Multilingual SEO for Education Websites: 7 Crucial Tips for Schools
Date posted: April 10, 2019
Creating a multilingual website can be a giant step forward for any school looking to internationalize its web presence. With a site that caters to more than one language, you can enjoy increased search traffic and an edge over your competitors, all while providing a more welcoming user experience to international prospects.
However, multilingual SEO and content creation is not without its pitfalls, and it’s common for schools to find themselves failing to achieve the visibility and traffic they crave in new languages. Issues with underlying site structure, UX, and measurement can also become apparent in the first few weeks or months after undertaking a multilingual web project.
1. Do Some Research into Your School’s Target Markets Before You Begin
Creating a multilingual website can take a lot of time, money, and other resources, so it’s important to thoroughly research the viability of the project before you dive in. A good place to start is to look at the language overview in the Geo section of the Google Analytics Audience reports. This report shows the browser language of prospects who have visited your site, and will give you an idea of what languages hold the most potential for your school.
Example: This language report for a school in an English-speaking country shows high potential in a number of different languages, including Italian, Spanish and Turkish.
It may also be worth drilling down into your data to see which countries your foreign language queries are coming from. Looking at the same school, we can see that traffic from Spanish speakers comes from a wide range of locations:
This analysis will help you localize your translated content for the countries and regions you are specifically targeting.
If your Google Analytics data doesn’t show all that much traffic from users who speak other languages, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no need for a multilingual site. It may even mean that prospects in potentially valuable markets are not visiting your site due to its language, and the need for multilingual content is even greater. This could be particularly true if proficiency in your native language is low in your target markets.
You should consider your Google Analytics data alongside any information you have about your target personas and the demographic makeup of your current and past students, as well as your competitor’s performance. This will give you an overall picture of where you are, where you need to be, and how far you have to go to get there.
2. Domain and URL Architecture is Crucial in Multilingual SEO for Education Websites
Once you’ve done the groundwork, you can begin to consider the more technical aspects of multilingual SEO for education websites. The first thing you need to think about is what kind of domain architecture to use. The options can be broken down into three basic categories:
Country code top level domains (ccTLDs)– This is an entirely separate site which has a domain that is specific to the country you are targeting. Examples of ccTLD addresses for different countries would be .cn (China), .de (Germany), or .it (Italy). There are also region-specific ccTLD addresses, such as .eu for Europe. This option tends not to be very common among schools.
Subdirectories: This would involve using your existing site but creating subdirectories for each language or location you are targeting. The subdirectory comes after your domain in the URL of your new pages.
Example: Languages Systems, an ESL school in California, uses a subdirectory structure for its multilingual sites.
Subdirectories allow you to build on the existing SEO authority of your main site, although it should be noted that subdirectory pages can be slower to build authority in your target locations, as they don’t send the same level of local signals as separate domains.
Subdomains: These sites are separate domains within your existing website structure, with the subdomain coming before your top level domain e.g. country.yourschool.com.
A subdomain is kind of a halfway house between building an existing domain and simply using subdirectories. It is intrinsically linked to your existing site, but is fundamentally its own web property and would still require you to build its authority. This option is probably best for schools that have a large website and a lot of content to index, as it can make it easier to organize.
Whichever option you choose, it’s important localize your entire URL strings in the language you are targeting, rather than leaving page URLs in their original language, as this will have a huge impact on your SEO.
Example: The Canadian Association of Public Schools- International localizes all of its URL strings by language.
In recent years, many sites have also explored locale adaptive pages as an alternative option. These are pages which automatically adapt the language displayed from the same URL depending on the location or browser preferences of the user. However, Google has previously stated that it does not recommend this approach, advising that the search engine “might not crawl, index, or rank all your content for different locales.”
However you approach your project, keep in mind that implementing these kinds of structures may also require you to modify your CMS if it is not capable of supporting a multilingual framework. For WordPress users, for instance, the WPML plugin is a fantastic option to enable a functioning and optimized multilingual site.
3. Have a Clear Strategy for Translating Your Education Website Content
When the time comes to translate your content into alternate languages, it’s important to resist the urge to try take shortcuts. Many schools who use translation software, or even hire outside translation services, can be left with content that is localized for the wrong region, doesn’t read well, or even contains glaring flaws.
