An effective multilingual SEO campaign ensures that your content gets found by the right audiences around the world. Without a solid strategy in place, your hard work creating high-quality content in multiple languages just goes to waste.

Discover how multilingual SEO boosts your content and the work involved, plus our insights on the six key ingredients for managing a successful multilingual SEO campaign.

Multilingual SEO vs. international SEO: What’s the difference?

a multilingual marketing team looking at their SEO results

We’ve discussed international SEO before. While the terms are often used interchangeably and there’s significant overlap, make no mistake: multilingual and international SEO are not the same thing.

International SEO involves optimizing your content for search results across multiple countries. For example, a Canadian company that wants to expand internationally might first expand into other anglophone countries, like the US. In that case, they would optimize their digital content to work in that new target market, but they wouldn’t be changing the language. They need international SEO, but not necessarily multilingual SEO. 

On the other hand, multilingual SEO is optimization across different languages. Let’s say a company is based in Belgium, where they speak Dutch, French and German. That company needs to optimize their SEO for those three different languages (and probably English, as well). They need multilingual SEO, but not necessarily international SEO.  This is similar to multiregional SEO, where you adapt certain elements of your website to attract different regions within one country.

Why should you consider investing in both?

Over 75% of the internet speaks a language other than English—that totals to over three billion people. And considering many consumers prefer to buy in their native language, it’s clear that if you want to reach new audiences, multilingual SEO can broaden your company’s horizons.

“I’m Brazilian so I’ll probably Google something in Portuguese before I search something in English, and a lot of people don’t speak English. So in those countries, it’s just easier to search for information in your own language.”

Allan Formigoni, Lisbon-based content and email marketing manager at WeTravel

Pro-tip: While countries like the UK or the US speak English, there are a lot of linguistic, cultural and logistical nuances to consider. For example, a UK company listing prices in pounds will need to localize to dollars for an American market. This is where content localization comes in. 

Does multilingual SEO make sense for every business?

a multilingual marketing team discussing their goals

Deciding whether to prioritize multilingual SEO depends on your multilingual marketing strategy. 

As you refer to your strategy, consider these factors:

  • Your specific, measurable goals: What would you like to achieve with your SEO? How many impressions, follows, clicks, conversions would count as a success for your brand?
  • Audience: Who is your audience? What languages are they speaking? What sort of content and approach resonates with them? Make sure to perform international audience research.
  • Competitors: What regions, countries or languages are your competitors targeting? Are you missing key markets they aren’t? Study the top-performing content (for your niche and all your languages) on Google. 
  • Website and content: Will you offer multiple websites or offer language versions of your existing website? Can or should your content be translated, or will you need original content to connect with your target audience? 

If your company has one target language, then the focus can be left to international SEO, which focuses more on the technical details (such as country-specific URLs). 

However, if you work in multiple languages—or want to start—then launching a multilingual SEO campaign could boost your search engine results for users in other languages. 

Of course, if you’re a global brand working in more than one country and in more than one language, then you need both

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Multilingual SEO: The work involved

Multilingual SEO is a complex process, because each language is deeply rooted in culture and context. 

“Our marketing agency started coming up with creative ideas in English, including informal language or slang. But how do you translate that to 26 markets? The English language is very particular and it’s easy to create puns and funny sentences. But when you try to apply the same humor to Polish, German or Portuguese, it’s quite challenging to transfer that same funny idea without losing the campaign’s core focus.”

Mário Costa, marketing and communications director at MANZ

Here are five steps involved in multilingual SEO:

  • Building a new website or website version in each target language
  • Translating and localizing content
  • Optimizing web content so it doesn’t get penalized by search engines’ requirements on multi-regional or international content
  • Appropriately organizing website language versions in an immediately accessible way for users

See more: 5 best practices to improve your multilingual website SEO

The creative work: translation, transcreation and localization

two monitors looking at a design for a multilingual project

If you want your multilingual website to rank high on Google in your target languages, it will take more than simply translating your existing website. It requires a careful balance of transcreation and localization. 

Transcreation is the act of going beyond standard translation. It’s the transformation of the existing work to reflect the emotion, nuances and cultural values and references of the target language. 

Localization, meanwhile, is an even more complex and involved step. It goes beyond the written word and can apply to any visual components or layout. From the written word to the color palette, localization ensures every part of the page fits the cultural context. 

To achieve top-performing results on Google, a multilingual website will need a mixture of all three. When and how a company translates, transcreates or localizes will depend on their audience and strategy. 

“Many clients do a mix of translation and creating new content for the market as needed. So it really depends on the strategy that the company is following.”

Shaheen Samavati, CEO of VeraContent

For more on translation versus localization, see: Translation vs. localization: What’s the difference and why should you care?

The technical work: metadata, duplicate content and hreflang tags

SEO best practices are mostly based on the top search engines’ ranking algorithms, most often Google’s. Beyond website translation, there are a few major techniques to apply during a multilingual SEO campaign. 

First, it’s always useful to translate metadata for each target language. These are the “behind-the-scenes” indicators a user likely won’t see but can still factor into your site’s organizational structure and your SEO. 

Metadata can be expressed as:

  • Titles and descriptions
  • Alt text on photos
  • Categories
  • Publishing dates
  • URLs
  • Content type (blog posts, podcast, event, etc.)

