Thinking about taking your business overseas? Will translating your site be enough to enter a new market? Why is nobody accessing your French site? Or worse… Why is everybody visiting your French site… but not converting?
As a Spanish native SEO working in a UK company, I’ve had the chance to work on both Spanish and English sites at the same time and see first-hand some of the mistakes or assumptions that can ruin a good website.
I’m not planning on giving the ultimate international SEO guide, the subject is too wide; but I can offer some tips and things to remember in different areas that may help you when starting your international adventure. Some of them may seem expensive… every investment in a new market is, but by doing it correctly you may obtain a profitable result.
Although most of the advice included in the post is valuable to any language, be aware that some of the examples are focused on the Spanish market, my area of expertise.
Why is it important?
The first thing you need to remember when launching your site in a different country is that you will be competing with national sites. They know the language, the market, the audience and they probably have more experience, so translating your site won’t be enough to appear higher in the SERPs and succeed.
Users grow smarter every day and it’s very easy to compare different sites online. Not only the simple things like prices, but also customer experience and site quality. A bad review may be enough to throw away all the hard work of months, so make sure you click the right keys before putting your site live.
When to go international?
Before we go into more detail, it’s important to understand when and why a business should consider launch a site in a different language:
- Your current business can’t grow anymore: You are the leader in your market and the YoY growth is still positive, but decreasing every year. There’s no more room to grow so it’s time to look in a different location with the right opportunities.
- Countries with more than 1 language: Have you decided to cross the ocean and do business in the US and Canada? You should know that US have 45 million Hispanophones, while 21.5% of Canada population speaks French, so it may be a good idea to create multilingual sites for those countries.
- Find new opportunities using different tools:
- Google Analytics: GA can identify your users’ location and language. Simply go to Audience>Geo and discover who is currently visiting your site, you may discover opportunities you had never considered. .
- Google Trends: With Google Trends you can track the interest in your products or your brand globally.
- Majestic SEO: Who is linking to your site? You may discover links from an unexpected country so it may be a good idea to create a localised site for that language.
- SEM Rush: Find out if your current site is ranking in any other country. For smaller markets that have yet to fully develop in other countries this may be an option to discover new opportunities.
- Google AdWords: Discover keyword opportunities in any market. Remember to select search engine (google.co.uk or google.es etc.) and language before starting your search.
- There are many other tools out there that include information about international markets so do not hesitate to use them to look for opportunities.
Before we begin…
The Golden Rule for multilingual SEO is: Treat your international markets as you would treat your national. Don’t expect to have the same results (rankings, visits or revenue) in your multilingual websites if you are not offering the same services and make sure you tick all the following boxes as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to start seeing some results.
- Understand your market by undertaking market research. It’s recommended to use a native speaker or perhaps to outsource to an in land company to get a better insight and understanding of the market.
- Localise all the documentation that the customers may read. This includes confirmation emails, advertising emails or legal information (you should also make sure that this legal information matches relevant national law).
- Employ a multilingual selling and/or customer service team. A great international strategy can be killed by bad customer service, make sure the team includes native speaking members or at least someone who is fluent in the target languages.
- Make sure you know what the most common Search Engines in the targeted country are. Yes, Google is the most popular Search Engine in the world, but if you are planning to access the Russian market, you should know that Yandex is the most popular there, while in China Baidu is the one you should go for.
The first thing you need to decide when creating international sites is the URL structure you are going to use. You’ll need to choose between one of the following:
- Country-specific domain
- Subdomains with gTLDS
- Subdirectories with gTLDs
- URL parameters.
Your choice will depend on budget, current website structure and your strategy. You’ll also need to use Hreflang tags to serve the right language or regional URL to the users that land in your website. There are tons of guides online about this matter, so I prefer to focus on something different in this already long post. If you need more information about the previous subjects, here are some useful links:
Multi-regional and multilingual sites:
Hreflang for language and regional URLs:
If you have already identified opportunities and planned an international strategy, it’s time for you to start creating content for your brand new page. The top tip I can give you when creating content for a different language and the main idea you should have in mind is:
DO NOT TRANSLATE WITH GOOGLE TRANSLATOR!!!!
Let’s face it, Google Translator is great for translating single words or for those cases where you want to know what a foreign page is about, but it shouldn’t be used to create live content. You won’t believe how many sites out there translate their content expecting to reach new audience and make some sales. Well, it’s just not going to happen.
An auto translator is still a machine, but we are creating (amazing) content for humans. and believe me, humans can tell the difference between auto generated content and that written by a human.
