Deciding to take the leap into international SEO can be a tall order. While many of the mainstream SEO best practices apply, there are extra elements to be considered. International SEO involves geotargeting and optimizing your website to attract traffic from multiple countries and regions.
First, you'll need to decide whether your site will be completely internationalized (targeting both different countries and different languages) or if it will only target regions or only languages. With totally internationalized sites, you need to follow some specific protocol to ensure your site(s) are fully optimized for each of your audiences.
We'll explore the many elements for total internationalization in this article, including regional and language considerations.
URL Structure for Regional Isolation of Content
There are several considerations when it comes to URL structure for the regional isolation of content. The goal here is to avoid mixed signals, wrong signals, or undiscovered signals causing Google to not understand your attempt at international SEO. This negatively impacts international rankings, but could result in devaluations and penalties from apparent duplicate content as a result of these misunderstandings.
There are several ways to use URL structure to signal to search engines what content is intended for whom, though best practice is to use all of them. Let's look at key questions and how to solve for them with URL structure for regional isolation.
URL Structure for International Sites
There are multiple options when it comes to URL structures for targeting specific countries. Webmasters can choose between a country code top-level domain (ccTLD), a subdirectory, a subdomain, a gTLD with language parameters, or a region/country-specific entirely separate domain name. It's helpful to understand each of these options.
Country code top-level domain (ccTLD) -- These use two-letter codes to signal to search engines (and users) the country, region, or territory in which a website is registered. In some instances, a ccTLD code overlaps with another use, and in these cases, Google treats them as generic ( .ly denotes a Libyan site but is also commonly used for site's like bit.ly).
- Site.es (Spanish)
- Site.fr (French)
- Site.ly (Libya)
Subdomain -- With subdomains, content for international audiences is stored on a third-level domain like es.site.com. In many cases, this can be easier than setting up an entirely new ccTLD. With subdomains, you can use Google Search Console geotargeting. You also have the option to use different server locations to optimize by region.
Subdirectory -- Subdirectories allow international content to live in a certain subdirectory/subfolder of a root domain. As with subdomains, you can use Google Search Console for geotargeting, however, subdirectories only allow for a single server location, so the separation of sites gets a little stickier.
Considerations for Choosing a URL Structure
Beyond the simple pros and cons listed above, there are several other considerations you should take into account when choosing a URL structure for international SEO.
For example, if your goal is to simply target multiple regions, the URL structure guidance above may be enough. However, if you are targeting multiple languages and multiple regions (and maybe multiple languages within multiple regions - yikes), you need to take additional steps to properly isolate your content and send the correct signals to users and to Google (and other search engines).
For example, if our goal is to reach global Spanish-speaking users, it makes the most sense to use a site.com/es/ section of the site at this time. On the other hand, if we want to target significant audiences in Spain and Peru, site.es and site.pr are the correct answer.
Since URL structure is just part of the equation, let's dive into the other part of it with language signals for international SEO.
Language Signals for International SEO
Language Signals are integral to successful international SEO. There are a variety of language signals that above all, strengthen an site's claim to providing significant value to an international audience.
Let's look at a few of these now.
When serving visitors from around the world with content translated or targeted to users in a certain region, it's important to include the rel="alternate" hreflang="x" attributes on-page or in XML sitemaps so Google serves the correct language or regional URL in Search results.
Google views the tag as an indication from website owners that specific pages have copy in another language. The tags provide information about translated versions of each page and the corresponding language. These tags may also be used to distinguish between regional dialects (e.g. British English vs. American English).
Limits to hreflang
It's important to understand that, while hreflang offers additional signals to Google to serve the correct language, it does have its limits. Namely:
Hreflang does not replace geo-ranking factors. Your #1 rank for "purple shirts" in the U.S. does not automatically translate to a #1 ranking for your "purple shirts page" in Spain.
Hreflang does not fix duplicate content issues. If you have duplicate content on pages targeting the same keywords, hreflang does not enable the right version to rank automatically. Duplicate content is duplicate content and Google will determine which page ranks, regardless of hreflang. Per general SEO rules, the page version that holds the most authority will likely rank.
In short, hreflang is meant for one primary purpose: to help the right country/language version of your pages appear in the corresponding versions of google/search engines.
