Multilingual SEO: by language or by country?

With only around a quarter of internet users being native English-speakers, and with the majority of multilingual users placing more trust in websites written in their own native language when it comes to making purchases online, website localisation and multilingual SEO are becoming increasingly important aspects of online marketing.

Indeed, Common Sense Advisory studies suggest an average return of US$25 for every $1 spent on localization. The benefits are clear, but once you’ve decided to take the plunge, you still have to decide whether to target foreign markets by language or by country.

By language

Many languages are spoken across several different countries, and you might consider it adequate to have a single localized website for all those countries sharing a common language. Spanish, for example, is spoken in Spain (naturally) as well as many Latin American countries, while a single website in French could cover France, the French-speaking populations of Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, and a number of African nations, where it serves as either a first or second language.

A single localized website targeted by language can be hosted on a local server and will be both cheaper and easier to maintain than several localized websites targeting each country. There are, however, a few extra things to bear in mind.

First, linguistic usage can vary greatly between countries. Consider the differences in grammar and vocabulary, especially colloquialisms, between the English spoken in England, the USA and Australia. Similar differences exist between the Spanish spoken in Spain and Latin America, and the French spoken in France and Quebec. A computer, for example, is an “ordenador” in Spain but a “computadora” in Spanish-speaking Latin America, while “coche” means car in Spain but signifies a baby-stroller or pram in Latin America.

Extra care should be taken over keywords, which can also vary between different territories, as colloquialisms, abbreviations or alternative terms may be used. In France an effective keyword when searching for high speed bullet trains would be “TGV” – an abbreviation of “Train à Grande Vitesse” or “high speed train”. In neighbouring Belgium, “Thalys” is a more popular term, taken from the name of one of the major rail operators. If targeting by language, you should always ensure that all your content and keywords are appropriate across all the countries covered, avoiding specific cultural references and jokes.

Search algorithms are typically built around the locality of countries, rather than languages. If targeting by language you won’t have the opportunity to boost SEO by setting up separate country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) – but you should at least set up your localized content in separate subdomains and subdirectories.

An example of a subdomain for Spain would be and a subdirectory would be Google has a Geographic Targeting tool in Webmaster Tools that allows you to specify particular geographic targets for different subdirectories or subdomains.


• A single Top Level Domain (TLD) is cheaper and easier to maintain.
• Easier and cheaper to target several territories sharing a common language.


• Search algorithms take location into account
• Dialects and spelling are different across different countries that share the same language.

By country

Targeting by country gives you the option of boosting your SEO by setting up a separate ccTLD, such as for Spain or for France, for each of your localized sites. As search engine algorithms place a great deal of importance on location as well as content relevance, having a separate ccTLD for each country will boost your rankings on Google’s local search engine and any local competitors. Ensuring the site is hosted on a server physically located within that country will boost your rankings still further.

You will also be able to tailor your content for specific countries and cultures and find more effective keywords for each individual market, instead of having to rely on keywords that are broadly effective across them all. A geographically localized site and its accompanying keywords will also face less competition, allowing you to achieve high local rankings far more easily. Internet users also place more trust in, and prefer to order from, companies they consider to be ‘in-country’.


• Can boost rankings by having a specific ccTLD for each country and in-country hosting.
• Can target content and keywords more effectively.
• Less competition for local rankings.
• More trust placed in in-country sites.


• More expensive and time-consuming to set up and maintain independent ccTLDs.


In pure SEO terms, targeting by country using separate ccTLDs provides more benefits than targeting by language. It’s the ‘real’ localization option, making it easier to get to the top of search engine rankings. This, however, has to be weighed against the cost and effort of setting up and maintaining sites on separate ccTLDs.

In the end it comes down to a judgement call between cost and efficiency, and in most cases a combination of language and country targeting modelled on your business type and likely customer base will be the best approach.

About the author

is the founder and Managing Director of global translation company Lingo24. Visit Christian’s website. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter.

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