Website translation & SEO Tips

Feb 10, 2016 · 6 min read
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Translated websites are a great way to attract new clients from around the globe. As website translation is becoming a commodity, it’s important to know how to effectively implement it within an existing, search engine optimized environment.

What kind of website will benefit from these tips?

There are three types of localized websites that should be optimized this way.

Template websites with user-generated content. These include forums, social media, advertising boards etc. They have their buttons, system messages, headers and footers translated, although the main content and discussions are not subject to translation.

Varying single-language content websites and partially localized pages. Americans and the British use the same language, though differently. To assure that there is no content duplication (which by itself is a major problem for SEO Managers), tricks listed here come to the rescue.

Fully translated websites. These are immersive, all-in native language user experiences. When executed properly, they should always be displayed to users in their native tongue, even in search results!

How Google displays translated websites in search results?

A typical, human translated website will either automatically identify the visitor’s language and change it automatically, or contain a visible switch for language selection. While a combination of both is optimal for a good user experience, most websites don’t bother with automating language changes. Why is that? For Google to understand how to display translated websites in search, there must be certain HTML markup present. The website needs to inform the search engine that, for the specific keyword search, localized content is available.

Implementing this markup requires an understanding of how websites are built and how they get found.

While this isn’t an appropriate avenue for explaining the principles of SEO and following Google’s guidelines, please focus on this example: if a user searches for shoes, he may type shoes, but also zapatos if he’s a Spanish native speaker. Without localization you will never have a chance of getting that customer!

Setting up a translated website

First make a decision what unique URL structure will your translated website have. There are four ways I can think of to make this logical and accessible for users, but only one that has a true impact on your total SEO strategy.

1. Subfolder, like . According to MOZ this is possibly the most impactful link structure you can use to add power to your current, English version.

2. Subdomain, like . The same study by MOZ revealed that moving content to subdomains actually decreases their SEO potential and is hard to get back from this mistake. Best not to do it.

3. Separate domain, like . While this seems like a good idea, it has one huge flaw. It requires separate, unique maintenance and link building all over again. It’s a new site, and does not inherit any historic traffic, Page Rank, domain authority, or whatever sexy metric is used nowadays to determine high SEO value. This may however be worth doing by well established, huge brands like Google itself, who don’t really need to bother about the entirety of this subject.

4. Separate domain with gimmicks. There are ways to tell search engines that a separate domain belongs to a mother-site. It can be either done by HTML markup that links them, or through 301 redirects that tie sites together. Redirects are applicable when transitioning from, i.e. a subdomain to a new domain. Still, they are a gimmick and not something most sites should use.

Stick with subfolders and you should be fine.

Using HTML markup for localized websites

Google is looking for two main markup items: The first one tells your browser and search engine, that a page is an alternative version. The second one determines the geographic location and language. If they fit the visitor’s browser’s language and geolocation, they will suggest to Google that your page is eligible for indexing in keyword searches. They are usually added to the header section and links.

Here’s a simple example for a German version of a website. It means that the /de page (a subfolder page) will be in German.

This is optimal for not fully translated pages. If you’re going all-in, please create a sitemap file containing all relevant hreflang information and keep it fresh as you build more content.

A sitemap is a small file you are already using, which contains navigation information that search engine crawlers check while analyzing what pages are available within your domain. This not only speeds up that search, but also may impact higher rankings in search results!

Mixing geolocation with languages and failsafes

Getting back to the automatic language shifting, it’s important to know that any geographic location can include many languages. It is also possible that a user in Germany will be using an English version of his browser. Furthermore, they may be using protection software to hide or scramble their whereabouts, which can mess up the user experience for them if localization isn’t optimally implemented.

Markup parameters allow you to give suggestions what to display, eg.

uses the first de to determine the location, in this case Germany, and the second DE to use German.

is seemingly a failsafe for when you don’t have a Japanese version and want to display your content in English. Don’t do it this way though. Just leave .

Google won’t bother trying to find a Japanese version of your site if it doesn’t exist.

Here’s an example to play with, assuming you want 3 English variations for one website that defaults to standard English for everyone besides the selected 3 geolocations:

Notice the inclusion of the in the end. Markup codes for languages and countries are on Wikipedia.

Localization’s impact on the user experience

By implementing these markup parameters you’re telling Google to display your website in search results using the translated meta-data (the little description you see in Google searches), and to point straight to your subfolder pages when clicked.

This, combined with effective keyword optimization will inevitably lead to more and more visitors venturing into the site’s content. You will unlock an entire new market of possibilities, while at the same time fueling your original site’s views and SEO impact.

Adding a simple language selector to the website’s header, that is coded to simply force the subfolder version as a simple link, will further improve this process, making your website a content-rich machine! Not only will the language never fail, given the implemented link relationships for the localized version, but your user will also never get lost in translation.

Bonus: What’s a translation proxy and why it’s suboptimal for SEO?

A translation proxy is a server that meets your international clients half way. It sits on cloud servers, hosted outside of your homepage’s environment and gets loaded on your website whenever it’s requested. The problem with it is that it does not, in any way, affect the website’s positioning. Being loaded dynamically it can in fact decrease loading times of your sites, and you run the risk of a service provider’s downtime, leaving your site vulnerable to misperformance. While it may be a viable option for market research, the only reliable and SEO effective translation strategy would be to keep it simple and just translate it.

If you want to learn more about how to approach translating your website from a marketer’s perspective, read here:

If you like what you read, send this to your developer and let the translating begin!

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