SEO Solutions for Language/Region Selectors

  |  September 30, 2009   |  Comments

Offer global options without messing up your SEO.

Your big brand site is finally paying off and pulling in queries from all parts of the keyword curve. But you've done so well, your site now pulls in international traffic and you need to ensure that users get to appropriate content without sacrificing the SEO (define) equity you've built.

Today, let's discuss the purpose behind global region or language selectors, the problems they can create for your SEO campaign, alternatives to language selectors, and finally the best practices for implementing one if you simply can't avoid it.

For the purposes of this column, let's assume your site is U.S./English-based, but the same principles apply no matter where you're located and what type of site you have.

Examining User Analytics

Global brands frequently require content or sites designed for users in specific countries or those who speak different languages. The purpose of this column isn't to debate that point but to determine the most efficient way to offer that alternative content to users.

First, tackle whether a prominent language selector will actually help your user base.

Consider the following factors:

When you search for your brand from an engine outside your main country (such as Google France or Yahoo Argentina, does your country-specific content already show up at or near the top of the results page? If so, you might need a language selector on your home page less than you think because those who require alternative content are likely already getting it automatically.

What is the role of your main domain? Sites like BMW, Coca-Cola, and Honda are basically portals whose primary purpose is to direct traffic to the correct child sites.

What is the language breakdown of your existing traffic? If 80 percent to 90 percent of your traffic comes from your main region or speaks the language of your main site, is a prominent language selector necessary?

That last question might be tricky. You could argue that if 80 percent to 90 percent of your traffic is concentrated in one region, a prominent language selector might help diversify it.

What's the Problem With a Language Selector?

If you devote a big portion of your home page (and by a "big portion," I mean a large percentage of the links on the page) to language/country selection, you could be risking some of your SEO assets.

First, the quality of your Sitelinks (define) could be in jeopardy. Remember Sitelinks' two main functions: to offer quick access to deep interior content, and to consume valuable SERP (define) real estate and move competitors further down the page.

But look at a Google query for Coke. While the site's architecture affords it eight Sitelinks, six of them point to different international content hubs.

coke search result
click to enlarge

There's a good chance this is exactly what Coke wants. But is it what you want?

Second, you're probably misappropriating your home page's authority. Any page linking to your home page is considered important. Think of the sheer number of links pointing to your home page, and decide how finely you want to divide and dilute that authority among your international hub pages. Should your international home pages share in that wealth, or should they accrue their own authority the same way the global home page did?

Before you answer that, look at your analytics and see how visitors are currently using your Sitelinks. In tests I've run for multiple sites, I've see anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent of users clicking one of the eight Sitelinks and heading directly for deep product and service content. Will they still do that if the only Sitelink options are content from different regions?

The best of both worlds is to have a region/language selector that resides on a page that you can find easily from the home page. Typically, this is a header link (possibly using some graphics of flags from different nations) that users can reach from any page. This gives users an easy opportunity to find content that suits them, but it doesn't add a dozen or more links to your home page. Generally, if such architecture affects your Sitelinks, it will only add one: the link to the selector page itself.

But What If You Have No Choice?

Despite everything discussed to this point, you might have no significant options. Your directive may be, "Make a language selector, make it the first thing the users see, and keep it SEO-friendly."

Tough task, but it's not impossible. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep a traditional navigation scheme on the home page that links into the deep content of your core region. In other words, keep your left or top navigation scheme intact, so that engines can still crawl to important pages from the root.

  • Code the language selector (or links to different regions' content) in JavaScript so that engines will be less likely to crawl the links or weigh them heavily. (You can still link to different regions' content from your site map, of course. We're not trying to hide the content, just downplay the way the home page links to it.)


In addition to a language selector, consider reading your users' IP addresses and automatically sending users to the content designed for their particular country based on the region of their IP addresses. This is not only efficient but also completely acceptable from the engines' perspective because it's something that engines themselves practice.

Finally, I realize you can adjust and block specific Sitelinks from within Google Webmaster Tools. So it's easy to block one here and there. But the greater point is that without addressing important architecture concerns, the ones that Google might choose to replace your blocked links with will be no better than the ones you blocked.

How do high-performance brands achieve branding goals while increasing ROI? Join us on Wednesday, October 7, 2009, at 1 p.m., for a free Webinar to learn how you can add transparent CPL advertising to complement your existing banner and search campaigns, and round out your media plan.

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Erik Dafforn

Erik Dafforn is the executive vice president of Intrapromote LLC, an SEO firm headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. Erik manages SEO campaigns for clients ranging from tiny to enormous and edits Intrapromote's blog, SEO Speedwagon. Prior to joining Intrapromote in 1999, Erik worked as a freelance writer and editor. He also worked in-house as a development editor for Macmillan and IDG Books. Erik has a Bachelor's degree in English from Wabash College. Follow Erik and Intrapromote on Twitter.

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