SEO and Localization: A Few Best Practices

If you’re translating your website or other digital content, you need to consider SEO localization strategy. Simply translating your source SEO content won't cut it.


Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the steps you can take to help your website and digital content rank higher on search engines. It is often a marketer’s not-so-secret weapon and critical to a company’s success. After all, it makes no difference how good your products or services are if customers can’t find you online.

For companies looking to expand into new markets, SEO localization is just as important. If you’re investing in website localization or translating other digital content, you want to make sure you’re doing so in such a way that it performs well in searches in the target market.

Why Is SEO Localization Strategy Important?

When launching in new markets where your brand isn’t yet very well known, it’s essential to do everything possible to boost your visibility. And while localizing your website provides local customers with a more comfortable, native user experience, very few new customers will easily find your website if your content isn’t surfaced via their online searches.

SEO localization process can boost your visibility in your new markets by ensuring your content includes the key search terms searchers use within the specific region you’re targeting.

Some may ask: Why doesn’t simply translating your source content work? The answer is that it can — to a degree. Your translators will inevitably weave into their translations some of the same terminology and phrases your customers use when browsing for your products and services.

But that’s not guaranteed.

Search habits differ. Direct translations may not always take into account the keywords and key phrases people in different countries or different regions use when searching for content. In addition, search engines need to understand that you’re offering unique content for your target locales so that they don’t penalize you if there’s overlap between pages. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to ensure your translated content is optimized for your target markets.

Tell Search Engines Which Language You’re Speaking

One of the first steps you should take is to tweak your coding to let search engines know which pages are intended for which users. While a search engine like Google may detect which language your webpage is written in automatically in a Google search, making it explicit is an SEO best practice whenever you localize into a new language.

This also ensures search engines don’t rank your pages lower for having “duplicate content” or identical content that appears on multiple pages. So it’s particularly good to do this when you have pages featuring regional variations within a single language — e.g., US English content and UK English content or content written for Spanish audiences in Spain and Latin America.

There are a few ways to do this. Two of the most common are:

  • At the site level: You can choose to localize your entire sitemap by replacing your source domain with a localized one. For example, would be replaced with or if you were localizing your site for customers in Spain. Then use a sitemap index to detail your site pages. You can either point to the sitemap or sitemap index using robots.txt or manually submit your sitemap to the search engine. (Read more about how Smartling’s GDN handles sitemaps here.)
  • At the page level: You can add hreflang tags / attributes to your pages to tell search engines that a specific page is written in a certain language. These attributes must be implemented in the code of your source site — via an HTML link tag at the top of your source page followed by a list of alternate pages (your localized pages), or for non-HTML files, via an HTTP header.

Localizing Keywords

Creating a glossary is the key to ensuring your translated content is optimized for search engines. If possible, it’s best to complete this step before translation work begins.

Start by creating a list of keywords in your source text. Include product or service keywords, including features and differentiators, as well as any other terms or phrases that speak to your brand identity, value proposition, and so on. Add in definitions to give your linguists additional context.

Then, have your term list translated with an eye to SEO in your target audience's language. Note that this may require additional steps: your translators may be highly qualified in translation, but they may not be specialized in international SEO. So you’ll also want to work with regional content specialists who can review and make revisions to the translations as needed.

Finally, have your target-language linguists identify any other keywords, phrases, and related terms unique to that region. Determine where these might fit into the glossary: you’ll need to match them with a source term or phrase.

It’s worth highlighting that a strict 1:1 glossary, where you have one term and one translation, may not always work. On the contrary, it can be counterproductive. The goal of an SEO-optimized glossary is to provide your translators with options – so that they can consistently use the SEO keywords and phrases as they translate new content and work them into the text naturally and where they see fit.

What To Do With Metadata

Meta titles and meta descriptions are typically the first things your potential customers will see when browsing pages via search engine results. As a result, they should be clear, concise, and catchy. They also often include at least one high-priority keyword or phrase.

While less visible to potential customers, alt text — the text that is displayed if an image cannot be loaded by the page — is a vital component of a successful SEO strategy. Search engines also index visual content. So leaving the alt text field blank or unlocalized is at best a lost opportunity to boost your visibility, and at worst, may hurt your overall search ranking.

When localizing all metadata, it’s critical to consider any character limitations and clearly note those constraints for your linguists. When translating, these limitations may require a more creative touch to create compelling meta titles, descriptions, meta tags, and alt text in the target language. Working from English to Spanish, for instance, often results in text expansion, where the translated text is longer than the source text. So your linguists may need to take liberties with the translation to make it fit.

Keep in mind that if identical phrasing is found elsewhere on your site, you may want to differentiate the metadata (where character limitations matter) from your regular text (where character limitations are less important) with variants. Depending on where those strings live on your site, it could make sense to have different translations for the same source text.

Other SEO Considerations

The SEO localization best practices above cover the basics. But if you want to level up your SEO approach in your regional markets, you’ll also want to consider these two often overlooked aspects:

  • Link to local content: If you link out to other sites or materials, consider replacing the current hyperlinks used in your source content with the region- or country-specific hyperlinks or hyperlinks to content written in your target language. Also, devise backlinking strategies that encourage other websites in the region to link back to your multilingual website.
  • Consider search engine differences: While Google is the dominant search engine in many international markets, it may not be the most-used search engine in your target market. If you’d like to translate for the audiences in China, Russia, or South Korea, for instance, to tap into these markets, you may want to tailor your SEO strategy to meet the requirements of Baidu, Yandex, or Naver in addition to or instead of Google.