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, only you’ll have to rank with new languages? 

Welcome to the world of international SEO.

If you focus purely on local SEO and Google Analytics shows that you have foreign visitors and customers, you’ll be missing out on most of your international audience. Since your website hasn’t been tailored to their specific location, circumstances, or even language, search engines won’t recognize it, which means they may not organically find—and ultimately engage—with your business. 

The prospect of international SEO can sound daunting, but with the right tools and strategies in place, your website can start serving global audiences. Here’s everything you need to know about it:

What is international SEO?

To put it simply, international SEO is all about applying the same basic principles of standard SEO. However, there are a few more guidelines that will help ensure your website’s new languages will also benefit from your SEO efforts. 

A crucial difference between standard SEO and international SEO is that the latter requires you to translate existing content into new languages and optimize that content for search engines. By doing this, you’ll attract search traffic from your target country or location and help search engines recognize the different language versions of your site.

Another point to keep in mind is that your local market must see the correct pages for their location, which would ideally be their native language. This is a crucial part of international SEO, so be sure to check for this rigorously. 

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

We’ll take a look at the content side of international SEO, which covers your translations, multilingual keywords, and metadata translation. Then, we’ll dive into international SEO link building. 

To finish, we’ll touch upon the more technical side of things, with URL structure (subdomains vs subdirectories or subfolders) taking center stage. We will also discuss 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?

When the sheer number of words and pages you have on your website dawns on you, you might find yourself on the verge of panic at the thought of translating everything. 

To make things easier, you may be tempted to translate only 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 requires a significant amount of time and resources – will also need the same quality of content across different countries. The good news is that using machine translation software will accelerate the process since it translates, displays, and allows you to manage and edit the content. What once was overwhelming and almost panic-inducing 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 solidify your content marketing strategy.

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

If you’re aiming for seemingly English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia, you’ll still need to pay close attention to the ‘translation’ of your keywords. Each country has a different way of phrasing things, and you’ll want to communicate exactly what you mean to say, regardless of the location or language. For example, what would be ‘pants’ in Australia is ‘trousers’ in the UK—it’s definitely important to make sure the right product or service comes up for your audience!

Another aspect of international SEO to keep in mind is that while Google is the main search engine for the US and other Anglophone countries, other search engines are more popular elsewhere. In China, that would be Baidu, and in Russia, that would be Yandex. 

It’s vital to take this into account when planning your multilingual global keyword search strategy. It may be a lot, but it’s easy to remember as you continue to craft your international SEO plan.

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 key pieces of information when indexing a website or page. 

metadata example

So bear in mind that you’ll also need to translate the non-visible content elements of your site to ensure your international SEO efforts are successful. Watch out as well for accidentally 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 businesses to build their search engine ranking by creating backlinks to their website. You can do this through guest blogs, online comments, article features, and more 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 tagged as duplicate content by Google, so you won’t be penalized for your translated blog. This means you should already have plenty of content in your new site language. 

You’ll then need to reach out to bloggers—ideally native speakers of your target country’s language who also work there—and build relationships with them to secure those all-important backlinks. 

There’s also the option to purchase backlinks. Approach this with caution, as search engines can detect this type of behavior and punish you by sinking your rankings. This is because search engines prioritize high-quality content their users would find useful, and it’s usually spammy websites that sell backlinks.

You can also review your competitors’ backlinks to see what opportunities might work for you, too. We recommend Ahrefs or SEMRush, which both have comprehensive and user-friendly tools to comb through your own and your competitors’ SEO performance.

Technical SEO

The second part of international SEO is centered around technical SEO, which involves aspects like your URL structure, Hreflang tags, and your language switcher. Though they aren’t content-based, they’re still crucial facets in your overall strategy. Be careful when navigating these details, as they can be tricky to implement if you don’t know your way around.

5. Site and domain URL structure 

Though we’ve briefly touched upon this earlier, we’ll dive deeper into how you want your translated content to display and the URL structure that best fits your needs. This will significantly impact your international SEO. 

Google’s best practices recommend using dedicated URLs that include a language indicator. That way, your users can easily switch into their local language.

There are a few options to choose from: 

  • 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=de 

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 resolve any broken links that may pop up along the way.

Subdomains

Subdomains are easy to set up and are well-received by Google. Even better, you only need to pay for one domain name.

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, Google likes them. 

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, compromising good user experience. 

With Weglot, your content is automatically displayed without the need for duplicated websites or translations on pages. You’ll even 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 to use a translation solution like Weglot, make sure you don’t display all your translated content on one page. 

Putting all languages on a singular page is will negatively affect your SEO handiwork, as Google can only index a page once, with one meta title and one meta description. Your translation efforts will also go to waste since 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 your content. Now we’re going to talk about how multilingual translation solutions actually work since they’ll affect your search engine rankings. 

Translating your content can happen in two different circumstances. 

The first is client-side (Javascript snippet), where your original content is sent to your site visitor. It will then be swapped with the translation into their local language. This can be good in certain situations, but it does make it hard for Google bots to index the translations because they will only “see” the original content.

The second is server-side, where the translation will take the place of your original content before the server sends the page to the visitor. The translations will then be embedded into the source code of the page, making it perfect for Google bots to detect it. It also means your SEO tags (metadata, alt tags, and more) are automatically translated in the source code.  

7. Hreflang tag

Okay, 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 that tell Google about pages with similar content but target different languages. They help determine both the language of the page and its intended region.

However, adding 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. It’s crucial to be consistent here and choose only one option to place your hreflang tags; otherwise, search engines can misinterpret them.

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 browsing from 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 or Brazilian Portuguese version of the website, with no option to change it into your desired language. 

To avoid this problem, you’ll want to have the default language based on the web browser language.

Make sure the different versions of your website are easily visible to your site visitors. That way, your users will stay on your website longer since they have access to the content they’re really looking for—all adding to your international SEO performance. 

By incorporating your language switcher into 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:
    • i. Website loading time, which is measured by Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) or the time taken for the largest image or text block to be visible from when the page first started loading.
    • ii. Your website’s interactivity and responsiveness, 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) until the time the browser begins to process that event.
    • iii. The Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) of your website. For example, let’s 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, a banner might pop up after they’ve started reading the text. This unexpected “shift” in the visual could disrupt their user experience, which is what CLS attempts to measure. There are a few ways you can optimize your CLS:  by setting standard sizes for images and video, by avoiding displaying banners above what the user might view first, and by providing a better context for a page shift (like a Read More button leading to a page jump), among others.
  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, your website content and web design must be well-researched, actionable, and helpful to your audience. We discuss some of the best tips in our guide to multilingual website design to 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. It takes care of many of the international SEO processes, and the best part is that you won’t need to worry about the technical aspects!

Check out Weglot’s 10-day free trial and see how we make your transition to international SEO as painless as possible. 

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