What is multilingual SEO?

If your online business is doing well in your country, you might consider expanding to international markets. To be successful in new markets requires some extra investments in SEO though. You’d better start thinking about multilingual SEO, if you want to be sure your website will be found and used well in other countries! Here, I’ll explain what multilingual SEO is, why it’s important and which elements it consists of.

What is multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO deals with offering optimized content for multiple languages or multiple locations. Let’s explain this with an example. Imagine you have an online shop: you sell WordPress plugins in many countries. To increase your sales in Germany, you’ve decided to translate your content into German and create a German site. Now, you have two variations of the same page: an English and German version. Pretty straight-forward, you’d say? Well, there’s more.

Especially if you want to target countries with similar languages or countries where multiple languages are used, this will pose some challenges. Let’s explore the situation displayed in the image below. This is a simplified example; there are obviously many more potential audiences than we’ve included, like British users.

multilingual SEO

Multilingual SEO scenario: targeting audiences with German and English content

Obviously, you want people who search in German to be directed to the German site. Maybe you even want to have a specific site for German speakers in Switzerland. It would be even better to have a French alternative for speakers of French in Switzerland as well, of course. Let’s assume for now that you don’t have the required resources for that, though. In that case, it’s probably best to send users from Switzerland who speak French to the English site. On top of that, you need to make sure that you send all other users to your English site, as they are more likely to speak English than German. In a scenario like this, you need to set up and implement a multilingual SEO strategy.

Because it’s not easy to get the right website ranking in the right market we decided to set up a Multilingual SEO training! In this course we’ll guide you step by step through all important multilingual SEO elements. Don’t miss it!

Why is multilingual SEO a thing?

You want your website to be found with Google. In a standard SEO strategy, you optimize your content for one language: the language your website is written in.  Sometimes, however, you want to target audiences in multiple countries and regions. These audiences are probably similar, but there are always differences. This presents you with an opportunity. By targeting your audiences specifically, it is easier to address their needs. One of these differences is the language they speak. When you make your site available in several languages and target specific regions, you achieve two things:

  • You expand your potential audience;
  • You improve your chances of ranking for a specific region and in several languages.

Let’s revisit the example we discussed before in light of this. By making a German variation of your original English site, you’ve made it possible for users searching in German to find your product. In the end, multilingual SEO is all about addressing the needs of your users.

It all sounds rather clear-cut, but multilingual SEO can be hard. A lot can go wrong, and a bad multilingual implementation can hurt your rankings. This means that you need to know what you’re doing.

One of the biggest risks of multilingual SEO is duplicate content. If you present very similar content on your website on multiple pages, Google won’t know which content to show in the search engines. Duplicate pages compete with each other, so the individual rankings of the pages will go down. You can avoid this particular issue with hreflang, an element of your multilingual SEO strategy. But there’s more to multilingual SEO. Let’s discuss the main aspects below.

Multilingual SEO: content, domains and hreflang

Content for international sites

Content is a very important aspect of your multilingual SEO strategy. If you want to write content in different languages, you’ll need to adapt existing content or create new content. Adapting your content while maintaining good SEO can be a challenge.

Your content strategy should always start with keyword research for the region and language you’re targeting. You can’t just translate your keywords using Google Translate. You’ll have to get inside the heads of your new audience. You need to know which words they are using. Same words can have different meanings in languages used in multiple countries, as my colleague Jesse explained before.

Translating content is a challenge as well. Take into account the cultural differences that exist between countries. Otherwise, your copy won’t be appealing to your new audience. If possible, you should have native speakers translate or at least check your translated content to prevent your from making awkward mistakes. If you want a complete list of what to consider when translating content read Marieke’s post on how to create SEO-friendly copy in a foreign language.

Domain structure for international sites

To successfully target your audiences, you need to consider which pages you want them to land on. There are several options as to what domain structure you’re going to use. Do you need to get the ccTLD (country code Top Level Domain) like example.de for Germany? Or could you create subdirectories for countries like example.com/de? Or, will you use a subdomain like de.example.com? And what about countries where multiple languages are spoken? How do you set up a domain structure for those countries?