Then there are hreflang tags, one of the most important metatags for SEO. These indicators tell Google what language a page is in so that it can provide the correct language versions for a reader, depending on their location and search query language. 

Hreflang tags also tell Google whether a page is canonical or not—that is, whether it’s original content. The risk of not including hreflang tags is that Google could recognize your content as similar to your other versions but doesn’t understand that they are linked to each other. 

In that case, Google might decide to mark the page as duplicate content. If it marks it as duplicate content, the page might not appear highly or at all in search engines results. This would be very bad news for a website’s SEO. 

Imagine a company is creating English content for both their US and British websites. Much of the content on these sites will be identical, except for prices, spellings, and some slang. Inputting hreflang tags in the website’s source code or through plugins or sitemaps ensures that these nearly identical websites don’t get penalized. 

6 key ingredients for managing multilingual SEO effectively

A marketing team discussing ways to improve multilingual SEO to help find customers

Let’s take a look at six key ingredients for managing an effective multilingual SEO campaign.

Keep in mind that maintaining great multilingual SEO is a reiterative process, especially with how often search engines like Google update aspects of their user experience. 

1. Translate both on-page content and behind-the-screen details

It all starts with content. After all, high-quality content and SEO go hand-in-hand. Assess your existing content to see if it will resonate with your target language markets. If it makes sense to do so, repurposing content can save time and resources. 

Then, make or translate the content! We always recommend working with local experts who can create great stories and materials that truly resonate with local audiences.

As we discussed above, be sure that the translation of your content extends to the metadata and URLs. 

2. Localize your website visuals, layout and design 

You’ve spent countless hours working to make your current website reflect your company’s brand identity. But a key ingredient to running a multilingual SEO campaign is ensuring each multilingual website or website version maintains that appealing design. 

For example, if your business serves any language with a script that reads right to left, such as Arabic or Hebrew, then that language version needs to accommodate that change in layout. If your company is targeting languages that use a non-Roman script, like Korean, then it’s critical to ensure your CMS can support different language scripts. 

When you have properly localized content for an audience, it’s easier to reach out to publications and local influencers so you can begin the next step: building a solid link network. 

See also: Multilingual content management: 5 tips to upload posts effectively

Our CEO Shaheen Samavati and Head of Business Development Kyler Canastra discuss when to translate content vs. create it from scratch

3. Run a link building campaign

Link building is the process of increasing the number of links pointing to a page. This is important for SEO because Google views a link pointing to your website as a “recommendation” for the website. Google ranks websites on a system of EAT: Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. The more often your site is linked by other websites, or a page is linked by another page, the more likely it is Google will crawl it and view it as authoritative for its niche. 

Multilingual link building is the same process but with the additional aspect of ensuring all links point or come from another page in the correct language and cultural context. 

Being mindful of links can also apply to a website’s internal links. If a link on a company’s German website points to a page on their Spanish site, it won’t be as useful for their German language readers (and it will look careless). Proper link building would correct it so that all content on their German website links to German content and creates a seamless user experience. 

See also: How to do a full audit of your multilingual digital presence

4. Track and analyze your multilingual SEO

Once you publish the content, you have to see how it performs. Multilingual SEO analysis is the process of collecting and analyzing a website’s SEO metrics, such as impressions, CTR, and organic traffic. 

This data can determine if the website’s multilingual SEO is successful. If the English version of your site is ranking highly, but your Spanish version isn’t, that tells you something might be going wrong. It could be the hreflang tags or metadata—or perhaps the content isn’t useful or relevant to Spanish audiences. Whatever the issue, tracking your website’s metrics is a key ingredient to improving your multilingual SEO. 

We recommend Google Search Console to perform audience and keyword research; Google Analytics to collect SEO metrics; and Google Business Profile for geo-targeting.  

Tip: When researching keywords, look for both a high search volume and low competition—the lower the competition, the better your chances of ranking for the keyword.

5. Don’t expect results overnight

Optimization takes time. Google must crawl and index each website version, and a company must build a quality link network. Even with lots of analysis and effort, SEO results can vary.

Search engines can—and do—change their algorithms whenever they like, so be patient with your multilingual SEO campaign.  

Don’t trust any SEO service that says it will promise you exact numbers within a set time. Unreputable SEO agencies use harmful practices, like linking from irrelevant or untrustworthy websites. Quality multilingual SEO is a complex process that requires trial and error, especially in light of the ever-changing nature of site ranking and audience interests. 

See also: How to choose the right multilingual SEO agency to grow your business

6. Work with multilingual SEO professionals 

VeraContent team 2023

Multilingual SEO services give you the best of both worlds: world-class SEO to beat your competitors without the technical headache. A professional multilingual content agency or SEO consultants can make a world of difference in your multilingual SEO strategy.

Many top global companies partner with multilingual SEO agencies to access their team of local experts and ensure every bit of content is professionally translated, localized and positioned.

At VeraContent, we specialize in helping global brands connect with their audiences. As a multilingual content marketing agency, we know how to navigate the nuances of language and the complexities of SEO.

If you’re looking to launch your multilingual website and get it to the top of search engine results, get in touch with us today and see if you qualify for a free content consultation!