You’ve likely already put in a lot of hard work to make sure your current website ranks high on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Maybe it’s even sitting comfortably on Google’s first page (nice work!)
But what happens when your business expands abroad and you have to complete the whole search engine optimization (SEO) process again – and this time, with content in new languages?
Welcome to the world of international SEO.
The prospect of undertaking international SEO work can sound daunting. But with the right tools and strategies in place, your website can start serving global audiences.
This article covers everything you need to know about international SEO, including why you need it, how to develop an effective international SEO strategy, international URL structures and other technical considerations, and best practices to adopt along the way.
What is International SEO?
International SEO is the process of improving your website to get more international search engine traffic. It involves applying the same basic principles of standard SEO, but with a few more guidelines to help your website’s content rank well in the international SERPs.
A crucial difference between standard SEO and international SEO is that the latter requires you to produce content – whether translated from existing content or otherwise – in new languages, and optimize that content for search engines.
By doing so, you’ll help search engines recognize the different language versions of your site, and attract search traffic from your target country or location.
Another point to keep in mind is that your local market must see the correct pages for their location. These pages should also ideally be in their native language.
Much like standard SEO, there are no “magic tricks” to help accelerate your website to the first page of Google, Bing, or Baidu overnight. However, there are established techniques for significantly improving your international rankings – and we’ll guide you through these here.
We’ll take a look at the content side of international SEO, which covers your translations, multilingual keywords, and metadata translation. Then, we’ll dive into international SEO link-building.
To finish, we’ll touch upon the more technical side of things, with URL structures (namely subdomains vs. subdirectories) taking center stage. We will also discuss hreflang tags and website language-switching options.
Why Do You Need International SEO?
If you notice from Google Analytics that a significant chunk of your organic traffic is coming from other countries, that’s a good indicator of an international audience curious about what you do. Even better, that’s a new market opportunity you can explore.
But to take advantage of this promising new audience, you’ll need an international website tailored to their language and location. This way, you can give them a smoother user experience and make conversions frictionless.
Since you have an SEO strategy, you’re likely familiar with the intricacies of how search engines like Google crawl content, index it, and present results to searchers.
Each search engine is designed to suggest the most relevant and credible content to searchers. And what searchers consider relevant or credible varies by country and language.
Let’s say we have two searchers using Google to look up cafés near them. One of them is from Italy, and the other, Japan. Both searchers will use search terms in their respective languages and expect to get local search results in these same languages.
This expectation arises due to the invisible ways in which international SEO works. Search engines know users generally prefer to read content in their native language and browse products and services local to them. Presenting results in a different language would only confuse and frustrate them.
This is the exact opposite of what Google wants to do. So in our case, it will serve our Italian and Japanese café-seekers different search results that cater to their language and location.
Do You Need a Multiregional Website or a Multilingual Website?
Businesses hoping to successfully enter a new foreign market must optimize their website for their target audience.
That’s because people are more inclined to buy when the information they want or need is served to them on a virtual silver platter. In other words, when such information is presented in a manner they can easily understand, and is customized to their unique situation.
Multiregional and multilingual websites can both assist with this goal, so you’ll need to decide which is appropriate for your situation.
A multilingual website offers content in many languages. In contrast, a multiregional website is designed for users in different countries who speak the same language – just like how people in Argentina and Spain commonly speak Spanish.
A multilingual website can also be a multiregional one and vice versa, just like the website for fashion retailer Bershka:
When deciding between making your website multilingual or multiregional (or perhaps even both), there are three aspects you’ll need to consider:
Country-targeting, where you’ll indicate your target region or country with a designated URL structure.
Language targeting, where you’ll signal the languages your pages are in by using language tags.
Producing, maintaining, and re-optimizing your content in each of your target markets’ native languages.
Note that you don’t necessarily need to accomplish all three goals if they don’t apply to your use case.
Developing an Effective International SEO Strategy
First things first, let’s look at the content side of things.
We’re going to assume you’ve already carried out extensive market research to decide:
which language(s) you’re translating your website into,
which international markets you’re targeting, and
the characteristics of your target audience.
So the next step is to determine which content to translate.
Which Content Should You Translate?
When the sheer number of words and pages you have on your website dawns on you, you might find yourself on the verge of panic at the thought of translating everything.
You may then be tempted to translate only a few key pages to lighten your workload. However, doing so may result in search engines ranking your pages more poorly if they aren’t sure for which countries your website is intended.
To avoid such confusion and create a consistent user experience, the more effective practice would be to translate all your content for your target markets.
