Practical SEO tips for international websites

To improve your business, you need to drive quality traffic to your website and engage your prospects. This is a challenging task, especially when adding multiple languages to the mix. For this reason, the fields of search engine optimization (SEO) and localization are becoming increasingly intertwined.

In e-commerce, your ranking on Google (or any other local search engine) is key for a successful web store or service offered online. Most companies start a website in their local language and make an effort to make it visible on the respective local search engines. But what if they grow and start looking for opportunities abroad? They translate their content and hope their pages will somehow rank high in the new target language.

Companies tend to invest a lot of money in SEO efforts in their native languages. When going to multiple languages they need to be sure that their SEO strategy properly transfers and doesn’t get lost in translation. When an organization spends thousands for SEO on the original local website, you cannot assume that this won’t be necessary in the translated versions as well. There are ways to get the web page ranked as high on Google (or another engine) as possible through an intelligent translation process, but in the end you’ll need web analytics data to improve, do A/B testing and continually update and improve your content in all of the languages you provide.

SEO remains a somewhat difficult and uncomfortable term in our industry. Due to my experience in Google AdWords, keyword research and implementation, I have been offered translation projects from competitors who panicked when a client asked for an “SEO-friendly translation.” This is good for me, but not necessarily great for them, because it’s not that difficult. Of course, as a linguist you intrinsically want to deliver the best possible translation of a website. However, there’s a new reader now: Google’s web crawler, updated by the Hummingbird algorithm. This algorithm was launched a year ago and made Google’s way of indexing web pages more intelligent; it now takes into consideration context and synonyms. This means that so-called keyword stuffing does not work anymore, and is even penalized, so a more subtle keyword strategy perfectly falling into place with the context is now necessary. You’ll have to not only please your reading audience, but also the Hummingbird. However, if you please the bird, your human audience could grow significantly.

What needs to change in the translation process is mindset. This has to do with understanding SEO, thinking about the right keywords and using some handy tools. While translating, sometimes you’ll have to compromise with a word that is less accurate or not linguistically perfect, but it will make your client more money because the page will rank higher in Google or another search engine. Management writer Peter Drucker once said “Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.” So, as a language service provider (LSP), you might sell your services based on quality, defined linguistically. However, your buyers might not care about that; they might just care about the return on investment of their translated content. An LSP needs to offer them that value: search engine optimized localization.


SEO basics

SEO can be described as the process of generating free or “organic” traffic to your website through search engines such as Google. Actually, throughout the article I will mostly refer to Google, since about 65% of searches globally are going through Google. Other engines such as Baidoo, Yahoo, Bing and various local engines often work in similar ways, although companies should be more informed about SEO strategies in countries where certain non-Google engines are big.

The visibility of your website on a search engine, or at what position it ranks, is dependent on many factors. These factors are constantly changing because of technology developments, policy changes to avoid misuse and social media. SEO is not easy; it’s an ongoing effort and each time Google changes the algorithm, the search results change. In my work, these are the factors I’ve found most important:

Content: relevant text is an important indicator to rank high. Most search engines focus on giving their users the best experience, which means that unique and relevant information is key. The newest Google Panda 4.0 algorithm update seeks to punish low-quality content and reward original content intended for the right audience. This is why the switch from translation to transcreation is a must.

Domain names and website structure: you need to segment either by country or by language. Then think of domain choice — will you go with or or Staying consistent with your targeting decision and choosing a relevant domain name is important. See Figure 1 for examples from my clients. For e-commerce, an effective keyword or close variant in your top-level domain is highly recommended. Obviously, an exact match between the search query and domain name will score high. The extension after the “/” sign in the URL is also important. No coding identifiers or numbers should follow, but instead a relevant keyword for the specific page.

Social media presence: social media has a huge share on the web and thus on search engines. The bigger your social reach and engagement, the better. I recommend that you use Hootsuite, or other similar programs, to manage your multilingual social media presence and monitor what’s going on in your field of business. Social links to your website are indexed and valued by Google.

Context and linkbuilding: create new relevant landing pages on your website. Actively write blogs and post links to other websites on your page. Ask industry website owners with high PageRanks (a weight value that Google assigns to your page) to link your website. Every page should have its own subject and shouldn’t derail from it. It’s important that it all fits together and makes sense to the search engine to keep the landing page relevant and well ranked. After translating your website, make sure to create these links and new content in the new language; you have to build your PageRank from scratch for your new translated website.

Technical aspects of a website: meta tags, fast loading times, and easy access and crawling of website structure should be considered when building a website, since they might be hard to change later.

A thoroughly optimized website is not something you fix in one day. When you are gradually working toward more links (linkbuilding), social engagement, better content and technical enhancements, the search engine will notice and reward you. It’s a long-term process.

Use Google Analytics and the Google Webmaster Tools (or a tool for the local search engine) to work on and improve SEO results. Create separate profiles for each local website and track international traffic, keywords and incoming links.

SEO and localization

SEO strategies have for the most part been keyword-based. Using the right keywords in the right places remains important, but search engines have been updated (Google Hummingbird for example) and are becoming more intelligent. Stuffing your web texts with keywords doesn’t work anymore.

