Building a
Multilingual SEO Program

By Nataly Kelly

Search engine optimization (SEO) is critical for ensuring that your company can be discovered online by the potential customers your product and service is designed to help. But SEO has evolved so much in recent years that it has rapidly transformed into its own professional discipline. When a company grows across borders and adds multiple languages into the mix, the complexity of SEO increases even further.

This raises some questions: How can localization professionals support the SEO efforts of their own companies, and those of their customers? What are the best ways to start a multilingual SEO program? And what does it look like as it grows over time? To answer these questions and shed more light on the topic, I spoke with my colleague Karolina Bujalska-Exner, senior marketing manager, international SEO at HubSpot.

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Creating the business case for a multilingual SEO program

Companies just getting started with marketing in other languages and hoping to build a multilingual SEO program often ask what they should invest in first. They wonder if they should start by translating keywords, translating large amounts of blog posts, or some other approach.

“The overall approach will depend greatly on your company’s current state, resources available, and your long-term goals,” said Bujalska-Exner.

But the one place every great SEO program starts is with research. “I would always advocate to do unique research for each market first and foremost,” she said. “This is the only way you can truly structure and prioritize your SEO efforts based on the potential impact you might reach in a specific market, based on the needs of the local audience.”

Doing the right amount of research up front ensures that you can use data to guide your decisions, but this is critical to ensure you invest wisely and achieve maximum return on your investment in content.

“Always use data to guide your decisions,” said Bujalska-Exner. “It can be really stressful to make a decision about whether and how to invest in SEO and content marketing. Estimating your outcomes will help to clear the fog so you can make more data-driven decisions.”

To get started, she suggests following four key steps for estimating the potential of a multilingual SEO program in order to build a clear business case:

  1. Take a close look at potential traffic by running a search for total addressable market analysis.
  2. Collect all keywords you potentially could rank for and sum up their monthly search volumes.
  3. Apply your average click-through rates for various positions so you can estimate best- and worst-case scenarios for your traffic.
  4. Dive even deeper by adding your known conversion metrics to figure out the potential in terms of lead volume and revenue potential for your company.

“If you follow these key steps, you’ll be able to compute tangible potential that should guide your investment decision and resource planning,” said Bujalska-Exner.

It’s incredibly important for marketers to be able to make a strong business case for an SEO program before getting started. At the same time, it’s important to also set the expectation with leaders that this is a large undertaking that takes substantial resources, time, and effort in order to deliver results.

To translate or not to translate keywords

Many years ago, when SEO was less competitive, localization companies were often asked to translate keywords. This was simply to alert search engines that the content the keyword was attached to, even if the content itself was not translated, might be valuable to someone searching for content on that topic in any language, regardless of whether or not it was the language they were searching in. Things have changed drastically since then, and the problem has moved from being able to find any content on a topic at all, to being able to find the very best content on a topic as quickly as possible.

Today, there is still value in translating keywords, but no longer for the scenario described above. Most search engine algorithms are doing a much deeper analysis today of the content than just looking at keywords in metadata. Instead, the latest algorithms include a series of calculations designed to determine whether the content in question will actually be helpful to the person seeking information to solve a problem or meet a need.

As a result, today the most important reason to translate keywords would be as part of the initial keyword research process, to help inform what content needs to be created for each market, in each language. As Bujalska-Exner points out, “Let’s say you have already established a product/service presence in one market and you want to expand now to another language. My advice would be to start with building a basic list of your top product-/ service-related keywords. In the majority of cases you probably have that list already, so you can translate these terms.”

But after you have the list of translated terms, how you use them is what matters. Once you have translations of terms that you know are important in one market, plug them into keyword research tools to find out if they actually matter in the other market.

“Putting your translated terms into keyword research tools will help you get a better understanding of search volumes, and whether there are any synonyms and long tail keywords you should go after as well,” she said. “This will help you generate a new and better, more targeted list of keywords for each market.”

