Translation vs Localisation: Understanding multilingual SEO

For businesses operating in international markets, a solid multilingual search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy is key to increasing the visibility of your website, products and services across your target countries, and allowing those audiences to find you organically.

Through an effective multilingual SEO strategy, your business can gain a competitive advantage in worldwide markets, build trust and consideration with international audiences, and, of course, drive increased growth and revenue for your business.

However, the process of developing a robust multilingual strategy is often much more complex than simply translating your current content and keywords into your target languages.

SEO translation

In its most basic form, multilingual SEO requires identifying the languages relevant to the countries you wish to target and translating your website content and keywords into those languages. The primary goal here is to make your content accessible to audiences who speak those languages, while allowing your website to appear in search engine results for that language.

This approach usually involves minimal changes to the original content, often only requiring changes to preserve grammatical integrity in the target language and ensure the same meaning is conveyed. There are multiple benefits of using this method, such as minimal time and cost investments, and the potential to use language software and machine translation to streamline the process.

There are, however, some major drawbacks to relying solely on surface level translation, especially when it comes to your keywords, and this is where SEO localisation comes into play.

SEO localisation

While translation presents a quick and easy way of getting your website up and running in your target international markets, SEO localisation digs much deeper. Rather than a 1:1 translation, localisation substantially adapts content and keywords to local cultural and linguistic customs, taking into account nuances in the language, cultural preferences and other local factors of the country in question to build a more impactful experience for the user, and boosting rankings in the search engine results.

Direct translation can undoubtedly be a useful starting point, but it also throws up multiple issues if employed alone without sufficient localisation. Let’s say your business sells electric scooters in the UK market and wants to break into the French market. A quick Google search of the English keyword “electric scooter” will present a results page displaying e-scooters. You translate your website and keywords directly into French, with “electric scooter” becoming “scooter électrique”. However, in French, this keyword no longer carries the same meaning, instead referring to electric mopeds rather than e-scooters. To continue targeting e-scooter searches in the French market, the correct translation would instead be “trotinette électrique”.

Here, a direct translation is possible, but conveys a completely different meaning to the one intended. SEO localisation requires native speakers and SEO specialists to ensure the grammar, syntax, meaning and messaging of your content and keywords are being conveyed optimally in your target language.

This is one of the central issues with mere translation when it comes to SEO, as understanding the linguistic and cultural nuances of your target language is vital to ensuring you are targeting the right keywords and avoiding misunderstandings and mistranslations that can seriously harm your brand image and waste marketing spend.

Localisation considerations

Creating an effective multilingual SEO strategy requires much more than machine translation. Instead, several interconnected skillsets are needed, including experts who speak your target language at a native level, have the required insight into local markets and customs, and can apply this knowledge to both search intention and technical concerns.

Boosting your organic reach in your chosen international markets requires in-depth research that accounts for linguistic nuance, preferences, and search behaviour. These insights must then be applied to your keyword strategy and locally relevant content if they are to build awareness, trust, and credibility with your target audience.

There are also technical considerations to be aware of when building your multilingual SEO strategy. Take for example hreflang tags – the HTML attribute that allows you to specify the language and geographical targeting of your webpages. Getting this right is crucial to ensuring Google displays your English-version site to English-speakers and your French-version to French-speakers, and can be optimised automatically through plugins like WPML, which is especially useful as new pages are added to a growing website over time. Similarly, it’s important to ensure tags and metadata are tailored to the market you are targeting, optimising it for your target audiences and increasing visibility.

UX considerations must also be taken into account. Often, websites will redirect people to a specific language version based on location, but this can have major implications on user experience, such as in the case of a non-English speaker in the UK, or an English-speaker abroad. Instead, it may be better to opt for redirection based on browser language settings, as these have been manually selected by the user, and ensure a better user experience.

Final thoughts

While on the surface, multilingual SEO may appear to be simply a case of translating your existing content and keywords to match your target market, in practice, it is often much more complex.

Taking the time to properly localise your SEO and tailor it to your chosen markets and working with local partners and experts will ensure your investment pays off, allowing you to more effectively build trust and consideration in international markets.