Multilingual and international search engine optimization (part one): Share
Everything you need to know about geotargeting.
This guide deals only with national and international issues of SEO. The success or the failure of a project may depend upon the decisions taken in this matter by its webmaster. To a large extent, these decisions must be taken at the very early stage of the project. They can’t always be amended easily later on.
The guide concerns multilingual sites (i.e. sites in several languages), international sites (also known as multiregional sites, i.e. sites that target users in different countries), and, to some extent, unilingual web sites targeting users of only one country or without any specific geographical target.
The whole guide consists of three parts:
a) The first article describes hereunder how search engines deal with multilingual and/or multiregional sites. Then, it sets out the theory of national and international SEO.
b) The second article examines how multilingual and multiregional SEO is to be implemented. It goes further with a case study of the national and international SEO in the travel and tourism industry. Read more here.
c) The third article gives you a trick to know the geographical target of competitors’ sites, which is useful for your competitive intelligence. It also lists some of the most common mistakes in national and multinational SEO. Read more here.
In these matters, the leading search engines such as Google, Bing and Yandex are governed by the same rules. In this article, we can therefore refer to Google to denote all leading search engines. Since Google is well ahead of its competitors in international issues, we will distinguish between the different engines whenever appropriate to do so.
A. Basic rules: how do Google and the other major search engines deal with multilingual and international web sites?
In international matters, Google has been particularly transparent. There was even a time when Google’s SERPs publicly stated the geographic target that webmasters have chosen in their webmaster tools account. Therefore, we know to a large extent how Google’s algorithm deals with multilingual or international sites:
1. Google finds out where each user who performs a search query is located. For this purpose, it collects user’s IP and various details such as Wi-Fi access points. If the detected location is not correct, Google makes it possible for the user to update its location.
2. Google provides users with different search engine results depending upon where they are located. In other words, as for standard searches, a single query in a single language does not provide users everywhere in the world with the same results.
Google takes into account the precise location of each user (hence also the importance of local SEO for some kinds of queries). However, first and foremost, the search engine results vary by country. For example, two users, the first in Lille (France) and the other in Tournai (Belgium) – less than 30 km (18 mi) away from each other- , who use the same PC configuration will get different results of the same query in the same language. This is simply because both users are located in different countries.
3. The difference results from the bonus Google gives to the sites that are located in the country of the user who performs the search query. Indeed, all other things being equal, the web sites that are located in the same country as the user (“domestic sites”) are better ranked in the search engine results than sites that are located in other countries.
Bonus to sites that are located in the same country as the user = handicap to sites that are located in foreign countries.
Why? Because Google assumes a priori that the sites that are located in the same country as the user who performs the search query are more relevant to him.
4. How does Google locate web sites? As for search engines, a web site is not located at the place where its owner is located or works. Google fixes indeed the location of web sites on the basis of specific criteria. The webmaster may choose only one of three specific options:
-- First case: country code top level domain (ccTLD).
When the site has a country code top level domain (.uk, .ca, .au, .za, .fr, .ch, .be, .es, .de,...), the web site is located in the related country, for instance the United Kingdom for a site with .co.uk, Canada for a site with .ca, and Australia for a site with .au. Webmasters of sites with such a ccTLD may not choose another country, even for a part (subdomain or directory) of their site only.
-- Second case: geotargeting in the Google search console.
When the site has a generic top level domain (.com, .net, .org, .info, .travel, ...) or another top level domain that Google treats as generic (.eu .asia, .tv, .ws, ... ), the site is located in the country that the webmaster may choose in his Google webmaster tools account (known currently as Google Search Console, GSC). If needed, the webmaster can easily change that target country later on.
Such a geotargeting through GSC allows the webmaster to depart from the location stated by default in the third case below. It has been available since 2007 at Google. Since 2013, Bing, which previously relied only on the "content-language" tag of the sites, has also allowed geotargeting through the Bing webmaster account. The other search engines in Western countries (DuckDuckGo, Ixquick, Exalead, ...) do not offer such an option and, of course, ignore the choice webmasters have made through their Google or Bing account.
Geotargeting through Google or Bing webmaster account is not possible for sites with a country code top level domain since the latter determines irrevocably the location of the web site.
-- Third case: the location of the server.
When the site has a generic top level domain (.com, .net., .org, .info, .travel, ...) or another top level domain that Google treats as generic (.eu .asia, .tv, .ws, ... ), the site is located in the country where it is hosted (i.e. the country of its IP), when its webmaster has not chosen another country in his Google/Bing webmaster account.
