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Language Inclusivity in Multilingual SEO

Author: Veruska Anconitano

Last updated: 08/11/2023

Do you consider language inclusivity as part of your International SEO strategy? Are you optimising your website content not just for English-speaking audiences but also for Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic speakers, while ensuring that the language used is respectful and inclusive? This isn't just a trend; it's a reflection of the changing socio-cultural dynamics of our global society.  It's about businesses connecting genuinely with their target audiences worldwide.

In this article, I will explore a handful of language theories, and share some practical strategies to help you integrate inclusive language into your digital content. Some of the examples I’ve shared in this article might not be primarily focused on SEO, but they will help you understand the topic more. Plus, whilst this article has been written with multilingual scenarios in mind, the same principles can be adapted for websites operating in a single language. 

A Theoretical Background

Understanding how language inclusivity and SEO intersect requires a deeper exploration of relevant language theories. I'll primarily focus on sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and semiotics, because each of those play a role in how we perceive and use language both on and offline.

Sociolinguistics is a field of study that investigates the relationship between society and language. It explores how language varies and changes in social groups and provides insight into the social phenomena of language use. For instance, different dialects, and codes are used within various social groups. In the context of SEO, considering sociolinguistics allows marketers to better tailor their content to specific audience groups. By recognising and respecting language variations, brands are able to improve user experience and promote a deeper connection with their audience.

Next is the field of pragmatics, which studies how context influences language interpretation. Pragmatics can help us understand how the meaning of our content is not solely based on the words used but also on the context in which those words are delivered. It encourages the consideration of factors like the user's location, access time, previous user behaviour, and cultural background. A sound understanding of pragmatics can help create more personalised and contextually appropriate content, which improves user engagement, and fosters a more inclusive digital environment.

Lastly, semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, offers insight into how meaning is constructed and interpreted. Symbols, images, text, and sounds are all semiotic resources used to create meaning. In the context of SEO, semiotics can be used to improve user experience and make content more engaging and intuitive. For instance, a well-placed infographic can effectively communicate information that would be hard to understand via text content alone. 

Multilingual SEO is about more than just providing content in multiple languages. It should be about using language that is respectful and representative of diverse voices and identities, and creating digital spaces where content is localised, and everyone feels seen and heard.

Language Inclusivity in a Multilingual SEO Strategy

Multilingual SEO is the process of creating and optimising website content for multiple languages in order to improve visibility on international search engine results pages (SERPs). We usually begin with a website in a source language that then has to be adapted for other markets, and that’s where the complication starts. 

Multilingual SEO should go beyond direct content translation; it requires understanding the culture, linguistic nuances, and search behaviour of users from different countries. It includes using the keywords that resonate with the local audience and meeting the specific requirements of local search engines, (which may or may not be Google). Essentially, multilingual SEO helps businesses reach potential customers in their native language, in order to improve user engagement and conversion rates. 

It is about understanding that while SEO makes your content visible, language inclusivity makes it resonate. It is about recognising that behind each search query is an individual with unique linguistic and cultural experiences. 

Language inclusivity plays a vital role in multilingual SEO as it dictates the accessibility and appeal of the content. It ensures that the content respects and represents the diversity of the audience, acknowledging different languages, dialects, cultures, and identities. This approach encourages language that avoids bias, exclusion, or discrimination and promotes respect and equality. Implementing multilingual SEO without considering language inclusivity may result in pages that are technically optimised but lack the cultural and linguistic nuance to truly resonate with the local audience. For instance, specific phrases, idioms, or cultural references may not translate well between languages or may be perceived differently in different cultures. Language inclusivity in multilingual SEO ensures that such nuances are considered, and the content is tailored to be culturally appropriate and sensitive, thus avoiding potential miscommunication or offence.

5 Elements to Consider When Leveraging Language Inclusivity in Multilingual SEO

There are five key aspects to consider when leveraging language inclusivity (and inclusivity in general) in multilingual SEO: 

1. Acknowledging cultural, geographical, and personal diversity

2. Addressing language specificities 

3. Adopting gender neutrality 

4. Respecting and leveraging language's cultural heritage

5. Confronting and navigating negative stereotypes

Understanding these key aspects is essential to building an inclusive language strategy. I’ll deal with them each in turn:

Cultural Diversity is about how the expression of both ideas and feelings differ from culture to culture, and is related to cultural sensitivity. This difference significantly impacts the meaning of words or phrases in translation - for example, the direct translation of idiomatic expressions and humour can be problematic because the phrases may lose their significance, or even acquire an entirely different meaning in another culture. 

Let's move from SEO for a moment and consider the American fast-food chain, McDonald's. McDonald's has successfully expanded its business globally by customising its menu to cater to the unique food preferences of different cultures. 

A well-known example is the McAloo Tikki in India, a sandwich with a spiced potato patty, catering to the country's large vegetarian population and preference for spicy food. Let's imagine McDonald's wants to make the McAloo Tikki available outside of India. In this case, the name or descriptions can lead to challenges when translated directly into different languages or used in other cultural contexts. The McAloo Tikki may lose its significance when translated directly into English as “McPotato Cutlet” or into Spanish as “McFilete de Patata” because those translations don't convey the specific Indian spices and flavour that are fundamental to the product. Moreover, from an SEO perspective, direct translation might not yield the intended results, as users outside of India might not search for an “Aloo Tikki”, for a “potato cutlet”, or a “filete de patata”. A better strategy might be to include additional keywords relevant to the target audience, such as 'spicy', 'vegetarian', or 'Indian-style potato burger,' that resonate more with their culinary vocabulary.

Geographical diversity also significantly impacts inclusive language practices. Variations in dialects, colloquialisms, and spelling across regions can affect keyword optimisation and content localisation, as seen in the American usage of "soda," which changes to "pop" in the Midwest and "soft drink" in Australia. 

Personal diversity, encompassing factors such as gender identity, age, disability status, and more, is another critical aspect affecting language inclusivity and SEO. An inclusive language strategy needs to respect and represent these diverse identities, avoid stereotyping and bias, and ensure accessibility to all users. For instance, traditionally, a US-focused strategy around parenting may have predominantly focused on “mom”-related keywords, based on the assumption that mothers are the primary caregivers and thus the primary audience for this type of content. 

However, in today’s context, this approach excludes a significant portion of the audience, namely fathers, non-binary parents, and others who participate actively in child-rearing. In an inclusive SEO strategy, instead of solely focusing on the "mom"-related keywords, we should give equal importance to the keywords which reflect the reality of diverse parenting roles, in order to allow the content to reach a broader audience. Moreover, this inclusive approach can also reflect positively on your brand, showing that you acknowledge and respect diverse family structures and parenting roles, which can lead to a deeper connection with your audience and foster brand loyalty.

Understanding language specificities (the unique features and peculiarities distinguishing one language from another) is vital for successful communication. These include syntactic structures, idiomatic expressions, and cultural nuances. For instance, in German, verbs are typically placed at the end of a sentence, which can result in awkward translations if not handled well, and these structural differences have implications for keyword optimisation.

For example, if Google wanted to promote its cloud storage service, Google Drive, the direct English-to-German translation of "Save on Google Drive" would be "Speichern auf Google Drive" - a phrase that sounds unnatural to a native German speaker. Instead, a better keyphrase which takes German syntax into account would be "Auf Google Drive Speichern." 

Semantic connotations, another aspect of language specificity, can also impact inclusivity and SEO. Certain words or phrases may have different connotations or emotional associations in different cultures. For example, in Western societies, "freedom" is often associated with individual liberty, autonomy, and the ability to make personal choices without restrictions. It's a value deeply embedded in societal norms and political discourse. In contrast, in some Eastern societies, "freedom" might be more associated with social harmony, collective responsibility, and the balance between individual rights and social order. 

