Sean Butcher

How to structure your website for international SEO

SEO

Many of the websites that we work on here at Torpedo are required to operate in various countries around the world. This means they need to be written in different languages, or use regional language variations to ensure they are giving users in each of these countries an optimal experience.

Google is generally pretty good at understanding language variations, however, you definitely shouldn’t assume that the search engine will figure everything out for themselves.

Therefore, steps need to be put in place to ensure that users in each of the countries you operate in are seeing content in the right language, and that you are minimising the risk of duplicating your content across the web.

 

The difference between multi-lingual and multi-regional websites

First of all it’s important to establish the differences between these international variations, so you can understand which one is relevant to you.

Multi-lingual websites

This is where there are pages of content on the website which are written in completely different languages. For example, there may be pages written in English, and other pages written in German.

Multi-regional websites

This is where the website is in one main language (e.g. English), but certain elements will need to be “regionalised” to help users in different countries understand the terminology being used.

For example, users in the UK and the US will both speak English, but some words may be spelt differently (e.g. “colour” and “color”), currency use is different (pounds – £ and dollars – $) and the way certain things are named or described can vary in each country (e.g. “football” and “soccer”).

Your website may need to deal with one or the other, though in reality you may find that you need to tackle both mutli-lingual and multi-regional setups when building your website.

Domain and URL structure options

There are multiple options if you need to set up a website to operate internationally, all of which come with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages.

The three main options are listed below. Any other alternatives to the below are not usually recommended.

ccTLDs (Country-Code Top Level Domains)

This can include website.co.uk, website.fr, website.de etc.

Advantages include:

  • It’s clear which country the website is targeting
  • It’s often easier for teams in each country to have access to their own website
  • There’s no concerns over server location

Disadvantages include:

  • It can be expensive to purchase multiple domains
  • The domains may not be available
  • If managed centrally, changes may need to made to each website, which can be time-consuming
  • Any authority acquired will be split across multiple websites, making it harder for each website to rank for certain keywords

In action: eBay use a ccTLD for each of the countries that it operates in.

eBay UK Homepage

eBay France Homepage

eBay Germany Homepage

gTLDs (Generic Top Level Domains) with country/language subdomains

This can include en.website.com, fr.website.com, de.website.com etc.

Advantages include:

  • You can use the geo-targeting feature in Google’s Search Console (Webmaster Tools)
  • It’s relatively easy to implement
  • Any work you do to increase authority will still benefit the overall power of the domain

Disadvantages include:

  • Users may not recognise the geo-targeting attempt from the sub-domain (confusion between country or language)
  • There are potential issues in countries which speak multiple language (e.g. Canada and Belgium)

In action: Wikipedia use a subdomain structure to separate content by language.

Wikipedia Homepage - English
 Wikipedia Homepage - French

gTLDs (Generic Top Level Domains) with country/language sub-directories

This can include website.com/en/, website.com/fr/, website.com/de/ etc.

Advantages include:

  • You can use the geo-targeting feature in Google’s Search Console (Webmaster Tools)
  • It’s relatively easy to implement
  • There is lower maintenance with one website and one host
  • Any work you do to increase authority will still benefit the overall power of the domain

Disadvantages include:

  • The website server is based in one location (though this has reduced in importance with geo-targeting)
  • The separation of each country’s website/area is less clear to users

In action: The Apple website uses a sub-directory set up to good effect.

Apple UK Homepage

Apple DE Homepage

Geo-targeting subdomains and subfolders in Google Search Console

Google’s Search Console allows you to specify a target country for subdomains (e.g. de.website.com), as well as sub-directories (e.g. website.com/de/).

To do this, a new Property will need to be added to the Search Console account which specifies the area of the website in which a particular country’s pages sit.

Follow these instructions to add a new Property:

  • On the Search Console Dashboard, click the red “Add a Property” button

Add a Property Button in Search Console

  • Then, type the URL of the site/portion of the site for which you want the data.
  • The URL should be specified exactly how it appears in the browser bar, and should include the final / mark. For example, if wanting to track the German section of a sub-directory set- up, adding www.website.com/de/ will track that page and all-sub-pages within that folder

Adding a New Property URL in Search Console

  • Click “Continue” to open the site verification page
  • Select the most appropriate verification method for you, e.g. through using your Google Analytics account, or adding a meta tag to your code

Google Analytics verification methods

  • It’s important to add Properties for both http and https (if running an SSL), as well as the www. and non-www. variations
  • You should also ensure that a top-level Property is set up, i.e. www.website.com (without any subdomain/sub-folder extensions) to track all data in one place

Once you have set up the country variations in Search Console, you can then use the International Targeting feature to determine which country that part of the website should be served to.

To do this:

  • Expand the ‘Search Traffic’ menu on the left-hand side of your Search Console Dashboard
  • Select ‘International Targeting’ from the drop-down
  • On the ‘Country’ tab, tick the box that says ‘Target users in:” and then use the drop-down box to select the desired country

International Targeting in Search Console

Any limitations?

This feature is available for subdomains and subfolders of gTLDs only. Generally, having a ccTLD is enough to inform Google which country the website should be targeted to, therefore you will not usually be given the option to specify the country in Search Console when you have a .co.uk or a .de domain, for example.

It’s important to note that Search Console geo-targeting isn’t a guaranteed way to appear in front of the right country audience in Google, both in terms of a subdomain or a subdirectory setup. In fact, you are not always guaranteed to automatically appear in the right country, even if you have a ccTLD. This may particularly be the case if, for example, you have a far more authoritative .com version of your website.

