Multilingual and Multinational Sitemaps for SEO

Last Edited October 17, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in Sitemaps

Multilingual and Multinational Sitemaps

Quite a few years ago Google announced the availability of annotations for websites that would target users in other languages as well as users that were physically in other countries. These invitations are representative of a conglomerate of quibbling pages that are aimed at users around the world. They were also implemented by using rel-alternate-hreflang linking elements in the HTML code of each page contained in the cluster. There is also support for specifying these hreflang annotations within the site map.

Advantages of Choosing to Use a Sitemap Over HTML

There are many advantages to using site maps instead of HTML linking elements, including a smaller page size and an easier deployment from certain websites. How exactly does this work? One example would be the URL of which targets users of the English language. The equivalent of this link that would target German user speakers would be Up until recently, the only way to add annotations like this was to use a link element—this would be either in HTTP header or an HTML element on both URLs.

How to Use the Code

When would a multilingual website be beneficial? Almost always. When a website can be translated into many languages, it has the potential to have a much more significant impact. Imagine that you have a website in your target language, English, and it is targeted at English speakers all over the world. There would then also be the equivalent of the website targeted at those who speak German anywhere in the world, and those who speak German in Switzerland. In this example, the set of URLs would be:

Things to Note

  • You must be sure to specify the correct namespace as:xmlns:xhtml=""
  • Each URL must have its own separate url element in the code for the sitemap. Each of the url elements has to include a loc tag that indicates the page URL, as well as the subelement xhtml:link rel="alternate" hreflang="XX" for each alternate version of the webpage, including the original.
  • When using several alternate URLs that are targeted at users that will have the same language but varying locales, it would be ideal to provide a URL for those users that are unspecified geographically. As an example, there may be specific URLs for those who speak English in Ireland (en-ie), Australia (en-au), and Canada (en-ca) and all other users that speak English will see the “normal” English (en) page. When this is the case, you need to specify the generic page in English language (en) for earchers in places like the United States or United Kingdom.


SEO in Relation to Multilingual and Multinational Sitemaps

Making the decision to incorporate multilingual and multinational SEO into your website, means that you are taking a step into the right direction. Likely, you are already dealing with a website that is large and complex, and could demand the attention of someone that is experienced in all of these special facets. When plunging into multilingual and multinational SEO, the sitemap transforms from a fairly simple and straightforward process into a highly complex machine that will serve many locations and languages, rather than just one. Even for someone that is not experienced with multinational and multilingual SEO, there are a few things to keep in mind that will make the process easier and will send you down the right path. Just like regular SEO, that of multilingual and multinational is constantly changing as well. It is vital to verify the strategy that you are using by comparing it to the most up to date materials that are available, prior to making any significant changes in the SEO strategy.

Multiregional SEO is when a webmaster takes part in creating websites that have content that has been optimized and tailored specifically for multiple geographic regions. Multilingual SEO is when a webmaster chooses to optimize a website content in many different languages. Often times these two strategies will overlap, which is why they are spoken of simultaneously. They also have significant influence on online marketing like conversion rate optimization, content strategy, and pay per click.

Targeting with Multilingual and Multinational Sitemaps

Perhaps the most important thing to determine is which specific regions are being targeted with the website. This will be dependent upon what the website is, and what type of content is contained on it. Not all websites have the same target audience, much less the same target region. After this has been decided you will need to choose which languages are going to be available to those regions. This is vital because it will allow you to chart the course for the entire project.

URL Structure and Domain

After you have determined which languages and regions you'll be catering to, you need to choose the domain and/or the URL structure strategy. Directly from Google's official webmaster central blog, they say "it is difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis, so it makes sense to consider using a URL structure that makes it easy to segment parts of the website for geotargeting[a]".

This is the ideal strategy. When you are able to map out the correct location structure as the first step, the remainder of the project will come much easier. But before you can start to map out the website architecture, you should think about the pros and cons of each domain or URL option.

ccTLDs (Country code top level domain)


The advantages of this structure is that it will clearly geo target the audience, the location of the server is irrelevant, it allows for the easy separation of websites, and it sometimes has legal requirements. Examples of ccTLDs are, and


The disadvantages of using this country code top level domain is that it is expensive, there may be issues with its availability, it does require more infrastructure, and it sometimes has specific requirements.

