When adding different languages and targeting different countries on your website, it's critical to keep in mind that not only are you addressing international markets and audiences in a language that likely isn’t your own - you also need to help search engines, like Google, Bing, and the rest, understand what the heck you’re up to.
We’ve helped several of our clients through SEO International projects like this, and based on our research and experiences, these are the most important aspects to take into consideration.
BEFORE YOU START DEFINING REQUIREMENTS HERE please see our guide on SEO Internationalization Tech Specs and Business Decision Insights. Which domain setup you select should be a direct result of your goals for this project. Don't make the - incredibly common! - mistake of choosing a solution prior to understanding which solutions work for which goals!
Don't send conflicting signals. Make sure all of the page copy including the main navigation, footer, images, advertisements, metadata, (everything!) is fully translated/localized to the language version/region version you are targeting. Oversights will stick out immediately, so take the time to get it right.
Regional differences matter to the people in those regions! Google Translate is fine for individual words and short, simple phrases, but if you have anything even remotely complex, reach out to your network and see if you know anyone who speaks the language, or just bite the bullet and hire a translation service (or native speaker of the local language.)
“Pepsi once translated its “...brings you back to life” slogan into Mandarin, and mistakenly wound up with “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Whoops!”
For obvious reasons, avoid that mistake.
Otherwise known as: Quality Assurance Testing. Do yourself an enormous favor and find out what devices your target audience uses (mobile as well as desktop)in this new market - and what operating systems and browsers they’re using. Once your implementation is complete, go back and view every page, click every link, and go through every use case scenario you can think of using all of those devices and browsers. Even better, hire someone unfamiliar with the project to do it as well. They’re almost guaranteed to find things you didn’t.
These checklist items apply to internationalization specifically, but you need to keep regular QA, and SEO QA in mind as well.
It’s considered best practice to allow users to self-select into a language, and allow them to change that language/region when they want to.
Why shouldn't you redirect users automatically? Well, here’s the obvious example: Googlebot is based out of California. If you enforce a redirect on Googlebot that sends it to your US/English page, it won’t be able to crawl to other language or regional variations, in order to crawl them or (eventually) index them.
“Avoid automatic redirection based on the user’s perceived language. These redirections could prevent users (and search engines) from viewing all the versions of your site.” — GSC Help
Your technical team will have a lot of say in the structural setup of internationalization, which will take into account technical complexity, cost, and maintainability, among other things.
The general options for URL structure for geotargeting include:
The subdomain or subdirectory options are generally preferable for SEO - at least when taking technical complexity into account (e.g. a cctld, as referenced above - can also be desirable for SEO, but that's often more work and more maintenance, and therefore more cost. For this reason, gtlds (generic top-level domains) are more commonly used).
We somewhat prefer the subdirectory option for SEO, because you can then leverage the site's overall link profile vs. starting from scratch. That said, all of these options work.
Caveat: we really can't recommend going the parameter route. Google specifically recommends against it.
NOTE: We can't recommend creating different pages in English for different markets (e.g. a US vs. a UK version.) This used to be a critical step, but these days Google is more likely to show whichever version is the strongest (e.g. most links, highest domain authority, etc.)
Don't fight against the tide!
One common mistake is canonicalizing international variations to one primary language. However, each language/region is a valid variation in-and-of-itself, and therefore each version should self-canonicalize. If you don’t set it up this way, you risk accidentally deindexing the pages you are attempting to rank in the first place!
When you are focused on a US audience, it's easy to focus on Google alone. But some specific countries predominantly (or exclusively!) use other search engines instead: namely, Yandex in Russia, and Baidu in China. The tactics for ranking can and do vary, so don't forget to explore these needs if you are targeting these audiences.
Setup Language Variations as Properties in Google Search Console (GSC, formerly Webmaster Tools)
In other words: don't launch & forget it!
Emerging into foreign markets is a daunting process even under the best circumstances, and as usual, the devil’s in the details. Fortunately though, our team has seen and done it all, and we’re here to help no matter the size of your project.
Contact us for help with your International SEO Strategy today!