In summary, don’t just start creating content using a list of keywords that you translated from one language to another. Instead, use any translated keywords as inputs to help you generate a much more targeted list of keywords for each market. The key is to focus on the terms that matter most, and to avoid wasting any resources on translated keywords that might not actually be the most critical ones for your company to target.

Pivoting a program from localized to native content creation

“Once you have a list of keywords for each market mapped out, you can start creating the content either by translating and adjusting your primary language content or creating it directly in the given language,” said Bujalska-Exner.

In the early days of building out a multilingual SEO program, you might choose either to localize existing content or to commission net new content natively in a language. “In the early stages, either approach would be totally OK,” she said.

This is because in the earliest stages of any SEO program, you are simply building a foundation, or a baseline, in topical coverage. So, at that stage, it doesn’t really matter if the content is created natively in each language or simply localized and then optimized to include the keywords from your target list.

However, once you build that foundational coverage of your initial keyword list, this is when things get far more complex. “As you expand your topical coverage, you will naturally shift into doing keyword research directly in the specific language, in order to prioritize for impact. Then, as you start to see positive results you can get buy-in for more native content resources and continue to scale your program,” said Bujalska-Exner.

This trajectory, moving from localized to native content, echos the real-life experience at HubSpot. In the early days at HubSpot, before the company had an international SEO team, regional blog content was largely translated from the English blog via the localization team and external localization vendors. “Our English blog, back then, had been around for longer and had large amounts of content available, so it was the easiest solution for us to start building our organic visibility in other markets,” Bujalska-Exner points out.

But as your multilingual SEO progresses, your strategy ultimately needs to rely more heavily on native content.

“Localizing our English blog content helped us grow significantly in the early days, but only in the first few years,” said Bujalska-Exner. “After the initial growth, we saw it plateauing or even declining in some languages because we were just not focusing on the content needed in those regions. In some cases, we were even targeting the wrong terms. That was when we started to build the international SEO team and moved our strategy to a native approach. We began doing the keyword research directly in each language, and for each market we targeted, started using content developed by local writers instead of localizing. After this switch, we saw tremendous growth, increasing the traffic by 10 times in four years. We continue practicing this methodology today.”

Content type dictates when to use native or localized approaches

As your multilingual SEO program evolves and your company grows over time, you may find that you require a hybrid approach, leveraging localization for specific content types, while maintaining a strong native content creation strategy for content designed for hitting traffic goals. Your approach may depend on which web properties your company is using, for which purposes, to serve the needs of various stakeholders online.

At HubSpot, the main difference that determines what content should be localized versus created natively is the type of content, which is related to the audience it is destined to reach.

“For our blogs, which are serving educational content to our readers, we use a native approach almost exclusively at this stage,” said Bujalska-Exner. “We research keywords and phrases that are popular in the given region, and the content is written by writers that are native speakers of that language. With that, we can ensure the best quality of the content because it addresses the needs of the local audience right away. Content created this way includes local references and examples. With a native content creation approach, we can prioritize scaling the content strategy in the most optimal way, because we can identify which topic will have highest potential in the specific market.”

If the company were to localize instead, it would be hard if not impossible to achieve the same level of local market relevance. Often, source language writers will include nuance that is destined for the target market. While it’s possible to “transcreate” some content and adapt it, the type of content and subject matter expertise can make it impossible to translate at scale. For example, if a blog post is giving advice on the best social media tools to use in a given country, this advice will change from one market to the next. Freelance translators who are not experts in social media marketing are not likely to be able to “rewrite” entire posts on such a topic. There is only so much they can do to adapt the content for another market, so the results of localized content would not likely be good enough to achieve the highest possible ranking for a given keyword. In addition, the process would be much slower and expensive than simply commissioning a native language writer from the start who is already well-versed in the subject matter.

