International Search Engine Optimization

by Translation Guy on June 6, 2012

Localization on the Web is usually an afterthought.

Web content translation and localizers are generally the tail of the workflow dog, which means we don’t get to do too much wagging when it comes to localization.  Webmasters are often left to their own monolingual devices, which can increase the cost of translation by orders of magnitude.

This because in most cases, web translation costs are measured incorrectly. The value of a translation is not in the cost per line item in a project budget, but in cost per page view and as a percentage of conversion revenue. Traffic is king. The value of a translation that turns up on page 8 of a Google search is vanishingly small when compared to a translation that pops up in the first three results of a Google search. First page above the fold is the ROI honeypot for business on the Web, in translation or out.

Adam Wooten of Deseret News has pulled together a list of advice from Google on how best to get there. The Deseret did it in 10 pages, but since I don’t sell ad space, I’ll summarize in one.

1.     Make language versions easy to find. “Keep the content for each language on separate URLs,” explains Google’s main support page for multi-regional and multilingual sites. “Don’t use cookies to show translated versions of the page. Consider cross-linking each language version of a page. That way, a French user who lands on the German version of your page can get to the right language version with a single click.”

2.     Beware of automatic redirection. “Avoid automatic redirection based on the user’s perceived language,” explains the same Google support page for multi-regional and multilingual sites “These redirections could prevent users (and search engines) from viewing all the versions of your site.”

3.     Beware of machine translation. “Automated translations don’t always make sense and could be viewed as spam,” explains a Google support page. “More importantly, a poor or artificial-sounding translation can harm your site’s perception.” (Ed: Doh!)

4.     Pick the URL structure carefully. There are three options: ccTLD (example.language), subdomain (language.example) or subdirectory ( Google Web trends analyst John Mueller lays out the pros and cons of each common URL structure in a concise table on the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog.

5.     Server location affects rankings. Google watches IP addresses and local servers earn home game advantages in ranking, according to Matt Cutts.

6.     Pick a geographic target for your site. If your website uses a generic top-level domain like .com or .net instead of a ccTLD that obviously targets a specific country, you can still indicate your target market to Google via thegeotargeting tool in Webmaster Tools.

7.     Some ccTLDs are geotargetable too. Although this geotargeting tool does not work for most ccTLDs, Matt Cutts explains via YouTube that it does work for ccTLDs like .co and .me domains that are popularly used for international markets as if they were actually gTLDS.

8.     Target one website to multiple locations. “If you can get a .fr and a .de and a .uk, that’s fantastic,” says Matt Cutts via YouTube. “But if you only have the one domain and you want to geotarget it, you can have, for example, subdomains or subdirectories. Make sure that they are added (to Google Webmaster Tools) as separate sites and then you can (geotarget) each of those individual parts of your site to specific countries.”

9.     Avoid duplicate content penalties for similar international content. “Spammers at least tend to stick to one TLD,” explains Matt Cutts via another YouTube video. “If you see the same content on a small number of country TLDs, that tends to be a real business, not necessarily someone trying to trick the search engines.”

10.     Geotargeting can be a miss. “If you want to reach all speakers of a particular language around the world, you probably don’t want to limit yourself to a specific geographic location, explain Charlene Perez and Juliane Stiller of Google’s search quality team. “This is known as language targeting, and in this case, you don’t want to use the geographic target tool.”

Special thanks to Adam for summarizing this useful info and for for basically writing today’s post. Check out the source for more useful info. Adam always does a great job in helping people outside the business to understand the inside of the business, and his work is always interesting so check him out.

Just one thing, though. If you’ve got a Website translation project coming up, call me first.


  1. Kelly Cox says:

    Kudos for this guide. I’ve been having difficulties to figure out search engine optimization and this blog post really will help. I really hope to read through a lot more like it. Many thanks.

  2. Cynthia says:

    So, on balance would you reccommend geotargeting or not?

    • Ken says:

      I’m language-driven. I don’t care where my clients come from.

  3. Thanks for this, great work.

  4. I agree with Kelly, I hope to see more of this type of content in the future, massively helpful.

  5. I always stay away from machine translation, there is no nuance to it and you end up with something that rarely makes a whole lot of sense.

  6. Nina says:

    What URL structure works best? Is there one that has a clear advantage?

    • Ken says:

      More details in the accompanying link, Nina.

  7. Certainly a very helpful piece, thanks for putting it together, answered quite a few of my questions and some I didn’t even know i had.

  8. So you can geotarget multiple countries with one site?

  9. J. Feenstra says:

    What is the cost/benefit to seperate URLs? As doing that requires additional investment to web design and maintenence, does it significantly drive more traffic to warrent the investment?

    • Ken says:

      Well you’ve got a number on the I. So once you know the R you’ll be all set.

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