You should work with reputable, professional translators, and specify what region you are targeting. If possible, try to have the finished content reviewed by a native speaker of the language to ensure you catch any problems early on. You might even ask some of your existing students to help with this task.
4. Consider Original Content Creation for Your School’s Target Markets
In addition, while it might be beneficial to translate many of the pages on your website, and even blogs and other marketing content written in your own language, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of creating original content specifically for the alternate languages you are targeting.
Example: WU Executive Academy in Vienna runs courses on both German and English, and creates original content in both languages.
Because the aesthetics of each language is different, content that reads beautifully in one might not be as engaging in another, no matter how well it is translated. A native-speaking writer, on the other hand, will be able to craft an original piece that hits all the right notes for the readers you’re targeting.
5. Have a Full On-Page SEO and Keyword Strategy for Each of Your School’s Targeted Languages
When translating your content – or creating original alternate language content for that matter – it’s also important to optimize your on-page SEO in the same way you would in your own language. This means ensuring elements like page titles, header tags, alt text for images, menus and navigation, and the body text of your page are all optimized for specific keywords.
Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as literally translating these elements. Prospects who speak different languages may phrase queries differently, or simply have different search habits, and it’s unlikely that the exact translations of your targeted keywords in your native language will attract you the same amount of traffic.
In order to build your SEO in a new market, you will need to go back to the drawing board and carry out extensive keyword research in your targeted language. Luckily, this can largely be done by adopting the same approach you would use in your own market. Using tools like Google Keyword Planner, Moz, and SEMrush, you can identify common queries that you have the potential to rank for, and build a list of keywords to strategically integrate into your web pages.
Example: A rankings report in Moz for a French keywords list.
6. Consider Localizing Your Education Website SEO to Your Target Market
Depending on how ambitious your plans are, you may consider creating more than one version of your site – or even just specific web pages – in a particular language in order to localize it for different countries or regions.
For instance, many schools will create alternate Spanish versions of their sites to serve prospective students in Spain and in Latin America, as there are pronounced differences in the way the language is written and spoken in both markets. Similar strategies might be necessary for Portuguese speakers in Brazil and Portugal or even French speakers in Europe and Canada.
Example: Kaplan International has a Spanish version of its website for Latin America.
However, it also has a version for Spain. You will notice slight differences in some of the text and CTAs.
While this can be a very effective strategy in SEO for education, it is by no means a necessity. If you have limited resources, you may be better off simply creating one site for all prospects in a particular language. In most cases, a potential applicant from Spain should be well able to understand Latin American Spanish, and you should still see some benefit from it.
What is important, however, is that each alternate language version of your site is consistent. If you are creating content in Portuguese and your main target is Brazil, ensure your translation and content creation is done with Brazilians in mind, and that each page adheres to the country’s lingual norms. Sites which flit back and forth between two variations of a language will quickly become noticeable to native speakers.
7. Familiarize Yourself with Hreflang Tags and Their Role in Multilingual SEO
Hreflang tags are metatags which are used in sitemaps to indicate a page’s language and geographic targeting. A typical hreflang tag has a both a language code and a country code. For example, ‘en-us’ would be the hreflang annotation for an English page targeted towards the US. A long-form hreflang tag is written like this:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”en-us” />
These tags make it easier for Google to recognize and cross-reference similar content in different languages, and ensure that the correct version of each page is shown in the correct market.
Hreflang tag implementation can be easy to get wrong, and cause a lot of issues if done incorrectly, so you will most likely require the help of experienced coders if you are developing a full multilingual site. However, you can use hreflang tag generators like this one from Aleyda Solis for individual pages if you are publishing multilingual content on an ongoing basis.
While it is a complex process, adding hreflang tags to your alternate language content can do wonders for your SEO. Not only does it ensure that pages are shown to users in the right language in SERPs, but the country code sends a stronger signal to search engine crawlers that your content is intended for a specific target market, increasing your chances of ranking well in that country.
Across many different types of institutions, an international and multilingual focus is becoming increasingly essential in SEO for education websites. Although it can be challenging, the rewards in your international reach and engagement can make it more than worthwhile. Provided you approach the process diligently and seek the expertise you need, your school could see returns for years to come.