I am going to guide you with your international SEO url structure. Taking your website global is one of the most effective ways to grow your company. Once you have identified a potential market for your products or services, you can then decide if you want to create a new website just for this market, or adapt your existing website to an international audience.
You might be wondering why a website would even need an international setup. After all, aren’t websites accessible wherever you are in the world? What is the purpose of starting from scratch with a new domain? These are all valid questions that this article will aim to answer.
I will explore why we bother optimising websites for specific territories, which methods are the most popular, and how to choose the right structure for your needs.
What is international SEO?
International SEO is the process of optimising a website for different territories and languages. This will enable you to expand your offering into different areas. This doesn’t have to mean that you are opening offices elsewhere in the world.
Plenty of companies will engage in international SEO efforts without expanding their physical presence to corresponding territories. International SEO is all about making sure that you appear at the top of search results in different languages and in different territories around the world.
Examples of companies getting this right include IKEA, H&M and Zara. When you land on these websites, you are often directed to a landing page where you can select your local territory and your language. Some will also allow you to select your local currency. The website will also be optimised for your locality. For example, it might only show products or services that are available in your area.
Defining your target audience and international SEO objectives
There needs to be a strong business case for optimising your website for different territories. This will usually include plans for expansion into a specific territory, or addressing the growing need for a targeted presence for a territory where demand for your website is growing.
Once you know where you want to target, you can then determine your SEO objectives. You might need to translate your content and make it better suited to a local audience. Direct translations don’t always provide the best user experience.
You will also need to carry out local keyword research. Again, direct translations don’t always get the results you want. If you want you website to perform well, you might need a unique SEO strategy that is customised to the location.
How to choose the right URL structure
The biggest decision you will need to make when optimising your website for international markets is the URL structure. You can choose from:
An example of this would be www.example.com/fr and www.example.com/gb
- Country-code top-level domains
An example of this would be www.example.es and www.example.co.uk
An example of this would be gb.example.com and it.example.com
It’s important to consider the pros and cons of each method so that you can move forward with confidence. Not every method is right for every situation, so we’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of each one below.
A subdirectory is a really simple way to organise your website. This method is commonly used to add features like a blog or store to your website. These function like files within a filing cabinet. The website is the entire cabinet, and the subdirectories are the individual files within.
The most common way to use subdirectories to internationalise a website would be to have a generic top level domain such as .com and then localise your website using subdirectories for each territory.
On each subdirectory, you would have a unique version of the website that is either targeted by language or by location, or both. However, there is more work to be done to ensure that your website is handled properly by search engines.
Subdomains and hreflang attributes
Your subfolders will need to have the appropriate hreflang attributes attached to avoid the issue of duplicate content. This is applicable even if you translate your website. These attributes tell search engines which language you are using on specific pages so they can serve the right page for regional searches. And example of a hreflang attributes would be:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://example.com” hreflang=”pt-pt” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://example.com” hreflang=”pt-br” />
The first one is for Portuguese speakers in Portugal while the second is for Portuguese speakers in Brazil. If a user searches for a term and there is a page on your website in their local language, this attribute is a signal to Google to serve the page available in their local language. This step alone can help to drive down your bounce rates.
Advantages of subdirectories
- Website can be housed on the same hosting platform which makes for less technical admin.
- The website will inherit authority from the top level domain, so backlinks for the website will aggregate.
- You can target multiple countries that share a language with a single subdirectory.
Disadvantages of subdirectories
- Structuring your website in this way means that all sites can be edited from a single CMS. This increases the chance of mistakes.
- Your brand name might not work well in different territories, and it could even be offensive/funny/nonsense in other markets. This could lead to poor click through rates.
Country code top level domains explained
Another common way to target a specific territory is by purchasing country-code top-level domains, or ccTDLs. This will allow you to host completely unique websites, on local servers if required, and with a unique URL if your brand name doesn’t work in another country.
An example of ccTLDs would be .co.uk .es or .pt.
You could then have a generic top level domain such as a .com as a central hub for all of your other websites.
You can then use hreflang attributes to direct search traffic to the correct version of the website for the location and language.
