Update: Multilingual Google Search Engine Optimization Best Practices

Multilingual websites demand a particular search engine optimization strategy to perform correctly. In this article we cover important issues regarding multilingual sites such as multilingual URL structure, using webmaster tools for geotargeting, “lang” attributes, user location detection and dealing with translation services.

Multilingual URL Structure

There are really four different ways to deal with a URL structure of a multilingual websites. Each option has its pros and cons. Keep in mind we are evaluating this decision from an SEO perspective.  Information in this section references this post from Google.

Option 1: ccTLDs
eg: example.de, example.fr

This option entails having separate domains with a location extension. In this case, you actually have separate websites.

Multilingual Search Engine Optimization
Multilingual Search Engine Optimization

pros (+)
– clear geotargeting
– server location is irrelevant
– easy separation of sites
– legal requirements (sometimes)

cons (-)
– expensive (+ availability)
– more infrastructure
– ccTLD requirements (sometimes)

Option 2: Subdomains with gTLDs
eg: de.site.com, fr.site.com, etc.
In this option you are simply placing each language on a subdomain. This is one of the most popular methods. It still associates the content with the parent website, but it gives it just enough distance to target it correctly in webmaster tools and distinguish it from the rest of the site.

pros (+)
– easy to set up
– can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
– allows different server locations
– easy separation of sites

cons (-)
– users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone (is “de” the language or country?)

Option 3: Subdirectories with gTLDs
eg: site.com/de/, site.com/fr/, etc.

This is the most popular method and in my opinion the cleanest way to deal with geotargeting, although, subdomains are a close second. This is a great option because the content is all hosted in the same area and associated with the parent website seamlessly.

pros (+)
– easy to set up
– can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
– low maintenance (same host)

cons (-)
– users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
– single server location
– separation of sites harder

Option 4: URL parameters
eg: site.com?loc=de, ?country=france, etc.

This is not a recommended method. The URL structure is sloppy and it will not translate well to SEO.

pros (+)
(not recommended)

cons (-)
– segmentation based on the URL is difficult
– users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
– geotargeting in Webmaster Tools is not possible

It is a best case scenario to have a directory structure or a domain structure for your multilingual SEO campaign. As such, content should be offered in each language. Google provides this example for a URL that would be available in both French and English.


(Please note the /en/ directory is not necessary if the content for English is going to live on the main domain).

It might look something like this:


Now, if we were to look at this same scenario from a subdomain perspective it would look something like this.

It might look something like this:


(Please note the en subdomain is not necessary if the content for English is going to live on the main domain).

There is also the option for top level domains or:

  • http://example.fr

Webmaster Tools’ Manual Geotargeting for gTLDs

Webmaster Tools’ gives you the ability to specify specific themes of content for your website based on the site, domain or directory. You can find out more information on the geotargeting aspect in this blog post and in the Help Center. Google offers the following information on this topic.

“With region tags from geotargeting being shown in search results, this method is also very clear to users. Please keep in mind that it generally does not make sense to set a geographic target if the same pages on your site target more than a single country (say, all German-speaking countries) — just write in that language and do not use the geotargeting setting.”

rel=”alternate” hreflang link element

First, it is important to point out that Google does not use locational meta tags (like “geo.position” or “distribution”) or HTML attributes for geotargeting because they feel they are not reliable. While that is the case, they do honor the rel=”alternate” hreflang link element. This element lets you specify a language and optionally a country. In practice it looks something like this:

  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”http://www.example.com/page.html” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”http://en-gb.example.com/page.html” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”http://en-us.example.com/page.html” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”http://de.example.com/seite.html” />

This markup tells Google that these pages are different versions of each other. Along with this, Google also recommends hyperlinking to the different language version on the actual webpage. For example, you would add these links to you French and Spanish versions.

<a href=”http://example.mx” title=” View in Spanish”> View in Spanish</a>

Multilingual Sitemaps

Google is also now asking that you add this information to sitemaps. You can find the info on this here (Multilingual Sitemap Markup for Google).

User Location Detection

While there is some debate on how this strategy affects your site from an SEO perspective, many websites choose to direct users to an area on the website based on their location. This can be done by uploading a php file to your website that will automatically detect an IP address and serve geo-located content.

Translation Services and Multilingual Websites

Translation services can be helpful if you do not have the means to write unique content for different language versions of the site. However, Google recommends the following information on this.

“Use robots.txt to block search engines from crawling automatically translated pages on your site. Automated translations don’t always make sense and could be viewed as spam. More importantly, a poor or artificial-sounding translation can harm your site’s perception.”

Action Items

  1. Select a recommended multilingual URL structure
  2. Specify webmaster tools ONLY if you are targeting a location. NOT if you are targeting only a language.
  3. Configure the rel=”alternate” hreflang link element
  4. Create a multilingual sitemap
  5. Configure user location detection and redirection. Or configure your site in a way so that users can easily navigate to the correct section.
  6. Block translated pages with robots.txt or another method

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