Change is the only constant when it comes to SEO. There is no doubt that SEO best practice today will be, to a greater or lesser extent, rendered obsolete in the relatively near future. And the same is as true for international SEO as it is domestically.
While most international SEOs possess a basic understanding of multilingual sitemaps, setting a website up for international and multilingual success can be a challenge, due to the potential complexity surrounding the hreflang attribute.
"The hreflang attribute is a complex and often misunderstood aspect of international SEO. Properly implementing hreflang tags requires a deep understanding of language and cultural differences, as well as a keen awareness of the technical details of how hreflang works.
"Unfortunately, hreflang tags can cause confusion and actually hold back SEO performance. However, when used correctly, hreflang can be a powerful tool for improving the international visibility and usability of a website."
So, what are the intricacies of multilingual sitemaps that many of us are unaware of, and how can we improve them?
What Is a Multilingual Sitemap?
Like your standard sitemap, a multilingual sitemap lists URLs made for a website using XML or HTML. XML sitemaps include optional information about each URL, such as the priority, frequency of change, images, and videos.
Sitemaps make it as easy as possible for search engines – like Google – to crawl and index your website properly. Multilingual sitemaps contain additional information about alternate languages for each URL for a multilingual website.
It goes without saying that the most important thing for international websites to get right is targeting the correct multilingual version of the website to a specific country or region. That’s why it’s essential when creating a multilingual sitemap to deploy the hreflang attribute correctly. Doing so will give Google the best chance to identify the correct pages to serve your international audiences.
What Does a Multilingual Sitemap Look Like?
Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at what a multilingual sitemap looks like.
Multilingual sitemaps can be created in two ways. You can create one global sitemap or have multiple sitemaps for each country's website.
For example, consider Nike, a company with a presence in over 100 countries. It's essential to pay special attention to the URL structure for multilingual sitemaps.
Or, you can use the global site approach when all language versions are variations of the main site. This approach is what we can see in the Nike sitemap example below, and the URL is https://www.nike.com/sitemap-launch-index.xml
A global sitemap with URLs for all website versions will look similar to the above. The country codes are used in the hreflang tags in the attributes. This helps search engine crawlers locate the correct website for the appropriate target audience.
There is a downside to this approach, however. As all international versions of your website are closely tied to the sitemap of your original version, you won’t be able to properly index pages that only appear in multilingual versions.
How to Create a Multilingual XML Sitemap?
There are a couple of ways you can create a multilingual sitemap. Firstly, you can manually create an XML sitemap with multiple languages using the sitemap XML protocol. However, this can be very time-consuming if you have a large and complex website with multiple international variations.
Instead, we recommend generating your sitemaps automatically. You can often do this through your CMS – WordPress, Wix, etc… - or there is any number of plugins and tools out there – Yoast SEO, for instance - that you can use to generate a multilingual sitemap.
Prioritize High-Quality Pages in Your Sitemap
In an ideal world, all your multilingual content will be high-quality. But in the real world that won’t always be the case.
The transcreation of content can be costly and time-consuming, and you want to make sure that the content you’re putting in front of international audiences is as good as it can be. You must adapt your content to your audience's language, culture, beliefs, and customs. You can then use pages with localized content for your multilingual SEO efforts.
An XML sitemap is essentially a list of pages you recommend to be crawled. However, it isn't necessary to include every page of your site.
Including SEO-relevant pages with properly localized content helps the search engine crawl your site more intelligently and helps you reap the benefits of improved indexation.
Let's put this into perspective.
Your website has 900 pages, and 450 of these pages have localized target audience-specific, SEO-relevant content. Therefore, you should highlight those 450 pages, asking search engines to "deprioritize" indexing the remainder.