Advantages of ccTLDs
- You can have a unique URL for an overseas market, which can help to increase trust and recognition.
- You can prioritise key content, rather than pushing a website live that is half translated, as this could increase bounce rates.
- You can manage all website content on a unique CRM, which can decrease the chances of mistakes and confusion.
- Choosing a ccTLD will also allow you to host your website on a local server, which can increase speed and boost local rankings.
- A local ccTLD will be a trustworthy sign for overseas audiences.
Disadvantages of ccTLDs
International subdomains explained
A common alternative to subdirectories is subdomains. In this instance, the letter code for the area you are targeting will appear before the domain name. For example, you might use be.example.com for a Belgian audience and fr.example.com for a French audience.
Each website can be managed by a unique CMS under the same hosting account. You’ll then use hreflang attributes to point search engines to the correct regional version of your website. It’s worth noting that this method will only work if you have a generic top level domain, such as a .com.
International subdomain advantages
- This is the default method of splitting up your website for most CMS tools, so it offers a quick and simple fix.
- Each website is connected by a common URL, which will allow you to share domain authority, so you won’t be starting from scratch. You will build authority for the main website, and then use hreflang attributes to point users to the correct local website.
- You don’t have to purchase and manage new domains.
International subdomain disadvantages
- Users might not automatically associate the subdomain with their country, which can make it difficult to build trust.
- Each subdomain will require its own link building campaign as the subdomain will be considered to be a separate entity to the main parent domain.
- This isn’t the most common way to serve websites in different languages, which could lead to confusion and higher bounce rates.
How do I select the right URL structure?
This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Once you pick your structure, changing it can be very complex, so you need to be sure you have considered all angles before moving forward with a plan. The process of expanding a website for an international audience requires careful planning.
You’ll need to think about your current expansion plans and how you might approach this in the future. While you might only be looking at one territory now, could this expand to multiple territories and languages in the future? Future-proofing your website is certainly worthwhile.
Consider the following factors when choosing the right URL structure for your website:
If you’re planning to expand into multiple territories
For fast expansion into multiple territories, you might be best using subdirectories for each location. This will be more cost-effective than purchasing multiple ccTLDs and will also enable you to share domain authority. Bear in mind that this method will only work if you have a generic top level domain such as a .com address.
If you already have a ccTLD
If you’re already using a .co.uk address, you might be better placed purchasing domain names for your chosen regions. This will help to avoid the need for a costly migration to a gTLD, which would require you to start from scratch with building your domain authority.
You will need to start from scratch with each territory, but this will enable you to ensure everything is done correctly from the start.
Choosing between multiregional and multilingual
A key consideration when making this decision is whether you are aiming for a multiregional site or a multilingual site. With a ccTLD, you will struggle to rank your website anywhere other than that specific region. For this reason, subdirectories might offer the best flexibility for targeting different regions and languages.
Subdomains could work for you, but this will often mean managing multiple SEO campaigns for each individual subdomain, as search engines don’t tend to share authority between the distinct subdomains.
This table should help you make a direct comparison between the different methods:
Can you change your mind in the future?
It’s certainly possible to change the approach in the future, but think about the loss of domain authority and brand recognition that could occur with this approach. Changing from a ccTLD to a gTLD, for example, will require you to start from scratch building domain authority. While redirects will carry some authority, you will be taking a step back and could see a loss of rankings.
In general, it’s best to choose a method and then stick with it. The method you choose might depend on the existing website URL structure. For example, if you have opted for a .co.uk domain name, then choosing a ccTLD URL structure with individual websites for each territory might be best.
While it might be a complicated process, it’s important to take the time to consider where you are now and where you hope to be in the future. While you might have your sights set on a single territory at this stage, your website could grow into a multiregional and multilingual website in the future, so you need to pick a website structure that you will grow and scale with you. If in doubt, working with a specialist SEO agency or freelancer will allow you to make these important decisions under expert guidance.
I'm Paul Gordon an SEO freelancer who has spent the last 16 years helping businesses expand and grow through effective SEO strategies.