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Nine multilingual SEO mistakes and how to avoid them

Localization, Multimedia Translation, Technology

Building an international and multilingual presence online isn’t the easiest thing to do, and there are plenty of ways to mess up. That’s why it’s worth reviewing these nine common multilingual SEO errors that can trip up any company looking to expand abroad.

1. Using the same URL for each of your multilingual web versions

Each of your language or country pages must be shown through its own specific and accessible URL (web address) so that Google can effectively crawl, index and rank your sites. This is much better for your Google rank than locale-adaptive crawling, which attempts to determine a visitor’s language or country via their location information and shows them a version of content on the same URL for all languages.

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Google’s search engine doesn’t use cookies, and therefore if you have a multilingual website and control your URL with cookies only, it will literally be impossible for Google to index the foreign versions of your website. Anything after a hashtag (#) also counts as the same URL to search engines, so it’s essential that the language determinant is before any hashtags used in the URL.

Thus, it’s imperative that you set up an individual web structure for each international version of your website. If you are targeting multilingual clients/customers, this means using country specific domain names, sub-directories or sub-domains. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these options and no clear winner in terms of SEO. My personal preference is to use separate country domain names and it’s simple to configure different domains to use the same database with CMS systems like WordPress, PrestaShop or Drupal.

2. Redirecting users automatically to an international version of your website without giving them a choice

Obviously, you want to make sure that a visitor is seeing the right version of your site, especially after you put so much effort into making separate versions. Automatic redirection based on country or browser language is a problem because:

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  1. Automatic redirects can confuse users, especially those who might mistake it for some kind of virus or scam.
  2. They might genuinely want to view the version of your site that they clicked on because the country-specific website is not written in their language (if they’re expats or tourists) or they may want to compare your services by country.
  3. Websites get most of their visits from search engines and, except for brand name searches, it’s likely that someone will have found a page by going to the version of Google they want and entering a language specific keyword to find your site.
  4. You’ll also redirect the Googlebot because its crawlers are only in a select number of countries (mainly the US). This means that Google may only see and index a limited number of your sites.

Most importantly, if users can’t easily change back to the version of your site that they want, they may very well choose your competitor instead. So instead of automatically redirecting a used, show a pop-up message giving them the option to click through to the site you think they should be on.

3. Using automated translation alone

It can be an expensive endeavor to create international versions of your website, so many people will choose to cut corners by using machine translation. After all, it’s quick, easy and cheap.

The downside, however, is massive. Machine translation is not known for its nuance, and it normally just does a straight word-for-word translation. This can cause all manner of problems as a quick online search for ‘marketing translation fails’ will show you. (A personal favorite is the KFC slogan “Finger-Lickin’ Good” translated to “Eat Your Fingers Off” in China.)

The only way to avoid this and ensure your website is fully comprehensible to an international audience is to hire professional translators. You don’t want your content to be misinterpreted. You can, however, use Google Analytics to find which pages on your site get the most visits and consider not translating pages that receive very little traffic (and that aren’t important for legal reasons).

4. Forgetting to translate “hidden” parts of the website

When you’re translating your website into multiple languages, you’re going to remember to translate body text, page titles, blogs, captions and things that are easily seen by any visitor to your website. That’s great.

However, there is plenty of text that may easily go unseen (and therefore untranslated) when you merely focus on the pages you see when checking the site yourself. This could be text that works in the background to increase traffic to your site, or it could be pages that only pop up when the visitor performs a certain action, like clicking through to buy a product. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Metatag titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • URLs
  • Alt text for images
  • Checkout pages
  • Newsletter sign-up forms
  • Error messages

You need to do a deep dive into the background of your website and try to use the site as a potential client/customer would. The metatag title and description appear in the search results and are particularly important to translate for any multilingual SEO project. One way to check if these have been translated is to do a search in Google for site:example.com. Replacing “example.com” with the name of your domain, with no space after “site:” will show you all the pages that Google has indexed of your site.

