Multinational SEO vs. multilingual SEO: What’s the difference?

On many occasions, multinational SEO and multilingual SEO are used interchangeably when discussing SEO for global websites. 

Despite their similarities, multinational and multilingual SEO have key differences.

Understanding these differences lets you create effective website design and SEO strategies. 

This article tackles the nuances of each type of SEO project and answers some of the commonly asked questions about multinational SEO and multilingual SEO. 

Multinational and multilingual websites

Multinational or global websites are created to target audiences in multiple countries. 

While multinational websites can be multilingual, depending on the target countries, your multinational website may not always be multilingual. 

For example, if you are targeting English-language audiences in the U.S., UK, Australia and Ireland, you may have a single English-language website targeting them or multiple English local market websites with merchandising and price offers specific to each market. 

Conversely, a multilingual or multi-language website has multiple languages but may only target a single country. 

For example, if your website is designed to target customers only in Canada, you may have one website in English and the other in French. 

Similarly, many websites target U.S. audiences in both English and Spanish languages with a site in English and Spanish. 

A Swiss company only targeting Switzerland may have localized versions in English, French, German and Italian, or it can also target border countries with its language websites. 

Multinational SEO vs. multilingual SEO

Using “multi” in the description is the key indicator that any SEO activity will involve multiple websites or language versions. 

An analogy of these two concepts might be identical twins with unique personalities and interests. 

At face value, they are the same. Many unique attributes must be considered when engaging in multinational and multilingual SEO efforts. We should look past the commonalities and the multiplicity challenge; you need to factor in the unique challenges between the two and even different search engines.

Multinational SEO

Multinational or international SEO focuses on optimizing websites intended for multiple countries to rank well and drive traffic from each location. 

One of the biggest challenges for our multinational sites is ensuring that the site is indexed and ranking well and that the correct country site appears in the search results for the target country. 

If you have multiple websites in the same language (i.e., Spanish), you need to take steps to let the search engines know which site is designed for which country. 

If your websites are not optimized and localized for each country, all sites in the same language may seem like duplicates, resulting in one or more being excluded. 

Sometimes, each country has its own domain, so you need to optimize multiple separate websites while considering the entirety of the infrastructure. 

Things to consider in multinational SEO:

  • Geo-targeting.
    • Domains (ccTLDs vs. gTLDs, separate domains, subdomains/directories).
    • Schema markup with local product availability, currency and price.
    • Hreflang attributes to indicate the language and region of each version.
  • Content (translation/localization, local info, local interests) with strong local signals.
  • IP detection to ensure language does not override the users’ location.

Multilingual SEO

Multilingual by name indicates websites and content in different languages. Due to the different languages, duplicate content is typically less of a concern. 

The key consideration is that the content is correctly translated, culturally relevant and aligns with the local searcher’s intent. 

Language-only sites often use the same domain and are designated by a language folder, minimizing the multiple site challenges. However, language-specific sites are not problem-free, especially when targeting people in multiple countries, since the search engines may not pick up strong geo-targeting signals. 

Unfortunately, as content is localized, key elements may not be maintained. Content may be linguistically correct but not contain a more popular phrase or the well-optimized entity cluster negatively impacting performance. 

Things to consider in multilingual SEO:

  • Localization elements.
    • Schema markup must be localized. 
    • Hreflang attributes especially with language and market targeting.
  • Content (translation/localization, spelling, local info, local interests).
  • Concepts, entities and keyword phrase inclusion.
  • IP detection to ensure location does not override the user’s language preference.

Dig deeper: International SEO: How to avoid common translation and localization pitfalls

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SEO action items

In addition to all of the SEO action items you normally take to optimize a website, there are specific action items necessary for multinational and multilingual SEO. 


Search engines use several signals to determine the target audience for the page’s language and/or market. These are some of the signals they use:

gTLDs that are not geo-specific (.com, .org, .edu, .gov, etc.)

  • While it may be associated with a geographical region, gTLDs such as .eu, .apac and .asia are indeed generic and not used for geo-targeting.
  • Some ccTLDs are commonly used by sites outside the country for different purposes and are now considered non-geo-specific (e.g., .ad, .ai, .bz, .co, .io and .tv).

Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)

  • Each country has assigned ccTLD. Unlike gTLDs, ccTLDs let the search engines know which country the website is created for. For example, .es is for Spain and .jp is for Japan. 
  • While most businesses in the U.S. use .com for their website domain, it is a gTLD. If you want a ccTLD for the U.S., you will need “.us”. 
  • The problem occurs when a website with ccTLD adds content in different languages, hoping to target outside its location. 

Server location (web server’s IP address)

  • Search engines also consider the location of the website hosting server. 
  • It is cost-prohibitive for most businesses to host each website separately in the targeted country, so many will use a CDN that can manage geolocation for their business. 

Business and location information via schema markup

  • Purchasing multiple domains and hosting websites in different countries are very expensive. However, schema markup can be implemented relatively easily at low cost. 
  • Markup business information, including address and phone number, sends the target location signals. 

Hreflang attributes

  • Hreflang attributes using tags or hreflang XML sitemaps are an effective method telling the search engines the target language (and country) which each website is designed for. 
  • If you have multilingual websites (all websites are in different languages), specify all languages by mapping the site URLs. 
  • If you have multinational websites (each website targets a different country; some websites may be in the same language), specify all languages and countries by mapping the site URLs. 

Content optimization

  • Besides the technical SEO, content plays a role in targeting the right language users and people in the target countries. 


  • Many multilingual or multinational websites are created by localizing a main (parent) site into multiple market or language websites. The quality of the text translation plays an important role in both SEO and most importantly, the website performance. 
  • Despite the sites being in the same language, each must adopt the target country’s spelling, commonly used words and writing style. 
  • I have seen many sites with only the body content translated, while metadata and alt text were not. Make sure to translate all text in the page body and tags.

Dig deeper: 15 SEO localization dos and don’ts: Navigating cultural sensitivity

Duplicate content challenges 

Whether your deployment is multinational or multilingual, the multifaceted aspect can create significant challenges if you don’t mitigate the potential for duplicate content by indicating a clear purpose of the page. 

The localization attributes mentioned, currency, geographical references and hreflang, all help project the target of the content. 

Duplicate content may result in the search engines indexing only one of the same language site content and not others. Even when search engines index all sites, a wrong country site may appear in the search results. 

For example, people in Australia may see a company’s U.S. site pages in the search results instead of the Australian site pages. 

When a search user clicks a link to visit the U.S. site, a person may click back to the search results instead of using a country switcher on the site to navigate to the Australian site. 

Multinational and multilingual: The same but different 

One may still argue that multinational and multilingual sites are essentially the same thing with slight nuances. 

Multinational SEO is about targeting multiple countries and requires an understanding of local search engine optimization practices. 

Multilingual SEO focuses specifically on multiple languages within the same or different countries, ensuring content is accessible and relevant to the local audience. 

These nuances can result in major problems if they are not clearly identified and integrated into your global strategy. 

Without focus and rules, it becomes easy for markets to deviate from a consistent domain or URL structure, which creates multiple problems down the road with maintaining the site effectively that negatively impacts your global SEO efforts.

Frequently asked questions

You need to consider an overwhelming number of factors when managing multilingual or multinational websites. Here are some of the commonly asked questions:

Q: Do I need to optimize each site separately?

If all sites are using a common template and set up in the same structure, you should not need to optimize each site separately for technical SEO. 

By putting SEO rules at the template level, you can also minimize the need to optimize each site separately. Content optimization and link building are site specific and will need to be done at the language and location level.

Q: Do I need a domain for each country?

It is not required and your approach will depend on budget, strategy and technology stack. 

You can use different domains, for example, ccTLD for each country site, or you can set up some or all sites under the same gTLD and use folders to distinguish any language or country.

Q: Do I set up websites in subdomains or subfolders?

You can set up websites in subdomains or subfolders. I favor subfolders, but either way, I recommend consistency by keeping the same URL structures for all language or country sites for the ease of analytics data mapping and Hreflang mapping. 

Q: How do I combine different language sites into one website?

Consider it a global site migration project. You will need to have a clear understanding of each site’s content before mapping them to the same URL structure. 

Q: How do I set up a country/language switcher? 

A country/language switcher can either be a detection script based on the visitor’s browser language preference and/or IP location. 

Alternatively, you can implement it using HTML, CSS or JavaScript, where the person makes a manual selection of their preference. 

Dig deeper: 6 SEO considerations for a successful international expansion

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