Entering new markets – which requires a significant amount of time and resources – also calls for producing the same level of quality content across different countries. The good news is that using machine translation software like Weglot can accelerate the translation process.
Weglot translates and displays the different language versions of your content on your website, and even allows you to manage and edit your translations from a central platform.
The translation process that once seemed overwhelming and almost panic-inducing will no longer be so time-consuming or resource-heavy.
Researching for Multilingual Keywords
You’ll then need to consider multilingual keyword research. Targeting the appropriate keywords will help your translated content rank better, which in turn increases organic traffic to your website.
That said, what might be a suitable keyword for your English site won’t necessarily be one for its translated counterpart. So for more effective geotargeting, carry out the same extent of keyword research you conducted in your original language. For example, check the keyword difficulty and monthly search volume of your translated keywords.
Even if you’re aiming for largely English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia, you’ll still need to pay close attention to the “translation” of your keywords.
People in different countries can phrase the same thing differently, so you’ll want to communicate exactly what you mean to say regardless of your target location or language.
For example, what would be “pants” in Australia is “trousers” in the UK. If you sell such clothing, making sure that your website ranks for the appropriate location-specific keyword is definitely important!
Another aspect of international SEO to keep in mind is that while Google is the main search engine for the US and other Anglophone countries, other search engines may be more popular elsewhere. In China, that would be Baidu. And in Russia, that would be Yandex.
Translating Your Website Metadata
Preparing suitable meta titles and meta descriptions is crucial to international SEO work. They help search engines and potential visitors understand the content of your page.
Search engines also treat meta titles and meta descriptions as key pieces of information when indexing web pages. By leaving these important elements untranslated, you risk sending mixed messages about your website’s intended language and harming your rankings.
Thus, to ensure your international SEO efforts succeed, don’t just translate your website content and neglect to translate your site’s non-visible content elements!
Building Multilingual Links to Your Website
Link-building is a tactic for businesses to improve their SERP rankings by creating links back to their website (hence the term “backlink”). You can build backlinks by posting guest posts, leaving online comments, and securing article features on authoritative websites.
And since you’ve most likely worked on link-building for your original website, it’s worth taking the time to do the same for your translated site.
Reach out to bloggers – ideally native speakers of your target country’s language who also work there – and build relationships with them to secure those all-important backlinks.
This is because search engines prioritize high-quality content that users would find helpful, and it’s usually spammy websites that sell backlinks.
You can also review your competitors’ backlinks to uncover publications that have linked to your competitors but not yours (yet!)
We recommend either Ahrefs or Semrush for such backlink research: both have comprehensive and user-friendly tools for combing through your own and your competitors’ rankings and backlinks.
What are the URL Structures to Consider for International SEO?
Another important international SEO task is deciding on your website’s URL structure. Your URL structure helps signal your target country to search engines so they rank you for the appropriate search results.
There are a few URL structures to choose from:
Country code top-level domain (ccTLD).
Subdomains and subdirectories.
A generic top-level domain (gTLD) with language parameters.
Using a completely different domain name.
To understand these, however, we first need to know what the different parts of a URL are called.
A URL describes the whole address, comprising the scheme, host, and path. A Uniform Resource Name, or URN, describes only the path. A Uniform Resource Identifier, or URI, encompasses all these parts.
Parameters are what comes after a question mark in a URL, as illustrated below:
URL parameters consist of a key and a value, and are partitioned by an equal sign (=). It’s possible to have several parameters in one URL, with ampersands (&) between each one to distinguish them.
Moving forward, here’s a breakdown of the various international SEO URL structures and their pros and cons:
This type of URL structure uses two-letter country codes to inform users and search engines of the location in which the website has been registered. This location can be a country, sovereign state, or dependent territory.
ccTLDs are easy to spot. For instance, a website using the French country code would look like www.example.fr. A website using Canada’s ccTLD would be www.example.ca.
The Pros and Cons
If you think opting for a multilingual website would be more appropriate for you, a ccTLD may be the way to go. Using one will help you narrow your marketing efforts to a specific country. That said, it will limit your ability to rank in other countries since Google won’t think your content is relevant to such foreign audiences.
Some websites have taken advantage of certain country codes, like .ai (Anguilla) and .co (Colombia), for purposes outside region-specific targeting. Such purposes include extensions of a brand name, like:
luxuryhomem.ag, which taps into Antigua and Barbuda’s country code, and
midnightradio.fm, which uses the Federated States of Micronesia’s country code.
Given such potential ambiguity in signaling the intended language of your website with a ccTLD, adding hreflang tags can help search engines serve the right content to your international audiences nevertheless.
