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The Basics of Multilingual SEO


Tim Branton

PureFluent CEO

Ian Gilchrist

PureFluent Roving Reporter

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July 13, 2019

In the first of this series, The Basics of Multilingual SEO, PureFluent’s Tim Branton discusses how to think about SEO when targeting customers in multiple territories; you know your home market and customers there, but who are your customers and how do you correctly engage them in multiple territories? Tim also explains some of the more technical aspects of multilingual SEO, including hreflang tags and the importance of H1 titles in multilingual content.

Ian:Tim, most people know a bit about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), but how is Multilingual SEO different?

Tim:I’d say that in most respects it’s not very different, when you consider the basics of what you have to do with SEO in your home market. All the same principles apply when you’re translating content. The starting point for this is understanding your target market, and understanding what sort of things they might be searching for. You’re trying to work out what people are searching for and then present them with content that matches that search. If you don’t start with this solid foundation in every language then you are going to obviously miss out on what your target audience wants to talk about. As in your home market, you start out with keyword research, understanding what people are actually searching for, not what you want them to find.

Ian: How does metadata fit in to this?

Tim:Metadata is one of the ways that Google and other search engines look specifically at the page on your site and work out its relevance.

There are basically three things that get you to the top of a listing: relevance, authority and usability.

There are basically three things that get you to the top of a listing, if you’re able to get anywhere near the top: the first thing is relevance, the second thing is authority, and the third thing is usability. What we’re really talking about here is relevance, how you make sure that when someone for example types in ‘black sneakers’ that your page turns up – you have to include content that says ‘black sneakers’.

This seems obvious but if you’re only including ‘black trainers’ it’s much less likely that you’re going to show up. Again, you have to tune in to the desired audience and present them with the content they’re looking for; you have a back-end for that (your metadata that’s essentially hidden from the audience but is available to Google admin and anyone else who is techie enough to be able to look at source code and see that it says ‘black sneakers’), and a front-end which is what your consumer sees.

You need to have things that match-up the back and front ends, for example a heading on your page that says black sneakers. The consumer needs to get to that page and immediately see that “yes, this is what I was looking for, black sneakers”. Following on from this you must ensure that you have great content of course, including different ways of describing the shoes and various calls to action.

Ian:What is the hreflang tag and why is it important?

Tim:The hreflang is a tag that you to indicate to search engines that a web page exists in various different languages. You might for instance have your original English content with a bit of code that looks like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="" ><link

And next to it this:

rel="alternate" hreflang="de"

This is just telling the search engine that there’s a German version of the same page, and this is where it is. It’s important because if a consumer is searching for your product or brand, you want to get them straight to the page that’s in their language

Ian: So is that is with hreflang tags? Do they do anything else?

Tim:They’re also great when you’re geotargeting users, i.e. it’s not just language but might also be country. For example, you might have an ecommerce store and you want your German customers to go to the German page with the prices in Euros, and your Swiss customers to go to the page with the prices in CHF. So you have two pages, one is tagged as “de-de” and the other is tagged “de-ch”. Currency is just one reason this might be important, you might also have different availability in different markets, or you might have adapted your content to reflect cultural differences. Or all of the above! The important thing is you want your customer to get to the content which is best for them because that’s when they most likely to buy.

There’s another really important ecommerce angle here, let’s say you’ve got stores targeting the US, UK and Australia. They all have similar (or even identical content) apart from prices in the relevant currency. Search engines get confused by duplicate content, and if you don’t tell the search engine that this is the content for your Aussie customers and this is the content for your US customers, Google will probably prioritise one of the pages and ignore the other two. By using the right hreflang codes for each page (“en-us”, “en-gb” and “en-au”) you make sure that your customer doesn’t get sent to the wrong page and you get a bounce instead of a purchase.

Ian:How does the distribution of keywords factor in to multilingual SEO?

