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International Website Structure

Selecting the site structure for your international website

When you decide to localise your website for an international audience, you need to decide on the site structure that will host your localised content. The structure you choose will have a major impact on search engine success with your international targets. Here are your options:

Country code top level domains (ccTLD)

Going down this route involves selecting a ccTLD for each of your target international markets, i.e. www.example.co.uk, www.example.de.

Pros

  • Provides the strongest geolocation signals and will override most of the other local signals. In other words, if you’re targeting the French market, www.example.fr sends a clear signal to the search engines that the site should be presented to their French browsers.
  • You can host each ccTLD on an IP address which is local to the target market. This can improve geolocation signals for search engines and also improve site speed and performance for the user. For example, a Brazilian user browses a site hosted in Brazil rather than the UK.
  • It’s easy to manage ccTLDs. Unlike subfolders where you have to manage localised content within the same domain, a ccTLD is a separate website.
  • You may find that the click-through rate (CTR) on search engines is higher for a ccTLD than any other site structure as the target users will have greater trust in a website they believe to be ‘local’.
  • You can build a link profile of locally sourced links. These are inbound links from local sites, therefore if you’re targeting Spain, you can build link equity from Spanish websites. Rand Fishkin’s research demonstrates that websites perform better in local search engines when they have a greater proportion of local inbound links.
  • You get great branding opportunities if you purchase a ccTLD. This is ideal if you’re targeting a market where your brand is unknown. For example, a British tea retailer launching into the Spanish online market may decide to purchase a ccTLD that contains their primary target keyword, ‘té británico’ (www.tebritanico.es). Rather than use an unfamiliar brand name, this domain may help you launch your product in a new market and support your SEO efforts too as a domain name containing an exact match keyword will boast SEO.

Cons

  • You lose some of the authority signals coming from your domestic site and your link equity is diluted across several domains rather than consolidating your authority on one site.
  • You’re launching a brand new site. That means you need to build a link profile from scratch and it can take time to establish the domain and start ranking well.
  • You’ll require additional resources for technical maintenance and link building for each site. You also own more domains that require yearly renewal.
  • It’s possible that the exact domain that you’re after is unavailable. For example, B&Q use the domain diy.com. The Spanish equivalent, www.bricolaje.es may not be available.
  • If you’re targeting several markets that speak the same language, it may not be practical or a good use of resources to launch and manage what is effectively the same content on several different domains (i.e. across Latin America). The costs would probably outweigh the benefits.

Example – Clipper Teas

Clipper Teas is a bit of an odd example. For their domestic domain, they use .com rather than .co.uk. Being a British company, unless they originally tried to reach global traffic via one domain, or they’re attempting to target US visitors, it seems a bit of a mishmash to use a top level domain of .com and then ccTLDs for your target markets (rather than subfolders or subdomains). This also means that if this English site is used to target British users, which again you’d presume is the case as they’re a company from the South of England, the .com does not provide them with the maximum geolocation signals available with a ccTLD.

Their British site has a Moz domain authority (DA) of 49, whilst the home page has a Moz PA of 58. If we select one of their main keywords for the home page, ‘fairtrade tea’, we find that on Google.co.uk they rank #3.

Clipper Teas have localised their site for three different international markets: France, Germany & Japan.

Firstly you’ll see that Clipper use the ccTLD for each market, but they don’t take the option of using a domain containing a target keyword. Maybe they felt that this was the best option for building brand awareness. However, they do change the domain name for the German site to cupper-teas.de to match their altered brand name for the German market; Cupper Teas (perhaps this has more of a ‘British sound’ to the German ear).

The Moz domain and home page authority for each localised site is listed in the table below. As you can see, the authority levels are significantly lower than those on the domestic domain. This is a major drawback of using ccTLDs and Clipper Teas must invest in link building strategies for each site in order to improve their SEO performance.

British Site French Site German Site Japanese Site
Moz Domain authority 49 23 25 19
Moz Home page authority 58 35 37 31

I also noticed that some of the basic on-page SEO signals (i.e. keywords on page title) are missing from the localised sites. This is an example of a company localising a site for international audiences, but not implementing SEO for each ccTLD to reach new customers. Whilst the quality of translation is high, if the site has not been properly optimised, you reduce your potential to reach new customers.

Subfolders

This option involves using a single top level domain and creating subfolders to host localised content, i.e. example.com/de-de (German speakers in Germany), example.com/it.

Pros

  • You only have the maintenance & SEO costs for one domain as each subfolder runs from the same content management system.
  • You can use Google Webmaster Tools to Geo target specific markets.
  • The authority signals and link equity is consolidated within one domain and this authority is passed onto each subfolder. This means that all of your link building efforts go to one domain and any localised content is launched on an established domain (assuming that you have an established domain).
  • Any link building activity aimed at building authority of specific localised subfolders will also benefit the overall domain. This means that a link gained for your Spanish section benefits every other section.
  • Unlike ccTLDs, you’re not restricted to targeting specific locations which is ideal if you want to target by language rather than market.

