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There were some very good discussions late last year about geo-targeting neutral domains, focusing around pointing Google Webmasters at multiple XML sitemaps and country specific folders.
The next problem is how to target multiple languages in the same country for a multi-lingual website. I think I have found the answer...
For those unaware the consensus is to get a neutral domain like a .com domain, set-up country specific folders and create separate country specific XML sitemaps for the each folder. So example.com targeting Ireland and the UK would have example.com/ie/sitemap_IE.xml and example.com/uk/sitemap_UK.xml.
You then go into the webmasters portal and set-up each folder as a new website, add geo-targeting, then point webmasters to the sitemap. The consensus is that it works with higher indexation though at times a drop in rank. Splitting link equity across the folders from the top of the domain is the probable cause and this can be managed.
The next problem to be faced is how to target multiple languages in the same country or many countries for an international, multi-lingual website. What if you are Switzerland with multiple languages and you also have the US with Spanish and English. To answer the question we need to understand the fundamental trigger that Google uses to categorise a site as being in a particular language.
A friend asked me to look at their multi-lingual website the other day and I think I discovered the exact trigger.
The Google Translate website says "Google Translate is an automatic translator -- that is, it works ... using state-of-the-art technology instead. .. we feed the computer billions of words of text, both monolingual text in the target language, and aligned text consisting of examples of human translations between the languages. etc".
I have to say from what I have seen this is complete rubbish. It feeds a myth that it looks at the entire website before classifying that website as being in Italian, French etc. Up until now, at least, that is what we have assumed. However .... It's more simple than that, it has absolutely nothing to do with what a user sees on the web page.
Then there is the domain signal. Having a .uk domain would say in the UK not in English. It's even more simple than that .... Google determines the language of a website by the Title and/or the Meta-description.
Have a look at these search results. The first thing you notice is that the Titles and Meta-descriptions are in Italian. The second is that Google is offering to translate every page. Click on anyone one of the search results however and you will see the page it wants to translate is in English. You see the same thing occurring with the French language portion of the website.
I looked at the code for language qualifiers and found none so the obvious conclusion is that Title and/or Meta-Description help Google determine the language and Google goes no further ignoring the headings, menus and body copy of the website.
So, if you have an international website that has countries like Switzerland or Canada that are multi-lingual, here is your best practice.
- Neutral domain verified in Google Webmasters.
- Country specific folders set up and targeted by country in Webmasters.
- XML sitemaps off each country folder (example.com/ch/sitemap.xml) and referred in Webmasters.
- Language targeting in title and meta-description through a language subfolder in each country i.e the French and German parts of your Swiss targeting <title>Parlez vous francais | Widgets Inc </title> plus meta-description in French and .. <title>Spreken ze Deutsch | Widgets Inc </title> plus meta-description in Swiss German.
You don't even need to translate the content. That is unless you want them to read it :)