Best Practices For Promoting a Multi-National and Multi-Lingual Site

If you have ever owned or worked on a website that serves up multiple languages, you probably know how frustrating it is to deal with the slew of SEO considerations. It’s hard enough to use best practices for ONE version of a website – how are you going to tackle the same site in multiple languages?

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The First Consideration: Subdomain, Subfolder, or Separate Site?

This is the trickiest part of the process in our opinion, because there are three ways to organize multilingual websites. You can create a subdomain (fr.domain.com), a subfolder (domain.com/fr) or use an entirely different TLD (domain.fr). Which is the best choice and how do you come to this conclusion?

You need to consider your users. For most people, using subfolders is going to be the simplest and most user-friendly option, though subdomains is also a great choice.

Additionally, you need to consider the platform of your site, who will be managing each of the sites, and what is the best impact for SEO. There are platforms, like Magento, where you can install a completely fresh cart for each subfolder or subdomain.  This is great if there is going to be customization or different teams managing each of the sites.  In some cases, for carts like CoreCommerce, you may have to consider using a subdomain.  Finally, having entirely different sites on different TLD’s gives you the most flexibility but you gain the least SEO benefit.

In terms of SEO, the most benefit can be attributed to subfolders.  This way, any links built to any page in the domain help to improve the visibility of the domains as a whole.

Subdomains are considered as connected to the same URL, but they have to build popularity of their own accord.  If you choose subdomains you have to run a separate link building and social media campaign.

Different TLD’s have the most flexibility but also require more online marketing.  If you use unique TLD’s, you would effectively be creating multiple sites to promote and manage.  Make sure you have the resources available before you choose this route!

Auto Detection of Language

In the past, you would usually be taken to a landing page for language selection when you navigated to a multilingual site. While you still see these in practice today, they’re really not the best option if you care about your users.

You should use browser and language detection to automatically serve up the visitor’s language choice. This way they don’t have to do anything at first. In the unlikely case that they need to change languages, make it very simple to do so with a selector somewhere in the navigation bar.

Don’t Forget The Spiders!

With all this consideration for the users, it can be easy to forget about the other things that crawl your website: search spiders. You should do server-side language detection to make it very easy for spiders to be served the correct language. Since most of them don’t use a browser, using browser-side detection would be completely useless for them.

Checking Your Site As Googlebot

You need to give your site a look through the eyes of Google, which is easy to do with Google Webmaster Tools. Use the “Fetch as Googlebot” tool to see if your website is detecting language and location properly.

Geotarget, Cannonicals, or Rich Snippet Language tags?

Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of multi-national and multi-lingual SEO is selecting the best method to inform the search engines when you have duplicate content.  There are 3 alternatives:

1.  Geotargetting: You can go into your Google Webmaster account and select the geographical area that each of the sites is targeting.  Read more information here.  

2.  Cannonicals:  In the past, Google recommended using the Cannonical tag to specify which of the language versions is most important.  Recently, Google launched a new markup that makes cannonical tags for language versions obsolete.

3.  Hreflang Link Element:  This is a rich snippet that you can now use to specify different versions of the same page by the country they are targeting. This rich snippet code replaced the cannonical tag.    Here’s an example:

Example usage

To explain how it works, let’s look at some example URLs:

  • http://www.example.com/ – contains the general homepage of a website, in Spanish
  • http://es-es.example.com/ – is the version for users in Spain, in Spanish
  • http://es-mx.example.com/ – is the version for users in Mexico, in Spanish
  • http://en.example.com/ – is the generic English language version

On all of these pages, we could use the following markup to specify language and optionally the region:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es” href=”http://www.example.com/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-ES” href=”http://es-es.example.com/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-MX” href=”http://es-mx.example.com/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”http://en.example.com/” />

Multilingual is Challenging But Worth It

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Google has proven time and time again that they care about user experience over anything else. By providing a multilingual site, you will be ensuring that more people can reach your content. On top of that, you will be SEO’ing it properly so Google can give you the credit you deserve. These simple tips should get your off to a great start for properly organizing and structuring your multilingual website.

Author Bio 

Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer in the L.A. area with a focus on tech, and enjoys spreading the word on jquery cover flow, as well as other site building topics.

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