How to Target International Visitors to Your Website

Last Edited September 11, 2023 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

targeting international visitors

International targeting is not something that every webmaster is familiar with, especially if their market is more localized. When a person manages multiple websites that are designed for users within a specific region that speak a specific language, it is important that the search results display the most relevant language as well as the country version of the website. There are two major things that one can do to make sure that the content will reach the audience in the correct language: URL level targeting and site-wide targeting.

URL-level targeting

URL targeting uses page-level markup, sitemaps, and HTTP headers.

  1. Page-level markup
    Page-level markup will use special tags to indicate alternative language options for the web page. Each page should have the “hreflang” tag that will link to every language variation of itself, and should include the tag that will link back to it. The “hreflang” tag will also be able to indicate the language and country combination.
  2. Sitemaps
    You may also use sitemaps to submit the information regarding the language and regional preferences and alternates for the pages.
  3. HTTP headers
    HTTP headers are used if you publish PDFs, which are non-HTML files, to show the different language versions of a URL.

Site-wide Targeting

Once you have established that your URL maps will have various languages, you may also need to use domains that are geographically specific. You might also need to change the entire structure in order to provide the content to a specific geographic location with a language preference.

Once your site has been configured for multiple languages or multiple regions, you are able to use two areas in the International targeting tools pages in order to keep your international presence at its best.

  • The language section of the page will help you to make sure that the language tags are using the right locale codes, for both the language and country if needed. Many times, you can make sure that any alternate pages that have tags will link back to the initial pages of the website.
  • The country section of the page can be used to set the target country for your entire website, if needed.

Language Targeting

The Language portion of the International Targeting page allows the user a special view of their errors from the hreflang links that are contained through the website. When these tags are set up, Google will find them within the site, and will end up crawling the related URLs that have been referred to by these tags, and then report the errors on their originating pages, and missing the return links to the destination pages after they have been crawled. This will help the site to keep a healthy presence internationally so that the search results for any visitors will display the language and country variation that is intended for them to see. For instance, if there are 3 international websites that you manage and you need to monitor the errors on a Spanish site, you will choose the Spanish version of the website selector (as indicated by the URL) to see all of the language variations for the sites that have return errors. There are two common errors within multi-regional websites:

  • There are missing return tags from alternate language codes. Ideally, for each alternate URL and language code that you have with a hreflang tag, Google will make sure that the alternate page will have a return tag that will link back to the web page on the site.
  • Unknown language codes. Google will show you when there is an unknown or incorrect language code within the hreflang attributes.

Not having return tags is the most common error for those that have international websites. For every language code that you give, the table will list the total count of alternate pages that do not have a return tag that will link back to the main site. The table collects missing return tags by enforcement and locale.

  • Page-level will indicate all of the hreflang errors by language in the header section of the pages.
  • Sitemap will indicate the total number of errors found within the sitemap.
  • HTTP headers indicate the total number of hreflang errors that occur within the alternate files provided in the HTTP header configuration.

You will be able to click on each error to inspect the details for the specific locale. On the page-level tags, the detail report will show no more than 1,000 URLs on the sire, and pair them with the alternate-language page that does not have the missing return tag. Regarding sitemap details, the report will list the sitemap that shows the URL union and the alternate URL that does not have a return link. The HTTP headers detail pages will show the configuration and secondary URL that has no return link. Regarding page-level errors, the detail page will show no more than 1,000 URLs without return tags.

For an unknown language code and country code (optional) that has been indicated within the site, the table will display the locale, and then “unknown language code”. Regarding the “no return tag error”, you can expand to see the URL level details and the total number of language codes for the particular locale.

International Targeting

Google Search will give users the most relevant and useful sites to them, and because of this the search results may actually be different for users in different geographic areas. If there is a generic top-level domain like an .org or .com, then you have the power to help Google to determine which countries are the most important to your own website. If the website employs a top level country code domain, it will already be associated with a physical region (this would be indicated by something like .ca, .aus, or .fr). If you are already using this type of country coded domain, you will not be able to indicate a specific geographic location. You will be able to specify a target area (country) within the International Targeting report.

