The Top 3 Multilingual SEO Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Dimitris Glezos
February 25, 2016
1 min read

The terms translation and localization are becoming common terms used by development and marketing teams both in the United States and abroad. In the US, companies selling globally are discovering that their digital presence resonates with customers best when content is translated to that particular customer’s native language. Abroad, companies are understanding that translating their websites for American users creates significant potential for revenue, and have slotted translation and localization early in their roadmaps.

But no matter where you’re from or what languages and locales you’re targeting, a question that will inevitably come up when translating digital content is SEO. How will translations affect my current site? Will my site rank well in global search engines? What do I do about keywords and duplicate content? And having gotten these questions a lot at Transifex, we wanted to share three of the top multilingual SEO mistakes for websites and how to avoid them.

Start with a solid foundation

While it may go without saying, we first want to emphasize that it’s important to get the SEO of your original (source) website in order before trying to tackle SEO for other languages, countries, and search engines. A great foundation, which includes SEO basics like having a good site structure and internal linking profile, engaging customer-driven content, and customized meta tags and descriptions for each page (and these are just a few), is key for succeeding in local and global SERPs.

Mistake #1: Not devoting enough time to language and keyword research

Before making the decision to move forward with website localization, you’ve answered a lot of key questions like which locales are currently driving website traffic, which languages will be ideal for expansion, and how much translations will actually cost. All this data is extremely helpful for laying the foundation for your expansion strategy and determining a return on investment, but unfortunately for most companies, the research phase often stops here – and this is where a huge SEO mistake is born – not digging deep enough into each locale to learn about the language and relevant keywords.

The research phase needs to be comprehensive, going beyond the basics to include an evaluation of the target locale’s culture, purchasing habits, and most importantly for SEO, the nuances between your source language and the potential target language. This can help determine the right keywords, and ensure that content is not only translated correctly but localized for each new audience and their culture.

Let’s look at an example of how keywords can change across languages, taken from an old (but still very relevant) Moz blog post. “Most Italians tend to search for “voli low cost” for low-cost flights, rather than the direct translation “voli a basso costo”. And while the standard French translation of “car insurance” is “l’assurance automobile” the most popular search terms is “auto assurance”. Then, you have to take into account differences in dialects. “Coche” is a car in Spain, but a baby stroller in much of Latin America.”

Doing comprehensive keyword research for each of your target locales also helps identify the potential for that area as well as competition. Of course, the best way to complete multilingual SEO keyword research, especially if you aren’t fluent in your target language, is to seek the help of SEO professionals. An alternative for those who are on a tight budget, however, is doing keyword research with help from native-speaking translators. This way, you can even use your original website content as a base for translations, and modify content in accordance with recommendations from in-country reviewers or translators, ensuring that your content has the maximum impact in your target locale.

Mistake #2: Focusing on Google and ignoring all other search engines

When ranking a website for search engines in the United States, a lot of companies choose to only focus on Google because it holds a majority of the search market – 64.4% to be exact. And knowing that a lot of the SEO best practices are applicable to all search engines because the basic ranking factors of search algorithms are similar, many people focus on Google and assume (or hope) the results will follow in other search engines like Bing and Ask.

This strategy has been largely successful when localizing for American search engines, but when looking at global search engines, it’s crucial to adapt your SEO ranking strategy to the most popular search engine of the particular locale you’re targeting because there are often differences between search algorithms. For example, Baidu is the most commonly used search engine in China, and its algorithm tends to give more importance to meta tags, optimized images, and alt text, and less to inbound links. Yandex, the most popular search engine in Russia, specifically gives higher ranking to sites with quality incoming and outbound links but ignores links from forums and directories.

Here are a few other popular search engines used by countries around the world.

Most Popular Global Search Engines
Image source: ebusinessinformations

Mistake #3: Restricting translated pages from crawling and indexing

The goal of website localization is to engage customers in another language or to gain traction in a new locale. This can’t be done if the translated version of your website doesn’t rank in global search engines! Unfortunately, a lot of companies add no-index tags, restricting the translated pages of their site from being crawled and indexed. While this is often done to avoid duplicate content penalties, the official Google blog states “there is no risk of running into duplicate content issues in case one uses identical (or rather similar) content on different sites or pages aimed at different regions or languages“.

But if you don’t want to take Google’s word for it, there is one other thing that you can do, whether your translated pages are set up through a subfolder or subdirectory (separate local domain), and that is to implement a rel=”alternate” hreflang=“x” tag to your translated pages. In fact, if you ask any SEO expert, they’ll almost always tell you implementing this tag on your site is mandatory. They may even suggest adding the same tags to your XML sitemap because you will want to be better safe than sorry.

The simple rel=alternate hreflang tag helps Google index and serve your localized content to users who wish to see an alternate language version of your site. It’s important to note that the rel=alternate hreflang is not the same as rel=canonicals. Using canonicals to point localized pages to your source site can cause it to negatively drop in SERPs, undermining everything you’re trying to achieve with localization.

SEO Visibility

SEO, especially international SEO, doesn’t have to be a black hole. With detailed research, a thoughtful localization plan, and the right execution strategy, entering global markets and gaining traction in search engines can bring you new business and revenue. If you’re just embarking on your multilingual website journey, know there are technologies that can streamline the localization process from start to finish. In addition to the traditional file-based localization approach, Transifex is proud to share Transifex Live, an in-context editor that allows you to translate your website in real time so you can see what translated pages will look like. What’s more, if you have a WordPress site, our companion WordPress Translation plugin integrates with your site and takes care of SEO by creating unique URLs for your translated pages and subdirectories (it can point to subdomains if you already have multilingual sites setup), and automatically adds hreflang tags for better global indexing.

Have other questions about multilingual SEO?

Download our Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Website Translation which details the key steps for delivering your digital content in other languages.

The Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Website Translation

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Dimitris Glezos
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