The question of different languages usually arises when devising an SEO strategy for multiple countries. However, it’s also a reality that websites for the U.S. or Canada – as two quick examples – have an equally valid need to support Spanish (in the case of the States) and French (for Canada).
Therefore, in this article, we’ll partly cover both aspects of this complex issue as they relate to search engine optimization.
Regional, Multi-site, Subdomain, or Directory?
Whether handling multiple countries within your operation or multiple languages in one country alone, there are decisions to make that impact marketing and SEO too. Here we lay them out plainly:
Multi-site and/or Regional
A multi-site approach will usually incorporate both country differences and language ones too. That is unless a given country-based site also requires multiple languages to include the largest possible audience.
For example, a company like Amazon has chosen to operate separate sites for the U.S, Canada, the UK, Japan, etc. They haven’t chosen to use regional top-level domains (TLDs) such as .asiaor .eu.
In the case of the U.S, there are millions of Spanish speaking residents, which prompts many companies to offer a translated website experience in this language too. Similarly, in Canada, just having a separate site for the country doesn’t negate the need to cater to French-speaking residents in Quebec.
A sub-domain might be. es.jimbob.com. (This is a randomly chosen domain used only as an example for this article.) Approaching site creation and optimizing SEO this way allows for the creation of a distinctly separate version of a website to support an additional language. In this case, the Spanish language.
There are some advantages to doing this from an SEO perspective, including targeting keywords in the foreign language only for the pages on the subdomain. It’s less complicated from an SEO planning and execution standpoint too.
However, there are also disadvantages. For example, the “link juice” and domain authority built up from the root domain, e.g., jimbob.com, doesn’t automatically carry over to the subdomain. Indeed, the targeted keywords may well be in a different language (a point we’ll return to later).
A final approach is to use a directory within the original site to split off content between different languages. This can also be done for country separation too – for instance, a site that has pan-European operations as jimbob.eu/es/ and jimbob.eu/it/, etc.
A directory site structure is cleaner to create from a site management perspective. However, there are limitations and complications from an SEO standpoint.
One of the negatives for multi-country operations is that as the business in each country grows, it becomes increasingly problematic to manage it within the confines of a single site.
Additionally, and more of a concern, Google Console is used to specify which primary market a domain is targeting for search results and rankings. Failing to divide country operations out to a separate domain or subdomain (with its separate language) makes it more difficult to rank well in the respective search index with Google and other search engines.
The Use of Hreflang
The hreflang tag in HTML is a way to let search engines know at a page level what language the written copy is in. Therefore, whether the site architecture has split out languages to a separate country site, via a subdomain, or a directory, it’s possible to selectively provide content in a different language.
Where is the Hreflang Tag Useful?
For smaller businesses that don’t have the resources to translate their entire website into multiple languages and don’t trust the accuracy of the free translation modules online like Google Translate, there’s another option.
They can pay to selectively translate key pages like the Home page, Sales page, About Us, Contact Us, and other relevant ones only.
Is it a perfect solution? No. But it’s good to have that choice.
Using the Hreflang Tag in Pages or Across a Whole Site
All pages should use the hreflang tag. It keeps the search engines informed.
The format to use is:
The en is changed to reflect the correct two-character identifier for the language. Please follow the link above to see how to use the tag correctly.
Automatic Language Separation
It’s worth noting that certain platforms like WordPress, Shopify, PrestaShop, and others have options or plugins that manage multiple languages on a single site or across multiple subdomains.
Furthermore, when using the WordPress CMS, the TranslatePress plugin is especially useful because it can automatically create versions of each page for all the added languages. This feature is available as part of their SEO Pack, which is not usually included in their default installation.
SEO plugins in WordPress, like Yoast SEO and Rank Math also support multiple languages. They create sitemaps for search engines to understand the site structure in multiple languages too.
Search Keywords in Different Languages?
It’s easy to believe that targeting search terms in a local language is the right approach to rank locally.
However, this is not always the case and especially not for markets where the local population speaks English.
No Word Translation Cases
It may be that there isn’t a local translation for an English word.
For instance, if a local supermarket chain wanted to target a Thai audience to rank in the Thai Google search engine for kiwi fruit, they’d need to rank for “kiwi” because there is no Thai word for it that’s in regular use. In fact, for many fruits not grown inside their border, there is no local Thai word for it.
The only difference is an audible one with the pronunciation said as “Keeee weeeee.”
Similarly, for commonly used searches in English with high-quality results sometimes causes people in other countries to search in English too. If the information available in their native language tends to be inferior, they may still search for the English phrase and not the local language one.
Research on estimated search volumes must be undertaken to determine the correct terms to rank for alternative language pages. Having a local contact to confirm what’s true of local web users on-the-ground isn’t a bad idea either. It can lead to unusual insights that can be folded into an SEO strategy in a foreign language.
Lastly, don’t get overwhelmed with the idea of optimizing SEO in different languages. It’s often far easier to rank for terms in a non-English language because the level of competition is far lower. Certainly, it’s a next-level strategy and not one for beginner SEOs, but it can pay dividends when pursuing it appropriately.