To select a target country, you will need to perform the following actions:

  • Click the Country tab on the International Targeting report.
  • Select the Geographic target box and choose the target country. If you would like to make sure that the site is not connected with any region or country, select the Unlisted option within the list.

This setting will be used only for geographic data. When you are targeting users that are in different locations, you will end up having a site that is in French that is for users in Canada, France, and Mali—this tool should not be used to set France as the physical geographic target. A great example of this is a business that is exclusive Canada, it is of little use those who live in France. But if the content may be in French, it could be of interest to many people in multiple locations, it should not be restricted.

Determining Location without Search Console

If there is no information that was entered into the Search Console, Google depends a lot on the website's country domain. If an international domain is being used, Google relies on several things like the IP address, links to the page, information about location on the page, and even information from Google My Business. When you change hosting providers for a country domain, it is expected that there is no impact on the site. When the change of hosting providers is changed to that of another country, it is recommended to use the Search Console in order to let Google know which country the website should be associated with. There would be no harm in making sure that the site has not changed significantly if you have changed providers for the country domain.

Alternate Languages Pages and Sitemaps

Sitemaps is a great way to make sure that a website will target the users in specific languages, and even in specific regions. The tags used within the sitemap will help Google to know the correct language to give the website visitors. This will allow your website to better serve them, as they will be able to have access to the information that they are looking for in a way that they can comprehend it without manually translating it.

Determining Domains

Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are those domains that are not associated with any specific location. If a website has a gTLD like .com or .org and aims to target any users in a specific geographic location, you will need to select a country target.

Google will treat these domains as gTLDs that may be geo-targeted using Search Console:

  • GTLDs—unless this is recorded as a country code on the top level domain, Google will classify any top level domain that works by means of the IANA DNS root zone as a generic top level domain.
  • Generic Country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs)—Google will treat some of these as a gTLD like .me, .tv, etc. The country code domains included are: .ad, .bz, as, .cc,.co, .cd, .dj, .io, .fm, .la, .ms, .me, .nu, .sc,.su, .sr, .tv, ws., .tk. Do note that this list is not exhaustive and does actually change over time.
  • Generic regional top-level domains— domains that are associated with geographical locations—mostly treated as a generic top level domain like a .com or .org and includes .eu and .asia.

According to the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), there are about 1,205 top-level domains available.

Multilingual vs Multi-regional Sites

A multilingual website is a website that will offer content in multiple languages. An example of this would be an originally Canadian business that has both an English and a French version of the site. A multi-regional website is a site that only targets users in different territories or counties. Sometimes a website will be both multi-regional and multilingual. When a website is created to service more than one country or language, it can present a certain set of challenges. Since there are many versions of the site, any issues that shows up on one site will surely be on all of them. This is why it is so important to test the original site as intensely as possible so that you will absolutely have the ideal structure to hang the sites.

These are some guidelines to follow when employing an international website:

  • The language needs to be obvious. Google uses the visible content to determine he language of a site. Translating only a portion of the site yourself will lead to a negative user experience.
  • Each language version of the site should be easily discoverable. To help with this, you should try to have the content for each language on separate URLs. Try to avoid an automatic redirect that is based on a user's assumed language—this can prevent the user from seeing all of the versions available.
  • Think about the URL choice. This will provide humans with the clues that they need to determine what language the website is in.

Sometimes, when content is available in different languages and different regions, it can become duplicated. Usually this is not a problem as the content is unique in language. Google highly recommends users to provide individualized content for each group of users, but it is not totally necessary. There is no need to hide these duplicates, but if you have the same content just in different languages on separate URLs, you are urged to choose the preferred version of the site and then redirect it appropriately. Having the resources to serve the entire globe is unprecedented in the information age. What better way to ensure that your content may be seen and understood by every person possible than allowing it to be translated into different languages. Not only can you target those on your own geographic location that may speak a different language, you have the potential to serve those in a different location, just as long as you relay the information to Google.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Former Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.


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