re targeting, and the characteristics of your target audience. 

So the next step of that process is to determine what content to translate.

1. What content should you translate?

You might be tempted to look at the large number of words and pages you have on your current website and panic at the prospect of translation. 

And, your next option might be to consider only translating a few of your key pages. However, to create a consistent user experience, the best practice would be to translate all your content for your target markets. 

You’ll also encounter search engine penalties if you don’t translate all of your website as engines won’t know what specific countries your website is intended for.

Entering new markets – which will require a significant amount of time and resources will also require the same quality of content across different countries. And, if you’re using machine translation software that translates, displays, and allows you to manage and edit the content, the task is no longer time-consuming or resource-heavy.

2. Multilingual keywords

You’ll then need to consider multilingual keyword research. This will help you rank better for your translated content and help you content marketing strategy.

What might be a keyword on your English site, won’t necessarily be the same for your translated site. You’ll want to carry out the same level of keyword research you conducted in your original language for better geo-targeting. 

If you’re targeting seemingly English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia you’ll also still need to watch the ‘translation’ of your keywords. This is because each country has a different way of phrasing things, such as the UK would say ‘trousers’ but that keyword in Australia would be ‘pants’.

Another aspect of international SEO to keep in mind is that while Google is the main search engine for the US and other English-speaking countries, there are other search engines that are more popular in other places. Such as Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia. 

So, you’ll need to take this into account when planning your multilingual global keyword search strategy.

3. Metadata translation

Your meta title and meta description are crucial parts of your international SEO. They help search engines and potential visitors understand the content of your page and are treated as a key piece of information when indexing a website/page. 

metadata example

So bear in mind that you’ll also need to translate the nonvisible content elements of your site to ensure your international SEO efforts are successful. It also leads us back to sending false information to search engines, by not translating these important elements you risk sending mixed messages to bots indexing your website.

Weglot Dashboard: editing metadata translations
Weglot Dashboard: editing metadata translations

4. Multilingual link-building structure

Link-building is a way for websites to build their search engine ranking by creating backlinks to their website. This is through guest blogs, online comments, article features, etc from websites with high domain authority.

You’ve most likely worked on this for your original website, so it’s worth taking the time to do the same for your translated site. 

Luckily, your translated website isn’t classed as duplicate content by Google, so you won’t be penalized for your translated blog. This means you should have plenty of content already in your new site language. 

You’ll then need to reach out to bloggers working in the language/country you’ve translated your website into and build relationships to secure those all-important backlinks. 

There’s also the option to purchase backlinks, however, exercise this with caution as search engines can detect this type of behavior

You can also review the backlinks of your competitors to see what opportunities might work for you too. This can be done through Ahrefs or SEMRush. 

Technical SEO

The second part of international SEO is centered around technical SEO, the parts that are not content based but are important parts that play a key role in your overall strategy.

Such as your URL structure, Hreflang tags, and your language switcher.  It’s worth noting that a lot of these areas can be quite tricky to implement.

5. Site and domain URL structure 

We’ve touched briefly on this when looking at the content side of things, but what you’ll also need to consider is how your translated content will be displayed and what URL structure you’ll choose – as this will have a big impact on your international SEO. 

Google’s best practices recommend using dedicated URLs that include a language indicator. 

There are a few options to choose from when it comes to this: 

  • Country-specific top level domain (tld): e.g. www.example.de
  • Subdomain: e.g. de.example.com
  • Subdirectory: e.g. example.com/de/
  • URL parameters: e.g. example.com/?lang=fr 

Country-specific domains

A country-specific domain might look feasible but owning and managing multiple websites (and domains) is time intensive.

You’ll also have to carry out SEO on each site separately, follow best practices like using the country code top-level domain (cctld) for each site, and additionally, there’s a lack of connection between your sites. 

Subdomains

Subdomains are easy to set up and are well-received by Google. You also only need to pay for one domain name – bonus! 

Subdirectories 

Again, these are easy URLs to set up in CMS systems. There’s also no risk of a Google penalty as the folders are part of the same subdomain. Much like subdomains, they are liked by Google. 

Bonus: Read about the difference between subdirectories and subdomains for effective SEO. 

URL parameters

Although URL parameters are loved by developers, they are considered a nightmare in terms of SEO. They add technical language to all your URLs which search engines don’t like (nor do your website users!). They’re also difficult to type in a search bar which does not make for a good user experience. 

With Weglot your content is automatically displayed without the need for duplicated websites or duplicated translations on pages, and you’ll get a subdirectory or a subdomain URL depending on the CMS you’re using. 

