The world's your oyster
The internet is a game changer, allowing small business owners to reach a global audience and offering opportunities that have never previously been possible.
This SEO article helps guide business owners or marketing experts on how to create and market a website to reach an international or multilingual audience. We review the best practice on how to set up your site (or sites), do keyword research and complete successful multilingual link building campaigns.
We consider the best approach for both multilingual companies (e.g. a European company targeting the UK, France and Germany) and single language companies targeting multiple countries (e.g. a company targeting English speakers in the UK, USA and Canada).
Our recommended approach to international SEO is based on both large scale studies of global marketing experts and on our own multilingual SEO case studies.
1. Should you go international?
Some companies might want to take the step and go international because more customers = more profit, however going international is a big step that incurs its own expenses and for best practice you should ask yourself some important questions first:
- Do you have the resources to answer customer queries, transport goods, etc. in your target language / country?
- Is there a demand for your product / service in the target destination?
- After translating your website or creating an international site, will you have a sufficient marketing budget left to promote it?
If you’re considering expanding into multiple areas simultaneously, you might be better choosing the one with the highest potential first and staggering the launch of the other sites.
2. How to identify demand and competition
One way to identify the demand and competition is via international keyword research. For example, you manufacture pianos and are considering expanding into Europe, but have to choose a factory in France or Germany. Some keyword results show:
This suggests that over 3 times as many people are looking for pianos in France vs. Germany (Klavier is the German translation for “piano”), despite France having a smaller population. All other factors being equal, France would be the best choice (obviously you would be crazy to make an important decision on the basis of a single keyword and further research would be necessary).
Once you’ve chosen a country, you can then use keyword research to identify the demand and competition for different cities, different makes of piano, etc.
Most Global Small Business owners (to borrow a term from the Entrepreneur Revolution, a truly inspirational book) don’t need a physical presence in other countries, however completing research in advance of taking the plunge will help you confirm whether your idea will work in advance of creating a website, translating content, etc.
Considering translating your site into more than one language?
A simple way to identify the priority language is to look at your Google Analytics and see which non-English speaking country you receive the most traffic from. If English speakers in that country are already visiting your site, then clearly it will be a good language to translate your website into.
3. How to identify market trends
Another worthwhile step is to identify whether market trends indicate that your product or service is on the wane or on the increase. Google Trends provides an easy tool to see how searches for different terms change over time.
For instance, searching for ‘piano’ shows that there’s a similar amount of interest in pianos now, as there was years ago. Past trends don’t guarantee what will happen in the future, but it’s a useful indicator.
To view results for just one country, click ‘Worldwide’, then choose the relevant country from the dropdown list.
4. Website configuration – one or multiple sites?
The first question many business owners have is whether to use:
- Separate domains (example.co.uk, example.fr, example.de)
- Separate sub-domains (en.example.com, fr.example.com, de.example.com)
- Separate sub-folders (example.com/en, example.com/fr, example.com/de)
With a multilingual site, in most scenarios best practice is to use a CMS (e.g. WordPress, Drupal or PrestaShop) that permits you to use separate domains for different languages, but with a shared database. Our article on choosing domains or sub-domains for SEO explores this question in depth.
Having a shared database means that you can synchronise some content (e.g. product codes, prices, colours, measurements, etc.) across different languages and if you update one, it will automatically update on all versions of your site. This is particularly useful if you have an ecommerce site with the same or similar products in multiple countries, as if you update one then, when properly configured, it will apply it to all websites, saving you a lot of time on an ongoing basis.
What about a single language site targeting multiple countries?
With an international, but single language site the situation is more complicated, however the deciding factor is duplicate content.
Where the same content exists on multiple websites, Google normally only shows it once and can penalise sites that are clones of each other. If the vast majority of your site would have the same content in different countries, then the best SEO strategy is to use a single domain for all countries, as this has the following benefits:
- Links to your site help your SEO in all countries
- You don’t have to worry about rewriting everything twice, as this wastes time and if you write something repeatedly, it’s likely to become dull.
If you will be selling different products or services in different countries, or it’s important that those services have a distinctly local flavour, then you are better choosing different domain names for each country.
Amazon is an obvious example where they use a domain name for each country (amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, etc.) and this makes sense as the products they sell in each country vary greatly. If you’re on the amazon.co.uk site and there aren’t many reviews for a global product, then you have the option to view reviews from amazon.com, and this is a clever use of content, by keeping it on amazon.com, but allowing visitors from other countries to view it.
Google use a different domain name for each country, however Bing took the option of using cookies to control language and while they own bing.fr, bing.de, etc. they simply forward (301 redirect) these to bing.com, their global site.
