International SEO: Site Structure

By Sam Gooch

International SEO: site structure

This article is part of an SEO series from WooRank. Thank you for supporting the partners who make SitePoint possible.

So you’ve decided to expand your brand overseas? Congratulations! Opening up your website to an audience beyond one country is a significant opportunity to growing your business.

Of course, once you’ve started the process of expanding internationally, you’ll be faced with some very important decisions. For your online business, one of the most important choices at the very beginning of this process is how to build your site to ensure you’re reaching your new target audiences.

In this piece we’ll go over all of the different options available to you for your international site structure. We’ll also investigate the potential impacts on SEO and provide other technical considerations for international SEO.

Building Multilingual or Multi-Regional Websites

When coming up with your international site structure, there are a few different paths you can take:

  • Subdomains: uk.example.com
  • Subdirectories: example.com/uk
  • Country code top-level domains (ccTLD): example.co.uk.

Note: Google interprets any top-level domain (TLD) that isn’t a registered country code as a generic TLD (gTLD).

Each option comes with its pros and cons and the right option varies on a case-by-case basis.

Country Code Top Level Domains

Using a ccTLD is perhaps the strongest signal you can send to search engines that your site is intended for users from a specific country. For example, seeing yoursite.fr or yoursite.jp will tell them that they should serve those sites in search results in France or Japan, respectively. The biggest advantage of taking this route is that Google has come out and said it uses ccTLDs to determine target audiences.

ccTLDs are good for businesses that:

  • Have a well-established global brand and will be creating a lot of content.
  • Are large operations with a physical presence in multiple locations.
  • Have the resources to build, maintain and promote a unique site for each targeted country.
  • Have a variety of products or services available depending on location and/or country.
  • Want to host their international versions on servers not located in the targeted countries.

Users also have a higher level of trust and familiarity with their country’s ccTLD (an important factor for an eCommerce business), which leads to a better user experience.

However, using this method also has the following drawbacks:

  • Significant development resources are required to create and maintain the various websites.
  • You’ll need to create and implement a unique SEO strategy for each site — you don’t get to take advantage of any acquired link juice or domain authority. This means separate keyword research, content strategies and link building for each.
  • Someone could have already registered your domain using a ccTLD you wish to target, or your ability to use certain ccTLDs could be restricted.

Subdomains

Creating multilingual or multi-regional subdomains is a possible solution for companies that haven’t built up strong global brand awareness and won’t be creating a lot of content to fill multiple sites using ccTLDs.

Go this route if you:

  • Don’t have a lot of resources to spend on building and maintaining multiple sites using ccTLDs.
  • Don’t have the time or resources to invest in building and maintaining multilingual or regional link profiles.
  • Have content that doesn’t differ by much other than slight language or regional tweaks.
  • Have product and/or service catalogs that aren’t significantly different based on language or location.
  • Want to keep your different regional/language targeted sites on separate servers.

If you do end up going this route, use Google Search Console to geotarget each subdomain. You can do this as well if you use ccTLDs, but search engines already see those country codes as signals to target specific regions.

Set regional target in Google Search Console

Of course, nothing is perfect. Subdomains also have their limitations:

  • They still require investing IT time and resources into setting up and maintaining multiple subdomains.
  • While Googlers like Matt Cutts and John Mueller have made statements about Google’s ability to pass authority between subdomains, the truth is that they still aren’t really able to do so on a reliable basis. So the value and link juice you’ve built up for one subdomain won’t really do much to help the others.
  • If you’ve got a bunch of subdomains for different languages or regions, you’ll seriously dilute what authority you are able to share between them.

Subdirectories

Also knows as subfolders, subdirectories allow you to host all your language versions on one generic domain (gTLD), with content stored in a separate folder for each language or country.

You can actually create folders for each language and country, for example: example.com/en-us/ and example.com/en-gb/. Since they are all on the same site, subfolders are easy and require little investment to set up and maintain. And because all the folders are on the original domain, you get to take advantage of any link juice and authority you’ve already acquired. You’ll also get to share any of the benefits realized from future SEO campaigns as well.

Since subdirectories can be somewhat ambiguous when it comes to determining language vs. region targeting (is /fr/ targeting the French language or France?), use Google Search Console to geo-target each subfolder. Just click Add a Property and enter your URL with the language subdirectory included (www.example.com/en/, for example). After you’ve verified your ownership of your property, you can set regional targeting as shown earlier.

