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The Ultimate Guide to Multilingual and Multiregional SEO
When you begin to get into multilingual and multiregional SEO, you know that you have taken a step forward as an SEO expert. Why? Well, because you are probably dealing with a large, complex site that demands the expertise of someone who knows what they are talking about. If you are dealing in multilingual or multinational SEO, then you are managing a complex website strategy that serves multiple locations and languages — not just one.
Lucky for you, most everything you need to know about multilingual and multiregional SEO is listed in this post. So, even if you are a first-timer, you now have a cheat sheet that can guide you down the right path. Please keep in mind that multilingual and multiregional SEO are always changing — so, make sure to verify your strategy with the most up-to-date materials before making any drastic decisions.
What Are Multilingual SEO & Multiregional SEO?
Multilingual SEO is the practice of offering optimized website content in a variety of languages. Multiregional SEO is the practice of creating optimized website content that is tailored specifically to multiple geographic regions.
These two strategies often have overlap, which is why we are covering them both in this post. They also tie in with other aspects of online marketing, such as conversion rate optimization, pay per click and content strategy.
First, Ask Yourself: Where Are You Targeting?
The first thing you need to do is determine what regions you are targeting. Next, you need to decide which languages you are going to make available to those regions. This is critical, because it allows you to lay out the entire project.
Domain & URL Structure
After you determine the language and regions, you need to choose your domain and/or URL structure strategy.
Google’s Official Webmaster Central blog states, “It’s difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis, so it makes sense to consider using a URL structure that makes it easy to segment parts of the website for geotargeting.”
I strongly agree with this — if you can map out the right location structure first, the rest of the project will be much easier. But, before we start to map website architecture, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each URL or domain option. (Note: The information below is taken directly from Google.)
(e.g., example.de, example.fr)
- clear geotargeting
- server location is irrelevant
- easy separation of sites
- legal requirements (sometimes)
- potential availability issues
- more infrastructure
- ccTLD requirements (sometimes)
Subdomains With gTLDs
(e.g., de.site.com, fr.site.com, etc.)
- easy to set up
- can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
- allows different server locations
- easy separation of sites
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone (is “de” the language or the country?)
Subdirectories With gTLDs
(e.g., site.com/de/, site.com/fr/, etc.)
- easy to set up
- can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
- low maintenance (same host)
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
- single server location
- separation of sites is more difficult/less clear
(e.g., site.com?loc=de, ?country=france, etc.)
- none (not recommended)
- segmentation based on the URL is difficult
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
- geotargeting in Webmaster Tools is not possible
We’ve now outlined the pros and cons of the most popular methods for geotargeting in a URL or domain; but, which is the best option for you?
The answer to this question always depends on the goals of the website and who you need to target through SEO and other integrated marketing methods to reach those goals. Top-level domains are a strong indicator to Google, so they can be a good option. However, subdomains and subdirectories have their advantages, as well. We’ll explore those in a moment.
Important Information About Top Level Domains
Some domains are generic and others are location-specific. According to Google, these are the generic top-level domains (gTLDs) which do not specific a country. Google treats the following as gTLDs that can be geotargeted in Webmaster Tools.
Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs)
Regional Top-Level Domains (rTLDs)
According to Google, these domains are associated with a region, but they treat them as top level as well (much like .com or .org).
Generic Country Code Top Level Domains (gccTLDs)
Here is a list of the ccTLDs. Keep in mind that Google is always changing this list. Also, this list is specific to the Google search engine.
An Argument For Subdomains Or Directories
In my opinion, your best option for a large website is going to be either a directory or subdomain structure. From an SEO and analytics tracking perspective, things can get very messy when you have multiple top-level domains. I recently worked on a large client that had a mix of these strategies and it was pretty tricky.
According to Google:
If your time and resources are limited, consider buying one non-country-specific domain, which hosts all the different versions of your website. In this case, we recommend either of these two options:
- Put the content of every language in a different subdomain. For our example, you would have en.example.com, de.example.com, and es.example.com.
- Put the content of every language in a different subdirectory. This is easier to handle when updating and maintaining your site. For our example, you would have example.com/en/, example.com/de/, and example.com/es/.
