A bit of an old one, but a common question I get asked by clients is about their international SEO strategy. Which option is best? A new domain, subdomains or subfolders?
I wrote a post on international domain strategy back in 2008, but a lot has changed since then – so it’s probably time for an update.
International SEO is still one of those topics where there is no clear right or wrong answer – but there are different strategies which may be more or less successful depending on given factors and scenarios. So here’s my thought process behind selecting the best international SEO strategy to suit your website or brand.
1) When to use local TLDs (top-level domains)?
In my opinion, having a local TLD is still the number one way of showing Google that a website is intended for a specific geographical target. And I can’t see that changing either, despite huge improvements in Google Webmaster Tools over geo-targeting settings.
So if you want to set up a French website, for example, you’re likely to find it quicker/easier to get this indexed and ranking in Google if it’s located on a .fr domain. Also, when thinking of the website as a brand, a local domain is likely to be more recognisable to that country’s audience. So you may see an increase in click through rate from searchers and possibly an impact on conversion rate too! So those are additional considerations beyond achieving rankings.
A good example of a brand who use a country-specific domain is Amazon, who split UK and US content between Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. This is of course meant primarily for users, making it easier for them to differientiate between the two sites – but it has also worked very successfully from an SEO perspective.
2) When to use subfolders?
In my opinion this depends on a couple of major factors. Firstly, how big is your brand? For example, if you’re Amazon.com and want to launch in the UK, then Amazon.co.uk is a sensible option. In terms of attention and online visibility expected, you can quickly build the new local domain into a strong website, without as many concerns of this being a new, unestablished domain in Google. Link reputation can be built more quickly, so the long-term gain in having a unique, country-specific identity is likely to outweigh the risk of any short-term ranking in issues in Google UK (or any other local search engine).
However, if you’re not a strong brand and you have a modest link profile, then in my opinion it can be a much longer process of trying to get a brand new, local domain ranking in Google. Obviously not everyone is an Amazon – and that’s clearly an extreme example – but if you’re in a niche where links are difficult to come by, then instead of spreading your international content across several domains, I would seriously consider consolidating this into a single domain strategy. This means all link reputation would be merged into a single website and domain – ensuring that any authority built is collected and shared across all country websites within the same domain.
An example of a website which does this well is Apple. With their UK site located at www.apple.com/uk/ – in order to implement this successfully you would need to individually geo-target the subfolders in Google Webmaster Tools to the relevant geographical locations. My preference here would be to organise these into concise two character country codes, e.g. /uk, /fr, /es, /de etc…
Here’s what it would look like if we were to set up a US country-specific site on seoptimise.com/us/:
If you choose this option it’s also important to ensure that you have a globally recognisable domain, so .com, .net or .org ideally – if you have local content on a country-specific domain you will only be able to geo-target that single country. For example, you won’t be able to geo-target www.domain.co.uk/fr/ to France. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it done before!
3) When to use subdomains?
I’m not sure there is a great argument here. Although Google have changed how subdomains are treated (with them no longer being viewed as a separate site), traditionally subfolders have been the preferred option over subdomains – and I would continue to stick with that practice.
The only real argument I can think of here (other than perhaps making content management easier) is geo-targeting. If you use subdomains, you have the ability to host these on different servers to the main www site. Then Google will pick up on the fact that this subdomain is hosted in a specific country.
Overall, I think it depends on the website in question.
What works best for your target keywords? For example, if you search for “shoes” in Google.com.au, you’ll find that all the top 10 listings are .com.au domains – so it’s likely that a country-specific domain strategy will be more successful here:
Also, if you have already set up international sites on geo-specific domains, perhaps it’s a good idea to stick with it and build them up – as opposed to switching to a single domain strategy. But if you’re starting afresh, personally I think the main decision lies in how effectively you think your link building efforts can be spread across multiple websites and countries in order to build up those domains’ individual reputations in the search engines. Link building across a wider number of domains is likely to require more significant investment. Of course, this also depends on the competitiveness of your market – if you only need a handful of links on each to outrank your competitors, it’s clearly going to be much easier than if you’re looking at tens of thousands of links.
Obviously if you are considering launching international sites, there are other SEO considerations to make too – such as ensuring your content is unique. If you have multilingual content, then obviously you need to make sure that firstly this is well-translated. But also well-optimised for your target audience, so make sure you don’t ignore keyword research, as people from different countries will search for different search terms.
Plus if you are launching international content across multiple countries, but using the same language (e.g. English in the UK, US, Australia and Ireland) – then I would recommend putting effort into ensuring that this content is unique and targeted towards that specific region – looking to remove any global duplicate content issues. You want to ensure that when searchers are visiting via Google UK they are directed towards your UK site, not the duplicate global or US version of the same page.
So which methods have you found to be most successful? I’d be interested in hearing the types of challenges and considerations you bear in mind when making international SEO strategy decisions.