Multilingual SEO: by language or by country?

As e-commerce continues to boom, businesses of all sizes are increasing their profits by actively promoting their products and services to customers abroad, as well as in their own countries. The facts speak for themselves – only around one in four online consumers are native speakers of English. Not only that; recent research by the European Commission shows that eight in ten shoppers are unlikely to buy from a website that doesn’t have information in their native language. These days, ignoring the potential of foreign language customers just isn’t an option.
When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) for foreign languages, the same rules apply as for English, but you’ll be faced with a choice early on – whether to approach the task on a country basis or a language basis.
SEO by language
On the face of it, targeting your SEO by language is the most tempting option because it requires creating a smaller number of websites, meaning less investment and less projects to manage. This needs to be balanced, though, with the fact that the results might not be as good.
This approach involves grouping together countries which broadly share the same language, such as America, the UK and Australia for English; or France, Switzerland, Belgium and some regions of Canada for French. These two websites would cover seven countries in total.
Simple, right? However, there are some significant drawbacks to this approach which do need to be considered. Although customers may generally share the same language, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that there are some significant nuances. Vocabulary and  colloquialisms can vary quite dramatically between countries – just think about the UK and US, for example, where there are key differences in spelling and vocabulary, such as color/colour, gray/grey, pantyhose/tights, sweater/jumper, etc.
The same goes for other countries which share a language. For example,  the word for computer in Spain is “ordenador”, whilst in Spanish-speaking Latin America the word is “computadora”.
These examples highlight how the keywords you target will need to be carefully researched – using the wrong keywords for one market means you won’t get any conversions from there. Also, the language in your content needs to be simplified to be relevant to the broadest possible market. Another issue to consider when targeting SEO by language is that Google takes a site’s location into account in its ranking. If you’re targeting by language, you won’t be able to boost search engine rankings by setting up localized sites on separate country code Top Level Domains.
SEO by country
Most agree that it is better to target your SEO campaigns by country rather than by language, and there are many good reasons for this. The country approach means that you can set up localized sites on separate country code Top Level Domains, such as .uk for the UK and .jp for Japan, which will boost your rankings locally. You can boost your search engine results page (SERP) rankings even more by hosting the site in the country you’re targeting.
Researching keywords and managing campaigns is also simpler if you target your SEO by country. You will have more freedom to focus on the local references, authenticity and tone of your copy without having to worry about avoiding certain vocabulary or colloquialisms which don’t translate in the other countries which share the language. This may seem like a minor point, but tone and personality can make a big difference in how customers perceive your site.
Targeting SEO by country is clearly the best approach when you’re expanding globally, but the downsides are that it requires more investment (although it’s likely to generate more profit in the long-term) and it’s also more time-consuming. Your company will need to weigh up budgetary concerns with long-term potential.
One way to take things forward is to dip your toe into the water by creating micro-sites on sub-domains for each target country within your site. You’ll then be able to test the response to these localized sites and make decisions based on the results as to which countries you should create full locally-hosted sites for. Think of it as if you were fishing, with a rod in ponds all around the world, testing which ponds produce the more fish, and putting more of your fishing focus on those high yield ponds. Your return on investment is virtually guaranteed!
About the author
Christian Arno is the founder of professional translation services provider Lingo24, experts in the foreign language internet. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over forty million words for businesses in every industry sector, including the likes of MTV and World Bank. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter: @Lingo24.

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