When you’re configuring a site, ask yourself not just what’s best for SEO, but also what’s best for branding, user experience and ease of use by site editors. What I’ve presented here is a good way to configure sites to be sure that things go smoothly, however there is no single best practice option and you should review it on a case by case basis.
5. SEO Translation best practice
A common question business owners have is “Can you use automated translations as a shortcut when translating a website?” Our answer would be a resounding ‘no’ for two main reasons:
- While automatically translated content might be understandable, it will have numerous mistakes that will put readers off, interfere with any excitement you might otherwise have generated within them and reduce their trust in your business.
- Google classify automatically translated content as spam, therefore it will be far harder for you to rank well and you are likely to receive an SEO penalty for that language. It’s easy to see why, if you translate the above sentence into French in Google Translate, then translate it back to English again, here’s what it says:
If you can’t translate everything, identify your most important pages to translate and focus on those.
It’s best to complete an SEO translation by using the core keywords in the translated content and ensuring that Metatags, etc. are the appropriate lengths.
When doing an SEO translation, if you're translating things like your Terms and Conditions or Client Testimonials, it's best practice to translate these as accurately as possible for legal reasons and to use your actual company name. Ideally allow visitors to view any testimonials in the original language too. As you move to the right in the diagram above, it becomes gradually more and more important to adapt the translation to the local culture, so adapt your blogs and guest posts by writing them in a way that flows naturally and if need be writing different content specifically targeting the local audience.
6. How to manage different currencies
If you sell products in multiple currencies, then choose a CMS that has an add-on that lets you convert currencies instantly, for example:
- Drupal – Currency Converter Module (free)
- WordPress – Currency Converter Plugin (free)
- PrestaShop – Fast Currency Converter (cheap)
When the UK voted to leave Europe there was an 8% drop in the value of the pound overnight. While this is an extreme example, currency fluctuations are constant and you will save yourself a lot of time tweaking prices in different currencies if you automate it.
You also need to present currencies in the correct format, for example €1,000.00 in the UK would be shown as €1.000,00 in mainland Europe – the comma and full stop are switched.
7. Language metatags
Google indexes every page on your site separately, therefore it’s best if each page on your site is in a single language (for example NEVER use a cookie as the sole means of changing the language, it’s essential that the URL also changes).
To specify the language, put the following metatag in the <head> tag:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Language" content="en" />
Replacing en with the appropriate language from the following list:
Common European Languages
- NL – Dutch
- EN – English
- FR – French
- DE – German
- GA – Irish
- IT – Italian
- ES – Spanish
Common International Languages
- EN – American
- ZH - Chinese
- JA – Japanese
- RU – Russian
For more information on using the language metatag, read Language internationalization best practice.
8. Optimal hosting for international SEO
If your website is hosted in the same country or a country near where your target audience is located, then it will be slightly faster for them.
If you can choose a host in the same continent as your target audience, this is ideal. If you’re targeting an international audience, cloud hosting is one solution, alternatively this is a small factor and other factors like having a reliable host and a shared database are far more important.
In terms of SEO, the host location is not important whatsoever. Google and other search engines use a range of other more reliable factors to determine where a site is targeting, in order of importance:
- The top level domain (TLD), e.g. a .fr domain tells Google the site’s in France.
- Whether international targeting is set for international domains (e.g. .com, .net)
- Locations that are mentioned on the website, particularly addresses in the footer or on the Contact page.
- The locations of the websites linking to your site.
- The address used in Whois when registering the domain name.
It’s most important that you send a consistent message to Google by including the same address on the website, and on any directories or other sites that link to you. This will improve the local SEO in each country.
9. Multilingual link building
Building your website is only half the picture. The other half is multilingual marketing, which requires building links to your site from relevant, high authority and language specific sites.
A recent study of a million search results in Google showed that the single most important factor is the links going to the page. Google also look at the country and language that pages linking to your site are from. In order to have good multilingual SEO, it’s therefore essential that you also have good multilingual links going to the correct language version of your site.
This is equally true whether you have multiple domains, or a single domain with separate sub-folders or sub-domains per language. It’s entirely possible for a website to have similar content in different languages, but only to rank well for one of those languages and the reason for this is often because the vast majority of links will be in a single language.
Creating in-depth and accurately translated content is a good first step, as some visitors will then spontaneously share it or link to it, however we also recommend completing a successful multilingual link building campaign.
Summary - how to succeed at multilingual SEO
In summary, creating an international company is a significant, yet potentially hugely rewarding, commitment. For best practice the first stage is to do your research to be sure that it’s a worthwhile endeavour for you, based on the market demand, competition and trends.
Next create a website and use the keywords identified during your keyword research in the translated content. Use appropriate language metatags and currency formats for the target country.
Finally to appear high with Google, marketing is essential. Your new site or sub-domain will need unique language specific (and ideally country specific) links going to it.