Facing The Challenges Of Multilingual SEO


So you have decided that it’s time to go international, researched your markets, decided on the targets and now you need to localise your website.  Can you just run the site through Google Translate and hope for the best?

Even if you navigate the tricky tasks of language, culture, product suitability and logistics; how do you ensure that the site is found by the right audience?

Optimising your site for international markets is every bit as important as it is in your domestic one.  The effort should match the dedication you apply to the source website.  Research is, therefore, critical and there are a number of key factors to consider.

Linguistic And Cultural Suitability

Before even considering search optimisation of your website, commitment must be made to ensuring that all graphics and copy are as persuasive and attractive to the audiences in your target countries, as they are in your domestic market.  The gold standard should always be a properly localised site – i.e., one that is linguistically accurate and in line with the social norms and conventions your target audience are motivated by.  So whilst it’s almost clichéd to talk about symbols and colours, it’s these elements that are vitally important.

Don’t assume that one category of buyers in one locale act and react the same as buyers in another locale.   Understanding these differences in buyer behaviour is crucial and it’s therefore extremely dangerous to fall into the trap of believing stereotypes – assuming that we are able to judge certain people and their cultures from the other side of the planet.  It is critical that native speakers and residents with local expertise are consulted early in the planning process.

Building your English site with localisation in mind will make the eventual task much easier – i.e., avoid too much ‘local’ in its humour, colloquialisms and concepts.  For example, consider if friends of yours are ever puzzled by phraseology that you consider routine – only last week, a British girlfriend of mine told an American friend that she had a ‘ladder in her tights’.  The American, of course, didn’t have a clue what she was on about!

One other thing to watch for is where, in some instances, English words, rather than their translated equivalent, become default search phrases in foreign markets.

Site Structure

It is unlikely that you would want, or in fact, need, to localise the whole of your site, particularly in the early stages of launch, as this can of course be costly to do.  However, it’s better to have a well localised site that performs, than a cheap one that does not – it’s all about ROI. Having key pages, particular products and your e-commerce pages, all truly localised will likely suffice.  However, for certain businesses with multiple products, it’s important to remember that just because a product works in one locale, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will work in another.  So you need to ensure you have understood those local preferences and tastes.

The pathways through the site should also be carefully considered.  Providing a foreign language page creates an expectation – the whole point of localising is that the customer feels that they are buying from a domestic site.  Therefore, a local language site that then leads to a non localised e-commerce page rather ruins the aim.

New, fresh, applicable content is vital for any successful site, so due consideration needs to be given to the on-going management of the site too.  Content creation and administration, authoring, sources and workflows all need to be planned in advance.

Search Marketing

Content remains king when it comes to multilingual SEO and so thorough research of keywords and phrases is essential.  However, direct translations of English words are not enough.

Individual markets may use completely different words to describe certain products or have their own jargon, colloquialisms and slang.  The use of ‘handy’ in Germany as a common and accepted term to describe a ‘mobile’ or ‘cell’ phone is an obvious example.  Consideration needs to be given to the fact that people will search ‘conveniently’ across the world, so we need to use their convenience words to describe our products.  Therefore, native speakers who are also search marketing experts are crucial assets in creating the content for your foreign language site.

It’s also preferable to use local domains for your localised sites, but beware the different rules across countries.  For example, registration of local domains for some is very straightforward whilst others will have much stronger rules and regulations over domains, local business registration, registered trademark or even local addresses or phone numbers.  Local IP addresses will deliver much greater search engine rankings, but you will need to the consider cost of buying them, along with the administration and control issues that goes with setting them all up.

Gaining local links back to your site will also greatly improve the SEO performance and whilst this takes time and effort, the results it can generate make it worthwhile.

Preparation And ROI

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to achieving the best results for multinational SEO and there are also other areas to consider, which include metrics, international logistics and deliveries, differing regulatory positions and social media strategies, all of which bring a whole new raft of linguistic possibilities and challenges.  However, the successful launch of international sites is about research, planning, local engagement, cost control and ultimately ROI.