In this third case, Google states it takes into account also other factors, such as the origin of backlinks - i.e. the inbound links - or the location of the company/institution that owns the web site (that location is of primary importance as for local SEO). However, Google rarely locates such sites elsewhere than in the country of their IP. Because of the importance of the location of the server, some hosting companies offer their customers the opportunity to use a foreign IP.
So, Google locate each site in only one country according to the aforementioned criteria. In practice, nothing else may change such a location. International or worldwide localization of a web page is not possible.
Contrary to a widespread opinion and even to some statements of Google’s staff, the geotargeting option in the Google search console does not create geotargeting. As for search engines, each site has always a definite location, hence a geographic target. The facility that Google/Bing offers in the webmaster account just enables webmasters to change the default location of some kinds of sites (those with a generic top level domain).
Provided that the conditions are met, this geotargeting option through GSC works by “page” (i.e. the entire site, a subdomain, a directory, or a particular page of the site) so that the term “site” is used in this article only to keep it simple. We should actually refer to “page” instead of “site”.
The implementation of such a geographic targeting is simple: just select the relevant country under the "International targeting" heading for your site in your Google search console and under the "geographic targeting" heading of your Bing webmaster account.
At Google, if you want to geotarget only a part of your site, you must first add this part as a "site" to your search console. Such a geotargeting is not allowed to dynamic URLs or URLs ending with php, aspx, index, html, etc. The kinds of pages you may add to your Google search console are shown here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/34592?hl=en.
5. How large is the bonus Google gives to the sites that are located in the country of the user who performs the search query? We have to distinguish between the kinds of search engine results pages (SERPs).
a) Universal search (standard search).
The answer to the question is a secret of each search engine. In practice, the impact of such a bonus in the SERPs largely depends upon the competition level of the query on the one hand and the respective SEO (on-page optimization and link building) of the related sites on the other hand. The more competitive the domestic market is, the worse the foreign sites may be ranked. The competition level may vary from one theme to the next.
The handicap to foreign sites never prevents them from being ranked in the domestic search engines results, provided these sites are relevant to the search query. It just affects their ranking performances. However, since users click mostly the first results (i.e. the results above the fold), you may consider that the bonus given to domestic sites is very often decisive, especially if the latter are properly optimized.
The foreign sites can be better ranked if domestic competition is weak. This happens typically in two cases:
-- The domestic market is significantly smaller than the foreign markets of the same language (e.g. Austria versus Germany, Belgium versus France). So, in response to general search queries in French language, sites that are located in France are often found in search engine results in Belgium while Belgian sites are rarely well ranked in France.
-- The search query is related to a theme which concerns the foreign country or one of its main features. So, although France is a much larger market than Belgium, a Belgian site may be well ranked in France if the French user performs a search query related to a Belgian city or product.
The impact of the bonus has significantly increased over time. However, it is difficult to determine whether this uptrend goes on now further and whether it results from updates of Google’s algorithm or simply from the development of the web.
b) Advanced search by country.
When Google’s users use the advanced search by country (region), the results are limited only to the sites which are located in the selected country. The foreign sites normally do not appear at all in such advanced search results.
No statistical information is available about the use of these advanced search options. However, we can assume that they are not very popular.
c) Additional Impact
Indirect influence is possible. Thus, in a specific language, search AutoComplete may produce different query suggestions from one country to another. It may be unfavorable to the foreign sites. This incidence, if any, is however very marginal compared to those stated above.
B. The foundations of multilingual and/or international SEO.
Given the way the search engines deal with multilingual or international web sites, SEO of those sites takes place in three stages.
1. First, the webmaster must determine the target country of his site (or his "page" if he may make use of geotargeting through Google search console) and then post only content targeting that country on the site/page.
One site (or one "page" in case of targeting through GSC) = one target country.
2a. Second, in order to benefit from the bonus that search engines give to domestic sites, the webmaster must locate the site/page in his target country and do so properly on the basis of criteria stated above. So he has to take the right decisions with regards to the domain, the URL structure (several sites, subdomains or directories, each intended for users of one target country), and the hosting place or the search console geotargeting.
The country where the site/"page" is to be located = the target country of the site/"page".
2b. In addition, the webmaster may use hreflang tags that provide Google and the Russian search engine Yandex with information about the country/language of each content.
Rel="alternate" hreflang attributes complement, not replace, a proper localization of the site/"page". They concern:
-- either contents that have been translated into different languages (multilingual sites)
-- or duplicate contents in the same language which are targeting users of different countries (international or multiregional sites). The use of hreflang markup is the right solution to duplicate content issues (Google Panda).