Successful SEO translations depend heavily on the source text. If the source text on the landing page is written and structured following the SEO best practices (meta tags, headings, length, keyword density) the translation will have a better chance as well. However, you can’t just start translating on the fly. You have to know which keywords are most interesting or effective in the local context. Translation accuracy will sometimes have to make way for keywords that have a better chance of triggering a reader or conversion on the page.

My feeling is that many LSPs translate web pages without any SEO instructions or strategy in mind. For example, they have an SEO specialist do an editing round after translation. For better readability and SEO strategy, however, I believe it is important to keep SEO in mind up front, and train your translators to immediately pick the best keywords and work toward the most effective keyword density. This way the translation is likely to rank higher in the target language than it did in the source language.

There are a few things that are helpful when requesting an SEO-friendly translation. In an ideal world we always translate the accompanying AdWords campaign first to have the best SEO results in your translated web pages. Translators need to use the following two tools.


Google AdWords keyword planner

In new target markets local prospects will search differently for your products than in your home country; therefore, localize your keywords, don’t just translate them. When translating keywords literally you can get lucky, but you might also end up with the translation that attracts the least traffic (low search volume) or causes low click-through rates and high bounce rates. For example, we have an English web store that sells mugs. The most accurate translation to Dutch is mok, but using this term as the focus keyword will result in missing hundreds of potential buyers, because the word beker means exactly the same thing, and more people use it on Google when they are looking to buy a mug. A helpful tool is the AdWords keyword planner (Figure 2); use it to check keywords in specific geographic areas, search volumes and to see potentially interesting alternatives. Make sure to select the appropriate language and country.

The simple change from mok to beker gives you 300 more potential visitors to your website, which could increase profits significantly. Even better, when a translator identifies a relevant synonym such as beker, it is a great idea to add a specific SEO landing page for this word and adjust the content to fit the synonym. This way you can address people who search both terms and are looking to buy the same product.

When doing initial keyword translations, we give the translator the opportunity to come up with as many varieties of the word as possible (Figure 3). In this example the company runs a Dutch website that serves as a platform to match painting companies with potential clients who search for painters. They want to expand their platform to Italy, so we translated all the keywords in as many ways as possible. This will help in the translation process of the actual website and it will help in creating the right landing pages with certain focus keywords, but it also establishes a structure for building the AdWords campaign by dividing ad groups by keyword. The more specifically you segment, the more success your AdWords campaign will generally have. We also ask the translator to come up with common misspellings or awkward keyword combinations to include in the campaign. The company wants to address every person looking for painters in Italy, both organically (SEO) as well as through search engine advertising (SEA).


Keyword density tool

Proper keyword density is essential for all websites. Keyword density is the percentage a keyword appears on a web page compared to the total number of words on that page. First, define the keywords you want and then make sure that these keywords have a density of between 2% and 5%. No higher and no lower, because Google has penalty filters in place for sites that abuse this strategy.

After you have translated and implemented the proper keywords throughout the text, you can check to see if you did it right by submitting the URL, plain text or HTML, to:


The AdWords combination

When you launch a multilingual website, traffic from these new markets isn’t just going to appear out of nowhere. Your new website in a certain language doesn’t have a PageRank, because there’s no traffic history and there are no incoming links, so it is unlikely to score high organically on Google or other search engines. Many organizations and companies run online advertising campaigns to get their feet on the ground in the new country. To do this you’ll have to carefully build an AdWords campaign that perfectly aligns with the structure of your new website. If a campaign exists in the source language, it is a great idea to have the website translator do the AdWords translation first.

By doing the AdWords campaign first, the translator will get in the right mindset and will get a better idea of which keywords to use. An AdWords campaign should be targeted very specifically, with a so-called ad group per page on your website. You can see what the focus keyword is, how it performs and which long-tail keywords are options. Also, from the ad texts the translators can learn what the important unique selling points for the organization are.

In an AdWords campaign, negative keywords are also included. These are words that you don’t want to be associated with when people search for them on Google. This is important to help save money by avoiding irrelevant clicks. For a painting company (Figure 3) it is important to be found with the search term painter; however, you do not want to be matched with people who want a portrait painted by an artist. Negative keywords should not be used on the translated landing page — another reason to translate the AdWords campaign first or at least take a look through it.


AdWords translation

Google’s own Translator Toolkit actually works quite well for translating AdWords campaigns. You upload your .aea file and the campaign will show in a user-friendly editor for the translator to post-edit. Of course, your campaign will be pretranslated by Google Translate.

The disadvantages are that some elements, such as the extensions, won’t show up to be translated in the editor. Also, you cannot change geographical settings, add keywords or remove negatives. This is why I mostly translate AdWords campaigns in a specially designed Excel spreadsheet. It notifies the translator when he or she goes over the character limit, just like the editor does in the Translator Toolkit. The big advantage of working in Excel is that the translator can easily add an ad group when needed. It is important that the translator is able to add interesting synonyms in the new language. Also, in Excel we’re localizing without machine translation, so that we’re not tempted to use bad machine translations just out of convenience. To achieve maximum performance, it’s better to think through and really transcreate and localize the ad texts and keywords, from scratch, for the local targeted audience, without getting distracted by machine translation.