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Multilingual SEO: a Eurocentric perspective

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Gary Muddyman photoSearch is now becoming the new barrier to international success on the internet. Companies can invest in translating and culturally customizing their sites into other languages but getting “found” is becoming increasingly difficult in the international arena.

The importance of Multilingual SEO

The internet means that businesses cannot just think about their national markets. In fact, global e-commerce now exceeds $12.8 trillion and global online population is estimated to be 1.8 billion by the year 2010. 

Only 7 countries have English as their official language. These countries comprise little more than 5 percent of the world’s population. Only 30 percent of web users actually have English as their first language. Research shows that buyers are 10 times more likely to buy on the internet if the website is in their own language. There is huge potential to capitalize on this opportunity by implementing an effective international online marketing plan.

Online shoppers in Europe depend on search engines to help them find the product or service that they are seeking. Search habits across cultures are unique. Online shoppers may be searching for the same product or service but what works in one country may not necessarily work in another.

Not only must a website be culturally customized in terms of graphics, colors and text, it must also be optimized in accordance to country specific search phrases. By doing this correctly, organisations can reach their target markets more effectively.

Internet Usage in Europe

European internet usage is growing at a rapid rate. According to Internet World Stats there are over 384 million internet users, a growth of 266 percent from 2000. This means that 48.1 percent of Europeans are now online, which is significantly higher than the percentage of internet users in the rest of the world (18.4 percent).

The top ten internet countries are Germany, UK, France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Spain, Poland, Netherlands and Romania. Germany has an internet population of 52.5 million users, France has 36.2 and Italy has 34.7. It is evident that the European market is not to be ignored.

European Search Engines

Due to the rise in European internet usage, the main search engines such as Google, MSN and Yahoo operate in the various European countries, for example,, and

Search engines which offer country specific versions of their databases are not limited to the above, for instance, AOL and AltaVista also have international sites. All such sites allow the searcher to either carry out a country-specific or a worldwide search.

The Importance of Local Search Engines

Organisations wishing to expand into international markets cannot just rely on Google, Yahoo, MSN and other major search engines for their global search marketing activities. Many country specific search engines are also growing in popularity, for example, Voila in France.

Some examples of local European search engines are as follows:  the statistics have been gathered using Internet World Stats:

Belgium has a population of approximately 10 million, 5.4 million of whom are online. The country has three official languages:  Dutch (which is spoken by the majority of the population), French and German. Advalvas appears to be the most popular local search engine and will only accept websites written in Dutch or French or with a .be domain.

In Central Europe, the online population is rising rapidly. For example, there are now 16 million internet users in Poland compared to 11 million in 2007. The majority of Polish internet users use Poland’s number one portal,

There are 41.8 million internet users in the UK. dominates, followed by, Yahoo and (Source Hitwise UK).

With 52.5 million users, Germany has the highest online population in Europe.,, and are amongst the most popular search engines and certainly useful if an organisation is planning on conducting business in Germany.

Multilingual SEO Challenges

It is not enough to simply translate your website into another European language. The most highly effective sites are built from the ground up with SEO in mind. This means that the entire web architecture and coding strategy must conform to local search engine algorithms.

  • Original company websites tend to be commissioned by a local or nationally based company that may not even optimize websites for the local audience, let alone internationally optimize them.
  • Technology – the way in which the original site has been built may make adding languages difficult, especially with regional options (Portuguese vs. Brazilian Portuguese).
  • Geographies – some search engines express regional favouritism.
  • Language – multiple languages mean multiple pages or sub-domains.
  • Keyword translations – Different cultures will use different search terms. Simply translating keywords may not prove effective. For example, in Germany, it is more likely that a user will search with the word “handy” rather than “mobiltelefon”.


In order to reach your target European audience it is essential to first research their internet usage habits and culture. Below are some important considerations:

Spelling and Grammar

Spelling and grammatical differences must be taken into account when planning your international SEO strategy. For example, unlike English, many European languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese use accents and diacritics. All website information must be culturally customized and optimized in order for local search engines to pick up culturally specific search terms.

Purchasing country domains

If expanding into Europe, purchasing the appropriate country domain is advisable. It is possible to buy international domains such as .de, .fr, .es etc; however, there may be country specific rules which prohibit purchase. In some cases, it will be necessary to prove that you can meet certain country specific criteria by producing the relevant documentation. For example, a legal or physical presence may be required in a certain European market in order to purchase their domain. This can prove costly.

Not all European countries require legal or physical presence for domain name registration, Russia, Czech Republic and the UK being examples.


It is important to consider where your site is hosted as this may affect your international SEO strategy. For example, a .com domain hosted in the UK will appear in but the same site hosted in the US may not appear in the local listing in

Other considerations for a successful international SEO strategy are as follows:

  • Which are the main search engines used by the target locale. For example, Google dominates in the US and UK but other search engines such as MSN may prove more popular in other European countries.
  • Which regional directories should be targeted, for example, works in the UK but France may have its own directory.
  • Different countries have different link building strategies - Highly page-ranked websites that impress Google may not be relevant to a local market. Local sites are required to provide links as well as Google PageRank.
  • Currency conversions –Products such as Google Analytics are unable to cope with multiple currencies so unless careful consideration is given to exchange rates for websites processing euros, pounds sterling and dollars, data can easily be misunderstood. The site may require conversion to an agreed currency for the analytic tool being used. 


Effective international SEO is difficult to achieve as proved by the challenges and considerations outlined in this article. It is essential that an organisation understands the cultural nuances of their target market so that the website can be correctly optimized in order to attract a particular European audience.

Gary Muddyman is Managing Director and CEO of Conversis. Established in 2003, Conversis is a U.K.-based leading provider of Globalization, Internationalization, Localization and Translation (GILT) services.

Published - December 2008

This article was originally published in GALAxy newsletter:

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