That said, there is also certain content that is part of an SEO strategy for which localization is a better approach than native content. As Bujalska-Exner describes, “For our product oriented content, meaning web pages that describe functionalities of our product, we will typically opt for localizing that content, because we want to ensure that we speak about our product consistently across different languages and markets. Also, with this approach, we can ensure that the functionality description is correct and updated to the newest guidelines and messaging from the product team.” Because localization is centralized at HubSpot, the internal localization team can also ensure that the terms being used in each language on product-related web pages are consistent with what is being used in the product user interface itself, to ensure that customers receive a crafted, not cobbled experience in their language.

Also, even though product-related content is localized instead of created natively, regional nuance is also factored in.

“Let’s remember that localization does not mean only translation, so even though content is localized for these types of pages, it will always be adjusted to fit as best as possible to specific regional audiences,”said Bujalska-Exner. Indeed, close collaboration between the regional marketing teams and the localization teams are critical to making this happen.

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The challenges of managing a multilingual SEO effort

Building a multilingual SEO program is a complex undertaking and does not come without significant challenges. Like most things in business, it’s important to address not only the business case, but to obtain ongoing access to the technical expertise and resources such a program requires. As Bujalska-Exner notes, “in the initial phase, it is important to have technical SEOs as well as developers who can help you get the proper set-up for your multi-language website.”

There are many options available for how to set up your website (domain, subdomain, subfolders, etc.) The decision for which option you choose may depend greatly on many factors, such as how your content is organized today, who has access, how hard it would be to change to another structure, which markets you are targeting, and so on. If your scenario is complex, you might end up using a variety of options depending on your needs and goals. For example, HubSpot uses a mixture of country-code top-level domains and subdomains for most website and blog content, and subfolders for certain other types of web-based content.

“Each approach will have pros and cons depending on your business model and resources available. Whichever option you choose, make sure your technical infrastructure does not harm you but serves you to your advantage,” Bujalska-Exner explained. “As you scale, you will eventually have lots of content live and it is very hard to stay on top of it all. At HubSpot, we have tons of educational content on our blogs and dozens of important product pages across six languages. So it is crucial to have a monitoring and alerting system in place, in the event that something goes off guard.”

Another challenge is to build a long-term, sustainable growth strategy that will serve your company well into the future.

“The longer you have an online presence, the more content you will have. But the topics you can write about are not infinite, so you need to keep track of how much topical greenspace is still there for you to tap into,” Bujalska-Exner said. “Based on how saturated and mature your property is, you should start thinking about shifting your focus on maintaining what you already own versus looking for new areas to cover. And maintaining the content you’ve already invested in is crucial, since the search landscape is always changing and your organic competition is as well.”

The HubSpot experience: Multilingual SEO at scale

The SEO program at HubSpot is as old as the company itself. The company was founded in 2006 with Inbound Marketing, which combines SEO and content marketing, as a core focus. The founders of the company, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, wrote a best-selling book on this new approach to marketing, and initially HubSpot created software to enable marketers to help their companies grow using the inbound approach. The HubSpot blog includes extensive educational content to help marketers with, among many other topics, SEO.

The company went public in 2014. Today, eight years later, the company offers a full CRM platform, within which its marketing hub software remains one of its most important products in terms of both customers and revenue. As of this writing, the SEO program at HubSpot is 18 years old. Multilingual SEO, which initially relied on localization of the English blog, began approximately eight years ago with Spanish and Portuguese as the first non-English HubSpot blogs. True international SEO, however, with in-language research insights and in-region native content creators, as described in this article by Bujalska-Exner, is nearly five years old at the time of this publication. What all this means is that the SEO program at HubSpot has taken a long time to build – it has evolved over the course of nearly two decades. As such, it is often used as a model that other companies can look to as an aspirational future state, albeit one that can’t be achieved quickly.

The basic structure of the HubSpot SEO team today has two pillars, one for English, and one for International, which covers the non-English language markets. However, the work of the English team is international also, in that it encompasses many focus countries.

Bujalska-Exner explains how it breaks down: “The English SEO team focuses on our .com domain that attracts visitors who search primarily in the English language. The main markets that are in focus for this domain are the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, but we also get quite a significant portion of traffic coming from India and other Southeast Asian countries. The international SEO team focuses on five other HubSpot domains that are available in German, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese. Combined, there are almost 30 people working on a distributed team across the whole world focusing on SEO at HubSpot today.”

