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Multilingual SEO: Optimise Your E-Commerce Site For New Audiences

You’ve heard of SEO, but what about multilingual SEO?

In a nutshell multilingual SEO means to optimise your website and all of its content (i.e. not just the visible text but also the meta tags, attributes, anchor texts, etc.) to be appealing to search engines in the countries and/or languages you’re targeting. In this article we explore the fundamental elements of an international SEO strategy. However this is by no means an exhaustive list and we would encourage you to conduct as much research as possible to implement a successful strategy.

Image showing a globa, representative of the global reach that multilingual SEO can bring your business.

The digital age that we live in means that even small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly receiving both orders and interest from overseas customers. Investing in multilingual SEO allows you to provide for these customers, making it a paramount component of any international business plan.

How does multilingual SEO actually work?

Firstly, it’s not quite the same procedure as optimising your website for searchers in the UK. Why? Because search and purchasing behaviour varies by language, country, and region. This even applies to other Anglophone countries where different variations of English are spoken. A British English speaker for example might search for “holidays in France”, whereas an American English searcher is far more likely to type in “vacations in France” instead. To use a foreign language example, a searcher in Spain looking for a new computer might search for “ordenador” whereas their Mexican counterpart would more likely search for “computadora”.

This means that to make your site visible (and relevant) to a Spanish-speaking audience, for example, you must first determine which type of Spanish that audience speaks, which region/territory they’re in (if you’re going hyperlocal, more on that below), and how you can optimise your site based on their unique search behaviour.

It’s not as straightforward as hiring a translator to simply translate your content into various languages and then making separate domains for each. You need to research the content and keywords that your overseas audience is searching for as well as how to structure them. This in itself requires a certain level of cultural sensitivity usually only found in a native speaker. The bottom line is that your content needs to be natural and relevant for your target audience, just like it needs to be for your English-speaking users.

Translating your website

So you know that you need your website to be appealing to search engines overseas, but it must also be appealing for the searchers who will find it. It stands to reason then that your multilingual SEO strategy is incomplete without obtaining a professional website translation.

Firstly, be sure to pick your translation partner carefully. It should be a translation company that specialises in marketing translation, sometimes known as transcreation. This method of translation will ensure that your brand’s message and tone of voice is accurately transposed into the target language with no loss of effect or context. This means it will have the same desired influence on your new audience.

An image showing flags of different nations, all of which can be reache with a good multilingual SEO strategy.

It might not be necessary to translate every single page of your website. Some information may not be relevant to your overseas audience. A good example of this is your blog. Don’t commission the translation of every blog post you’ve ever written. Rather, have just a handful of posts translated, perhaps the ones that will be most valuable to your target audience, or your most read posts, and only index these on the international versions of your site. From there you could hire blog writers and content creation specialists in the target language if you were looking to extend your marketing reach overseas as well.

After translating your website you’ll then need to optimise it, but there are also companies who undertake SEO translations, which involves both of these stages. Not to be confused with localisation (which we discuss below) SEO translation is where one company translates and optimises your website to achieve higher rankings in international search engine results. However there are relatively few companies that can successfully undertake this type of translation as it requires someone who is not only knowledgeable in international SEO techniques but also in the field of translation.

Localising your website

While they may seem similar, there is subtle difference between translating and localising your website.

It’s not sufficient to have all the content of your site translated into the target language. The content, together with the layout, imagery, context and so on, must conform to the expectations of your audience overseas. This is generally more the case the further from your home country you’re targeting, where the cultures are likely to have increasingly different norms and standards.

Adapting the content to the language, region, (even town or city) of your foreign audience is known as localisation. This is definitely a task for a native professional who has an intimate knowledge of the culture in question. The good news is that many language providers offer this service for a range of languages, countries and regions around the world.

As with SEO translation, you could find a company to translate and localise your website, but generally speaking this would be undertaken by two separate professionals.

Multilingual SEO keyword research

Once you have a full translation of your website you then need to optimise the content for your target audience.