The adoption of Gender neutrality in language has become increasingly important in recent years, mirroring the societal shift towards gender equality and inclusivity. From an SEO perspective, adopting gender-neutral language can extend content reach and anticipate shifts in search behaviour, improving search engine rankings. Furthermore, it contributes to a positive brand image, indirectly benefiting SEO. Merriam-Webster and Lyft have effectively incorporated gender-neutral language, enhancing their brand image and user engagement.

Lastly, language carries cultural heritage, encapsulating unique cultural experiences, beliefs, and perspectives. This aspect enriches content, making it more vivid and relatable to native speakers. Conversely, languages also carry stereotypes, marginalising certain groups and fostering prejudice. Therefore, it is crucial to leverage the richness of cultural heritage while mitigating the negative impacts of stereotypes. 

Canva's language localisation strategy supports over 100 languages and its commitment to cultural sensitivity and inclusive language are excellent examples of a comprehensive approach. In Italian, for instance, they use “Studenti e Studentesse” to translate the English “Students”:

By understanding and valuing the different layers of cultural, geographical, and personal diversity, businesses can create a truly inclusive language strategy that fosters user engagement, enhances SEO performance, and helps establish a successful global presence.

Does Inclusive Language Affect Your Rankings?

Does Google care about inclusive language in non-English speaking markets?

The end goal for Google is to provide users with the most relevant results for their queries. If visitors promptly exit your website and don't come back, (possibly due to feeling alienated by your content) it doesn’t send a great signal. If many visitors swiftly leave, it could indicate to Google that a site didn't help address the search query or was not perceived as valuable, and this could negatively impact your website's search engine rankings.

That's why embracing inclusive language is so important. Imagine this situation: You're dealing with a page about "authors" that needs to be translated from English into French (for people from France, not Canada) with SEO in mind. 

The English title of the page is “Things authors do when writing a book.” As you may know, in French (and almost all Romance and Latin languages), many words have a male and female form. 

We can translate the title of the above post in French using two terms, "auteur" or "autrice". Our title in French, after a 1-to-1 translation, will look like either:

  • Les choses que les auteurs font lorsqu'ils écrivent un livre.
  • Les choses que les autrices font lorsqu'ils écrivent un livre.

(For the time being, we’ll ignore the idiomatic nature of these translations.) It’s clear that each version is exclusively referring to male (auteur) or female (autrice) authors, and by doing this, we are excluding a substantial number of people. 

In contrast, if we rephrase the title as "Things that female and male authors do when writing a book," and localise by using both female and male terms, we're inviting a more diverse readership who might read, share, and engage with this post. 

An even better approach would be to find the most culturally appropriate and sensitive term to broaden our content's appeal and make it even more inclusive, for example by using a gender-neutral term for author.

As you will see below, the concept of gender neutrality and language inclusivity extends beyond just the page title. We can also tackle this issue within the page content itself, establishing a strategy to ensure the overall message radiates inclusivity.

I firmly believe that leveraging inclusive language can significantly enhance SEO performance and boost search engine rankings. In fact, by prioritising inclusivity, we can gain a competitive edge and convey to our audience that they matter. This can trigger a positive ripple effect, inciting valuable word-of-mouth due to our unique emphasis on inclusive language. 

Strategies for Incorporating Language Inclusivity into SEO Practices

Working with non-English languages often highlights a significant bias in search results, where the "overextended masculine" – using masculine terms to refer to all genders inclusively – predominates. This pattern can become more evident when examining Google search results. 

While we may not have control over Google's preferences, we can certainly adjust our methodology to ensure that the search results reflect language inclusivity to the fullest extent. Below are several strategies that can be adopted to foster language inclusivity without compromising SEO:

