To have a successful international website, Google (or a local search engine) should be able to crawl, index, and serve each of your site’s language and/or country versions. This will help you reach your audience more effectively and – if done correctly – will enhance the user experience and business results.

MAKE YOUR INTERNATIONAL WEBSITE CRAWLABLE

Making monolingual websites crawlable and indexable is relatively straightforward. However, multilingual websites require a bit more work. Most people know that localizing body copy, product descriptions, About Us sections and FAQs is vital to having a fully functional website in another language. But it’s just as important to localize elements outside the core content like URLs, titles, and meta descriptions.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Local Relevance – Each localized element helps search engines understand the various parts of the site in each language. This makes it easier to serve the right information.
  2. User Experience – Full localization improves the user experience. URLs, for example, are often one of the first elements a user will see on your page. It’s not good if a user clicks on a link to a French page and sees English content.
  3. Branding – It’s unprofessional if parts of your website are in different languages, and this could harm your brand image.

EFFECTIVE GEO-TARGETING

If you’ve decided to target your audience by country, it’s important to set up your website to geo-target accurately. This helps Google serve up the most relevant information to your intended audience. To geo-target effectively, it’s easiest to use ccTLDs. However, if you’re using gTLDs, you can still set functional geo-targeting. (For an explanation and comparison of ccTLDs and gTLDS, check out this post.)

Search engines including Bing and Google feature a Webmaster Tools type of function that you can set to target specific countries. Changing your preferences in Google Search Console will also help. Make sure each location subdomain is verified as a separate property. Then go to ‘Search Traffic,’ click on ‘International Targeting’ and select the relevant location targeting. Updating each of these settings will help ensure that users see the most relevant information based on location.

HREFLANG TAGS

If the bulk of your traffic comes from Google and your website features language variations on separate URLs, hreflang tags are for you. (If Bing is your preferred search engine, then focus on meta tags instead). These tags allow websites to tell Google which version of a page is the right one for a particular language or country. That way, people see the most appropriate content, improving their user experience and your conversion rates.

Hreflang tags can be added in one of three places:

  1. The on-page markup
  2. The HTTP header
  3. An hreflang XML sitemap

There are pros and cons to each option, so deciding which one is best for your company will ultimately be a technical consideration. If you’re not sure, Yoast has written a useful article highlighting the benefits and drawbacks here.

Regardless of where you decide to place your hreflangs, each tag should include both a reference to itself and to each alternate page. For example, if Wordbank had a German version of its English homepage, the hreflang tag would look like this:

<link rel=“alternate” href=“http://www.wordbank.com” hreflang=“en-gb” />

<link rel= “alternate” href=“http://www.wordbank.com/de” hreflang=“de-de” />

The tag would also look the same on the German site.

As you can see in the example above, hreflang tags can be used to set languages or language variants, so you can be as specific as you need to be when targeting your audience.

Once your tagged pages are live, you can use Google Search Console to make sure everything is present and correct. Any tagging errors can then be quickly and easily corrected to ensure that they function as intended.

SET RULES FOR YOUR HOMEPAGE

Even if you’ve set up your geo-targeting perfectly, it may still be unclear which language a particular user will want on your website. Adding hreflang tags and configuring geo-targeting in Webmaster tools will help place users on the right page from search. But what about direct visits when a user types in your brand’s URL?

For example, perhaps a French speaker is using a laptop at a coffee shop in London. Or someone might visit one of your websites directly from their browser, without going through a search engine. Which version of your website should you show them?

Thankfully, applying specific rules to your homepage or landing pages can help. By setting these pages up with international users in mind, you can take control of user experience and make sure that everyone can easily find the information they need.

There are three common options for you to choose from:

1. SHOW EVERYONE THE SAME CONTENT

You might decide that the easiest route is to serve content for just one specific country or language. For example, if you’re a British firm, maybe you’d prefer to keep the homepage in English to highlight your Britishness.

If that’s the case, you can easily create a discreet banner that points non-English users to the most appropriate language version for them. The banner’s recommendation would be based on the user’s language and country settings, as well as their IP address. And if the user would prefer to see the original version, they’re free to do so.

2. LET USERS DECIDE WHICH VERSION THEY WANT

If you’d rather give users the freedom to choose the version they prefer, you could turn your homepage into a country selector landing page. From there, the user can decide where to go, removing the possibility of directing them to the wrong place. This approach can be particularly helpful for eCommerce sites that are active in several countries – which is what IKEA has done.

It’s also a great example of when you should use the “x-default” hreflang tag. The page won’t be targeted to a specific language or country, so using this tag will tell Google not to treat it as such.

3. AUTOMATICALLY REDIRECT USERS

This is the simplest approach to international homepages. Based on the user’s settings, you can automatically redirect them to the version of the website that’s the most relevant. This can potentially make the user experience smoother, but it’s not without difficulty. For example, how do you treat a Chinese user if you don’t have a Chinese version of the website? Or what if you have a French user who wants to access the Spanish site? If you do opt for this approach, make sure to offer an easily identifiable dropdown menu for users to choose the version they want.

So which rules should you apply to your landing pages? Again, there’s no one right answer. Each option has its own pros and cons, so it’s up to you to decide which will work best for your business needs. However you decide to set up your international website, with thorough research and careful consideration, you can expect visibility to improve for each of your target markets.