SEO: How to Prepare Your Site for International Visitors

, June 9, 2014

international-SEOIs your business international? Do you want to make it easy for customers in Germany to be as comfortable when they arrive at your site as customers in the U.S.?

If so, you need to understand multi-lingual markup for both SEO and client experience. Why? Because A) You don’t want search engines to think you have dupe content on your own site, and B) you want customers to understand your site, whether they come from the U.S. or Spain.

It amazes me that many business people forget that we live and work in a global environment online. I mean, you’re leaving money on the table if your product is as viable here as it is there. Think about it: If you’re selling dog collars, you could as easily be selling to people in Sweden, Japan or Germany as to people in the United States. In fact, by creating a site that is multi-language capable, you’re extending your reach by leaps and bounds.

So, how can you provide a great international client experience and make search engines happy, too? Don’t freak out. It works pretty much the same way as rel=”author” or rel=”canonical” or any other relationship snippet, believe it or not. It’s not difficult, but there are things you need to know.

How to make a multi-lingual site work for SEO

You can get plugins for WordPress that will allow your site to be multi-lingual, which makes things really easy. But if you aren’t using a plugin, how can Google understand that you don’t have duplicate content on your site, that you have alternate language content on your site?

Well…

On May 12, 2014, Google’s Zineb Ait Bahajii and Gary Illyes wrote a post on the Webmaster Central blog specifically about annotating web pages for multi-lingual sites, and it’s a great blueprint of exactly how it should work, specifically for your home page.

There are actually three ways to make Google and everyone else happy:

1. Show everyone the same content
2. Let users choose the content they want to see
3. Serve content based on the visitors’ locale and presumed language.

Each of the ways is viable and they each have applications where it makes more sense to use one way over another. (You only need ONE. In fact, if you’re using more than one, you could be confusing the heck out of the little bugs.) So, let’s see how each way should work:

Show everyone the same content. In this case, you need to have specific regional domains. For example, your domains would need to be www.yourdomain.fr for the French version of your page or www.yourdomain.se for pages intended for visitors from Sweden. All content is the same on each page, but each domain is individuated to the particular location and language you want to use.

This is probably the simplest way to make multi-lingual sites work, though it could cost you in regional domains. So, if you have two or three versions, it would be great. If you have forty or fifty, it could get awfully expensive.

One thing to remember about this method is that you need to link from the home page to other language versions, or visitors won’t easily find them.

Let your visitor decide. After all, not all people who speak French live in France. We have lots of Canadians who speak French, right? In this instance, you would provide options for alternate languages to your visitors on the home page, which they could choose from and then, click to find the appropriate content.

When you do this, you need to provide an HTML link element in your header: rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” would tell search engines that the Spanish page is a translation of the original. You can add the special coding to the <head> section like this:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=”http://es.yourdomain.com/” />

If you’re publishing a non-HTML file (such as a .pdf) instead of a web page, you should still use an HTTP header:

Link: <http://es.yourdomain.com/>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”es”

However, you can also allow your sitemap to do the work by submitting language version information there. Let’s say that you have a German version, a Swiss German version, and a Spanish version of your home page. The coding would look like this:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<urlset xmlns=”http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9″
xmlns:xhtml=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml”>
<url>
<loc>http://www.yourdomain.com/english/</loc>
<xhtml:link
rel=”alternate”
hreflang=”en”
href=”http://www.yourdomain.com/english/”
/>

<xhtml:link
rel=”alternate”
hreflang=”de”
href=”http://www.yourdomain.com/deutsch/”
/>
<xhtml:link
rel=”alternate”
hreflang=”de-ch”
href=”http://www.yourdomain.com/schweiz-deutsch/”
/>
<xhtml:link
rel=”alternate”
hreflang=”sp”
href=”http://www.yourdomain.com/spanish/”
/>
</url>
</urlset>

In this instance, you must be sure to specify the XHTML namespace:

xmlns:xhtml=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml

You must also create a separate URL element for each alternate version URL in your site, including the default. So, if your original page is in English, you must also create a URL element for English in our sitemap.

In coding your sitemap, you can also specify different uses of one language, so “de-ch,” for example, is German, but meant for people in Switzerland. Just like England and the U.S., the language might be the same, but there will be dissimilarities. You can have as many area-specific language considerations as you please.

With sitemap notation, you can keep the main content, with translations only in a template. So, you might have a forum, where you need the navigation to be translated, while the actual page language remains the same. In this case, people from France would see French navigation and footer information, while the actual posts remained in English.

Or, you can have full-page translations with identical content. Coding this properly keeps you from the dread duplicate content on your own site issue, which can crush you.

I once wrote a blog for a site that decided to put the articles I wrote on their own membership site pages under the same URL, too. We went from #3 on page 1 for our main keyword to #656 overnight. When I had the membership site content removed, our position was restored, also overnight. The LAST thing you want search bots to think is that you have duplicate content on your own site.

Automatically redirect users appropriate to their location. This can be accomplished with server-side 302 redirects or by dynamically servicing the HTML content that seems appropriate.

In this case, you still need to use the rel-alternate-hreflang annotations. All of the pages need to be accessible to search spiders, and you must still have separate URLs for each alternate language page in the site.

More tips for multi-language sites:

• Remember to annotate all of your pages. Just annotating the home page won’t do. This helps search engines to understand that you’re not using duplicate content and makes it easier for search engines to serve appropriate results.
• Your annotations must work. So, if page A links to page B, page B has to link back to page A to be interpreted properly.
• Your main or default page should use rel-alternate-hreflang notations, too.
• As mentioned above, choose ONE way to annotate. If you’re going to do it in your page header, DO NOT annotate in your sitemap, as well.
• Users should be able to switch local versions and language.
• For language, the hreflang attribute must be in ISO 639-1 format.
• For region, the hreflang attribute should be in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format.
• If you wish to configure your site only for one country, use the geotargeting feature in Webmaster Tools.

The Bottom Line

If you’re an e-commerce site, you may want to serve customers globally. The above guidelines will help you to provide adequate information to search engines to allow it. If you serve customers only in your local region, you don’t have to worry about this, unless you’re in Canada, for example, and want to serve both English and French speaking clients. But whatever you want to do, you can do – as long as you follow the guidelines. It really does seem more complicated than it is, and Google provides ample help in these articles:

But there are many more. As I mentioned above, NOT having a multi-lingual site could be hurting your business without your even knowing it. Isn’t it time to get this moving?

Yes. It is.

Author bio:

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+ so you don’t miss a thing. She’s waiting to see how excellent YOU can be. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was “Older Sites Aren’t Safe from a Google Downgrade.”