What Is The Difference Between International And Multilingual SEO?

Author: Veruska Anconitano, Multilingual SEO & Globalization ConsultantAuthor information
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Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a Multilingual SEO and Globalization Consultant with 24 years of expertise working with brands wanting to enter non-English speaking markets.
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When it comes to global SEO, there are two main strategies: international SEO and multilingual SEO. Despite the similarities in their names, these two strategies differ in their approach to targeting the global market. International SEO focuses on optimizing a website for specific countries or regions, while multilingual SEO focuses on optimizing a website for multiple languages.

This article will provide an overview of the differences between these two strategies and help you determine which is best suited for your business.

What is Multilingual SEO?

Multilingual SEO, a subset of International SEO, emphasizes specific geographic areas rather than language groups. It recognizes the distinct characteristics of each region within a language-speaking population and tailors strategies accordingly. This approach is less about treating a language as a monolithic entity and more about respecting the unique cultural and regional differences within that language group.

Unlike International SEO, Multilingual SEO delves deeper into linguistic nuances. It typically requires creating localized website versions or adapting existing content into several languages. This approach demands a comprehensive strategy encompassing unique skills, diverse considerations, and specific tactics, making it an extensive and intricate part of global SEO.

Case Study: Multilingual SEO for Spanish-Speaking Countries

Consider a business operating across Spanish-speaking countries with distinctive dialects and cultural contexts. To effectively engage its audience, the company must optimize its website in standard Spanish and consider regional variations in countries like Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. This means localizing content for each country, ensuring it resonates with the local culture, colloquialisms, and search habits.

Effective Multilingual SEO transcends basic translation. It requires deep localization and transcreation, tailoring keywords to be linguistically accurate and culturally relevant. This approach goes beyond a straightforward content translation into the target language, considering each region’s cultural context and specific nuances. For instance, a term widely used in Spain might have different connotations or might not be commonly used in Mexico.

A notable example of a term widely used in Spain that carries different connotations or might not be commonly used in Mexico is “coger.”

In Spain, “coger” is an ordinary verb meaning “to grab” or “to take.” It’s used in everyday language without any issue. For instance, “Voy a coger el autobús” translates to “I’m going to take the bus.”

However, in Mexico and many other Latin American countries, the verb “coger” has an entirely different connotation, considered vulgar. It is commonly understood as a slang term for sexual intercourse. Due to this, the verb is not frequently used in everyday language in Mexico in the same way as it is in Spain. Instead, Mexicans might use alternatives like “tomar” for “to take” or “agarrar” for “to grab” to avoid the vulgar connotation.

This difference highlights the rich and diverse nature of the Spanish language and how regional variations can significantly alter the meaning of certain words.

Recognizing and adapting to these differences is crucial for engaging a multilingual audience effectively.

Collaborative Strategy for Multilingual Success

A robust Multilingual SEO strategy involves collaboration across various teams — from localization and editorial to CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) and UX (User Experience) teams. This collaborative effort ensures cultural relevance is maintained throughout the website, making it accessible and engaging for users, irrespective of their language. It’s not just about translating content but about creating an inclusive digital environment where every user feels acknowledged and valued.

In Multilingual SEO, the emphasis is on localized and personalized keywords rather than those with the highest search volumes. Even if they attract a smaller audience, these region-specific keywords are more effective in reaching the local populace. This approach also applies to brand keywords and concepts. Consistently using these localized keywords across various digital properties ensures a more authentic and effective engagement with each target audience.

Multilingual SEO is a comprehensive approach beyond mere translation, requiring a deep understanding of linguistic and cultural subtleties. It’s about creating content that speaks the target audience’s language and reflects their cultural identity, ensuring a more meaningful and impactful online presence.

What is International SEO?

International SEO takes a more expansive approach, focusing on broader geographic targeting and includes language considerations as part of its strategy. It looks at optimizing a website for different countries or regions, considering various factors and focusing on technical aspects more than language or cultural nuances. It’s a strategy designed for multi-regional targeting but doesn’t inherently address multilingual needs. This approach operates independently but can complement multilingual SEO, forming a comprehensive global outreach strategy.

Case Study: International SEO for Spanish-Speaking Countries

In contrast to the nuanced approach of Multilingual SEO, International SEO might use a more general approach for language targeting. For example,

a website might have a Spanish version targeted broadly at all Spanish-speaking audiences under a single subdirectory like site.com/es.

