If your target audience speaks different languages, offering your website content in multiple languages would make sense to provide a better user experience.
But does offering different languages on your website affect organic search rankings?
Can the way you organize your localized pages affect organic search rankings?
The Claim: Language As A Ranking Factor
Your content should be in English if you want to reach English-speaking people.
However, that same English content probably won’t rank well in markets where other languages – including Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish, for instance – dominate.
Businesses that want to reach customers who speak different languages in specific countries can create content in multiple languages.
So, it seems logical that language plays some role in how Google ranks webpages, right?
Search engines will always do their best to present users with the most relevant results, and they can detect the language in the content. But they also seem to want us to help by organizing localized versions of pages.
The Evidence For Language As A Ranking Factor
Google mentions language twice in explaining how Google’s search algorithm ranks results.
When interpreting the meaning of a user’s search query,
“If you used words in your query like ‘cooking’ or ‘pictures,’ our systems figure out that showing recipes or images may best match your intent. If you search in French, most results displayed will be in that language, as it’s likely you want.”
It also highlights that a user’s search settings will play a role.
“Search settings are also an important indicator of which results you’re likely to find useful, such as if you set a preferred language…”
If a searcher sets English as their preferred language and Canada as their location, Google will consider those preferences when delivering results. It makes sense that websites targeting English-speaking people in Canada could be more likely to appear in that search.
In the Google Search Help files, Google describes how it determines the language of search results.
It uses factors including the language used in the query, the helpfulness of content in various languages, user display language settings, browser and device preferences, location and region settings, and information provided by content creators to serve multilingual users.
Content creators and website owners can provide this information by telling Google about localized versions of your page.
The reason this is important?
“If you have multiple versions of a page for different languages or regions, tell Google about these different variations. Doing so will help Google Search point users to the most appropriate version of your page by language or region.
Note that even without taking action, Google might still find alternate language versions of your page, but it is usually best for you to explicitly indicate your language- or region-specific pages.”
Google also recommends simply making the language obvious on your webpages.
“Google uses the visible content of your page to determine its language. We don’t use any code-level language information such as lang attributes, or the URL.
You can help Google determine the language correctly by using a single language for content and navigation on each page, and by avoiding side-by-side translations.”
In addition, Google suggests using different URLs for different language versions of a page. Then, mark each URL with the language you’re using to help search engines understand what’s going on.
You can organize language-specific pages in a few different ways:
The first option is to use the hreflang attribute in the HTML tags of a page, which tells search engines the target language and country for the page.
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.site.com" hreflang="en-uk">
This code indicates that the page is intended for English speakers in the U.K.
Recent tweets from Google’s @Searchliaison indicate this is still a preferred method.
“I would encourage the publisher of any content to ensure they are making use of hreflang as indicated here, including on mobile pages (since we do mobile indexing)…”
As always, Google continues to work towards improving search results based on user preferences.
“But the important thing is that we understand some who are searching in a language, with various preferences set in that language, often prefer results in that language …and we’re working to improve that.”
You can also place hreflang tags in an HTTP header. This use case helps indicate the language of non-HTML files.
You can also use your sitemap to specify a page’s language and region variants. This involves listing each language-specific URL under a <loc> tag.
Follow the link above to see Google’s guide and code snippet examples.
Different Domains For Different Countries
You can use top-level domain names for specific countries for an Italian website, such as https://domain.it/, which tells search engines the entire website targets people in Italy.
In addition, you can use subdirectories to separate content by language and country. An example would be content found under https://domain.com/en-us/, targeting English-speaking people in the United States.
It’s important to note that Google claims it doesn’t use any of these methods to determine the language or target audience:
“Use hreflang to tell Google about the variations of your content so that we can understand that these pages are localized variations of the same content.
Google doesn’t use hreflang or the HTML lang attribute to detect the language of a page; instead, we use algorithms to determine the language.”
Google also recommends using canonical tags in certain situations.
“If you provide similar or duplicate content on different URLs in the same language as part of a multi-regional site (for instance, if both example.de/ and example.com/de/ show similar German language content), you should pick a preferred version and use the rel=”canonical” element and hreflang tags to make sure that the correct language or regional URL is served to searchers.”
Google’s documentation on consolidating duplicate URLs discusses how canonical tags and language work together.
“Different language versions of a single page are considered duplicates only if the main content is in the same language (that is, if only the header, footer, and other non-critical text is translated, but the body remains the same, then the pages are considered to be duplicates).”
Under its do’s and don’ts for canonicalization, Google suggests that you:
“Specify a canonical page when using hreflang tags. Specify a canonical page in same language, or the best possible substitute language if a canonical doesn’t exist for the same language.”
In 2018, Gary Illyes, Chief of Sunshine and Happiness at Google, discussed a sampling of hreflang examples analyzed.
“We spent over half an hour with @suzukik looking at hreflang examples with MENA, EU, ASIA, etc. region codes in hreflang, and I’m happy to report they are not working. We don’t extract a language even from something like fr-eu, let alone use it in ranking.”
In 2021, John Mueller suggested having multiple language content on a page.
“I’d just avoid the situation where you have multiple language versions of the same text on a page (e.g., translation next to the original). Make it easy to recognize the primary language.”
Our Verdict: Language Is A Ranking Factor
In explaining how its search engine works, Google discusses how language can affect search results. Multiple pages in Google support and developer’s documentation cover how to handle languages.
You need to have a common language with the user to answer their query successfully, and Google takes language preferences into account when serving search results.
So, although Google doesn’t officially confirm it to be a ranking factor, language affects visibility in search for users who specify a particular language and location.
While you can use different methods to indicate region and language to Google, it identifies language algorithmically instead.
- Your method of organizing different language versions of your site probably doesn’t affect organic ranking. Having content in multiple languages isn’t a general ranking factor.
- Using people’s preferred language probably does affect organic ranking. The language of your content is a ranking factor for queries in that language.
Overall, we’re confident that language is an all-but-confirmed Google ranking factor.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal