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Multilingual websites in e-commerce: international SEO

When representing a business or selling goods and services online, it helps to continually work on expanding your outreach. High-quality content (i.e., text, multimedia, as well as the products themselves) is, of course, the lifeblood of any online enterprise but a website also requires regular optimization in usability and search engine marketing, as well as a strong marketing strategy from the ground up. It’s also becoming increasingly important to tap into international markets in order to increase the number of potential new customers. Making a multilingual website is a necessary part of reaching out effectively to international users. However, offering different versions of your website in multiple languages is far more than just a translation job.

The challenges presented by creating a multilingual website

The first phase of planning your multilingual web presence is to translate the content. In addition to web content, this also includes translating the entire range of navigation and control elements in a way that is easily understandable to an international audience. Depending on the extent of the changes to be made and your company’s available resources, it usually makes sense to hire additional staff for this purpose. In addition to translating the online content, you should consider extending other areas of your team, such as customer support. Other points to consider early on include developing language-specific marketing campaigns, link building, and establishing appropriate technical structures (i.e., webhosting, domain names, SSL certification, etc.). It’s also important to ensure that you can easily add multilingual content with your chosen CMS.

Once you have these areas covered, you can get to grips with the all-important task of international SEO. This involves the translation and adaptation of the keywords and URLs as well as technical elements such as the development of the appropriate page structure or the correct linking and forwarding.

In Western Europe and the United States, Google is the research tool of choice for various optimization processes. However, if your internalization processes involve extending your online project to Eastern European and Asian markets, you need to consider performing SEO measures for other search engines. For example, In Russia, the most popular search engine platform is Yandex. Meanwhile, internet users in China primarily use Baidu and Japanese users tend to prefer Yahoo. The importance of Amazon’s search engine also increases for SEO in e-commerce.

A multilingual website only works if you have a corresponding, scalable staff structure and a strategy for the handling different languages or countries. There should be no cutting corners here, as this will eventually show progress down and could ultimately cost you your reputation. When internationalizing your web project, it’s crucial to execute the first steps thoroughly and seamlessly; the big plus here is your business could stand to gain a prestigious status in doing so. On the other hand, as mentioned above, if the implementation of your project is weak, it is likely to have a negative effect on both potential and existing customer's confidence. Read on for a summary of what to look out for when implementing SEO for multilingual websites and the most common mistakes made by companies.

Creating a strong domain structure

The first step of international SEO is to find a fitting domain for each international project. It’s necessary to ask yourself here whether it’s appropriate to use a uniform domain across all languages, which domain ending best suits your web project, and how the URL should be structured. The following table shows four possible options with their unique advantages and disadvantages:

URL structure Example Advantage Disadvantage
A country-specific domain (ccTLD) for each market your-ecommerce.co.uk + Unique geographical reference + Server location irrelevant + Simple distinction between different websites - Requires more infrastructure - Sometimes very strict ccTLD guidelines and limited availability - Expensive
Subdomains with generic top level domains (gTLDs) uk.your-ecommerce.shop + Allows different server locations + Simple distinction between different websites - Users may not distinguish between local reference and language reference
Subdirectory containing generic top-level domains (gTLDs) your-ecommerce.shop/uk/ + Low maintenance costs - One single server location - Distinction between websites not so clear
URL parameter your-ecommerce.shop?loc=uk   - URL subdivision unnecessarily complicated

The first three solutions are particularly are relevant for multilingual websites. While URL parameters are technically an option, they are unsuitable for the internationalization of websites. Google explicitly opposes this option as these pages can’t ensure a clean indexing. The most reliable options are therefore the ccTLD variant, the subdomain, or the subdirectory, with each solution having its own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, regional domains are easily recognizable and understandable for both visitors and search engine tools. In addition, with a vast range of ccTLDs, you are not tied to a specific server location. This means you can optimize the availability and loading time of your different language versions by selecting the appropriate infrastructure. However, this domain model is also associated with high costs and comparatively time-consuming administration. It’s also important to bear in mind that each of these websites will have no history or visibility to begin with, making the initial multilingual SEO measures very cumbersome.

Therefore, a generic domain is recommended for getting started with international SEO. The variant with subdirectories has the advantage that all the subpages benefit from the link strength and ranking of the homepage. The downside is that you are bound to a single server location that may have far more trouble with the subdivision of pages. With the combination of a generic top-level domain and subdomain, you have more flexibility, although you will again suffer the problem that newly generated pages will be initially left without indexing.

Summary

The domain structure that best suits your requirements is largely dependent on your financial resources. If you only have a small budget and want to base your international SEO on your home page funds, a generic top-level domain with subdirectories is recommended for different language versions. However, country-specific domains, which are more expensive, provide a more effective long-term solution. In any case, individual URL parameters are to be avoided.

Smart server selection

The server locations of international web projects used to be official factors in search engine ranking. Even though it’s now no longer vital for all language variants to be stored on a local server, in the age of mobile devices, delivering data quickly is more important than ever. It’s especially important for owners of online shops to minimize loading times and prioritize establishing a good server infrastructure in your international SEO measures, in addition to optimizing code. In recent years, content delivery networks have developed into increasingly important tools that have gained popularity thanks to their high-level performance and safety.

Summary

Even if local servers no longer directly affect your ranking in the search engine results pages, you should use regional locations for the infrastructure of your web project, if at all feasible. In some countries, such as China, a local server location is required to host a project with a country-specific domain extension. Today, however, the use of CDNs is also beneficial in many cases.

Comprehensive keyword research

You should think carefully before choosing your domain structure. However, at its core, search engine optimization relies on a solid and refined keyword strategy, which is also essential for multilingual projects. These relevant key terms alert search engine crawlers of your pages and thus improve your ranking. When implementing a multilingual web presence, it’s easy to slip up when it comes to keywords. One common mistake is using the same keyword set as a basis for every language variant.

A word-for-word translation of keywords might prove more valuable and user-friendly than automatically translated content but it also reduces the effectiveness of your international SEO measure for two reasons. For one, it fails to take into account region-specific search engines such as Baidu and, furthermore, it would be a mistake to assume that keywords that are translated literally would be relevant in the target language. Even in regions that use the same language, keywords can differ (e.g., in the UK and USA). This can then pose the risk of high-quality content not being found by search engine users.

Summary

if you only work with your original keyword set, the indexing of translated pages could be hindered considerably. It’s necessary to research specific key terms for each language (and, if relevant, for different search engines) in order to obtain search terms with large search volumes with a high level of relevance for each language.

Sending the right language-specific signals

Search engines pursue the goal of displaying the most relevant webpages for each user. For users from the United States, for example, pages are prioritized that contain local content and can be assigned to the American market. To do this, crawlers use different country-specific signals, including:

  • language style
  • distinctive grammatical characteristics
  • currencies
  • units of measurement

The more you take these elements into account for various languages, the easier it is for search engines to recognize the relevance for the respective market. Google also analyzes contact numbers and addresses, for example, using such information to better evaluate the relevance of each page to the respective audience.

For your multilingual SEO efforts, this means that the clearer the signals are that you send, the easier it is for search engines to categorize your project. However, this is not always successful, even with the best algorithms. It’s possible to use the so-called hreflang attribute in some web search applications, including Google and Yandex. With this, a page refers to another that provides the same content for another language or country. This allows users to be redirected to the appropriate language automatically, giving you three options for integrating the language attribute:

hreflang as a link element in the HTML header: you can activate an automatic redirection in the <head> area using the link element. If your online shop is available in English, Spanish, and French, for example, you would simply add the following lines of code to the header for the different languages:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="http://en.your-ecommerce.shop/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="http://es.your-ecommerce.shop/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="http://fr.your-ecommerce.shop/" />
  • hreflang in HTTP header: if your multilingual website contains files that are not in HTML format, such as PDF files, for example, you can define the hreflang in the ‘Link’ area:
Link: <http://en.your-ecommerce.shop/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="en", <http://es.your-ecommerce.shop/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="es", <http://fr.your-ecommerce.shop/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="fr"
  • hreflang in the sitemap: instead of markups, you can also distinguish between the different language versions in the sitemap:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<url>
<loc>http://en.your-ecommerce.shop</loc>
<xhtml:link
rel="alternate"
hreflang="en"
href=http://www.en.your-ecommerce.shop
/>
<xhtml:link
rel="alternate"
hreflang="es"
href=http://www.es.your-ecommerce.shop
/>
<xhtml:link
rel="alternate"
hreflang="fr"
href=http://www.fr.your-ecommerce.shop
/>
</url>
Note

the hreflang attribute functions independently from the URL so it doesn’t matter here whether you’ve opted for subdomains (as in the examples given here), subdirectories, or local ccTLDs — provided it’s supported by the respective search engine. For Bing, for example, you should use the ‘content-language’ and ‘content’ meta tags.

Multilingual websites and duplicate content

Even if it’s advisable to provide unique content for all languages, of course, it is not always going to be so easy. Duplicate content is especially difficult to avoid when using different markets with the same language such as the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. Fortunately, multilingual online shops do not require you to hide such pages of your online shop and to prevent crawling by using a robots.txt file or by using the "noindex" tag. If you do offer the same content under different URLs, you can use the canonical attribute, which, like hreflang, is embedded as a link element in the HTML header.

