International SEO: How to avoid common translation and localization pitfalls

International SEO: How to avoid common translation and localization pitfalls

Are you doing business in more than one language or more than one country? If you are, you’ll want to avoid these common pitfalls.

Before I started in digital marketing, my career involved quite a bit of foreign language translation work.

Since I left that path and started working on websites, I’ve worked on many websites for international businesses in my SEO career. Some have been smaller, operating only in the U.S. and Canada, while others were global enterprises. 

This combined experience has allowed me to see common areas of concern to avoid in international SEO, falling into two major categories:

  • Translation.
  • Localization.

Translation faux pas

One of my most embarrassing career moments happened when I confused the phrase “to your health” with “train station” in another language while interpreting during a toast among an international group. 

I was nervous, and the other language’s words for the two utterances sounded quite alike. While everyone had a good laugh at my expense, it broke the ice between the two groups and helped make the trip successful.

However, this kind of translation miscommunication is not funny and does not help a business succeed internationally. Errors in wording, grammar and idiomatic expressions can hurt a site’s chance to rank well and kill conversions. 

One error I sometimes see involves translations by people who are not native-equivalent in the target language. I am fairly proficient in two languages other than English, but I know my limitations and would not publish translated text for a website in either one. 

It’s one thing to make your intentions known if you’re ordering in a restaurant, talking about a hockey game, or asking where the restrooms are. It’s quite another writing marketing copy for a widget you’re looking to sell in Europe.

Recommendation: Hire native or near-native translators to translate your copy

The major objection I hear when I recommend hiring people to translate content is the cost. Yes, there is a cost involved, but if you’re going to do business globally, that’s part of the price of doing business that needs to be factored in.

Some websites try to get around the cost by using machine translation. One common implementation I see of this is to use the Google Translate API via a WordPress plugin or by adding some simple JavaScript to the website.

Machine translation has come a long way, but it’s still not good enough to rely on for translating website copy. Google recommends against using machine-translated copy without human review in their “Spam policies for Google web search.”  

Even when machine translations are good, they can be affected by many things, like dialectical and idiomatic differences. When you consider the numerous dialects in Spanish alone, it can make your head swim. 

While it’s true that someone in one Spanish-speaking country will likely understand what someone in another Spanish-speaking country writes, that doesn’t mean it will sound natural to them. It may be challenging to build trust if there are misunderstandings.

There’s one more disadvantage to using an API to auto-translate a website: Depending on how the translation piece is implemented, the translated content may be invisible to the search engines.

That could potentially cause the website to lose a lot of search traffic it might have gotten if it had its content organized along language and regional lines.

Recommendation: Even if you use machine translation, have a native or near-native speaker review the copy

And by “native or near-native,” it’s essential to consider a person’s location in addition to their linguistic skill.


Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.






Processing…Please wait.

See terms.


Misguided localization

Another challenge I often see is traffic "leaking" from one country to another. Here's an example based on what I've seen in real life:

  • An English-speaking person in Canada searches for something.
  • The site intended for people in the U.S. outranks the site set up for people in Canada.
  • The person ends up on the U.S. website, where they likely will not have the best experience.
  • They bounce and look for a better alternative.

Localization means more than just language, it also involves measurements (imperial versus metric), currency, and more. 

For one brand I worked with, nearly all the clicks on searches done in Canada ended up landing on the website intended for U.S. audiences. The bounce rates were astronomical, while engagement rates were minimal. Clearly, this was a bad experience for our friends in Canada.

Why does this happen? In many cases, it's because the U.S. version of the website was launched first. Since the site in Canada may be, more or less, a duplicate, the first site published will often win out in the SERPs.

Until recently, Google Search Console had a feature that allowed website owners to specify which country was appropriate for a website. Unfortunately, that feature was deprecated in August. 

Using country-level TLDs or subdomains is good, but those alone are insufficient signals for search engines. In my example above, there was an excellent .CA available in Canadian English and Canadian French that did not get as many clicks as the website intended for the U.S. did.

Recommendation: Implement hreflang for your multi-lingual and multi-regional digital ecosystem

Hreflang is a set of meta tags or an XML sitemap that specifies which language and country (region) a website or web page is intended for. 

When done correctly, it can be a powerful tool in helping search engines send people to your website's most appropriate version. This is Google's recommendation for helping them better understand how you intend things to work.

If your sites are small or small in number, meta tags could be a good way to go. 

If your digital ecosystem supports numerous language and region options, an hreflang XML sitemap is a better option because it can be easier to manage and offloads the extra lines of code into a separate file. 

Bottom line: search engines won't always determine your intended language and region desires. It's up to you to inform them, and hreflang tags and sitemaps are the best way to do it.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


Related stories

New on Search Engine Land


    International SEO: How to avoid common translation and localization pitfalls


    Microsoft Bing’s ChatGPT interface spotted in the wild


    This day in search marketing history: February 3


    Sundar Pichai confirms Google is working on AI search feature users can “engage directly with”


    Make the switch to GA4, or Google will do it for you

Related Post