  • Incorporate Balanced Keyword Selection: Concentrating solely on high-volume keywords often results in the dominance of masculine terms due to ingrained societal practices. While the feminine or non-binary equivalent keywords might yield lower search volumes, the goal is to embrace inclusivity. Thus, integrating male, female, and non-binary terms into your SEO strategy, despite lower search volumes, is a critical step. Over time, this approach will yield dividends in terms of reach. Remember that search engines like Google increasingly recognise the importance of diversity and inclusion, which could influence future algorithm updates and ranking factors. On top of this, remember that your end goal should be user satisfaction, and you can progress only by being inclusive.
  • Adopt a Holistic Inclusivity Approach: gender neutrality and language inclusivity should permeate all aspects of a page, not just the title. In instances where inclusivity may compromise or lead to an overly convoluted title, explore alternatives to maintain an inclusive intent. Integrate keywords, semantically related terms, and language-specific idioms throughout the content to address the needs of your diverse target audience. This holistic approach goes a long way in fostering a deep sense of inclusivity across the entire user journey.
  • Understand and Leverage Local Trends: The talk around gender neutrality and inclusivity is globally ubiquitous yet varies in intensity and approach across regions. Various nations have already established measures to mitigate language bias, while others are in ongoing debates. Notable organisations like the European Parliament have issued guidelines to encourage gender-neutral language. Therefore, understanding the market you are operating in and knowing its stance on combating language inequality is crucial for shaping an inclusive SEO strategy.
  • Invest in Localisation: Optimise your content by localising it for the target audience. This involves more than mere translation and requires adapting the content to consider local dialects, customs, norms, and idioms. Such a localised approach helps ensure that your content resonates with the target audience and is found more relevant by the search algorithms. A stellar example of this approach is the localisation strategy employed by the global streaming platform Netflix. It localises content to suit different markets' cultural and linguistic nuances, even changing the artwork of shows and films based on local preferences. In Squid Game, for example, the unique Korean term “오빠 [oppa] has been translated as "babe" to make it more comprehensible to international speakers. This strategy has contributed significantly to Netflix's successful penetration into various international markets.
  • Advocate for Gender-Neutral Language Within Your Organisation: As societies worldwide evolve towards more inclusivity, championing gender-neutral language within your content can be crucial. This involves the conscious use of non-gender-specific terms or neutral pronouns where applicable. For example, using 'they' instead of 'he' or 'she' or considering using terms that respect individual self-identification, such as Mx instead of Mr or Mrs. The toy company Lego,, for example, has decided to no longer label its toys as “for girls” or “for boys” but to categorise products by age, themes, and interests. This has cultivated an inclusive environment that respects and acknowledges diverse gender identities. Not only does this practice make your content more accessible to a broader audience, but it also prepares your SEO strategy for future shifts in search behaviour as internet users become more conscious of gender-neutral language.
  • Use Inclusive and Respectful Terminology for Diverse Groups and Personas: Communities and personas often have specific words or phrases that they prefer to use when discussing their identity, experiences, or issues. These preferred terminologies can shift and evolve due to various social, political, or cultural changes. So, staying informed about these preferences and adapting your content accordingly is essential. The Microsoft writing style guide illustrates this strategy well. The guide provides specific advice on avoiding stereotypes and bias and promotes respectful and inclusive language. For instance, it advises against using mental health terms metaphorically, like 'crazy,' 'insane,' or 'psycho,' to prevent stigmatising mental health conditions. 
  • Stay Up to Date on Platform Guidelines: Major platforms like Google regularly update their search algorithms and provide new guidelines to improve user experience. It's crucial to stay updated with these changes as they often significantly impact SEO. For example, Google's MUM update aimed to understand words' context in search queries better. With similar updates in the future, including the new SGE, search algorithms may become more sophisticated in recognising gender-neutral language or awarding good practices in this regard. Adjust your SEO strategy to align with current guidelines and best practices, allowing for flexibility.
  • Measure and Adapt: Implementing a gender-inclusive SEO strategy is not a one-time task; it's a continuous process that needs regular attention and optimisation. Use analytics tools to monitor how your gender-inclusive keywords and content are performing. Track metrics like organic traffic, click-through rates (CTR), and bounce rates for these terms. Additionally, analyse the situation holistically, not simply from an SEO perspective - involve L10n (or localisation teams) and UX teams in this process. Keep an eye on the larger trends — are specific gender-neutral terms gaining traction over time? Are users responding positively to inclusive content? Use these insights to refine your strategy, doubling down on effective tactics and tweaking those that are not delivering the desired results. Regular analysis allows your approach to remain dynamic, effective, and responsive to evolving societal norms and search behaviours.

