If your website offers different content to people from different countries, regions, or people who speak different languages, you can optimize Google search results for your website.

A website is said to be multilingual if it offers content in at least two languages. This includes, for example, a website of a Swiss company available in German and French. Google search tries to find pages that match the language of the searcher.

An international website, on the other hand, is specifically aimed at users in different countries. This includes, for example, a manufacturer that delivers to Germany, Switzerland and the USA. Google search tries 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 the content for Switzerland in both German and French

In this SEO guide you will learn everything about the correct use of Google and multilingual or international websites. We explain to you how to optimize your website internationally for Google search, how to avoid duplicate content and how to 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 by no means the only one. In addition to the corresponding hreflang markup, the following factors are also decisive for Google when it comes to aligning content with languages and countries:

  • ccTLDs
  • Search Console settings
  • hreflang element
  • Language of the content
  • Currency and address formats on the website
  • Google My Business profile
  • Backlinks

ccTLDs (Country Code Top-Level-Domain)

Google sees local top-level domains as a strong signal in their algorithm. By using a ccTLD (Country Code Top-Level-Domain, e.g. .de, .ch, at etc.), Google is signaled that this website is geared towards the relevant country and that it may want to specifically address this audience.

The use of a coherent ccTLD strategy also helps to keep a short, concise and clean URL structure. On the search results pages, users also tend to click on results with a local domain extension, as they perceive them to be more relevant. This behavior can lead to a higher click-through rate (CTR) and ultimately to better positions in the search results.

Search Console settings

If your own website has country-specific subdomains (e.g. de.domain.com) or directories (www.domain.com/de/), the respective geographic target should be set in the Google Search Console.

In the case of an online shop, this would make sense if articles from the www.domain.com/de/ directory can only be ordered from Germany and the content is only available in German or is only intended for German-speaking customers.

However, if the online shop also accepts orders from German-speaking customers in Switzerland and Austria, but there is no special landing page for these two countries, then aligning the de directory to Germany would reduce the website’s performance on the Swiss and Austrian markets.

hreflang link attribute markup

Avoid duplicate content and mark the language version of the content

Using the rel = ”alternate” hreflang = ”x” link attribute ensures that Google understands the respective geographic orientation of the website and displays the appropriate language version or regional URL of a content.

For example, if an online shop with its offers expands into several countries, regions and / or languages, a wealth of questions arise about the findability of the content, which providers who are only active in one country do not have to worry about. Duplicate content is one of the most common problems because large parts of the content are largely identical and do not always differ in their language.

What does the labeling of the content with the hreflang link attribute markup do?

Put simply, by using the hreflang comment, Google is informed that the present 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 in the search results for users with the language [X].

Basically, you are signaling that there is a connection between the individual content on your own website and that each URL is relevant for a different target group (language / region). This makes it easier for Google to understand the international website architecture.

Language of the content

Google has its own algorithm to identify the language used on a website and assign it to an appropriate target audience.

That is why you should not use different languages on the website if possible, as this could lead to an incorrect language assignment 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 regional relevance of a website. It is advisable, if possible, to take the physical business addresses in the respective country with you on the corresponding page, as Google uses this as a strong factor.

Google My Business profile

If possible, you should definitely create a separate Google “My Business” listing for each business location and link it to the respective country websites. This not only strengthens the country allocation of the website, but also improves the visibility in the (regional) search results on Google.

Regional backlinks

To evaluate the GEO relevance of a website, Google also includes the external links. The relevant links from the target countries are decisive here. The local link profile should be clearly structured on the basis of quality and not quantity.

Server location?

The server location is often mentioned as an important GEO signal. However, the location of the server is becoming less and less important. Its physical location no longer has a major impact on the 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. There are basically three options that have different advantages and disadvantages. You should carefully weigh these up for your company and decide on the most suitable 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 if you want to use different languages for a country – for example, in Switzerland French, German and Italian.

Subdomains

Subdomains (de.ihrewebsite.de / at.ihrewebsite.de / ch.ihrewebsite.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 trustworthy, which is why you should use this option in exceptional cases.

Brands that have a lot of user trust can use subdomains for easier management and marketing. However, these companies in particular usually have sufficient resources for a ccTLD strategy.

If you use subdomains, you should set the geographic target in the Google Search Console.

Directories

One of the main advantages of directories is that the strength of the main domain is completely inherited. However, the individual directories in the countries typically have less regional relevance.

Structural errors are a common problem. The given page structure does not always fit for all countries. In addition, it is often confusing for the user to navigate within the directories. In the case of subfolders, you should also determine the geographic orientation in the Google Search Console.

Caution: The use of the geographic target in the Google Search Console is only recommended if all countries have their own landing page. If you also serve German-speaking customers in Switzerland and Austria with the ihrwebsite.com/de directory, you should not save a geographical destination in the Search Console. This would reduce the findability in the other countries.

Country-specific content

If international SEO is to be successful, it is extremely important to consider the local market. Even if the language is the same in another country, the terms used in everyday use, and thus the keywords, are often not.

However, linguistically it is not only about the pure terminology, but also about linguistic styles, units of measure and currency, contact addresses and ultimately also about grammar.

In addition, the target group in the different countries can be very different: Certain content can work well in one country while it attracts little interest in another.

Conclusion

International SEO always starts with a logical URL and website structure so that country websites can be clearly assigned. Multilingual content and code should definitely be optimized for each country so that the ranking of your global website increases.

International SEO FAQs

We recommend doing it consistently for each language. Everything else carries the risk of incorrect country allocation.

Depending on the application and resources, the optimal solution is different; we prefer the ccTLD strategy.

No, it does not make sense to implement Hreflang for websites with a completely different content, structure, focus and USP. It is only useful and necessary to implement the hreflang tag if the content and structures are very similar (or the same).

International link building is one of the more difficult topics. We generally recommend working with a local PR / SEO agency.

For Do-It-Yourself SEO: One approach is content marketing using content that works across languages and countries. To do this, you need a topic that works in all target countries and a format that is not too language-dependent. For example, if you have good pictures that pick up on a global trend, they can work in multiple countries and also get backlinks from those countries.

Depending on the country, mobile devices can be much more widespread than in Germany. In Africa and Asia in particular, there are many people who use a smartphone much more frequently than a desktop computer. A corresponding adjustment makes sense in any case.