Weglot uses rewrite rules to automatically create a unique URL for each language, which ranks favorably with search engines. 

Dedicated URL examples
Dedicated URL examples

This is considered best practice when it comes to international SEO. 

If you’re not planning on using a translation solution like Weglot, make sure you don’t display all your translated content on one page. 

Putting all languages on one page is extremely bad for SEO as Google can only index a page once, with one meta title and one meta description. 

Your translation efforts will go to waste as you’ll never be found in Google searches for your new language. 

6. Server-side translation

We briefly touched on enhancing your website translations within the content side of things. And now we’re going to talk about how multilingual translation solutions actually work. 

You might be wondering what that has to do with international SEO, so it’s worth explaining it a bit further, as this actually makes a difference for search engines.

Translating your content can happen at two different moments. 

Client-side (Javascript snippet) – where your original content is sent to your site visitor, and it’s only there that the content is swapped with the translation. This can be good in certain situations, but it does make it hard for Google bots to index the translations, as they will only “see” the original content.

However, server-side is where your original content is swapped with the translation before the page is sent to the visitor, so the translations are in the source code of the page. Which is perfect for Google bots to detect it! It also means your SEO tags (metadata, alt tags, etc) are automatically translated in the source code.  

7. Hreflang tag

Ok, so this is where things can get a little more complicated if you’re not a developer. 

Hreflang tags are small elements in your page source code used to tell Google about pages that are similar in content but targeting different languages. They help determine both the language of the page and which region it’s intended for.

But to add them is both complicated and time-consuming, particularly for beginners. 

You’ll need to insert your hreflang tags into the <head> section of your HTML page, HTTP headers or in your sitemap. However, you’ll need to be consistent here and choose only one option to place your hreflang tags otherwise they can be misinterpreted by search engines.  

Check out our ultimate guide to hreflang tags.

8. Make it easy for users to switch languages 

Remember, IP addresses don’t actually indicate which country a person is in, or what language they want to view your content in. 

If you’re a French-speaking person in Spain or a German speaker in Brazil, then it might be frustrating to land on the Spanish-speaking of Brazilain Portuguese version of the website, with no option to change it into your desired language. 

So first, it’s better to have the default language based on the web browser language to avoid this problem.

Make sure the different versions of your website are easily visible to your site visitors. This will lead to longer site visits as users can actually get the content they want – which all adds to your international SEO performance. 

By adding your language switcher in the header, your website visitors can easily navigate to where they want to be.

Summary 

We’ve put together the crucial aspects of an international SEO strategy mixing both content and technical aspects to help drive your organic traffic from global markets.

Here are some general international SEO best practices: 

  1. Meet Google’s Core Web Vitals
  • Google came out with an initiative called Web Vitals to gauge the quality of a website’s user experience. You can find it in your Google Search Console under “Enhancements”. The three core web vitals include
    • Website loading time is measured by Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) which is the time taken for the largest image or text block to be visible from when the page first started loading.
    • Your website’s interactivity and responsiveness, which is also called the First Input Delay (FID) metric. This essentially measures how a visitor would perceive your website. It is based on the time it takes from when they first interact with your site (like when they click on a button or link) till the time when the browser begins to process that event.
    • The Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) of your website – let’s understand this using an example. Say you have a page that has multiple elements like banners, images, buttons, text, etc. Each of these elements are different file types and sizes, which means that they all load at different speeds. So when a visitor opens the page, it is possible that a banner pops up after they’ve started reading the text. This unexpected “shift” in the visual could disrupt their user experience and that is what CLS attempts to measure. You can optimize your CLS by setting standard sizes for images and video, avoiding displaying banners above what the user might view first, providing a better context for a page shift (like a Read More button which leads to a page jump), etc.
  1. E-A-T
  • Google uses multiple methods of evaluation like live traffic experiments, feature launches and search quality tests. For the last method, Google uses external Search Quality Raters to measure SERP quality in real time. For consistent assessment, Google published the Search Quality Rater Guidelines where they discussed the E-A-T concept. E-A-T essentially stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness of your content and website.
  • To be in line with E-A-T, you need to make sure your website content and web design is well-researched, actionable, and helpful to your audience. We discuss some of the best tips in our guide to multilingual website design that can help you with this. 

Remember that both content and the technical aspects in the backend of your website are equally important when it comes to international SEO, especially those pesky hreflang tags.

But, more importantly, you can cut out many of the steps above by choosing Weglot as your multilingual translation solution – as many of the international SEO steps are taken care of, especially when it comes to the technical aspects! 

Check out Weglot’s 10-day free trial and see how we can help ease your international

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