Subdomains with gTLDs (generic top level domain)


The advantages of a subdomain with a generic top level domain are that it is easy to set up, it allows for the easy separation of websites, it can use Webmaster tools for geotargeting, and it will allow different server locations. Examples of this structure are and


Really the only disadvantage of using a subdomain with a generic top level domain is that the website visitors might not recognize the geotargeting code from the URL alone.

Subdirectories with gTLDs


This structure is easy to set up, is very low maintenance, and it can use the Webmaster tools for geotargeting. These would be websites such as and


A few disadvantages with using this style is that users may not recognize the geotargeting from the URL, it is only on a single server location, and the separation of sites is not extremely clear.

URL Parameters


Many people actually say that there are no advantages to using this format in a URL, because it is not possible to geo-target in Webmaster tools, segmentation that is based on the URL is difficult, and some users may not recognize Geo targeting from the URL. These would be something along the lines of or


Which of these methods for geotargeting in a URL or domain is best for you? The answer to this will always depend on the goals of the website and who is targeted through SEO and other marketing methods. Top level domains will always be a strong indicator to Google, which translates into a very good option, but subdirectories and subdomains also have their own advantages.

Subdomains or Directories

When your sitemaps become multinational and multilingual, they begin to grow into a large complicated structures. When they start to make this change, it is important to structure them with either a directory or subdomain. When thinking about it in a way in relation to SEO and analytics, it can get tricky when there are multiple top level domains.

Google gives some great advice- When you have time and other resources that are limited, you should consider purchasing one domain that is not specific to only one country as it can host all of the varying versions of the website. This will save a lot of time and money in the long run. When this happens there are two options:

You may put the content of each language in a different subdomain, or you can put the content of each language in a different subdirectory. The latter option is a bit easier to handle when the website needs updating and maintained.

Keep in mind when choosing between the two, a subdirectory will remain clean within the directories and influence the overall authority of the website. It can be said that subdomains are similar to this but they remain separated in segmentation.

ccTLD and Webmaster Tools for Geotargeting

It is important to note that using ccTLD sends a strong message to both users and search engines. Keep this in mind if there is a specific area that would need to be targeted—there is nothing wrong with using ccTLD. When choosing to use ccTLDs rather than directories or subdomains, it should be noted that some issues could arise regarding SEO, branding, and tracking when using more than one ccTLD. This is the reason that a number of multilingual and multinational SEOs prefer to employ directories or subdomains.

It is not totally necessary to to use a ccTLD when targeting a particular country. The Google Webmaster Tool will allow for manual geotargeting of those gTLDs like a .net or .com with their tool called Set Geographic Target.

Google asserts that it does not make much sense to set a geotarget if the same pages on the website are targeting more than a single country. This is the case because the geotargeting settings could be responsible for limiting the reach of the content and will not be available to those areas that are outside of the geotarget area.

Regional Landing Pages using Rel=”Alternate” hreflang Annotations

The annotations of rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” is used to aid Google in identifying the specific URLs that need to be served to specific users, based on their language and specific location. This is especially useful when there are multiple versions of the same page of content that has been translated or adjusted to target users in specific regions. How would these changes be implemented in a sitemap? Rather than using any type of HTTP links, elements, or headers, you would submit the language version of the information inside of a sitemap. Though it should be noted that it is possible to use a combination of HTML link elements and sitemap.

Notes on Metadata on Multilingual and Multinational Sitemaps

When it comes down to the metadata associated with the information contained on pages that have more than one language, it is highly recommended to vary the metadata based on the region and language. There should be a template or unique content, simply depending on how large the website is. A few of the elements that should consider altering are: title, description, keyword, H1, H2, Copy, Images, Products, and Internal Linking.

If Using HTTP Redirecting

An HTTP redirection is used commonly for redirecting clients to a device-specific URL. Normally, the redirection is accomplished based on the user-agent present in the HTTP request headers. It is vital to keep the redirection agreeable with the alternate URL that has been specified in the webpage's link rel=”alternate” element, or within the sitemap.

Globalization is calling for the need to allow information to be transmitted all across the globe, and that starts with the internet. There is valuable content contained on many websites, which is why more and more webmasters are taking the steps necessary to allow the pages to be translated into different languages, by implementing multilingual and multinational sitemaps. Opting to use sitemaps rather than HTML link elements will prove their worth by providing an easier deployment for many websites, as well as smaller page sizes overall.


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


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