Additionally, having a separate ccTLD for each language version of your website means having to manage numerous websites. In turn, you’ll have to pay for additional hosting and maintenance.
You’ll also be starting over, which means having no domain authority and needing to implement SEO strategies from square one.
Subdomains and Subdirectories
A subdomain can look like:
th.example.com, which would be a website targeted toward users in Thailand, or
fr.example.com, which would be a website targeted toward users in France.
It allows you to put your content on a section of your website with its own domain name.
Using a subdomain is a great option for streamlining your operations, especially for ecommerce websites with all their inventory in one place but still want to reach their target countries.
You can also host your subdomain in your respective target regions for faster website loading times. In contrast, hosting all versions in one place can overload your server and lengthen your page load speeds.
Meanwhile, a subdirectory (also known as a subfolder) is a subsection that divides your main website into folders.
An example.com/th/ subdirectory URL would be the URL for the main Thai page of a website. Meanwhile, the example.com/fr/faq/ subdirectory URL would be the URL for the same website’s main France page, with its own subdirectory for a page that addresses frequently asked questions.
With subdirectories, you can organize your content to target specific countries or add more order to your site structure. Your subdirectory content will also still benefit from the authority you’ve built on your existing domain.
If you’re creating a multilingual website with Weglot, you’ll be able to choose between setting up subdirectories and subdomains depending on how you want to maintain and optimize your website (and its different language or regional versions).
If you opt for subdomains, you’ll need to add hreflang tags across all of them. Doing so will help search engines display the correct content to a given audience. However, adding hreflang tags can be tricky if you’re doing so manually.
On the other hand, subdirectories offer more flexibility since you can modify each one to target numerous countries or regions whose users speak the same language. As a bonus, you get to keep your domain authority, and your subdirectories piggyback off your existing SEO efforts.
This URL structure is likely the most familiar to you. It’s what websites end with, like .com, .gov, and .org.
It’s also possible to pair a gTLD with language parameters for targeting speakers of a certain language. For instance, the URL example.com/?lang=en-au would indicate that its associated website is designed for English speakers in Australia.
The Pros and Cons
gTLDs mean shorter, more memorable URLs that your users will appreciate. Since more gTLDs are available now than ever, you’ll have more ways of using creative URLs to improve your brand’s visibility.
For example, if you’re a Thai restaurant in Paris called Orchid Garden, you could go from a clunky www.orchidgardenthairestaurant.com URL to a shorter, sleeker orchidgarden.paris one.
Depending on the gTLD you use, however, your website may risk looking unreliable, spammy, or confusing. There have been reports of users’ emails being filtered as spam after they used a newly released gTLD.
These users may have been mistakenly penalized because developers may not always be aware when a new TLD extension becomes available.
A Different Domain Name
Another option is to choose a completely separate domain name for each language version of your website. Instead of example.com, for example, you can select examplemx.com.
This means your new website is located in a completely different root domain. As a result, search engines will treat it as distinct from your main website.
The pros and cons
Creating an entirely different domain name means starting from scratch. This could be good if you’re looking to do things from a clean slate.
However, it also means you won’t benefit from your main website’s authority and backlink profile – which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how well you had optimized it!
Other Technical Aspects of International SEO to Take Note Of
Now, let’s look at technical SEO, which involves work such as adding hreflang tags and a language switcher.
Be careful when navigating these technical issues, as they can be tricky to implement if you don’t know your way around them.
Setting up Server-Side Translation
There are two approaches to translating your website content before it is displayed to the visitor.
Client-side translation can be good in certain situations, but it does make it hard for Google bots to index the translations because they will “see” only the original content.
The second approach is server-side translation, where the translation will replace your original content before the server sends the page to the visitor.
Since server-side translations are embedded into the page’s source code, Google’s bots can detect and index them more easily. Using server-side translation also means your SEO tags (metadata, alt tags, and more) are automatically translated in the source code.
Given the benefits of server-side translation, we recommend using it to translate your website content wherever possible.
Adding Hreflang Tags
Okay, so this is where things can get a little more challenging if you aren’t a developer.
Hreflang tags are small code elements in your pages’ source code that tell Google the language of a page and its intended region.
Implementing hreflang tags on your web pages can help Google serve these pages to users with matching language and regional settings.
However, adding them can be complicated and time-consuming, particularly for beginners.
You’ll need to insert your hreflang tags into the “head” section of your HTML page, HTTP headers, or in your sitemap. It’s crucial to be consistent here and choose only one option for placing your hreflang tags. Otherwise, search engines can misinterpret them.
Remember, IP addresses don’t necessarily indicate the country a person is browsing from or the language in which they want to view your content.
For example, if you’re a French-speaking person in Spain or a German speaker in Brazil, it might be frustrating to land on the Spanish-speaking or Brazilian Portuguese version of a website, with no option to switch its content to your desired language.
To avoid this problem, set your website’s default language based on the user’s browser language setting.
You can also install a language switcher to help visitors toggle your website to their preferred language.
This way, your users will stay on your website longer since they can consume your content more easily. Such increased “dwell time” may also boost your website rankings.
If all these technical steps we’ve discussed seem intimidating, you can cut out many of them by choosing Weglot as your multilingual translation solution!
For one, Weglot automatically handles server-side translation and hreflang tag implementation for you. It can also help install a customizable language switcher on your website.
Last but not least, let’s cover some general best practices for international SEO:
Improve Your Core Web Vitals Metrics
Among various considerations, Google uses a set of metrics called Core Web Vitals to gauge the quality of a website’s user experience. Your website’s Core Web Vitals metrics can impact its rankings, so work on improving them.
There are three Core Web Vitals metrics, namely:
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), which measures a website’s loading time. Specifically, it is the time a web page takes to display the largest image or text block visible on it when it starts loading.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), which measures a website’s visual stability. In general, websites whose elements don’t unexpectedly “shift” around the page while a user is viewing it will have higher CLS scores. Methods of optimizing your CLS score include providing greater context for page shifts (like a “Read More” button that leads to the page’s content expanding downward when clicked).
Optimize Your Content for E-E-A-T
Google uses human Search Quality Raters to assess the quality of its search algorithms’ search results. It has also published a set of Search Quality Rater Guidelines to help these raters provide consistent assessments.
These guidelines don’t directly impact how Google ranks content. However, they inform raters as to what Google considers to be quality content. And of particular interest here is the E-E-A-T concept covered in the guidelines.
E-E-A-T stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust. Pieces of content that check off these boxes will be regarded as higher-quality content worthy of higher rankings.
To be in line with E-E-A-T, your website content must be well-researched, actionable, and helpful for your audience. It should also demonstrate your credibility, such as mentioning your academic credentials or extensive experience in the relevant field.
Improve Your URL Readability
When optimizing your content and website, don’t overlook your URLs. Ultimately, you’ve created your website for human beings, so everything about it must be easy to navigate and understand. Including your web pages’ URLs.
Check out the two URLs below. Which one is easier to remember and makes its intent clearer?
It’s the second URL, no doubt.
URLs should be memorable, simple to read and type, and as brief as possible – all while being descriptive.
Instead of using a language switcher, some people edit URLs in their browser address bar to switch a web page to their chosen language. For example, they may replace the “en” in yourwebsite.com/en/blog/weighted-blanked benefits with “fr” to view the French version of the same page.
Given such user behavior, keep to a consistent and sensible URL scheme to help users switch website languages by modifying your URL. Using inconsistently-structured URLs may only frustrate your visitors and give them a bad website experience.
Research URL Best Practices in Your Target Areas
We can’t emphasize market research enough! When choosing your URL structure for all versions of your website, account for potential cultural differences across search engines and user bases.
For instance, there’s no hard evidence that having a Japan ccTLD will give you an edge in rankings in the Japanese version of Google and other search engines.
If you’re targeting searchers in Japan, it may instead be helpful to use Japanese characters within the URN (the URL path).
And given how there are multiple Japanese writing systems, you’ll also need to decide whether it’s most appropriate to use kanji, hiragana, or katakana in your URLs.
Finding Multilingual Success With the Right International SEO Strategy (And How Weglot Can Get You There)
Expanding to a global market is an exciting milestone for your business. While you may not get your international site ranking on page 1 from the get-go, you’ll get closer to success by approaching international SEO with careful, deliberate planning.
Optimize your content by picking the best multilingual keywords for your business, translating your content, choosing the most relevant international URL structure, and building backlinks to your multilingual website.
And on the technical end of things, set up hreflang tags and a language switcher to help users access their desired language version of your website more conveniently.
Our Weglot website translation solution is tailor-made to help you create a multilingual website, and optimize it for search engine traffic, with ease. It uses machine translation providers to translate your content with a high degree of accuracy, with full editing control thereafter. Importantly, it also displays your translations on your website for you.
There’s no need to worry about setting up separate subdirectories or subdomains for your localized content either – Weglot automatically does that for you for each specific language.
Even better, it instantly implements hreflang tags so that search engines immediately know which version of your website to serve to international visitors. It’s that simple.