How to build an SEO optimized multi-language website - best practices, mistakes, recommendations of search engines

How to build an SEO optimized multi-language website - best practices, mistakes, recommendations of search engines

I made a few multi-language sites recently. I read a lot of articles on the Internet, recommendations and requirements of search engines to properly organize multilingual and multiregional sites. In this article I decided to collect my experience for the future.

The importance of having multi language content on a website in today's globalization of business and people's minds can hardly be overestimated.

Whether you're a small business targeting local markets or a multinational corporation targeting a diverse audience around the world — translating website content into different languages is a way to increase audience reach and find new customers.

Effective multi language SEO has a few nuances in website creation and promotion, that you need to pay attention to.

Multilingual and multi-regional

There is a difference between a multi-language site and a multi-regional site. Multilingualism is the translation of text into different languages. The information on the site remains the same, just in a different language.

Multi-regionality changes the content - for example, when you need to show different prices for different regions or countries. Or when you specify more relevant services for each region in the service list overview.

A site can be both multi-regional and multi-language site. For example, when an online store operates in two countries and shows different prices and availability of products.

Can also be only multi-lingual - for example, you blog in different languages, but the information is the same.

Can only be multi-regional - for example, an online store in the US and Canada can have only an English version, but specify different quantity of products and price. 

Why you need multi-language

Let's see what bonuses we can get from implementing multiple language versions on the site. And maybe someone doesn't need to do it.

Increase audience reach

First of all, a multi-lingual website is all about accessibility for users. If your site is monolingual, you are missing out on a huge amount of traffic.

Increase conversion rate

Research shows that customers are more likely to make a purchase on a site that communicates in their native language. Customizing content, sales messages and calls to action in the user's native language can significantly increase engagement and conversion rates.

In a saturated market, quality of service is an important factor, and having a multilingual website can make you stand out significantly from your competitors. It lets potential customers know that you think globally, and it adds an extra level of convenience for users. This can be a decisive factor in winning customer loyalty.

When you don't have to

Creating a multilingual website is an expensive and long process. You need to support several sites at once. You need to pay specialists for translation and localization of content.

Therefore, it is better not to do multilingualism, unless your business operates in other countries where people use the additional language you have chosen. You might get more traffic from those regions, but this traffic will not bring money.

Realizing multi-language

Creating multilingual versions of a website is a technical task that involves more than just translation. It is necessary to correctly organize the URL structure and language meta tags, remove content duplication problems, etc. Let's look at this in more detail.

Site URL structure

The structure of a multilingual website can significantly affect its SEO promotion. Each approach has its own peculiarities, advantages and disadvantages. Below we will look at four popular options: domains, subdomains, folders and URL parameters.

ccTLD Domains

These are Country Code Top-Level Domains, special national domains with a country letter code, which include country-dedicated domain zones such as:

  • .us - United States of America
  • .nl - Netherlands
  • .de - Germania
  • .fr - France

They are most effective for targeting specific countries. They are easily recognized by users and search engines, but are the most expensive and difficult to configure and support.

Example:

www.example.com - English version
www.example.fr - French version
www.example.de - German version

ccTLD domain itself signals to search engines and users that the content is targeted to a specific country or region.

Advantages

✅ SEO. Search engines recognize ccTLD domain geotargeting signals well. This allows for better promotion in the target country.

✅ Trust. Users easily understand that the site is focused on their region, which increases trust and engagement.

✅ Speed. Each site can be hosted on servers in the country for which it is created - this noticeably improves the speed of server response and page loading.

Disadvantages

❌ Expensive. Buying and servicing multiple domains can be very resource intensive.

❌ Manage. You have separate websites that require separate SEO, marketing efforts, and maintenance.

❌ Links. The link authority of a domain is not transferred from one ccTLD to another. This means that a separate link building campaign is required for each of them.

Subdomains

Subdomains are considered by search engines as separate entities not connected to the main domain. But they are associated with the main domain. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your strategy. 

Example

www.example.com
fr.example.com
de.example.com

Advantages

  • ✅ Management: easier to support than individual domains.
  • ✅ Cheap: no need to buy and renew multiple domains.

Disadvantages

  • ❌ SEO. Each subdomain is treated as a separate site for search engines. You will have to build its authority from scratch.
  • ❌ Complexity. May require difficult configurations and customizations to manage.

Subdirectories (catalogs, folders)

Subdirectories are the easiest to set up and manage, but are considered less effective for geotargeting compared to ccTLDs.

Example

www.example.com/fr/
www.example.com/de/

www.example.com/fr-fr/
www.example.com/fr-ca/

Advantages

  • ✅ Ease of management: centralized management because everything is in one domain.
  • ✅ Cost-effective: no need to purchase additional domains.
  • ✅ SEO: The domain authority of the main site is inherited, so it is easier to rank.

Disadvantages

  • ❌ Less effective. Search engines are not as explicitly understood for geotargeting compared to ccTLDs or subdomains.
  • ❌ Clutter. When new languages are added, the URL structure can become very large, making it difficult to control.

URL parameters (not for SEO)

Language options are set as parameters in the URL. I think it is worth mentioning in the article, because in Google Search Console and other Google services multilingualism is organized through parameters, but this method is not recommended for promoted sites. 