5. Not considering product availability in foreign markets

A major challenge that you will face when setting up a company in international markets is product shipping. When you are planning your SEO strategy, you need to figure out how to reflect your new warehouse situation on each international version of your website as some products, due to differing regulations or other concerns, may not be available in all countries.

Decide whether you’ll redirect them to a different product based on their IP settings or bring up a “Not available in your area” message. This will provide you with a seamless user experience and increase your conversions.

6. Not using specific keyword research for each different market

Keywords are not universal. One that works perfectly and drives massive conversion among consumers in England might fail for English-speaking people across Europe or in other English-speaking countries. This is why you can’t just translate your existing keywords and hope for the best. It will create huge gaps, which your competitors will take advantage of.

Instead, do keyword research in each separate language and by country. We all know that English-speakers in different countries have different words for the same thing (such as cookie and biscuit), so you don’t want to fall into that trap.

It is a lot of work, but it is the foundation for your multilingual SEO strategy, so it’s worth the effort to build your site on a solid foundation. For some terms, particularly technological terms, it’s possible that foreign speakers will still search for the English version of a keyword, even if a local translation exists and keyword research is the only way to reliably identify which version is most used in any given country.

7. Opting to translate rather than transcreate

Going back on our previous discussions of why machine translation is tricky, you should know that mere translation alone can create problems for your business. Often, this translation won’t be adequate for foreign markets, because copying content word-for-word may mean duplicating content that doesn’t really work in other countries.

The solution to this is transcreation. Simply put, transcreation is creating marketing content that resonates in local markets and delivers the same impact as the content on the original site. Often, it uses the original idea as a base but localizes it to create quality content that will increase the impact on consumers.

For example, if you’re in the tech sphere and you had a blog post about earning money through recycling your old phone on your UK website, this would need major alterations for a Spanish site where the rules around recycling are different.

Some phrases are particularly difficult to translate and this is where transcreation is essential. See examples of these in German and Spanish, plus a guide on adapting to the French culture as part of French SEO.

8. Forgetting to localize content on your websites for different countries

In a similar vein, don’t automatically assume that you can reuse content for websites that are in the same language, but developed for different countries (i.e. the UK and the US). There are numerous examples of linguistic and cultural differences between countries with the same official language that we don’t make enough allowances for.

For example, if a page on your UK site talks about rainy days, it may not be relevant in some parts of the US or in Australia. You need to localize the content to target your audience in each specific country, which will mean different idioms, references, and content styles.

Again, this is another example of why keyword research using native speakers is so important. Look at the different words that English speakers in the UK, the US and Australia use to mean the same thing.

UK US Australia
Chemist/Pharmacy Drugstore Chemist/Pharmacy
Sweets Candy Lollies
Toilet Restroom/Bathroom Bathroom/Dunnie
Plane Airplane Aeroplane
Rucksack Backpack Matilda
Fancy Dress Costume Togs

9. Failing to engage in local link building

Link building is an important tool for any company or website, but too many businesses will leave this until much later in their multilingual SEO strategy. If you have a well-established site it can be easy to assume that a high quality translation with good on-page SEO will be sufficient for the newly translated site to rank well with Google. This isn’t always the case, as your existing site may have lots of quality backlinks going to it, and your new site won’t, and backlinks are half the story when it comes to SEO.

You’ll attain a higher Google rank by making sure that your local site is being linked to by local and regional websites. You can do this in a range of different ways:

  • Writing engaging articles that include a relevant backlink to your site and asking bloggers to add it to their site.
  • Submitting your site to country specific directories — ideally ones focusing just on the service you offer, or similar products/services.
  • Engaging with a local audience on social media.

For optimal multilingual SEO, it’s important that links go to the correct language version of your site (so French content links to your French pages, German content links to your German pages and so on). You can also read more on how to implement a successful multilingual link building strategy.

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Martin Woods is the SEO director of Indigoextra Ltd, a multilingual marketing company. He has 17 years of experience in web design, translation and SEO. He was raised in the UK and live in Montpellier, South France, where he homeschools two boys.

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