There’s a dog-eat-dog race to the top of search results. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is big business, but relatively little attention is paid to the nuances of how to rank high with content that is translated from one language to (many) others. We will consider best practices, tips and tricks for packaging valuable content in multiple languages in a manner respected by the ranking algorithms that Google uses to display the results of search queries. We will consider issues of domain authority, page rank, metadata, and more in discussing the tactics for breaking through the clutter and reaching coveted top-of-top-page status. You can reapply what you’ve learned in numerous areas, particularly these tips on international content marketing since you need nothing less than a comprehensive understanding of the best digital practices to both attract and retain a multilingual audience.

Where to Translate: Which Languages Dominate the Internet?

According to April 2019 statistics, English is still by far the top dog when it comes to internet usage. 25.2% of Internet users speaking that language. But that plurality can also be seen as a cup half-empty: 74.8% prefer to speak other languages. Chinese, not surprisingly, comes in a strong second at over 19% but bear in mind that, due to boycotts and cultural differences, their internet is not our internet and SEO for Google, not allowed in China except via VPN, is a marginal factor there.

Coming in a strong third is Spanish, with more than 344 million Internet users, and nearly 8% of the total. Add 4% for fifth-place Portuguese, buoyed by populous Brazil, and there’s a strong case for prioritizing Latin languages. Arabic takes 4th place but it’s right to left language takes more of an effort. Also making the top 10 are French at 3.3% and German in 10th place at around 2%, representing nearly 100 million.

That’s nothing to sneeze at (Achtung!). German speakers, concentrated in affluent Germany, Austria and Switzerland, have a stunning 95.1% Internet penetration rate, the highest in the Top Ten.

Not to be neglected are Russian (9th place) and Japanese, with Indonesia and its Malaysian cousin taking 6th place.

These Top ten represent 75.3% of all Internet users, which means that the long tail of hundreds of other languages are viewed by less than a quarter of all users.

Translating the Statistics into SEO Services

What does all this mean in terms of SEO and your priorities for climbing in the rankings and reaching new audiences?  The low-hanging fruit for owners of English content is likely to be Spanish and its Portuguese cousin, French, and German, all of which use similar character sets and have some overlap in terms of semantic understanding. So, for purposes of this article, English-to-Spanish translation. But if your product, services, or interests extend to Russia, Arabic or one of the Asian languages, you’ll need to adapt our discussion for those languages and make the somewhat more difficult accommodation to less familiar character sets, less accessible cultures, and less literate markets.

How do you get started preparing to conquer global search ranking with your soon-to-translated content?  That’s a no brainer: start by optimizing your English content!  There are plenty of resources and software tools for doing just that, but that’s not our focus here. What we will note is that this is not just a technical practice of improving keywords, H1/H2 headings, meta-titles and meta-descriptions.

You need to improve the natural language so that it’s more readable and translatable. You’ll want to use language improvers like Grammarly or Whitesmoke to improve clarity and structure, eliminating verbose terms and redundancies to prepare your content for translation.  You can also use software like Hemingway app to reduce the grade level of your content so that it’s readable by people less literate than you are. Unless your audience consists mostly of eggheads, aim for 9th grade or lower literacy.

Option A: Turn to SEO-Savvy Translation and Localization Agencies

Once your source content is in tip-top shape, readable by a curious 8th grader, it’s time to translate. If your time is valuable, don’t waste it. Seek out professional translation services — a translation agency or localization company that can do the job for you. Reputable translation companies can put together translation and optimization teams quickly. They will find the professional linguists, mother tongue translators, and professional translators knowledgeable in your specific domain.

How do you know a translation company is reputable and suited to your task? The first step is to do your homework with the Google search engine. Search using terms like “localization services” or “professional translator” or “localization company”. Once you have a shortlist of 3 to five candidate translation agencies, query them with details about your job. Send a representative sample of the work you need to translate. Reputable firms will give you a free quote and aggressive timetable, often measured in hours rather than days. Some offer guarantees in terms of free corrections of any error found. After you conclude a deal, they will assign an account manager to mediate between you and their translation team.

The expertise and hand-holding comes at a premium. Localization of software is an expert skill, and you will pay more for the privilege. Working with a localization company or translation agency will typically cost 50% to 100% more than with a freelancer but your risks and time commitment should be similarly less. Usually rates are calculated by the number of words in the source document, which is reassuring because you don’t need to worry about word padding in the target tongue.

Option B: Turn to Freelance Translators with SEO Expertise

Let’s say you have time on your hands and want to save money. No worries! These days there are freelance marketplaces like Upwork, and Fiverr. There you will find professional translators in abundance.

But you will need to vet freelancers yourself. Happily, each comes with a profile and portfolio, rating and reviews. You will need to invite bids by describing your job or gig, as some trendily call it. Then you will need to evaluate the contenders and negotiate a contract.  You will definitely save money relative to agencies but you will need to keep close tabs on your chosen linguist. Insist on demonstrable SEO expertise in terms of site references. Agree on a fixed timetable and don’t allow slippage.  One valuable tip is to hire two expert freelancers in a given language, the less expensive one to do the heavy lifting in terms of translation, the other is serve as quality assurance in and a backup translation resource in case the first comes down with mono or goes on a bender to Vegas.

Option C: SEO Translation using Software Translators

OK, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. If you really have time on your hands and want to save money, then it’s possible these days to do it (mostly) yourself. Neural machine translation has come a long way baby, and these days you can do a decent first cut translation using copy-paste translation engines like Google Translate, DeepL, or Microsoft Translator.

Before you get started, it’s important to have basic SEO familiarity: a knowledge of Google Analytics and search engines generally. You’ll need to be aware of what is a google keyword, and how to conduct a keyword search. Assuming you have these basic you’re ready to plunge in.

Google is not stupid, and it doesn’t want you just to run your content through a software tool to create “original” translated content. No, you need to do some (truly) original content. That means research and writing. If you are not a purist you can use software for a rough draft translation, then hire an English-to-Spanish translator to polish and adapt it so it’s not viewed as duplicate content, a big no-no for SEO.

The Limits of Machine Translation Services for SEO

While some localization software packages come equipped with tools for multilingual SEO, you are likely to lack the basis for evaluating their efficacy. If on a tight budget, you can to invest in hiring not one but two freelancers at negotiated low rates, and then use them in combination with free or cheap translation tools to “originalize” the translated content. (A word to the wise: make sure freelance translators are not using free online translators to do the work for which you paid them!)

Links are key, and you can check those without knowing the local language: even in translation you can use Domain Authority checkers to check the rankings of site. Aim for a DA in excess of 50. Page Rank these days appears less important in Google’s all-seeing eye, but there are also free checkers for that as well.

But if you are aiming for translation quality at the mother tongue level, there’s no avoiding the need for research and human quality translation. Reputable translation agencies use software in addition to, not in place of, expert linguists. Make sure your chosen translation or localization agency has this mindset and the expertise in multilingual SEO to get your job done so that it ranks on the first page of Google in your chosen target languages. There are no guarantees in SEO. But to achieve this result, there’s no shortcut to avoid expertise, research, and originality, even in translation.

Ofer Tirosh is CEO of Tomedes, a leading professional language services provider, specializing in SEO translations and localizations in more than 100 languages, serving tens of thousands of business clients worldwide.