There’s a lot you have to consider to take these decisions. This is where domain authority, but also the size of your business and marketing capacities in your target countries come into play. If you want to really dive into this, you should check out our Multilingual SEO training, that we’ll launch February 7!


Hreflang is the technical implementation you’ll need to put in place if you’re offering your content in multiple languages. Simply put, you’ll tell Google which result to show to whom in the search engines. It’s not as easy as it might sound though and this is something that often goes wrong, even on the big sites. Joost wrote an extensive post on how to implement hreflang the right way.

International ambitions? Get your multilingual SEO right!

Multilingual SEO focuses on optimizing content for different languages for the search engines. With a proper multilingual SEO strategy, people in different countries will be able to find your website for their market, in their native language. Multilingual SEO can be hard though and you need to know what you’re doing. It touches on a lot of different aspects of website optimization. If you really want to get it right, take our Multilingual SEO training!

Read more: How to create SEO friendly copy in a foreign language »

18 Responses to What is multilingual SEO?

  1. A das
    A das  • 3 years ago

    Thanks for such a great content.
    you have such a really nice information here.

  2. Rishikesh Prasad
    Rishikesh Prasad  • 3 years ago

    wow great post, I really like it, I just want to thank you for such a good arrangement

  3. Sanjay Mishra
    Sanjay Mishra  • 3 years ago

    I read your post and I really like it, Thanks for sharing.useful information.

  4. StablX
    StablX  • 3 years ago

    Thank you for a proper insight on multilingual SEO Willemien, I am willing to apply the same on our business site.

  5. nexvan
    nexvan  • 3 years ago

    Good article, thank you

  6. Delhi Pro
    Delhi Pro  • 3 years ago

    Good job. I may try to break throuht the wall of language to the open world for my website.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Visaginietis
    Visaginietis  • 3 years ago

    I have few blogs and websites directed to multilingual audience, but faced problems with optimization.
    As I noticed Google likes when you do backlinks on the websites with the same language with yours, not only the same content/category. But when you have backlinks on different languages to the same link (it could be main site or category) you may face some lose of the positions.
    I may be wrong but my experience shows that for google – one site – one language is more friendly than not.

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Thanks for your addition. I suppose it makes sense that Google sees you as a more reliable and relevant for a certain country or language when you’re linked by / linking to content in the same language.

  8. David Richard
    David Richard  • 3 years ago

    Great Article Multi language SEO help to rank your website more than one countries.

  9. Sam Betts
    Sam Betts  • 3 years ago

    How would you recommend structuring a site for multiple countries, but they are all english speaking, for example a global business which would focus on Australia, UK and US?

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Hi Sam, Good question. It mainly depends on the amount of resources you have in those countries and the authority of your domain at the moment. If your current domain get lots of traffic and you don’t have a lot of resources in those countries, we’d recommend to create subdirectories, like .com/au or .com/uk. If you have the resources to build domain authority in those countries, you could best start using .co.uk or .au. We do recommend you to get our Multilingual SEO training, to get insights in all pros and cons. And, in your case, correct implementation of hreflang will also be very important to prevent duplicate content!

  10. S Roy
    S Roy  • 3 years ago

    Great article! This really hit home for me Thank you so much.

  11. Dominic
    Dominic  • 3 years ago

    Thanks for your article, good job :)

  12. kapil heera
    kapil heera  • 3 years ago

    hey thanks for the insight. Moving to international market will be really benefitial for me. your post has really helped me a lot for the better understanding of multilingual websites and working. thank you

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Thanks, Kapil!

  13. SSSS Immigration
    SSSS Immigration  • 3 years ago

    There is a lot of stuff that I need to try as soon as possible.

  14. Adams
    Adams  • 3 years ago

    Thank you YOAST for this clarification. Now I understand better the challenges of targetting different countries and languages. Thanks again for the insights.

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Hi Adams, Happy you appreciate the article!