If your site offers different content to users from different countries or regions or users who speak different languages, you can optimize Google search results for your site, which is known as international SEO.
A website is referred to as multilingual when it offers content in at least two languages. This includes, for example, a website of a UK based company available in German and French. Google Search tries to find pages that match the searcher’s language.
An international website, on the other hand, is expressly aimed at users in different countries. This includes, for example, a manufacturer that delivers to Germany, Switzerland, and the USA. Google Search is trying to find the right page for the searcher’s location.
A website can also be international and multilingual. For example, a website can have different versions for Germany and Switzerland and offer Switzerland’s content in both German and French.
In this SEO guide, you will learn everything about the correct handling of Google and multilingual or international websites. We will explain how to optimize your website internationally for Google Search, avoid duplicate content, and use the hreflang Link attribute correctly.
Google’s signals for international orientation
The use of the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” note is an essential part of an international SEO strategy, but far from the only one. In addition to the corresponding hreflang markup, the following factors are also decisive for Google’s alignment of content to languages and countries:
Google values local top-level domains as a strong signal in their algorithm. Using a ccTLD (Country Code Top-Level Domain, e.g. . en, .ch, at, etc.) signals to Google that this website is targeted at the appropriate country and may want to target this audience specifically.
Using a coherent ccTLD strategy also helps maintain a short, concise, and clean URL structure. On the search results pages, users are also more likely to click on results with a local domain extension because they find it more relevant. This behavior can lead to a higher click-through rate (CTR) and ultimately lead to better positions in search results.
Search Console Settings
If your website has country-specific subdomains (e.g., de.domain.com) or directories (www.domain.com/de/), the respective geographic destination should be set in the Google Search Console.
In an online shop, this would be useful if items in the directory can be ordered www.domain.com/de/ exclusively from Germany. The content is only available in German or is only intended for German-speaking customers.
However, if the online shop accepts orders from German-speaking customers from Switzerland and Austria, there is no special landing page for these two countries. The orientation of the de-directory to Germany would reduce the website’s performance on the Swiss and Austrian markets.
hreflang Link Attribute Markup
Many websites are aimed at users around the world. For this reason, the content is translated or customized for specific regions. Google uses the annotations rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” to provide users with the correct language or regional URL.
Avoid duplicate content and distinguish the language version of the content
By using the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” link attribute, it is possible to ensure that Google understands the respective geographical orientation of the website and displays the appropriate language version or regional URL of the content.
For example, if an online shop expands with its offerings to several countries, regions, and/or languages, there are a host of questions about the discoverability of the content that providers that are only active in one country do not have to worry about. Duplicate content is one of the most common problems because much of the content is largely identical and doesn’t always differ in language.
What is the effect of tagging the content with the hreflang Link attribute Markup?
Simply put, by using the hreflang note, Google is told that the content is also available in another language and that a URL is intended for those users with the language and region [X]. Google will then display the appropriate URL for users with the [X] language in the search results.
Basically, you signal a connection between the individual content on your own website and that each URL is relevant to a different target group (language/region). This makes it easier for Google to understand international website architecture.
Language of content
Google has its own algorithm to identify the language used on a website and assign it to a target audience.
Therefore, you should not use different languages on the website, which could lead to an incorrect language mapping of the URL by Google.
Currency and address formats on the website
Local currency, addresses, and phone numbers on the pages are good signals for Google to determine the website’s regional relevance. If possible, it is recommended to take the physical business addresses in the respective country to the appropriate page, as Google uses this as a strong factor.
Google My Business Profile
If possible, it is important to create a separate Google “My Business” listing for each business location and link it to the respective country websites. This strengthens the country assignment of the website and improves visibility in Google’s (regional) search results.
To evaluate the GEO relevance of a website, Google also includes external links. Here, the respective links from the target countries are decisive. The local link profile should clearly be based on quality, not quantity.
Often the server location is still mentioned as an important GEO signal. However, the location of the server is becoming less and less important. Its physical location no longer has much significance for local rankings because websites are often hosted internationally. However, local hosting can reduce the loading time of a website and indirectly affect the local ranking.
Domain concept: ccTLDs, subdomains or directories?
One of the most important points in international SEO is the domain concept. Basically, the three possibilities have different advantages and disadvantages. You should carefully weigh these up for your business and choose the most appropriate solution. Also, keep in mind that your company may expand even further internationally in the future.
ccTLDs (Country Code Top-Level Domain), subdomains, or directories can also be combined to serve different languages for a country – for example, French, German, and Italian in Switzerland.
ccTLDs: country code top-level domains
In the vast majority of cases, the ccTLDs, i.e. .de / .at / .fr, etc. is the best option for international SEO. The national domain extension is most common to users and thus inspires the most trust among your potential customers: www.ihrewebsite.de works better than www.ihrewebsite.biz
At the same time, each country domain is individually crawled, indexed, and ranked by Google. This means that each domain must be optimized and marketed individually. A possibly weaker . AT-Domain benefits only to a limited extent from the . DE domain.
If you use a so-called CNOBI domain extension (.com / .net / .org / .biz / .info), you need either subdomains or directories for each country or language, for example: de.yourwebsite.com or yourwebsite.com/de.
Subdomains (de.yourwebsite.de / at. yourwebsite.de / ch.yourwebsite.de) benefit from the main domain, but the link strength is distributed among the individual subdomains. However, subdomains are usually unfamiliar to users and not very trusting, so you should use this option in exceptional cases.
Brands that have a lot of user confidence can use subdomains for easier management and marketing. However, it is precisely these companies that usually have sufficient resources for a ccTLD strategy.
If you use subdomains, you should set the geographic destination in the Google Search Console.
For directories, the main strength of the main domain is completely inherited. However, the individual directories are typically less regionally relevant in the countries.
A common problem is structural errors. The predetermined page structure does not always fit all countries. Also, it is often confusing for the user to navigate within the directories. Also, with subfolders, you should determine the geographic orientation in the Google Search Console.
Caution: Using the Google Search Console’s geographic destination is recommended if all countries have their own landing page. If you use the directory yourwebsite.de.com/de for example, also serve German-speaking customers in Switzerland and Austria, you should not store a geographical target in the Search Console. This would reduce detectability in other countries.
If international SEO is to be successful, it is imperative to consider the local market. Nicola Carmyllie, managing director of international digital marketing agency Eloquent, says, “even if the language is the same in another country, it is the terms used colloquially which will determine target keywords – something a human translator can usually only provide.”
However, linguistically it is about the pure terms and language styles, dimensional and currency units, contact addresses, and ultimately also about grammar.
Besides, the target group may be quite different in different countries: for example, certain content can work excellently in one country, while in another it has little interest.
International SEO always starts logically with a suitable URL and website structure so that that country websites can be uniquely assigned. Multilingual content and code should be optimized country-by-country to increase the ranking of your global website.