It seems more and more businesses are planning to expand globally – quite a few have mentioned this to me in one of our SEO courses. The internet makes this easier of course but it’s not the easiest of things to get right. There’s no ‘one shoe fits all’ approach, so let’s consider the main options:
- How best to structure your website for search engines and whether this involves separate domains, subdomains or folders.
- How best to structure your site for your customers and visitors.
1. How best to structure a site for search engines
We have three options in how international content can be organised and structured:
|Options||GEO targeting||Domain Strength|
|3.||Multiple domains (www.domain.co.uk)||Highest||Lowest|
Let’s now consider the two most important factors that affect SEO and domains:
- GEO targeting – providing a clear signal to search engines of the nationality/origin of each international site
- Domain strength – maximising the authority and trust of a domain(s) largely though a domain’s link popularity/(domain) PageRank
Search engines serve different results for the same set of keywords to different countries, as the locality of a website is part of their relevancy algorithm. The clearest way to GEO target in search engines is by having a completely different domain. This is closely followed using a subdomain (providing the IP of the sub-domain has right locality), which is then followed by the folders approach. There isn’t a big difference between the three options when done correctly, and no ‘one shoe, fits all’ as you can see by the examples of big brands in the table above.
The folders option (and often the most popular solution) can only be done for country neutral domains such as www.domain.com. And works best when setup as separate sub-sites in Google Webmaster Tools, where each country is geographically set for each folder.
It’s important to decide on the primary country that you wish to target as this country’s homepage will be the traditional domain homepage (www.domain.com) and will likely benefit from the largest link popularity as people will naturally link its URL the most, giving it an SEO boost from the go and ongoing. When this is done it makes sense to also host the website on an IP from the primary country.
e.g. when the UK is the primary country, the folder option would look like:
- www.domain.com – UK homepage
- www.domain.com/fr – French homepage
- www.domain.dom/it – Italian homepage
For Yahoo and Bing folder options, the best practise is to define meta-geo tags to allow for geo-targeting, so this may require a different template for each country or some clever meta tag programming rules.
Each domain takes time to build up trust and authority by search engines. This is partly through age but largely though building links to them, and trust and authority account towards a significant percentage of a search engine’s algorithm.
By having a completely different site, you have to start one site from a very low level of trust/authority, and this approach will not be able to consolidate PageRank very effectively between the two or more sites. This requires a significantly higher amount of investment in SEO and also a great deal of time.
A subdomain sits in between having a separate site and using folders within the same site. Some of the authority/trust will be passed from the main domain but a significant amount will not, and also PageRank is not shared as effectively as the folder option.
The folder option is the preferred option for domain strength as it maximises how PageRank can be shared around the sites due to the search engine trust of the main/’mother’ domain. And is often the most popular choice for small, medium and large companies because you literally ‘hit the ground running’. Though, super big brands or companies with significant SEO/marketing budgets sometimes buck this trend.
- Link to all country homepages through the site template, e.g. in the site’s footer to ensure PageRank is passed around effectively, and this is also good for the user experience…
2. How best to structure a site for customers and users
Search engine results and relevance for ccTLDs
The country-code top level domain (ccTLD) is the extension part of a domain which is specific to its country, like .co.uk, .fr or .it. Everything else being equal, Googlers from Italy are more likely to click on a www.domain.it result compared to a www.domain.com/it, likewise with French users. Languages where English is more widely spoken like in Holland are perhaps likely to be less fussed about having their native ccTLD or a .com folder structure.
This of course is a little subjective and may require some additional research depending on what countries you wish to target. But should be factored in nevertheless.
How best to handle and (re)direct international visitors
It’s important to allow users to switch between which country they prefer and for this choice to be stored in a cookie. You may like to do this by having the countries flags clearly displayed in the top right of the site template, or through a drop-down form or through HTML links.
It’s also important to automate this selection on the first instance when a user enters a site. And forward visitors to their corresponding country homepage based on the user’s computer’s IP, e.g. Italian visitors (their IP) are automatically forwarded to www.domain.com/it/, www.domain.it or http://it.domain.com. Assuming the UK is the primary country: when the IP of a visitor is from the UK, or where no IP nationality is detected, there will be no forwarding or redirecting from the homepage, the URL will remain as www.domain.com which is the UK homepage.
- Ensure search engine robots (Usually US IPs) are not forwarded from www.domainl.com – this is very important!
Dealing with duplicate content on Global websites
When dealing with countries with the same language (UK, US, Oz etc) there is a risk there may be a duplicate content concern which could be damaging for your site’s global progress. Google has documented the following:
Websites that provide content for different regions and in different languages sometimes create content that is the same or similar but available on different URLs. This is generally not a problem as long as the content is for different users in different countries.
Although Google then goes on to say:
While we strongly recommend that you provide unique content for each different group of users, we understand that this may not always be possible for all pages and variations from the start
You should be ok to have duplicate content for same language countries, as long as you clearly label the GEO targeting preference to Google but I can’t help but feel it’s still advantageous to have unique content for each country to be on the safe side if practical. Especially considering Google’s recent Panda update.
Sometimes business reasons will influence your decision – e.g. having separate domains often make the entity of the business more separate which may or may not be preferred.
Each websites will have its own business objectives, priorities, budgets and preference – so it’s impossible to recommend a generic solution. In my experience the folder option is usually best for small and medium sized businesses and is also usually the easiest to implement and maintain.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below as usual.
References and Further Reading:
This post draws from my own experiences and also assisted by the following posts which are excellent:
Update: Here is a useful new document provided by Google on the subject of Multi-regional and Mult-lingual sites.