Google is the top search engine in every country but a few. Consequently, international search engine optimization tips from the search giant carry a lot of weight — no matter which countries a global company targets. Various Google employees — particularly Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team — have shared multilingual SEO tips for international websites via YouTube videos, support pages and posts on Google's Webmaster Central Blog. Here are what I see as Google's Top 10 MSEO tips for international websites. Each tip includes links to learn more directly from Google's posts and videos.
As mentioned previously in this column, always link using the native script of the relevant language or country. For additional best practices on cross-linking each language, read “The Art of the Global Gateway” by John Yunker.
- A screen capture of the language selector on YouTube.com
“Avoid automatic redirection based on the user’s perceived language,” explains the same Google support page for multi-regional and multilingual sites “These redirections could prevent users (and search engines) from viewing all the versions of your site.”
Read the article, “Websites can lose when prematurely assuming what global users want,” for more details on the right and wrong ways to redirect users to translated versions of your website.
- A screen capture of Google's settings that allow users to indicate language preference.
“Automated translations don’t always make sense and could be viewed as spam,” explains a Google support page. “More importantly, a poor or artificial-sounding translation can harm your site’s perception.”
When asked if translated content causes a duplicate content issue, Matt Cutts confirmed in a YouTube video that it can, so robots.txt files should be used to block search spiders from crawling machine-translated Web content.
In another YouTube video on how to handle localized content, Cutts explains he is only warning about automatically translated content that has not received any post-editing because that creates a bad experience. If unedited machine translation is desired, Google prefers that webmasters use a widget to create the translation on the fly.
- A screen capture of an example website using the Google Translate widget.
Should a multilingual and multi-regional site arrange its translated versions by ccTLD, by subdomain or by subdirectory? In other words, should the URL for the German version of a website be example.de, de.example.com or example.com/de?
There is no single correct answer to this question. Google Web trends analyst John Mueller lays out the pros and cons of each common URL structure in a concise table on the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog. As with most advice from Google, the arguments are framed around what will create a good user experience. The virtues of each URL option are discussed in posts by Google employees Charlene Perez, Julianne Stiller, Xavier deMorales, Matt Cutts and others.
- A screen capture of Google's Hong Kong search box at Google.com.hk.
When asked if geographic location of a web server affects SEO, Google’s Matt Cutts responded via YouTube saying, “Yes, it does because we look at the IP address of your server. So if your web server is based in Germany, we’re more likely to think that it is useful to German users.”
This has been reiterated in another YouTube video and Google support page.
- A screen capture of Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team, explaining via YouTube how geographic location of a web server affects SEO.
If your website uses a generic top-level domain like .com or .net instead of a ccTLD that obviously targets a specific country, you can still indicate your target market to Google via the geotargeting tool in Webmaster Tools. This will also determine what region tags appear in search results listing your website. A video explanation from Google webmaster trends analyst Susan Moskwa explains more.
Not to worry, Matt Cutts explains that geotargeting is not considered “cloaking,” so no penalties are associated with this practice.
- A screen capture of Google webmaster trends analyst Susan Moskwa explaining via YouTube how to set a geographic target for a website in Google Webmaster Tools.
Although this geotargeting tool does not work for most ccTLDs, Matt Cutts explains via YouTube that it does work for ccTLDs like .co and .me domains that are popularly used for international markets as if they were actually gTLDS. Geotargeting in Webmaster Tools will also work for the new .brand TLDs. Google support maintains a list of geotargetable domains.
- A screen capture of geographic target settings in Google Webmaster Tools.
Google Webmaster Tools does not have multiple-country targeting; however, there is an way to target one single .com website to multiple markets.
“If you can get a .fr and a .de and a .uk, that’s fantastic,” says Matt Cutts via YouTube. “But if you only have the one domain and you want to geotarget it, you can have, for example, subdomains or subdirectories. Make sure that they are added (to Google Webmaster Tools) as separate sites and then you can geolocate (geotarget) each of those individual parts of your site to specific countries.”
- A screen capture of Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team, explaining via YouTube how to target a single website to multiple geographic locations.
Many people express concern to Google that they do not want similar Web pages that target different regions to be penalized for having duplicate content. Matt Cutts has explained via YouTube that real, multi-regional sites will usually not be penalized. At most, Google will usually pick what it feels are the best versions of each page and not show the others.
“Spammers at least tend to stick to one TLD,” explains Matt Cutts via another YouTube video. “If you see the same content on a small number of country TLDs, that tends to be a real business, not necessarily someone trying to trick the search engines.”
Google support also recommends using the "rel=canonical" link element to identify identical sets of content and also rel=”alternate” and hreflang=”x” annotations to help Google serve up the correct website versions to international searchers.
- A screen capture of Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team, explaining via YouTube how to avoid duplicate content penalties for similar international web content.
Simply because it is there does not mean webmasters must use it for every site. Google explains that it is not always appropriate to use geotargeting.
“If you want to reach all speakers of a particular language around the world, you probably don't want to limit yourself to a specific geographic location, explain Charlene Perez and Juliane Stiller of Google’s search quality team. “This is known as language targeting, and in this case, you don't want to use the geographic target tool.”
Google offers fantastic tips for improving the SEO of international websites, but all this advice should be understood in the context of each website’s goals.
- A screen capture of Google's search box.