Tim:It’s the same principle: you want something that keeps the customer anchored on that page, in that it is and remains relevant to what she searched for. If the keyword only appears once in a page of content the search engine will ask “is this really relevant?”, and you’ve unnecessarily introduced doubt as to whether your page is relevant to that search term.

It’s also important not to overdo this. Ultimately, the purpose is not to ‘flatter’ the search engine but to make sure that your customer is having a satisfying experience on the page and is moving towards the point of making a decision.

It’s also important not to overdo this. Ultimately, the purpose is not to ‘flatter’ the search engine but to make sure that your customer is having a satisfying experience on the page and is moving towards the point of making a decision (such as buying or signing up for something). All the search engine is concerned about is that the consumer has a satisfying experience on that page.

Ian:Taking all of this in to account, does a company need to do as much work for each new language/target market as they do for their initial language/home territory?

Tim:You’ll have a bit of a head start for your target markets assuming that you have done a thorough job with keyword research for your home market.

However, one of the mistakes customers often make is to assume that they can simply get their keywords translated, but words can often be translated in many ways; we’ve been talking about the difference that using ‘black sneakers’ or ‘black trainers’ can make, and just as you can use many different terms for an object in English, the same applies in French, German and Japanese. The same principle applies: you are trying to determine what your audience is looking for.

We go through an approach when we’re doing the keyword research using the original English, as that gives us a clue as to what’s working in say the U.S. market, but we still go through a separate process for each of the target markets. We ask the translation team to come up with multiple ways that keywords can be translated, and we then do our volume research to determine which of those terms gets the best result. There are multiple ways we can go about this, with the Google Keywords tool being the obvious place to start, but there are plenty of other options to find out where the volume is.

Ian:So you believe that it’s definitely worth the additional effort to determine the most effective SEO for a client’s target markets?

Tim:The answer is a really clear yes.

Assuming that search engine marketing forms a clear part of one’s marketing strategy, it doesn’t make sense to translate content and not do the SEO piece – there’s no point in having beautifully crafted web pages that are lovingly translated etc if no one can find them. I know that sounds almost patronising, but it’s amazing how often people leave that bit out.

What we see again and again is that people will go through the correct process for their original content, then they’ll get it translated, and then after the event will ask “what about SEO?”, when the right way to think of SEO research for all languages is to think of it as something that should be done up front.

The whole point of consumer-facing web content is to ensure that you’re facing your target audience properly, and if you haven’t done that before you create the content there’s a real danger that you’re creating content that will slide straight past your target audience. You should be confident you have the right keywords for your target audience in a specific market, which forms a fundamental part of the translation process.

Ian:How then does this effect the overall translation process?

Tim:The reason so many people don’t do this is because of timelines. People inevitably end up with translation being at the back-end of the process, and very often the customer is under real time pressure trying to get a web site live or get a product launched and I completely understand why that’s the case.

But again, to do this properly you need to front-end that SEO research so that at the point that you’re ready to launch you don’t have to stop the process to get the multilingual SEO process underway – so either allow a reasonable chunk of extra time to be available for the translation process, or better for you and better for business results, do the SEO research up front.



About the authors

Tim Branton

Tim Branton is PureFluent's CEO and a passionate advocate for the role of technology in the language industry. He has 30 years of business experience across the chemicals, telecoms, business services and software sectors in the UK, Singapore, Japan, China and South Africa.

See all posts by Tim Branton
Ian Gilchrist

Ian has worked in music and home entertainment product development, marketing, and journalism in the U.S., Canada and the UK, where he currently lives, for over 30 years.

In that time he's has aided and abetted an eclectic array of artists including Alison Krauss, Talking Heads, Madeleine Peyroux and Slade, and has worked for a diverse range of labels and companies including Universal Music (Canada), Pioneer LDC (Europe), Milan Records (France), the British Film Institute (BFI), Rounder Records Group (Canada) and BMG (UK). In his guise as a film journalist Ian's interviewed many renowned and influential people, including director John Carpenter (Halloween), actors Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Tom Hardy (Venom), director Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and many more.

See all posts by Ian Gilchrist

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