A directory structure would be my preferred choice, in most cases. It is very clean, and I like how the directories add to the overall authority of the entire site. This is basically the case with subdomains, as well; but, let’s be honest: subdomains are more “separate” than a directory structure as far as content segmentation is concerned.
ccTLD & Webmaster Tools Geotargeting
It has to be noted that the use of a ccTLD is generally a very strong signal for users and search engines; so, if you really want to target a particular region, there is nothing wrong with using a ccTLD. (Though, as mentioned above, you should be prepared for the fact that issues can arise with tracking, SEO and branding if you are using multiple ccTLDs — this is why many multilingual/multinational SEOs prefer directories or subdomains.)
However, it is not necessary to use a ccTLD in order to geotarget a particular country. Google Webmaster Tools allows for manual geotargeting of gTLDs (such as .com and .net) with the Set Geographic Target tool. To set up geotargeting in Webmaster Tools, follow these steps:
- On the Webmaster Tools Home page, click the site you want
- Under Site configuration, click Settings
- In the Geographic target section, select the option you want
If you want to ensure that your site is not associated with any country or region, select Unlisted.
Google points out that it generally does not make sense to set a geographic target if the same pages on your site target more than a single country. This is because your geotargeting settings might limit the reach of your content.
You can learn more about geotargeting here.
Is Server Location A Factor?
Many people think that server location is a big deal for this multilingual or multiregional search, but the degree to which this is true has recently changed due to the wide adoption of new technologies.
According to Google, “Server location (through the IP address of the server) is frequently near your users. However, some websites use distributed content delivery networks (CDNs) or are hosted in a country with better webserver infrastructure; so, we try not to rely on the server location alone.”
This is something which has evolved over years; you can see an older video here when things were much different. I really wish Google would take these old videos down, as they throw people off.
Specifying Regional Landing Pages With The Rel=”Alternate” Hreflang Annotation
Now that we’ve discussed URL structure, server location, and geotargeting in Webmaster Tools, it is time to talk about hreflang markup. The rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” annotation is used to help Google identify which URLs should be served to which visitors based on language and geographic location. This is useful when you have multiple versions of the same content that has been translated or otherwise adjusted to target users in a specific region.
According to Google, there are 3 ways that we can implement this markup:
- HTML link element in header. In the HTML <head> section of http://example.com/us, add a link element pointing to the Spanish version of that webpage at http://example.com/us-es, like this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=” http://example.com/us-es” />
- HTTP header. If you publish non-HTML files (like PDFs), you can use an HTTP header to indicate a different language version of a URL:
Link: < http://example.com/us-es>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”es”
- Sitemap. Instead of using markup, you can submit language version information in a Sitemap.
Out of the options above, most go with the HTML link element, the sitemap or both of those items.
It is important to note that there are specific hreflang supported values for language and region. For example:
- de: German content, independent of region
- en-GB: English content, for GB users
- de-ES: German content, for users in Spain
For more information on supported values, visit the Google Webmaster support article on the topic.
The X-Default Hreflang Attribute Value
So, what happens when someone visits your site from a country that you don’t have a landing page for? Perhaps you’d want them to land on a generic home page, or a page where they can select their country or language.
Thanks to a new bit of markup from Google called “x-default,” you can now specify a default page for users outside your target regions. When specifying your region-specific landing pages with hreflang, you would use the value “x-default” to indicate which page is the default in situations where you don’t have a region-specific landing page. Thus, you might have a cluster of HTML link tags that look like this:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-gb” hreflang=”en-gb” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-us” hreflang=”en-us” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/en-au” hreflang=”en-au” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/” hreflang=”x-default” />
Above, http://example.com would be the default page for users outside of Great Britain, the United States or Australia.
Quick Note On Base On-Page Elements
When it comes to the meta information on these pages, it is generally a good idea to vary them based on language and region. Make sure to have a template, or unique content, depending on how large your website is, and consider altering the following elements:
- Internal Linking
User IP & Use Agent Detection
User agent detection is the process of detecting the device a person is using and delivering content based on the best practices for that device. IP location detection is the practice of detecting the location of a user and delivering content based on what is more relevant for that IP location. If you implement this correctly, there is a good chance you will lower bounce rates, increase conversions and show the user what they are looking for more quickly.