The Google search console informs the webmaster of any wrong implementation of these tags. Other search engines do not report they follow rel="alternate" hreflang attributes.
Contrary to a widespread opinion, the canonical URL tag is not the right tool as for duplicate contents in international web sites. It is rather suitable for same contents in the same language targeting the users of the same country.
3. Third, classic SEO (on-page optimization and link building) is to be done for each site/page.
That means for instance that each subdomain or directory (folder) targeting a different country or a different language must be supported by its own backlinks.
Each "page" (site, subdomain, subdirectory, a particular page) targeting a different country or a different language = to be optimized by its own backlinks.
In the second part of this article, we investigate further how to implement the three stages of multilingual and international SEO. In particular, we explain how to choose correctly your target country, how to choose the best URL structure (several sites, subdomains or directories) and how to avoid the most common errors of localization.
C. Language versus geographic targeting.
In the very first statements about international SEO, Google strongly distinguishes between language targeting and geographic targeting. Language targeting concerns sites that address users of the whole or a part of their language area (e.g. the Anglosphere) without targeting those of a particular country. Geographic target concerns sites aimed primarily at users of a specific country (e.g. the United Kingdom).
Such a distinction is essential. Language area and country are two different targets. A language is often spoken in several countries or parts of countries while several languages may be spoken in a country (e.g. Canada, Switzerland and Belgium). Therefore, webmasters should not mix up language targeting with geographic targeting.
However, there is often interaction between both kinds of targeting. So, we do not fully share the recommendations of Google’s staff when they advise never to use geographic targeting through Google search console for language SEO ("not to be used for a generic language").
Google's staff do forget that sites will anyway be located (= be better ranked) in a particular country in the absence of such a GSC geotargeting: they will be located in the country of their IP address if they have a generic top level domain.
Since all countries sharing the same language are not equivalent at all, the country of their IP address may not be the best market country so that the webmaster may want to choose another country through his Google search console. Anyway, there are specific cases where geographic targeting is suitable even when the site is intended for users of an entire linguistic area.
D. Various search engines.
All leading search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo when it developed its own algorithm, Yandex, and many others) give a bonus to web sites that are located in the same country as the user who performs the search query. In other words, all other things being equal, domestic sites are better ranked in results pages of those search engines than foreign sites. However, all search engines are not able to identify always properly the target country of each site.
In this matter, Google is clearly ahead of its competitors. The better performance of Google with regards to multilingual and multiregional sites is certainly one of the main causes behind the differences between the search engine results pages of Google and those of the other engines.
No doubt, having introduced a geographic targeting option within the Google webmaster account since 2007 has helped Google properly understand the target country of each site. That option is indeed important for all sites that have a generic top level domain. In 2011, Google went further by recommending webmasters of multilingual or international sites to use rel = "alternate" hreflang attributes.
Bing, which has only a small search market share outside the US, was very late to introduce the geotargeting option in the Bing webmaster account. Bing has a too limited experience of it. The other search engines do not have such an option at all.
E. The drawbacks of the bonus given to domestic web sites.
By showing preference to the sites located in the country of the user, the search engines aim to provide him with the most relevant and useful results. This strategy is justified as for e-commerce or searches that are limited to the national sphere of the user, including of course the strictly local searches.
However, one may question the relevance of this practice in many generic searches. In addition, the practice looks absurd in all searches in overseas matters, including those related to travel and tourism in foreign countries.
Let’s consider the example of a Londoner who is looking for a receptive travel agency in South Africa. Why would a web site with a domain such as .co.uk be more relevant than a site with the national top level domain of South Africa (.za) or a generic top level domain hosted in South Africa or the USA?
Since a webmaster (e.g. a company, an institution) is not always able to develop and maintain a web site in each country he should target, the preference of search engines for domestic sites makes it easy for many intermediate sites to be well ranked in the SERPs in the countries where the relevant site is not located. That is one reason why for instance local intermediate sites related to hotel booking or guests’ reviews can often perform in SERPs of many countries better than the site of the relevant hotels.
The presence of many spams, i.e. search results of little or no relevance at all, in SERPs results also from the preference of search engines for domestic sites since the latter can easily spam keywords of foreign sites.
So, the preference of search engines for domestic sites has little to do with the relevance of the SERPs, except maybe for some kinds of searches. As a matter of fact, it is mainly the consequence of the commercial nature of the search engines which are funded by advertising. The location of the user is indeed a factor of primary importance for advertisers.
© Willgoto, October 2015.
Read more. This article is part of a series that also includes:
-- SEO of Multilingual and multinational travel sites (implementation).
-- How to know the geographic target of your competitors + SEO mistakes not to be made.