Other Language Signals for International SEO
It's important to confirm that languages are defined correctly using the meta language tag. It's another simple signal that search engines should pick up on. Never give Google too much credit. Sample:
<meta name="language" content="Spanish">
If your website contains pages in different languages, you'll want to add index pages that each contain the appropriate language tags, so you can adjust the language to a specific country.
<meta name="language" content="Spanish">
<meta name="language" content="English">
<meta name="language" content="English" />
Best practice is to use the appropriate language meta tag and the other meta tags in your index.htm or index.html pages as well as on all pages of your website. Each meta tag should be relevant and unique for each page.
Also be sure to correctly use the HTML doctype tag. This should be clear in the first 1-2 lines of the page after you use "View Source" in your browser. It should look something like this for British English:
An important thing to note is that the value of the content attribute can be a comma-separated list of language tags. For example, the example below denotes the primary languages to be German, French, and Spanish:
Example: <meta http-equiv="Content-Language" content="de, fr, es">
This is not ideal as it designates the "official" language to actually be three different languages - and it gives equal weight to all three. What this tells us is that the content has not been sufficiently translated. If it was, we would only be able to specify one language at a time. Rather, this meta element is meant to convey the language of the target audiences as a whole.
HTTP Header Language
Another option to indicate to Google that you have an x-language equivalent of your English page is to include language in the HTTP header. This is especially helpful if you publish non-HTML files like PDFs. It should look something like:
Link: <http://x.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="x"
If you need to specify more than one hreflang value in a Link HTTP header, be sure to separate the values with commas:
Link: <http://x.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="x",<http://de.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="de"
Similarly to the meta data, the value of the HTTP header can be a comma-separated list of language tags used to denote information about the intended audience, as a whole, for the document/content. Mainstream browsers recognize the value declared in the HTTP header and use that information to set the default language of the text in the page.
With HTML5, the specification says that if there is no lang attribute on the html tag, and if there if the http-equiv attribute set to Content-Language has no meta information, and if there is only one language tag in the HTTP header declaration, then the browser can use that information to take a guess at/assume the default language of the text in the page.
International SEO Technology Best Practices
There are many different regional and language signals, tips, tricks, and technologies to employ when trying to send a clear message to search engines/users about the appropriate region and language targets of your site and pages. The elements and combinations can be complex, but there are some tried and true best practices you can implement to be sure your site is optimized for an international audience.
Search Console Settings
It's important to set a country target in your search console settings. Go to the International Targeting report and click the "Country" tab. Choose your country target by checking the geographic target checkbox. Alternatively, if you don't want to target a specific country or region, you can select "unlisted" in the drop-down menu.
Remember, this setting only pertains to geographic data and may not make sense in a lot of cases. So if you own an ice cream shop in Canada that has a French website, you won't want to set France as your geographic target. People in France are probably not going to visit your shop in Canada. Alternatively, if you're a Canadian-based ecommerce merchant that sells widgets on a French website, you probably do not want to restrict your country either. You may ship your goods to multiple French-speaking countries and regions.
Google is still able to surmise about your location if you don't enter any geographic information in Search Console. Google can look to your site's country domain (e.g. .fr or .ca) or other signals like IP address, Google My Business information, and site and link information on pages of your website.
Enable toggling between internal versions of the site in the header/ or footer navigation
This is a simple, obvious way for users to navigate to their desired regional experience and an ideal solution for optimized international UX. It also aids in distributing link authority evenly.
Ensure servers are local to target region
Server location is no longer as impactful as it once was when it comes to international SEO and multiregional search. Google states, " "Server location (through the IP address of the server) is frequently near your users. However, some websites use distributed content delivery networks (CDNs) or are hosted in a country with better web server infrastructure; so, we try not to rely on the server location alone."
That said, it is best to ensure domains are hosted using regional server IPs as an additional signal to Google and to increase performance for local users.
Setting up the correct regional and language signals can make a significant impact on your international SEO efforts. It aids Google in pulling the correct information in for international visitors, making you more findable and providing a better user experience for your international audience. Language isolation is just one piece of a complex puzzle. For more information about optimizing International SEO, download the ebook.