The Impact of Language on Search Rankings

6 min read

Discover how Google’s search results consider businesses that serve diverse global customer bases with different languages.

Should your target audience encompass various language speakers, providing your website content in multiple languages would enhance the user experience. However, does featuring different languages on your website impact organic search rankings? Furthermore, can the organization of your localized pages influence organic search rankings?


The Assertion: Language’s Role in Rankings


If your goal is to connect with English-speaking audiences, having your content in English is essential. However, the same English content may not perform well in regions where other languages—such as Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish—hold sway.

For businesses aiming to engage diverse language-speaking audiences in specific countries, crafting content in multiple languages is a strategic move.

Given these considerations, it’s reasonable to assume that language is pivotal in how Google assesses webpage rankings.

Search engines always want to provide users with the most pertinent results, and they possess the ability to discern the language within content. Nevertheless, they also encourage us to contribute by organizing localized versions of our pages.


The Supporting Evidence for Language as a Ranking Factor


Google explicitly references language twice in its explanation of how the Google search algorithm assesses and ranks search results.

When interpreting the intent behind a user’s search query, Google states:

“If you use terms like ‘cooking’ or ‘pictures’ in your query, our systems deduce that displaying recipes or images is likely the best match for your intent. If you search in French, most of the results shown will be in that language, as it’s probable that you seek content in French.”

Furthermore, Google emphasizes that a user’s search settings also play a significant role:

“Search settings serve as a crucial indicator of which results are likely to be most valuable to you, especially if you have specified a preferred language…”

If a searcher selects English as their preferred language and designates Canada as their location, Google considers these preferences when presenting search results. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that websites targeting English-speaking individuals in Canada may be more likely to appear in such searches.

In the Google Search Help documentation, Google outlines how it determines the language of search results. This process involves considering several factors, such as the language used in the query, content relevance in various languages, user display language settings, browser and device preferences, location and regional configurations, and information supplied by content creators to cater to multilingual users.

Content creators and website owners can provide this information by informing Google about the existence of localized versions of their web pages.


Why is this significant?


Informing Google about the various versions of your web pages tailored to different languages or regions is crucial. This proactive step aids Google Search in directing users to the most relevant version of your page based on language or region.

It’s worth noting that even without your intervention, Google may still identify alternate language versions of your pages. However, it’s generally more advantageous for you to explicitly specify your language- or region-specific pages.

Furthermore, Google suggests a straightforward approach to making the language evident on your webpages:

“Google relies on the visible content of your page to determine its language. We do not utilize code-level language information like lang attributes or URLs.

To assist Google in accurately identifying the language, use a consistent language for both content and navigation on each page, and refrain from presenting side-by-side translations.”


HTML Tag Options


One approach involves incorporating the hreflang attribute within the HTML tags of a page. This attribute conveys to search engines the intended language and country for the page.

According to recent tweets from Google’s @Searchliaison, this method remains recommended and favored.

“I strongly advise content publishers to ensure they implement hreflang, as outlined here, including on mobile pages, given our mobile indexing practices. As always, Google remains committed to enhancing search results in alignment with user preferences.

The key factor to consider is that we recognize that individuals conducting searches in a specific language, with diverse preferences configured within that language, often prioritize results in the same language. We are dedicated to ongoing improvements in this regard.”



HTTP Headers for hreflang Tags


Another option is to embed hreflang tags within an HTTP header. This approach serves to specify the language for non-HTML files.


Using Sitemaps


Another method is to employ your sitemap to designate a page’s language and regional versions. This entails listing each language-specific URL beneath a <loc> tag.


Distinct Domains for Various Countries


Utilizing top-level domain names tailored to specific countries, such as https://domain.it/, communicates to search engines that the entire website is intended for an audience in Italy.


Language-Specific Subfolders


Additionally, language and country-specific content can be organized using subdirectories. For instance, content accessible at https://domain.com/en-us/ is directed towards English-speaking audiences in the United States.

It’s essential to recognize that Google asserts it doesn’t rely on these methods for language or target audience determination. Google emphasizes the use of hreflang to inform the search engine about content variations, allowing it to comprehend that these pages are localized adaptations of the same material. Google’s language detection relies on algorithms rather than hreflang or the HTML lang attribute.


Canonical Tags



Google also suggests the use of canonical tags in specific scenarios.

According to Google’s recommendations, when you present similar or duplicate content on different URLs in the same language within a multi-regional site (for example, if both example.de/ and example.com/de/ feature comparable German language content), you should select a preferred version and employ the rel=”canonical” element along with hreflang tags. This ensures that the correct language or regional URL is served to searchers. Google’s documentation on consolidating duplicate URLs explains how canonical tags and language interact.

Google also clarifies that different language versions of a single page are regarded as duplicates solely if the primary content is in the same language. In other words, if only elements like the header, footer, and other non-essential text are translated while the core content remains unchanged, then the pages are considered duplicates.

As part of its guidelines for canonicalization, Google advises:

  1. “Specify a canonical page when using hreflang tags.
  2. Specify a canonical page in the language, or choose the best alternative language if no canonical page is available in the same language.”

In 2018, Gary Illyes, Google’s Chief of Sunshine and Happiness, discussed a selection of hreflang examples that were examined.

“We dedicated over half an hour to explore hreflang examples featuring MENA, EU, ASIA, and other region codes, and I’m pleased to report that they aren’t effective. We don’t extract language information, even from something like fr-eu, let alone employ it for ranking purposes.”

In 2021, John Mueller recommended including content in multiple languages on a page.

“I recommend against having multiple language versions of the same text on a page, such as translations alongside the original content. Instead, make it clear which language is the primary one.”


Our Conclusion: Language Plays a Role in Rankings


When elucidating its search engine operation, Google acknowledges the influence of language on search results. Several pages within Google’s support and developer documentation delve into language handling. Establishing a shared language with the user is imperative for providing a successful query response, and Google considers language preferences when delivering search results.

Therefore, although Google does not officially declare it as a ranking factor, language undeniably impacts visibility in searches for users who specify a particular language and location.

While various techniques can be employed to communicate region and language preferences to Google, it predominantly identifies language through algorithmic means.


In conclusion:


How you structure different language versions of your website likely doesn’t substantially impact organic rankings. Having content in multiple languages isn’t a universal ranking factor.

However, catering to users’ preferred languages will likely influence organic rankings. The language used in your content plays a significant role in rankings for queries conducted in that specific language. All in all, there is a strong indication that language is a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, even if it’s not officially confirmed.

If you need help to grasp or implement these strategies, consider exploring our monthly SEO packages. Our experts are here to assist you in navigating and optimizing your online presence.

Shilpi Mathur
[email protected]