Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose?

Photo of a world map, to illustrate the international SEO

You are wishing to export your business outside Belgium? In this case, it implies developing your visibility on search engines abroad, and therefore, implementing a multilingual SEO strategy that will allow you to offer the right version of your site, in the right country and with the right associated language. Building a multilingual website is a complex project and it is easy to get lost in the multitude of existing approaches: should you opt for a country-specific extension? Which URL structure should you choose? How to be sure my website will be visible in the targeted countries and languages ? 

In this article,  we help you get a clear idea and pick the best solution   while taking your goas and resources into account.

Language targeting VS country targeting: what are we talking about?

In international SEO, we must distinguish between targeting by language and targeting by country. But what does it mean exactly ?

Let’s imagine that your website is in French. There are two possibilities:

  1. You want to target all French-speaking countries, everywhere in the world: in this case, you offer the same services and/or products for all countries and you do not target users geographically. The main focus is on the target language: it is language targeting;
  2. You only want to target French speakers in certain countries such as France and/or Canada (Quebec) for instance: in this case, it means that you probably provide exclusive offers to these markets. Your targeting is much more precise and brings a secondary difficulty, since you need both to target a language and one or several specific geographic areas. Here, we are talking about country targeting.

It is not uncommon for sites to target both a country and multiple languages. For example, you could target Belgium or Canada using the local languages of each country; i.e. French, Dutch and German for Belgium, and French and English for Canada. While it may seem ambitious, this is actually easily achievable because Google will naturally try and choose websites depending on the user’s location. On the other hand, language targeting without taking the country into account is more difficult: a local website will get the priority, and as we will see further, the same language can have several regional variations.

Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose? 1

The URL structure

When developing your multilingual SEO strategy, the domain you pick will have a big impact on the results. You have three options: the TLD (Top-Level-Domain), the subdomain, or the subdirectory. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

A domain name with a country extension (Top-Level-Domain) → Belgium → France → United States

Creating a unique domain for each country you are targeting is the most direct way to tell Google which country your website is targeting.Moreover, the origin of your site will be clearly identifiable and reassuring for the visitors of the targeted country, who will be more inclined to trust you. Finally, if one of your domains is penalized by Google, the others will not be impacted.

However, this solution has some difficulties. The use of the Top-Level-Domain requires developing a very distinct seo strategy for each country. When targeting a new country, you will need to create a domain specific to that country, and you won’t be able to benefit from the authority of your already existing domain. Hosting and maintaining the website will also be more expensive. This solution requires the ability to reserve a domain name in all targeted countries and to ensure regular content updates on each version. In short, using one domain per country will prevent you from taking actions that will improve your SEO globally.

The TLD is often used by large companies where the products and services offered may be different from one market to another, and where each has its own strategy and teams. The TLD is often used for country targeting.

One subdomain per language or country (Subdomain) → Belgium → France → United States

Another solution is to use sub-domains for each country in which you are present. Thanks to subdomains, you have the possibility to indicate the targeted country and the search engines will distinguish them as different websites. But it also means that the authority of these different sub-domains (or entities) will be less than if everything was gathered in one global authority, under one domain.

What is the fundamental difference with the first solution? This solution is easier to implement and less expensive. This is a good solution if your resources are more limited. But you’ll probably take longer to rank using a subdomain rather than a domain extension.

One subdirectory per language or country → Belgium → France → United States

With the subdirectory method, each language is integrated into a directory such as /be/, as you can see here above. All international versions of the website are attached to the main website and belong to the same domain. Thanks to this, you will save money, but also time, because whatever SEO actions you take will be reflected in each of the subdirectories. However, you will be forced to use a unique geographic server location.

Which hosting to choose?

When choosing your hosting, consider the loading speed of your website, especially when you are developing a multilingual SEO strategy and targeting different countries. The further the server is from your user, the longer your web page will take to load, which means a poor user experience.

If you have chosen the domain name solution for each country, we advise you to rent the hosting through a server located in the country you want to target.

In the case of subdomains or subdirectories, the hosting is the same for all of them, so you will not be able to change the hosting per country. Is there a solution? Yes ! You can use CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) to store a static copy of your website in servers located around the world. Thus, a different copy of the site is delivered depending on the user’s country, the loading speed will be higher and the user experience will benefit.

Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose? 2

Hreflang tags

Thanks to the hreflang tags, you can tell Google what page to display to the user according to their language and/or geographical area. Although their implementation looks simple, many mistakes are made at this level. Pay close attention to this when setting them up.

Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose? 3

There are three ways to concretely implement hreflang tags:

  • In the <head> section of your site (as here above);
  • By creating dedicated sitemaps for each language version/country of the site;
  • If your site contains non-HTML resources (pdf, doc, etc), the http header allows you to provide equivalent files in other languages.
Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose? 4

Once you have chosen your implementation method (XML sitemap, http header or HTML header), index the original page and its variants. Be extra careful not to make mistakes in the language or country code ,…

To sum up, which solution should you choose?

From a purely SEO point of view, a domain name with a country extension is the ideal solution. However, its implementation is much more complex.

On the practical side, we advise you to use subdirectories for ease of implementation. This way, you will be able to develop your multilingual SEO strategy more quickly and without too much difficulty.

But beyond this technical aspect, don’t forget that the most important thing is to offer the most appropriate response to your users, wherever they are in the world. So remember to adapt your keywords and translations according to the countries you are in. Queries can be different from one market to another, and you may not be targeting the right keyword if you don’t perform a separate semantic analysis for each of them. To give you a simple example, we will use the word “smartphone” in France but the word “GSM” in Belgium.

Also consider whether the search intent is still the same in each market or not, and adapt your content accordingly. An analysis of the SERP in each market is therefore essential before posting content.

Multilingual SEO: targeting by country VS by language, which one to choose? 5

Need advice on developing your multilingual SEO strategy? Contact the Semactic team.We are always happy to discuss SEO!

Picture of Carine Pire

Carine Pire

Carine has more than 5 years of experience in a large international company and specialized in digital marketing at Technofutur TIC. There, she got particularly interested in SEO and chose to become a SEO consultant. Always curious and eager to learn, she helps us support our clients in their SEO projects.
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