But if you have some service whose pages are closed from indexing, you can use it.

Example

www.example.com/?lang=fr
www.example.com/?lang=de

Advantages

  • ✅ Easy to implement. Easy customization with minimal changes to the existing URL structure.
  • ✅ Cost. No additional costs for purchasing domains.

Disadvantages

  • ❌ SEO Problems. Duplicate content can be an issue if not properly configured.
  • ❌ Usability. URL parameters can look cluttered, making them less user-friendly.
  • ❌ Poor geotargeting. Ineffective for geotargeting because search engines often ignore URL parameters for geotargeting purposes.

Hreflang links

Use the hreflang attributes of the link tag in the page head to specify alternate language versions and geographic orientation of the page.

This will help search engines understand which page should be displayed to different users.

Can be specified as language only:

<!-- Page for all English-speaking users -->
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" 
    href="https://example.com/" />
<!-- Page for all German-speaking users -->
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="de" 
    href="https://example.de/" />

So goes the language with the region:

<!-- Page for all English-speaking users -->
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" 
    href="https://example.com/" />

<!-- Page for English-speaking users from Canada -->
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en_CA" 
    href="https://example.com/en-ca/" />

<!-- Page for English-speaking users from the USA -->
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en_US" 
    href="https://example.de/en-us/" />

Use these ISO standards for language and region letter codes: 

Requirements

  • The page must link to itself.
  • The link must be absolute, with domain and http protocol.
  • Linked pages must link to each other, otherwise the link may not be counted. This is done so that your site can not "stick" a competitor.
  • Language must be specified. Region may not be specified. For example, if you have an informational site and you just want to translate it into popular languages, such as Spanish.
  • For versions of pages in the same language, but in different regions, it is recommended to specify a generic page in this language. For example, for en_US and en_EN you should specify en. This can be one of the regional pages.
  • Specify hreflang="x-default" for users whose language differs from the available languages on the site. For example, for a Chinese user to see a page in English if there is no Chinese language on the site. 

Example

For example, you have a website somecompany.com. The site is multi-language site and multi-regional. The structure is made with subdirectories. The site is in English, but also has:

  • Spanish version for Mexico;
  • Spanish version for Portugal;
  • French version for Canada;
  • French version for France.

Imagine that we opened the source code of the main page https://somecompany.com/ and see such a block with links:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es_MX" 
	href="/es-ms/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es_PT" 
	href="/es-pt/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr_FR" 
	href="/fr-fr/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr_CA" 
	href="/fr-ca/" />

You can see the mistakes right away:

  • current page is not specified
  • links are not absolute
  • x-default is not specified
  • generic language versions not specified

Fix them and we get:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es_MX" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/es-ms/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es_PT" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/es-pt/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/es-pt/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr_FR" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/fr-fr/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr_CA" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/fr-ca/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/fr-fr/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" 
	href="https://somecompany.com/" />

Additional tips

These points will allow you to make a better implementation of multi-language on the site.

Localize

Don't just translate - localize. Localization adapts content in a culturally sensitive way. If you have the resources, use native speakers or professional translation services that understand the nuances and idioms of the language.

To find potential errors you can track metrics such as bounce rates and conversions by segmenting them by language and region.

Google Analytics offers excellent opportunities for this, as well as specialized SEO platforms such as SEMrush and Ahrefs.

Change keywords

Do keyword research for each target language. This is a very important step, because keyword popularity can vary significantly between languages and even regions of the same language. 

A good starting point is the Google Keyword Planner localized for the target language. Also use tools such as Google Trends and SEMrush to assess market needs.

Remember invisible content

As with any page, page elements such as title and meta tags, alt-text of images and schema markup should be localized.

Hide duplicate content

When creating multilingual sites, there is an increased risk of duplicate content. To avoid penalties, use hreflang tags and canonical URLs to tell search engines which version of a page is considered "original".

Some pages, especially those with auto-translations or where the content is barely different, can be blocked from indexing.

Make a language selection

Controlling how users will switch between language versions is very important for the user experience. There are two basic strategies: automatic detection based on browser settings or IP address, and manual selection.

Some sites choose to automatically display the language based on the user's location or browser language settings. However, this method is not reliable and can frustrate users if set up incorrectly. As a best practice, you should always offer a highly visible option to manually switch the language.

Make sure that the user can switch to all language versions. This is usually done using the language selection menu at the top of the site.

Checklist

  • Correct structure
    • do not use url parameters for SEO
    • duplicated pages are closed from indexing
  • Quality UX
    • do not use auto-translation
    • do not use autotargeting
    • translation is checked by a person who knows the language and culture
    • there is a convenient interface for changing the language
    • all interface elements are translated
  • Hreflang is set correctly
    • the page links to itself
    • use absolute URLs
    • all pages are linked to each other
    • there is a generic version for regional versions
    • x-default for hreflang is specified
  • SEO
    • key queries are adapted to the language
    • images alt, meta and title tags are adapted

Conclusion

Creating and promoting a multilingual website is not just about translating content, but about careful planning and quality control of the content. Every step should take into account the language and culture of the target audience. No matter how complex it may be, the return on investment with a properly implemented multilingual SEO strategy can be very good.

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