The SEO team at HubSpot is clearly aligned with the major markets where HubSpot has most of its clients and where the company seeks to expand its presence further, but the SEO team has a much bigger over-arching mission.

As Bujalska-Exner shares, “On the HubSpot SEO team, our purpose is to become the first resource business builders discover when looking for help to do a job. This aligns with our company’s mission to help millions of organizations grow better. We have built our team to serve this purpose in our core markets by hiring SEO specialists that are also native speakers in those languages. We are supported by technical infrastructure that follows the best industry standards for handling domains in many languages and we are also supported by developers and designers.”

The company builds its multilingual websites and blogs using its own marketing hub software and CMS tools.

This purpose is very important for defining what the SEO team’s scope and what kind of support they can obtain. The SEO team at HubSpot rolls into the marketing team, but specifically into the pillar of marketing that relates to acquiring new “top of funnel” traffic.

“SEO plays a big part of our global acquisition strategy because it is a channel through which we can build long term visibility and generate demand for our products across the world,” Bujalska-Exner said. “We differentiate between the various intents business builders might have and build strategies for them specifically. We offer educational content through our blogs, we offer quick solutions to tasks through our free microapps, and we build awareness about our software through our website.”

Long-term benefits of implementing a multilingual SEO program

While growing such a large multilingual SEO program takes resources, effort, and long-term commitment, Bujalska-Exner sees many benefits that teams like hers can obtain. For example, when Google makes search algorithm updates, the team can pinpoint differences in regional impact, and can even predict impact on traffic from specific markets.

“With Google’s most recent changes, we see similar trends happening across all languages, but they differ slightly in time and scope,” Bujalska-Exner said. “To be more specific: When exactly do we see a certain impact and how strong is it for this market? Some of the trends we have identified are declining click-through rates (CTRs) as the result of the continuous rise of zero-click search, lower search demand in some markets after COVID-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions began to loosen, and increased competition across search globally.”

“Overall, the recent changes have made SEO efforts more difficult, and thus harder to sustain or grow performance,” Bujalska-Exner said. “For example, even though we might keep position #1 on many of our rankings, we would simply get less traffic because of the lower CTRs and lower search volume in the market overall. Therefore, it is extremely important to understand what exact headwinds are you are up against and have a clear action plan to work through them. These two elements should be tied in one cohesive narrative, to ensure you can help others understand why search algorithm changes may have an impact on the results of any SEO program.”

Another interesting benefit of having a robust multilingual SEO program is that once your program becomes more developed, you start to see cross-pollination and knowledge sharing of best practices between different markets.

“In our team, we share findings across all markets, and not just from English to non-English markets. We also share findings between German, Spanish, Japanese, and any possible combination,” Bujalska-Exner said.

“This is particularly interesting when we look at new trends in the digital marketing area, because we can see that a particular trend might be already trending and growing rapidly in search volume in market A, but it is not yet so popular in market B,” she points out. “An SEO strategist who owns market B can make a bet and create content around this topic ahead of time when they see initial interest rising. So, when the trend finally starts to get traction in market B, the content is already ranking. Then, as the local search volume increases, our traffic grows as well, so not only is it a great play for acquisition but also an excellent play for local branding and thought leadership within our local audiences.”

While creating a multilingual SEO program can be hard to do, takes many years of investment and effort, and requires extensive collaboration across various teams such as SEO, regional marketing, localization, web development, and engineering, the benefits are very clear. For any company going global, multilingual SEO is bound to be an increasingly important part of their overall go-to-market strategy. As one of the rare US-based software companies with more than 50% of its customers and revenue hailing from outside of its domestic market, HubSpot has found multilingual SEO to be a critical piece of its overall formula for achieving its present-day global success, while planting important seeds for future growth.

Nataly Kelly is vice president of localization at HubSpot.

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