It’s a common situation when branching out online. You’re on one side, with a great product or service to offer. On the other, there’s a whole world of internet users waiting to hear about it. The question is how to reach them? Multilingual SEO can get you off to a good start. While the aim of homing in on popular but not overly competitive search terms will be familiar, it’s worth taking a moment to plan your best strategy.
You have two broad choices with foreign-language SEO: to deal with keyword optimization on a language-by-language basis or alternatively to tackle your SEO research and implementation separately for each country.
SEO by Language
This can be an attractive option for saving time and money. By selecting from the most widely-used internet languages, it’s possible to reach large sectors of the world’s internet users. The Top Ten Languages in the Internet is a useful starting point for identifying key languages, bearing in mind that the most rapid growth in internet penetration continues to be in non-English speaking regions of the world.
A language such as Arabic can open up your content to users across many countries. Meanwhile, Spanish, Portuguese and French all extend beyond their European origins to reach the Americas, much of Africa and even parts of Asia. With these key languages you can keep the number of translations and associated SEO research to a minimum while reaching a variety of new markets.
On the flip side, if you’ve used French to cover multiple countries, it’s more difficult to convince global search engines that your content holds equal relevance for French-speaking searchers in Belgium, Algeria, Canada and Vietnam. You could end up ranking below your more obviously ‘local’ rivals who use the target country’s top-level domain and other national references (e.g. prices converted into the Canadian dollar or Algerian Dinar).
Similarly, on the human side, will you be able to convince those North African or French Canadian customers that you can meet their needs if your content is Eurocentric? Cultural differences, currencies and time zones all offer a challenge when trying to make one size fit all.
SEO by Country
Keeping the focus on users at a more local level can be an advantage in choosing popular search terms. Take, for example, a technology business using the word ‘screen’ in a keyword or keyphrase. When marketing to Portugal, you’d opt for the French-influenced écran or ecrã. Not so for Brazil, where your best word choice would be tela. How about a computer mouse? In Portugal you would translate it to rato, but Brazilians are more likely to use the English word.
Add to this the fact that you can tailor information according to local currency, office hours, terms of measurement, and so on. By keeping it relevant to their needs you not only present yourself as a company that understands its customers, but also make it easier for them to research and buy from you.
I mentioned earlier that search engines love local content, particularly when hosted on the appropriate top-level domain for your intended market (e.g. using the .be domain for Belgium). These indicators suggest your site is more relevant to users in that country – and so it’s likely to be higher in the rankings.
Of course, this level of localisation comes at a cost. Foreign-language SEO is rarely a one-time effort, and as search terms change and evolve you’ll need to adapt to match.
You also have the issue of the many polyglot countries of the world, where different languages co-exist as national languages. Canada, Switzerland and South Africa are just three examples. Show preference to one language and you risk alienating other sectors of the population.
A more flexible approach?
By being flexible you can make the best use of your limited resources. For markets that show the most potential for your business, the additional attention given to SEO on a country-specific level could be well worth the effort.
Country-specific SEO is a wise move too if, on researching your keywords for a specific language, you find popular usage varies from one country to another. As we’ve seen, this can be the case where a common language has marked differences from one region to another, such as Brazilian Portuguese and standard Portuguese. As this often goes hand in hand with cultural differences, these markets will be better served by being treated separately.
For new markets, on the other hand, or those that seem less promising, why not opt for an SEO by language approach? Fortunately, few things are set in stone online and should your predictions prove to have been pessimistic, you can revisit this at a later date. Make it your aim to experiment, monitor and adapt when it comes to foreign-language SEO and you won’t go far wrong.