Having the right multilingual keywords for your products or services in the target language is absolutely crucial in your international SEO strategy. Give Google Translate and other machine translation tools a wide berth here. While machine translation has undoubtedly improved  it can still be inaccurate at the best of times, and word-for-word translations are certainly not suitable for multilingual SEO purposes, if ever at all. Not only that but poor-quality translations are likely to set off Google’s spam filters, which is the last thing you want.

That said, it’s not enough to just translate your existing keyword list from English into the target language. This is because single words in different languages might have varying meanings, which we can again attribute to the differences in search behaviour of audiences in different countries.

So, just how should you go about your multilingual keyword research?

Well, unless you have an in-house team of multilingual SEO experts, the best option is to enlist the services of another professional company to either conduct keyword research for you organically based on the products or services you offer, or to take your translated content and provide a list of keywords with the full context of your website. Having this context together with your English keywords means that the latter option is likely to be the better one for keyword research purposes.

If on the other hand you decide to conduct the keyword research yourself, there are several tools at your disposal:

  • SEMRush allows you to see what your competitors in other countries are ranking for, which of their content performs best, and how they rank where they do.
  • Moz, the bottomless source of SEO and paid/organic marketing tips, have a lot of info on multilingual keyword research on their website. This includes an article about “Hyperlocal Keyword Research”, i.e. finding keywords to target very small, specific regions in a country, if that’s part of your marketing plan.
  • Majestic – similar to SEMRush this one let’s you see what links your overseas competitors are getting and what bits of their content have the most backlinks from other sources. This could give you an idea which content to prioritise in terms of keywords.
  • Google’s trusty Keyword Planner is also of course available for keyword research in other languages.

When conducting your keyword research in other languages remember, as always, that what you’re aiming to find are keywords with a high search volume and low organic competition.

It’s also important to note that while Google in English will understand search queries with minor spelling mistakes or variations from the norm, this feature does not yet apply to Google in other languages. For that reason remember when conducting your research to look up a keyword both with its accents (if it has them) and without, and then combine these search volumes together. This will ensure absolute accuracy.

Hreflang tags

Okay, so bear with us on this one. Hreflang tags are not the easiest part of a multilingual SEO strategy to explain or implement, and it can all get rather technical. For that reason we will just give you a basic overview here, but there are plenty of very informative full-length guides elsewhere.

Hreflang tags are essentially bits of code that ensure that users find the version of your site in the language that they speak. So if you’ve translated and optimised your website in Spanish then this is the version that you want Spanish users to find on search engines, and not the English one. This improves user experience by preventing people bouncing off your site after not finding it in their native language.

Hreflang tags are, therefore, highly recommended if your site is fully translated into other languages but also if you have regional variations of your site in the same language, so in Australian, British and American English for example.

This is because, as you know, Google doesn’t like duplicated content (it can recognise this even in other languages); in the above example hreflang tags would tell Google that yes the content is the same, but that its purpose is optimised for different audiences.

Site structure

To avoid going over-technical again, we just want to highlight the importance of site structure in a multilingual SEO strategy without going into extensive detail.

How you choose to structure your site is a very important component of multilingual SEO and will really depend on the nature of your content. For example, you could opt for separate domains or separate subdomains, but we typically recommend separate top level domains for foreign language versions of your site. However you choose to structure your site, Google recommends that the different versions of your site should have different URLs. This means that users will easily be able to find the version they need with a URL address that is simple and visually appealing.


Don’t let multilingual SEO seem like a long, difficult process. Once you split it into individual components like we have here it all becomes clearer. The benefits of implementing a good SEO strategy certainly outweigh the initial investment in time and resources.

Translating and optimising in new languages opens up your business potential to overseas customers. This online international expansion could mean potentially a substantial revenue increase.

While it’s certainly wise to seek professional help with your multilingual SEO strategy, there are still very few companies which offer a comprehensive “360” service. This is why we suggest first translating and then optimising your website in two separate stages. That said, international SEO is set to grow in the near future with more and more language providers and digital marketing companies including it in their services, so watch this space.


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