The goal is not to entirely substitute high-volume keywords or embark on unfounded experiments but to enhance your strategy by incorporating more inclusive language and insights. As time progresses and the adoption of gender-neutral language increases in online searches, coupled with a rising number of consumers becoming increasingly conscious of a company's ethical practices, this inclusive approach is likely to pay off.

The Complexities of Creating an Inclusive Online Presence

As we’ve seen, creating an inclusive online multilingual presence that addresses the complexities of cultural, geographical, and personal diversity while remaining SEO-friendly is an intricate task. The challenge lies in addressing core aspects of technical SEO alongside crafting content that resonates with a diverse, global audience. Content that is culturally sensitive and linguistically accurate respects diverse identities and is more likely to engage users and encourage them to stay on your site longer, interact more, and return in the future. These factors can significantly improve your site's ranking from an SEO perspective.

One of the main challenges of creating inclusive digital content is linguistic and cultural localisation. While translation is a significant first step, a direct translation often fails to capture a language's cultural subtleties and nuances. Moreover, cultural perspectives and values can vary significantly from one region to another, influencing how specific phrases or ideas are interpreted. This necessitates a deep cultural understanding, not just linguistic proficiency.

Another challenge lies in the dynamic nature of language. Language continually evolves, with new words, phrases, and meanings arising and others becoming outdated or offensive. Staying up-to-date with these changes requires constant vigilance. One way to address this challenge is by maintaining regular updates and revisions of content in line with evolving language use.

Image Copyright Semantic-Scholar

The challenge of accessibility is another facet to consider. Ensuring that digital content is accessible to all, regardless of disability status, is crucial to inclusivity. From an SEO perspective, accessibility can also enhance a website's ranking, as search engines favour sites that provide a superior user experience. Implementing accessibility features like alt text for images, video captions, and clear, straightforward language can make your content more inclusive and SEO-friendly. Regularly checking your site with accessibility tools can also help identify potential accessibility issues.

GitHub has made significant efforts to create a more inclusive platform. They've made a conscious effort to use straightforward language and minimise jargon, in order to make their platform user-friendly, not only for native English speakers but also for those new to coding, and non-native speakers. They've replaced traditional terms that could be viewed as offensive or exclusionary, such as the coding terms "master" and "slave", with neutral alternatives like "main" and "secondary". 

Furthermore, GitHub adopts a gender-neutral approach in their community interaction and user profiles. The platform refrains from presuming users' genders and encourages a gender-neutral language, creating a space where all users can feel respected and recognised. On the accessibility front, GitHub has made strides in adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Their efforts include designing their website to be navigable using only a keyboard, a crucial feature for those with motor disabilities. They also use high-contrast colours for text and backgrounds to accommodate users with visual impairments.

Language Inclusivity is the Future of Multilingual SEO

Language is not a mere tool for communication but a powerful medium for expressing diversity, fostering inclusivity, and enhancing online visibility. An effective multilingual SEO strategy goes beyond keywords and algorithms to delve into a language's cultural, geographical, and personal diversity.

As the digital landscape evolves, businesses must consider the importance of language inclusivity in their SEO strategies. Inclusive language practice is more than a moral or ethical obligation – it's a strategic imperative for businesses aiming to create meaningful connections with diverse audiences and improve their online visibility.

Therefore, it is crucial to embrace this challenge. Invest in understanding the linguistic needs and preferences of your diverse user base. Seek to understand and respect the cultural heritage encapsulated within languages and work to combat any stereotypes they may carry. Remember that each word, phrase, or idiom you use can create a sense of belonging or foster exclusion. Make your choice count. 

Veruska Anconitano - Multilingual SEO & Localization Consultant

Veruska is a Multilingual SEO & Localization Consultant with 20+ years of experience with brands wanting to enter non-English-speaking markets. With a background in sociology & sociolinguistics, she follows a culturalized approach to SEO and localization.