If you have created separate URLs for the American, Canadian, and British versions of your website and want to use the exact same content for all three shops, you can extend the HTML header with the following code:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="us" href="http://us.your-ecommerce.shop /" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="ca" href="http://ca.your-ecommerce.shop/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="uk" href="http://uk.your-ecommerce.shop /" />
<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.en.your-ecommerce.shop /" />

Because all three pages have been awarded the same attribute in this way, search engines know not to index them separately. In this case, the ‘original’ the English version of the ecommerce.shop is preferred. All SEO signals, such as external links, then count as if there is only one page.

Summary

when it comes to SEO, the golden rule is to avoid duplicate content, which naturally also applies to multilingual websites. This is not always possible, so the canonical attribute is used in order to indicate to the search engine when the same content is used for several language versions.

Country-specific link building

Off-page optimization is a crucial element of international SEO. High-quality, trustworthy backlinks strongly influence your search engine ranking, making your website look more reliable and trustworthy to potential customers. With country-specific links, you can also provide web search applications with more useful information about which language version is relevant for each user. The aspect of multilingual SEO requires a lot of time and effort, making it one of the more challenging tasks. Despite this, it’s still worth striving for profitable returns from the outset so as not to use expensive external providers later on.

Note

don’t forget to check your link network regularly for erroneous, outdated, or unnecessary links.

Unique concept, page layout, and design

In 2003, eBay entered the Chinese market. However, within just three years, the company was forced to withdraw, leaving the field open to its rival platform, Alibaba’s Taobao. Today, the Asian company makes more sales than eBay and Amazon put together and is also gaining ground in the western world. The limited localization is among the many reasons which led to eBay’s catastrophic failure in the Middle Kingdom. The company’s demise simply came about by attempting to apply the same formula that had enjoyed success in the USA and Europe.

Taobao, on the other hand, had catered to its Chinese audience well, using a range of familiar elements, such as cute icons, flashing animations, and a chat feature that allowed prospective buyers to contact the seller. This shows how important it is to prioritize the user experience when planning a multilingual online shop. Even if you don’t plan to expand into an Asian market, this demonstrates how even small and subtle changes can decide your business’s fate in a particular country.

Summary

to be able to tailor the different language versions of your shop perfectly to suit your visitors’ wishes, you need to identify the quirks and defining characteristics in local behavior. To do this, an analysis of comparable providers is worth its weight in gold. But don’t forget, you must still ensure your brand is recognizable and uniform around the world.

International SEO: the most common mistakes

When running a web project with several language versions, you should definitely explore the various options presented by search engine optimization. However, it’s important that you don’t do this half-heartedly; whether you’re finding keywords, implementing tags, or building links, it’s easy to make mistakes that reduce your web project’s visibility.

Mistake #1: focussing too much on IP-based redirections

Implementing hregflang tags is frequently dismissed as an unnecessary, difficult, and time-consuming task. Many webstore owners would rather guide users to the correct version of the site using redirections based on IP addresses. However, there are many reasons as to why this is not always the best solution; firstly, this makes it very difficult for search engine crawlers to categorize and index your pages. Another problem is that IP detection can be inaccurate and, in some cases, just completely inadequate. This can lead to users finding themselves on irrelevant pages. If the IP address is the only criterion evaluated, all users could end up with the same language variant, regardless of their language preferences and location. Furthermore, in large numbers, redirects can have a negative effect on the page’s loading time.

Mistake #2: incorrect hreflang tags

If hreflang tags are incorrect, search engines might end up misinterpreting them or ignoring them completely. Errors are frequently caused by the use of incorrect country and language codes, which do not correspond to current ISO standards and do not provide the desired result. Sometimes, however, missing hreflang tags, Google Search Console settings, or missing feedback can be the root of the problem. In addition, complications can arise when you give websites with both hreflang attributes and the canonical tag. For more information on this error, check out our guide to the hreflang attribute.

Mistake #3: illogical domain concept

As we‘ve seen above, the choice of domain structure plays an integral role in international SEO. Even with the best planning, your strategy can go wrong if you fail to avoid the most common errors. The combination of a country-specific top-level domain with separate subdirectories for the individual language versions is inherently contradictory. The geographical orientation is clearly defined by the ccTLD (Google classifies it in the Search Console automatically), so it is only weakened by the subdirectories. This results in the subpages rarely appearing among relevant search results.

Mistake #4: poorly implemented links

Aspects such as quality, functionality, and usefulness are often ignored in link building — particularly in new projects. And since link building is even more complex in multilingual websites than in other websites, even seasoned SEO experts sometimes struggle to get it all right.

For example, one common mistake is that an external link leads to the main domain rather than a specific language or country domain. Of course, this impacts negatively on your visitors and also decreases the link potential of the alternative URL. Other frequent problems include links that are outdated or faulty, as well as too many internal links.

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