Subdirectories are good for you if:

  • You don’t have the time or resources to set up ccTLDs or subdomains for every language and region you’re targeting.
  • Your current site has lots of value and backlinks built up.
  • Your foreign language versions won’t have many differences in site structure, navigation and content.
  • Your products and services don’t vary much between languages and/or regions.
  • You don’t have a physical location in the countries you’re targeting.

There are some disadvantages to using subfolders for international SEO.

  • The URL structure could be ambiguous for some users: Visitors to example.com/de/ could end up wondering if they’re looking at a page that’s targeted to the country Germany or just the language. Example.de is explicitly for the country of Germany.
  • Subdirectories are a much weaker signal to search engines than ccTLDs. If you have geo-targeted websites in the same language, you run the risk of the wrong version ranking.
  • Your whole site is hosted on the same server, which could mean slower load times. This isn’t much of an issue these days, fortunately.

Note: If you choose to use either subdomains or subdirectories, you have to use the correct lingo: search engines will understand “Deutsch” or “de.” They won’t understand if you use non-native words like “Germany” or “German” in your subdomains or file path.

There’s technically a fourth option you could use in lieu of those already mentioned: URL parameters. It’s possible to set up your site using URL parameters to determine region and/or language. However, this offers no benefits over the other options and only has drawbacks:

  • Geotargeting in Google Search Console using URL parameters is impossible.
  • Segmenting visitors based on URL parameters is difficult.
  • Using URL parameters in general is not good for your SEO.

On Page Considerations for International SEO

Regional Landing Page Markup

Once you’ve decided on the site structure that works best for you, it’s time to build your pages for regional targeting. Even though you’ve used your URLs to specify language and/or region and geotargeted your subdirectories or subdomains, you should still give your search engines an additional hint. Do this using the hreflang markup. You can learn more about using hreflang to prevent duplicate content in your international SEO here. But first, a quick refresher:

Hreflang is added to the header of an HTML page and gives crawlers another hint that the page should be served to users in a certain location or who speak a particular language or both. The hreflang tag should look like this when properly used:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang=”en” href=”https://www.example.com”>

If you’ve got multiple versions of a non-HTML page, such as a PDF document, put the hreflang in the HTTP header as so:

link: <https://www.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang=”en”

For hreflang to work properly you need to include a link to every version of a page. So if you’ve got pages in English, German and Russian, include all three:

 <link rel="alternate" hreflang=”en” href=”https://www.example.com”>

 <link rel="alternate" hreflang=”de” href=”https://www.example.com”>

 <link rel="alternate" hreflang=”ru” href=”https://www.example.com”>

Use the hreflang variable to geotarget by including country codes:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang=”en-us” href=”https://www.example.com”>

Set your language using the ISO 639-1 standard and use the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for countries. Note that you can only geotarget by country using hreflang — it doesn’t support regions like Asia or North Africa.

Setting a Generic International Landing Page

Something we didn’t go over when discussing hreflang before is how to use hreflang to set a default landing page for users that aren’t included in the hreflang tags you’ve used. Do this with the x-default hreflang value. Properly implemented it looks like: <link rel="alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/” hreflang=”x-default” />

Let’s say you’ve got a website that targets English speakers in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Your hreflang tags should look like:

<link rel="alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/ca” hreflang=”en-ca” />

<link rel="alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/au” hreflang=”en-au” />

<link rel="alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/uk” hreflang=”en-gb” />

<link rel="alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/” hreflang=”x-default” />

In this case, a French speaker from Canada and an English speaker from the United States would both be served https://www.example.com/ as a landing page.

This attribute is useful for sites that only want to target a few specific languages and/or countries, detect the user’s geolocation in the Accept-Language header, or ask users to select their language or country.

Meta Elements

It’s a good idea to tailor your on page meta elements to your target language and location. That includes your title tags, meta descriptions, headers and image alt text. With the exception of the descriptions, these elements all provide strong signals about the page’s subject to search engines, and are relied on heavily to determine relevance to a search keyword. Adapting them to native phrases will help give search engines another push in the right direction regarding your page.

Pay special attention to the language meta tag. Bing doesn’t allow geotargeting but it does look at this tag. Make sure it’s implemented correctly across all pages. It should look like this:

<meta http-equiv="content-language” content=”en-us”>

In Conclusion

There’s a lot to consider whenever you’re launching a new site or otherwise expanding your business online. When it comes to your SEO, making sure you’re getting the right content in front of your targeted international audience should be one of your top considerations. That starts with using the way you’ve built your global site to tell search engines who should be served which site. It’s not always clear-cut, but finding the right site structure and on page technical elements can set you on the path to ranking highly in your global target markets.

Have you launched any international sites? What site structure did you use? What challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them?

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