As well as this, geo-targeting is only limited to country, NOT language, which can cause a couple of issues:

  • Users in countries with multiple languages (e.g. Canada) could be served content in the wrong language for them, resulting in a poor user experience
  • You could limit the reach of your content by specifying it to one country, when the language could (if it doesn’t need to worry about regional variations) be used in multiple countries. For example, your French website could potentially be used by people in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and numerous African nations where French is the official language.

Because of this, further steps can and should be taken to specify the country and language targeting per webpage across your multi-language and multi-regional websites.

 

Why and how to implement HREFLANG tags

The HREFLANG annotation helps Google identify the URLs that should be shown to visitors in its search results, based on their language and geographic location.

They are useful when you have multiple versions of the same content that has been translated into different languages, or adjusted with regional variations to target users in specific regions. This means they are ideal for those who have to combine multi-lingual and multi-regional website strategies.

HREFLANG tags should be included in the HTML <head> section of the webpage, though they can also be listed in the website’s XML sitemap. They should specify the language AND target country of that page, as well as list all other language/regional variations of that same page.

When it comes to determining which language and country codes to use in your HREFLANG tags, you should follow the two-letter ISO 639-1 list for languages, and the ISO 3166 list for country codes.

Here is an example of how they could appear in a gTLD setup:

  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/en-GB/sub-page/ hreflang=“en-gb” /> (English speakers in Great Britain)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/de/sub-page/ hreflang=“de-de” /> (German speakers in Germany)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/fr-CA/sub-page/ hreflang=“fr-ca” /> (French speakers in Canada)

Here is an example of how they could appear in a ccTLD setup:

  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.co.uk/sub-page/ hreflang=“en-gb” /> (English speakers in Great Britain)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.fr/sub-page/ hreflang=“fr-fr” /> (French speakers in France)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.ca/sub-page/ hreflang=“en-ca” /> (English speakers in Canada)

If you need help creating tags for your website there’s a brilliant HREFLANG tag generator tool, created by Aleyda Solis, which can be found here.

 

Using the X-Default HREFLANG attribute

There may be situations where you need some webpages to target certain languages or countries, but you’ll also have webpages which you’ll want to ensure can be seen by everyone else across the globe.

In this situation the “X-Default” markup should be used. This informs Google that there is a “default” version of the page; i.e. a page that can be displayed to anyone, rather than a country/language-specific version.

Here is an example of this could appear in a gTLD setup:

  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/sub-page/ hreflang=“x- default” /> (the default version served to users across the world)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/de/sub-page/ hreflang=“de-de” /> (targeted specifically to German speakers in Germany)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/fr-CA/sub-page/ hreflang=“fr-ca” /> (targeted specifically to French speakers in Canada)

Here is an example of this could appear in a ccTLD setup:

  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.com/sub-page/ hreflang=“x- default” /> (the default version served to users across the world)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.co.uk/sub-page/ hreflang=“en-gb” /> (targeted specifically to English speakers in Great Britain)
  • <link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.website.fr/sub-page/ hreflang=“fr-fr” /> (targeted specifically to French speakers in France)

 

Monitoring HREFLANG tags

Once you have implemented HREFLANG tags to your website, you can monitor whether they are being picked up by Google, again through the International Targeting feature in Search Console.

 

HREFLANG tag checker - Search Console

On the Language tab, you can see how many HREFLANG tags Google has crawled on your website, as well as whether any are being reported as an error. Errors can occur when, for example, the wrong country code has been used, or the URL of an alternative language version of the page has not been entered correctly.

It’s really important to keep an eye on this, as any errors can result in the wrong version being shown to users

 

Bing and the meta language tag

Whilst HREFLANG tags will please Google, Bing generally uses the meta language tag to determine which country the webpage should be served to.

For this reason, a meta language tag should also be added to the <head> section of each webpage which requires it.

Here is how the meta language tag is written (using the same ISO language and country codes as with HREFLANG tags):

  • <meta http-equiv=“content-language” content=“en-gb”> (English for UK visitors)
  • <meta http-equiv=“content-language” content=“en-us”> (English for US visitors)
  • <meta http-equiv=“content-language” content=“en-ca”> (English for Canadian visitors)

 

Other considerations

A couple of other things to consider when working with an international website include:

Update all content to correct language

Along with any “behind the scenes” tagging (i.e. things that users won’t see) and making updates in Search Console, make sure that all content elements reflect the native language or regional dialect of the country you are targeting in order to provide the best user experience possible.

This includes the meta title and description, image ALT tags, headings and of course, all body copy.

Promoting the website

Finally, consider the off-site promotion that you will carry out for the website (or websites). It’s more effective to have external backlinks and mentions from other websites located in the same country/region than from elsewhere in the world.

For example, if you are looking to increase the authority of your French pages, try to attract links from other French websites and sources specifically.

 

To summarise

Structuring and optimising your website for international SEO can be a complex and long task. However, once you have implemented the steps above, the rewards can be well-worth the effort.

Whilst adding elements like HREFLANG tags aren’t necessarily going to provide a huge boost to your traffic, it can ensure that users in certain countries are seeing your content in the right language, and in the regional variation most relevant to them. This provides a far greater user experience for your visitors, which as we know, can result in improved rankings for your website.

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