Cons

  • You need to host the domain, and subsequently each subfolder, on one server in one country. This can have an impact on geolocation signals, site performance and speed for local users.
  • You may receive a lower click-through rate than a ccTLD from site users who prefer to browse local websites.
  • Can get more complicated managing subfolders than other site structures.
  • Geolocation signals are weaker than using a ccTLD.
  • You don’t get the domain branding options which are available with ccTLD.

Example – Asos

Asos, one of the global giants of online retail, use subfolders to localise their content. This means that their huge Moz domain authority of 86 benefits each national subfolder. If the company uses the other geolocation tools available to them (webmaster tools, hreflang tags), the strength of their domain authority should outweigh any geolocation drawbacks. This is demonstrated for their performance on different international search engines for some highly competitive terms:

Search Engine Average local monthly searches Ranking
Men’s clothing Google UK 22,200 #1
Moda mujer Google ES 1,900 #7
Men’s clothing Google AU 1,900 #2

You can see that whilst Asos have high rankings in each location, their best performance is in the UK where their site is hosted. Without dissecting their SEO strategy and link profile, as their site is hosted in the UK and they don’t provide search engines with the best geolocation signals available (ccTLD), I’d hypothesise that whilst their domain authority helps them rank well in all of their target locations, it does restrict them somewhat to rank at the very top of search engine pages for their target keyphrases. This is supported by the fact that the site ranking above them for ‘men’s clothing’ in Australia has a Moz DA of 49 and PA of 30 compared to Asos’s 86 and 72 respectively (although I accept that whilst link profile is the primary factor in search engine performance, it’s by no means the sole factor).

Subdomains

In this example, you use a single top level domain and create a subdomain for each target market/language, i.e. de.example.com, es.example.com.

Pros

  • Subdomains are easy to set-up and maintain and they act as a standalone domain.
  • You can use Google Webmaster to geo target specific markets.
  • You can host each subdomain on a different, local server in the corresponding market, improving geolocation signals and site performance.
  • Unlike ccTLDs, you’re not restricted to targeting specific locations which is ideal if you want to target by language rather than market.

Cons

  • Because the search engines treat the subdomain as a separate domain, you don’t consolidate your link equity within one domain.
  • You may receive a lower click-through rate than a ccTLD from site users who prefer to browse local websites.
  • As with a ccTLD, you’re starting with a blank link profile and you need to build authority signals for each subdomain.
  • As with a ccTLD, you require additional resources for maintenance and link building

Example – Sports Direct

Sports Direct target fourteen different markets across Europe with a subdomain for each location. Whilst Moz doesn’t value the authority of the subdomain (it judges the top level domain, which in this case is 61), you can see in the table below that the home page authority for each subdomain differs substantially between the localised sites and the domestic site:

Home Page authority
Sportsdirect.com 68
cs.sportsdirect.com 37
fr.sportsdirect.com 36
hu.sportsdirect.com 38
pt.sportsdirect.com 34
sv.sportsdirect.com 33
de.sportsdirect.com 46
is.sportsdirect.com 39
at.sportsdirect.com 1
sl.sportsdirect.com 43
be.sportsdirect.com 1
es.sportsdirect.com 40
it.sportsdirect.com 34
pl.sportsdirect.com 34
sk.sportsdirect.com 33

Sports Direct haven’t made most of the geolocation opportunities available with a subdomain as each site is hosted on the same server in the US (a market which they don’t target). The lack of strong geolocation signals, combined with diluted link equity reduces Sports Direct’s potential for selected keywords in target markets as shown in the table below.

Search Engine Average local monthly searches Ranking
Football boots Google UK 49,500 #1
Botas de fútbol Google ES 22,200 #10
scarpe calcio Google IT 5,400 #53

Which option is right for you?

It’s difficult to give a definitive answer as each structure carries a different set of pros and cons and will depend on your situation. Broadly speaking, if you have the resources available and you’re only targeting a handful of markets, I’d say that the ccTLD is the best option with a long term view. Although it requires additional maintenance, and in the short term you need to develop link equity and authority from scratch, it does provide the best possible geolocation signals for search engines. It’s also likely to improve search engine click-through rates and provides the best possible foundations to develop an online profile in the selected target market.

If you want to target more than four or five markets, or target by language rather than market, I’d recommend the subfolder. You retain and build link equity within one domain, therefore you should start achieving SEO results much quicker than with a ccTLD as you’re working with an established site. You can also target by language rather than market, giving you the chance to target a larger audience. Further down the line, if you find that a considerable volume of traffic is coming from one specific market, you can create a ccTLD for that market once you have clear signals and data that justify the additional budget and resources.




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