The other problem that auto translators cannot understand is the use of keywords. Simply translating keywords is not going to be enough as the translated version (even if it is correctly translated) may not be the best match for that market.
For all these reasons, I recommend the use of a native speaker or a localisation company for the keyword research process and the content writing. Not only you will create outstanding and relevant content, but it will also include insights of your target audience in each country.
Non ASCII characters
A problem that an organisation will find very often when creating multilingual content is the use of different characters.
- French: ç
- Danish: ø
- Spanish: ñ
- Characters with accents: á, ô, à
The use of these characters is not an option and should be used in the body of the content, headers, titles and descriptions. However, they may cause problems in URLs. Matt Cutts has said in the past that Google can read these characters with no problem but he recommend to avoid them when possible as some Search Engines won’t be able to and it’s more difficult to successfully share links to these URLs.
Here is the video with his answer:
This is even more difficult when we talk about words with accents. Spanish, French and Portuguese are some of the languages that use these type of characters. When we are trying to start the keyword research process for any of these languages we may find some issues. I’m going to use an example I have found several times when researching for flights in Spanish:
Let’s try to find out the search volume for the Spanish version of ‘Flights to Mexico’ to see if it’s worth optimising for that term. In Spanish, Mexico wears an accent in the ‘e’ so the term will be ‘Vuelos a México’.
- When I look at the search volume for that term, I find out it’s only 50.
Hmm, weird; Mexico is one of the most popular destinations from Spain. What if we try the same search without the accent? (Vuelos a Mexico).
- In this case the result is 1,000 searches. Wow, that’s quite a difference.
The explanation of this variance is in the search habit of Spanish users. There’s no specific key in Spanish keyboards for the accented characters, so we have to press first the accent and then the character we want to use. e Mobile phones will also require a small though additional effort and, in an era where time is gold, many consider it a waste of time… “No one is going to read what I’m going to write, so I don’t mind making a grammatical mistake. “
That’s why Mexico (without the accent) will always have more searches than México (with accent).
With that in mind, we use the word without accent for our keyword research, and create a great list of keywords. But now, which keyword should we use in the content? Does Google care?
Well, the truth is that Google is learning to understand the context of our content and is trying to unify the results for the words with and without the accents. Right now, however, there are still some differences in results.
Following the same example, let’s search in google.es for the two versions of flights to Mexico:
The first image shows results for ‘Vuelos a Mexico’, while the second shows ‘Vuelos a México’, with the accent.
As you can see, the paid results will of course change, while the organic results will be a little bit different, although the first two results remain the same. Note, however, how all the websites are using the correct version of the term (with accent), so that should give you an answer.
It doesn’t matter how different the search volume is for the two terms, always use the grammatically correct version in the content. Google may penalise the sites with grammatical mistakes and your visitors won’t trust a site that doesn’t know how to write Mexico correctly. As always, think that you are writing for humans, not machines, so stick to that and everything should be fine.
The only exception of course is the URL, this is the only case where using the version without the accent is seen as something positive, as accented characters are non ASCII characters.
Outreach and Social
Now that you have created amazing and engaging content focused on your users, it’s time to get some links for your website. I’m not going to detail a particular link building strategy, but just give a few recommendations concerning multilingual aspects. Some of them are pretty obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning them.
If you have used subdirectories to create your international sites, then the links pointing to your main domain will benefit the entire site, no matter what the language. However, if you want to push particular pages in your French site, for example, you should definitely get French links.
The links will seem more natural and the visitors that access your site will have more chances to convert, as they can understand the details of the products or services you are offering. This is applying to both Follow and No Follow links. Focus on building relationships and creating brand awareness and, if your content is good enough, links will come by themselves.
On the other hand, your presence in social media shouldn’t be limited to the usual channels. Research the habits of your target audience; you may discover new channels that are only available in certain countries. In Spain, for example, we have Tuenti, a social network very similar to Facebook but used mostly by teenagers.
You should also pay attention to the national holidays in your target country as this will allow identifying commercial opportunities and engaging with your audience via social channels.
A final note
As a conclusion, the two main things a business should remember when starting an international adventure are:
- Treat your international markets as you would treat your national.
- Do not translate content, localise.
And of course, it’s always worth working with a native person from the country you are targeting, if you cannot afford to have someone in house, work with freelancers or contact national businesses to outsource part of the work.
Don’t be afraid to take this step, we live in a global world and commercial borders are falling, take a chance and leap!