Multilingual SEO best practices

Illustration of magnifying glasses, with one being yellow with the worldwideweb logo inside it, representing SEO practices that make it easy to be found.
March 24, 2021

Kai Blum




For brands offering products and services in multiple regions, search engines have made it easier than ever to reach target audiences. But that doesn’t mean you should leave everything up to chance. Ensure the right audience can find you by addressing multilingual concerns within an international SEO strategy. Here’s how.

Multilingual SEO best practices

A website may perform well in search in its home country, but brands shouldn’t assume that translation alone is enough to drive success in new markets. While content with strong lingual relevance is certainly a piece of the puzzle for multilingual SEO, there are other technical aspects to keep in mind.

When using search to reach foreign audiences, it’s important to understand the role multilingual SEO and native languages play. Here we’ll explore how this SEO consideration feeds into a larger international strategy as well as some best practices for doing it right.

What is multilingual SEO?

There’s often confusion between multilingual SEO and international SEO. Although they sound similar, and they overlap in some ways, they’re actually quite different. 

Multilingual SEO can apply to websites with an international presence, as well as to websites within countries that have several official languages. For example, the website of a German brand could have pages that serve audiences in North America, Asia and Europe, while a Canadian website might have pages in English and French for a domestic audience.

It’s important to note that 55 countries have more than one official language, such as Israel, Switzerland and Belgium. Multilingual SEO is meant to explicitly target consumers and users where content in the native language really matters.

International SEO, on the other hand, is not always multilingual.Your SEO strategy might succeed in multiple countries — if they share a language. For example, an ecommerce site may need to service multiple English-speaking countries like the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia. In this instance, the primary concern would be accommodating different currencies, not different languages. At the enterprise level, websites are often multilingual and international. 

So, how do websites prioritize users with certain languages and dialects in organic search?

Language and location targeting through Hreflang

The biggest overlap between multilingual and international SEO is the use of the Hreflang tag, which is recommended by Google and Yandex. From a technical SEO point of view, this is the most important and most elegant way to target audiences with specific languages and/or in specific countries.

Hreflang tells these search engines exactly which version of a page is meant for which language and which country through a combination of a 2-letter ISO 639 language code, followed by a dash and the appropriate 2-letter ISO 3166 country code. 

In this example, pages are published in English for the US and the UK, as well as pages in German for Germany and Switzerland:

If currencies and other country specifics are not an issue, Hreflang can also be specified for languages only. Without specifying the location, users in all countries that speak a specific language are targeted.

A combination of these two options is also possible. In this example, the first URL would target a German-speaking audience everywhere, except in Switzerland, which would be targeted with the second URL:

How Hreflang is applied depends primarily on the type of website. A B2B website with lead forms could target languages only, but a B2C ecommerce site usually needs to specify language and country. (Targeting an entire region like Europe through something like en-eu is not possible.)

There are three places Hreflang can be implemented: in an XML sitemap (or several sitemaps, if the site is very large), in the <head> section of the page markup, or the HTTP header (for non-HTML content like PDFs). Google strongly recommends using only one of these methods to avoid conflicting signals caused by errors. In Contentful, Hreflang can be implemented in the <head> section of each page.

Here are the most important best practices that should not be overlooked

Return links: Hreflang URLs need to be placed on every version of a page. If a page exists in 30 languages, then Hreflang needs to be in the code of all 30 versions.

Self-referencing URLs: There always needs to be a self-reference to the page on which the code is implemented. Therefore, if Hreflang is being placed on the page for the US, and alternate URLs for the UK, Germany and Switzerland are referenced, the US URL also needs to be listed. Forgetting to include the self-referencing URL is a common mistake in international and multilingual SEO.

Canonical URLs: Only canonical URLs are valid in Hreflang. Including non-canonical URLs sends conflicting signals to Google and the search engine might therefore ignore Hreflang altogether.

Cross-domain alternates: Pages listed as alternates don’t have to be on the same domain. But, ideally, an international website should be organized in a folder structure, as in our examples above. Whenever a country or language is added, the new pages can then take advantage of the established domain strength and Hreflang implementation might also be less complicated.

x-default: This attribute value tells search engines which page should be listed in search results if none of the specified Hreflang URLs apply to a searcher’s location and language setting. It is optional to include it and the URL can be the same as one of the already specified languages and locations for this page.

What about other search engines, like Bing and Baidu?

It’s important to note that while Google and Yandex recommend using Hreflang, not all search engines fully support it. Bing and Baidu recommend using the content-language tag in the HTML <head> section. Here’s an example of what that would look like:

<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-us">

This tells Bing and Baidu the language of the specific page. It is not possible to list alternate URLs.

As significant and useful leveraging Hreflang and setting the content-language tag can be, the content itself is just as important for multilingual SEO.

Multilingual keyword research through native speakers

Developing and implementing a global and local content strategy is challenging. One question that website owners should always ask themselves is what the purpose of each piece of content is.

Every piece of inbound marketing content on a website should have a primary keyword phrase. Determining those keyword phrases for pages in other languages should be handled by SEO professionals with a native or near-native command of those languages. Simply translating the keyword and on-page content might not always work and you could miss out on massive organic traffic opportunities.

It also never hurts to see which keyword your competitors are targeting in a specific market. If this differs from your keyword, you need to investigate who did a better job at keyword research. You can always get a second opinion from another native SEO.

For tasks like keyword research, writing title tags and meta descriptions, as well as translation of your page content, you can either engage a company that specializes in website transcreation or hire freelancers. In any case, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes look at foreign language text for your site. For this, you can easily hire a proofreader on a freelancer platform.

Keep an eye on keyword performance

Keyword performance can help you determine whether or not you need to examine areas for improvement, so keeping an eye on this performance is crucial. 

Most rank tracking tools let you set up country-specific tracking. Besides keyword rankings, you should also consider observing performance of ranking URLs. 

Do any URLs intended for other countries rank in the wrong location? If so, the first item to investigate is the accuracy of your Hreflang implementation. 

Are there any violations of the best practices that we outlined earlier in this post? In almost all cases, the answer will be yes. If you can’t find the error, it might be time to consult a technical SEO specialist.

Set up locales in a composable content platform

If you publish content in multiple languages, it can be challenging to guarantee the same content experience for all users. Having a website in various languages in a composable content platform ensures consistency of the content model across markets and allows for a combination of global and local content. On ecommerce sites, for example, the same product images can be served in all locations, while product descriptions and prices are localized.

Another advantage of using one platform is that missing translations can be handled more easily. Contentful allows you to set up custom fallback locales so that not everything automatically falls back to English. For example, standard German could be configured as a fallback option if the Austrian German content is missing. That’s not only preferred by users, but also beneficial for SEO, since search engines don’t like bilingual pages.

Reach the world with Contentful

Brands using Contentful are best placed to succeed in international and multilingual markets, and our case studies prove it. Learn how companies like Samsara expanded to 16 markets in two years, or how Livi launched a video platform in 10 languages in just four weeks.

For an in-depth walkthrough on optimizing SEO with Contentful, please refer to this guide.

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