This version is designed to cater to Spanish speakers without diving into the specific regional variations that Multilingual SEO would address.

The company employs technical solutions like hreflang and canonical tags to achieve this. These elements help search engines understand the website’s target audience, ensuring that users from all Spanish-speaking regions access the correct version of the site. This strategy leverages the shared language across these countries while acknowledging subtle regional differences.

While this International SEO approach effectively targets multiple regions with a single language variant, it’s not a substitute for a multilingual strategy.

International SEO is the technical backbone for a company’s global expansion plans, ensuring visibility and accessibility across different regions. It lays the groundwork for reaching a broad audience while paving the way for more nuanced, language-specific strategies. This balanced approach helps businesses bridge the gap between broad market targeting and personalized user experiences.

Differences Between International and Multilingual SEO

While international SEO offers a broad umbrella that considers geographical and sometimes language-based optimization, Multilingual SEO dives deeper, acknowledging and addressing the unique characteristics of each specific region within a language group. This distinction is critical for businesses looking to truly connect with and cater to the diverse needs of a global audience, ensuring that content is not only linguistically accurate but also culturally and regionally relevant.

This table differentiates between International SEO and Multilingual SEO strategies through the example of a website targeting Spanish-speaking markets. The International SEO approach uses a general Spanish site (Site.com/es). In contrast, the Multilingual SEO approach involves creating region-specific versions for Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala, and the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.

SEO ApproachExample
International SEOSite.com/es
Multilingual SEOSite.com/es_es
Multilingual SEOSite.com/es_MX
Multilingual SEOSite.com/es_AR
Multilingual SEOSite.com/es_GT
Multilingual SEOSite.com/es_US

The Intersection of Multilingual and International SEO

For advanced companies, the paths of multilingual and international SEO often converge. This synergy is crucial for genuinely penetrating a market, requiring fluency in the local language and dialect and a deep understanding of cultural nuances, consumer expectations, and specific regional needs. For instance, a business aiming to expand into Spain must tailor its approach distinctly from its strategy for Mexico, acknowledging each country’s unique cultural and linguistic landscape.

International SEO is typically the initial step in global expansion for early-stage companies. It provides a straightforward method to make initial inroads into a new market, laying the groundwork for developing a more nuanced multilingual strategy. A practical example would be a Canadian startup exploring the French market. Initially, it might replicate its French-Canadian site with some technical tweaks, postponing a full-fledged multilingual approach.

Multilingual SEO becomes pivotal when a company seeks to deepen its market penetration. It involves catering to local preferences and addressing specific demands. In contrast, international SEO can be implemented from the outset, focusing on technical aspects and foundational translation. Multilingual SEO goes beyond keyword volume; it delves into each term’s societal and cultural significance.

When these strategies overlap, SEO transcends being merely international; it becomes intrinsically multilingual, forming a part of a broader ecosystem. This ecosystem encompasses localization, Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), User Experience (UX), and demand management. The goal is to ensure that visitors to the website are greeted with content that is not just linguistically accurate but also culturally resonant and locally relevant. This holistic approach provides a more meaningful and effective engagement with global audiences.

Multilingual vs. International SEO: How to Choose?

Implementing both International and Multilingual SEO is pivotal for businesses seeking global success. International SEO provides a broad, technically oriented approach, focusing on geographical targeting and primary language considerations. It lays the foundation for a business’s initial foray into new markets, setting the stage for more detailed strategies. On the other hand, Multilingual SEO delves into the intricacies of linguistic and cultural nuances, tailoring content to the specific dialects, customs, and preferences of various regions within a language group.

The key takeaway is that while these strategies can operate independently, their most practical and effective application is often in conjunction. International SEO opens doors to new markets, and Multilingual SEO enriches the experience within these markets, fostering deeper connections with the audience. For a company to truly resonate with a diverse global audience, it must speak their language and understand and reflect their cultural context. This dual strategy ensures that content is not only accessible but also relevant and engaging to users in different regions.

International and Multilingual SEO synergy forms a comprehensive approach to global digital marketing. Businesses that skillfully navigate these strategies are well-positioned to build a robust online presence, connect meaningfully with a diverse audience, and achieve sustained global growth.

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