1. Multi-regional and Multilingual Sites

If a website explicitly targets its users in different countries/regions, it can be called a multi-regional website, for example, a website that serves people from both Singapore and China. Additionally, a multilingual website obviously means any website that offers content in more than one language, like for example in English and Chinese. Many websites are both multi-regional and multilingual, e.g. a site might have different versions for Thailand and Singapore and, provide both Thai and English for the Thai, and both Chinese and English for the Singaporeans.

It is quite common for global companies to set up such websites to serve their clients all around the world. So it’s an important Search Engine Optimization (SEO) issue to deal with when handling multi-regional and multilingual sites in order to make them search engine friendly.

2. How Search Engines Determine the Language

As Google has declared, it uses only the visible content on the webpage to determine its language. Not any source code information such as “lang” attributes would help Google determine the language. When considering the language issue, search engines won’t take a whole site as an assessment unit. What they care about is that what is a specific webpage’s language is, that is, search engines determine language only at the page level.

To avoid making search engines confused and to help them determine the language correctly, only one language should be used on each page, both in content and navigation. The website can include web pages in several languages, but every page should include only one language.

3. Targeting Site to a Specific Country and Taking Advantage of Localization

For search engines, they always try to show users the best possible search results, and generally those results are going to be pages that are localized for the user’s location and/or in the user’s language, which means that if the search engines think that your site serves a specific region/language, pages on your site tend to be returned by search engines and might have better ranking in that region/language.

If search engines understand your site’s target country, this may also help to improve the quality of the search results and rankings for your site’s pages. The following elements will help search engines to determine a website’s targeted country:

* Country-code top-level domain names, or ccTLDs, for example, .cn would tell search engines that the site is targeting in China and .jp is for Japan.

* Geotargeting settings. Geotargeting means determining the geographic location of a website. You can use this function provided by Google Webmaster Tools to indicate to Google which country your site is targeting.

* Server location, which is determined by the IP address of the server.

For sites in single languages or targeting only one country, it’s much easier to make them understand by search engines than for multi-regional and multilingual sites. To keep the coherence of the web content and make it easier to geotarget parts of your site to different regions, content of multi-regional and multilingual sites in different languages should be organized well.

Using a good URL structure coordinate with different language is a good way to help geotarget parts of the sites. Below is a table which shows several URL structure for optional:

URL Structure Example Pros Cons
ccTLDs countrybased.jp Clear geotargeting;Server location irrelevant;Easy separation of sites. Expensive(need more domain names)
Sub domains jp.globalsite.com Easy to set up;Can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting;Allows different server locations;Easy separation of sites. Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone (is “jp” the language or country?)
Subdirectories globalsite.com/jp/ Easy to set up;Can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting;Low maintenance (same host). Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone;Single server location;Separation of sites harder.
URL parameters globalsite.com?cry=jp&lang=jp Not recommended. URL-based segmentation difficult;Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone;Geotargeting in Webmaster Tools is not possible.

4. Common Problems and Best SEO Practice for Multi-regional and multilingual Sites

From the perspective of search engines, pages that provide the same content in different languages would not be considered as duplicate content, and are actually quite user-friendly to provide content in different languages to visitors from different countries or regions.

From another perspective, by creating several language versions of the webpage and helping search engines to index them all, would provide the website a better chance to get traffic from regions using different languages.

One common problem involving multi-lingual sites is the automatic redirection based on the user’s perceived language (based on the IP address/cookie/browser language, etc.), which could prevent users and search engines from viewing all versions of the website, especially when there is not a cross-link between each language version of the site.

Another more serious problem is that the website server can return different versions of the web pages in the same URL according to different users’ perceived languages. This may confuse search engines and visitors as well as to what is the exact language and content of the page (only one specific URL). To make the site search engine friendly, different content must be used for each different URL.

Since we know that there is no problem for search engines to determine the pages’ language if there isn’t more than one language within each webpage, we can organize different language parts of the multi-regional and multi-lingual site well to help search engines understand each part and thereby help the sites pages get better rankings.

Below are some steps you can follow when planning or optimizing your multi-regional and multilingual sites:

* Decide to use country-code top-level domain names or sub domains or subdirectories to organize different parts of the site. Choose ccTLDs, subdirectories or sub domains depending on your company’s specific situation, such as your company’s budget, site scale and so on.

* Create different versions of web pages on the site in different languages to suit different visitors. Each page should be created in only one language and each language version of the pages should have their own URLs.

* Organize pages in same language together and put them into different country-level domains or sub directories or sub domains.

* Set up Cross-links between different language parts of the site and link each language version together.

* Add the site to Google Webmaster Tool and set geotargeting for each part to indicate their targeted countries.