Below are some notes from Google on the topic.
Using HTTP redirection
HTTP redirection is a commonly used to redirect clients to device-specific URLs. Usually, the redirection is done based on the user-agent in the HTTP request headers. It is important to keep the redirection consistent with the alternate URL specified in the page’s link rel=”alternate” tag or in the Sitemap.
For this purpose, it does not matter if the server redirects with an HTTP 301 or a 302 status code.
Outside of the detection and redirects, you also want to make sure your website has good internal linking and navigation so that the user can find the pages that match their demographic.
Rel Author & Rel Publisher Considerations
It is interesting; now that rel author and rel publisher can easily be implemented on any website, people have to stop and think about whether they should implement it. This is a huge topic, so for the purposes of this post let’s just consider a few elements from the mutilingual and regional perceptive.
If you implement rel author across an entire multilingual or multiregional website, you run the risk of positioning a figurehead for your brand in the search space which may not relate to everyone you’re targeting. If you are considering implementing rel author, think about whether or not it makes sense to have one person’s presence associated with all of your results. If it does not, consider if it makes sense to break the rel author implementation up by region, language, or on an article-by-article basis.
As rel author becomes more advanced, we could see regional sales managers attached to certain location segments of the website. There are some problems with this, however. For example, generally, you need authoritative Google+ profiles — and even when you have them, it takes some time before they show up in the SERPs. Rel author can make sense for the right multilingual or multiregional website, but there needs to be a clear strategy in place.
Rel publisher is an easier sell than rel author, although I do think there is room for both on the right multilingual or multinational website. Rel publisher causes a very nice Google+ page along with updates to be displayed in search results — and, you can segment your updates based on circles. So, as long as you have a good language and region circle strategy in place, the rest of the rel publisher strategy should be fine.
Bing Multilingual & Multiregional SEO
When it comes to Bing, they love the language meta tag. But, they also pay attention to HTTP headers, top-level domain and reverse IP lookup.
Bing Language Meta Tag
Use the “content-language” meta tag to embed a document location in the <head> section of your documents:
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
- de-at: German, Austria
- de-de: German, Germany
- en-us: English, United States
- es-ar: Spanish, Argentina
Alternatively, embed the document location in either the <html> or the <title> element using the same format:
- <html lang=”en-us”>
- <title lang=”en-us”>
For more information on setting HTTP response headers please refer to:
- In IIS7: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc753133(WS.10).aspx
- In IIS6: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc732442.aspx
- In Apache 2.2: http://httpd.apache.org/docs/2.2/mod/mod_headers.html
Top Level Domain
According to Bing, “Out of the top level domain categories distinguished by the IANA, only the country code top-level domains (or ccTLDs) influence the document location. For an overview of the currently assigned ccTLDs, please visit IANA’s website at: http://www.iana.org/domains/root/db/.”
Reverse IP Lookup
As we mentioned, for each document added to Bing, the search engine does a reverse IP lookup to determine the documents location; so, this is a small factor in Bing indexing.
A Note On Duplicate Content
One issue that comes up a lot in SEO is duplicate content. Basically, if you have duplicate content on your website or share content that is housed on another site, it forces Google to pick the “winner,” if you will, only ranking that page. When it comes to multilingual and multiregional websites, this can become an issue — you will often have multiple versions of the same content for different regions and languages.
The good news is, if you implement the rel=”alternate” hreflang link element and x-default hreflang annotation correctly, duplicate content should not be an issue. In the past, SEOs would use rel=”canonical”, block pages with robots.txt, etc. But today, the alternate/x-default is the best option.
Mutilingual and multiregional SEO is always changing. I expect this to be an expanding topic as we move into the future of this crazy Internet world. One thing that I love about how things are evolving is that if you pay attention to new strategies for search, you are going to get other amazing ideas to improve your online business.
For example, if you are taking the steps to build out a better multinational and multilingual strategy for SEO, you are probably working that same strategy into your other online performance channels. The key is making everything work together and pay off.
Other Great Resources On This Topic
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.