Whether your business operates in multiple territories or has plans to expand, it’s important to follow international SEO URL structure best practices. Doing so will ensure that you’re in the best position to take advantage of the international opportunities present in your market.
Taking the time to carefully plan and execute your international SEO strategy will not only save your business a potential admin headache down the line but also a financial one.
But why does your website require an international setup in the first place? Read on to learn about why you might want to invest in international SEO, and the key considerations to be aware of when choosing the structure of your URLs.
What is international SEO?
International SEO is a form of website optimisation that enables search engines to determine which countries to present your pages to in search results, and in which languages.
In short, it is the process of making sure that the UK version of your website appears in the UK search results and likewise for other markets and countries.
From geotargeting to hreflang, there are plenty of vital considerations to take into account as part of your strategy; here, though, our main purpose is to explore the importance of international SEO URL structure and the options for you to consider.
Why is international SEO important?
To understand why your business needs an international SEO, it’s important to first understand how search engines like Google crawl, index and present websites to different audiences.
The goal of a search engine is to present the most relevant, useful and authoritative content to its users. The content that a user deems to be relevant, useful and authoritative changes depending on their language and country that they’re searching from.
For example, someone searching for shoes in France will be presented with different search results to someone searching in the UK. This is because search engines understand that someone searching in France will want to browse websites written in their native language, offering products or services that are available to them at competitive prices. Presenting websites written in another language, or websites offering products unavailable in their market, would result in a bad search experience for the user – something which Google tries to avoid at all costs!
As a result, businesses looking to trade in another market will need to ensure their website is optimised for each respective audience. Doing so requires making sure their site is multi-regional (one that targets users in different countries who speak the same language, such as the UK and the USA) or multilingual (one that offers content in more than one language).
Much like a website requiring SEO in its country to rank organically for its target keywords, a multi-regional or multilingual site will need an international SEO strategy to perform strongly.
The first step, and the topic of this blog post, is choosing the optimal international website setup.
International SEO best practices
How do I set up international targeting for my website?
There are three main options for building a website that can perform well organically overseas:
- Separate country-code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)
- International subdomains
What are subdirectories (aka subfolders)?
A subdirectory, also known as a subfolder, is the part of a website which houses a specific subset of content. Subdirectories are displayed in the URL, appended to the right of the domain. Common examples of subdirectories include: www.businessname.com/blog or www.businessname.com/shop.
A good way of understanding subdirectories is to imagine them like separate folders within a filing cabinet, with the filing cabinet being the website in its entirety.
Not only do subdirectories allow you to structure and organise domestic-targeted content, they are also the first option available to businesses looking to expand abroad. This option involves having the company domain sit on a .com generic top level domain (gTLD), as this is the industry standard for international sites.
The website would then require separate subdirectories on the domain to target different markets, such as:
These country-specific subfolders serve as a signal to search engines that they are aimed at different markets. However, this is not enough.
How to set hreflang for subdomains
Each subfolder also requires the appropriate hreflang tag attributes to be implemented to avoid being seen by Google as duplicated, even if it is translated into different languages.
Hreflang tag attributes explicitly tell search engines which language you are using on a specific page, so they can serve that result to users searching in that language. They can also state the region in which a page should be served to users.
For example, the following hreflang tag attributes tell search engines that the page is aimed at an English-speaking US audience (hence ‘en-us’).
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”en-us” />
While search engines are adept at understanding the content on a page, they still require information about localised versions of your pages to be able to differentiate them. As well as hreflang tag attributes, each country-specific subdirectory should also ideally be geo-targeted in Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools or other similar platforms.
An example of a website utilising this approach is Nike.com. The global sportswear giant has chosen to offer content for each of its markets on the .com generic top-level domain (gTLD), with the content for each territory being available on a country-specific subfolder with the correct hreflang tag attributes implemented. The version of the site for users in Great Britain is https://www.nike.com/gb/, which has ‘en-gb’ as an attribute in its hreflang tag.
An image showing the international site options available on Nike.com.
- There may be less technical management and overhead costs in the long-term e.g. hosting.
- Each country-specific subdirectory will inherit authority from other subfolders on the same gTLD, meaning any backlinks earned for one market will benefit another. Each country-specific subfolder would still need country and language-specific backlinks.
- Subdirectories can be built to target users in multiple countries that share the same language.
- While the subdirectory option works for certain businesses, it’s important to remember that a brand name, especially those with exact match domains (EMDs), do not always translate well into other languages. Website names that hold little meaning in a foreign market will likely struggle to achieve strong organic rankings, let alone receive a positive click-through rate (CTR).
- Having a multi-site approach means that all sites can be edited from the same CMS, which can be confusing and result in mistakes being made. Moreover, a singular data breach could affect the business’ service offering in every territory.
What are country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs)?
A country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) shows users and search engines which country or independent territory a website is registered in using a two letter country-code. It gives an indication as to who may find the content relevant based on where they reside.
Creating a new and entirely separate ccTLD is the second option available for websites expanding into new markets.
For example, a standard UK business may have their current website like the following:
The ‘co.uk’ is the country-code part of the domain, meaning its purpose is to indicate the market in which a country is supposed to be ranking. While this helps the website rank well in that particular market, it also makes it near impossible for it to be seen in other countries.
For this reason, a business looking to expand overseas will need to either migrate to a ‘.com’ gTLD, or purchase a new ccTLD for the country they wish to target. A business looking to expand into the French market may purchase a domain such as:
www.businessname.fr A good example of a business using the ccTLD route is Flixbus. Similarly to the subfolder option, the website would need to implement hreflang tags between the two sites to ensure that other search engines view the content on each site as intended for different audiences.
An image showing the hreflang tag set up for Flixbus
It’s important to bear in mind, however, that subfolders targeting different territories cannot be built on a ccTLD.
Separate domain advantages
- Content can be prioritised and the site can be launched with only key content as opposed to risking having half translated subdirectories.
- Having separate domains offers the option of different content management systems to avoid confusion. It is also possible to manage several key pages, such as the homepage, across both websites.
- Hosting the international site on its local ccTLD will boost its local ranking signals and increase its potential for ranking well in the target market.
- The overseas audience may be particularly favourable to ccTLD’ websites, as they see it as a trustworthy signal.
- If your brand name means little to the foreign market, having a separate domain with a country-specific brand name will likely give you a higher chance of market entry success.
Separate domain disadvantages
- More costly in the short-term to build and host a new domain.
- There are key customer service and market entry considerations that would need to be reviewed; address, customer service team, telephone number etc.
- The domain will need to build authority from scratch.
- Links will need to be built for each site separately, meaning that building authority in a new market will take longer.
What are international subdomains?
Subdomains are parts of the larger domain that can be treated separately, much like having different subfolders for different markets. They typically sit in front of the main domain, such as uk.companyname.com for a business targeting the UK market.
Some CMS tools or proxies default to this behaviour, so it’s been a popular technique for many international websites.
A business can decide to use subdomains to target its content to different markets, as long as it uses the correct href lang tag attributes to help search engines serve the content to the correct markets.
A good example of a business using the subdomain route is Gymshark.
An image showing the homepage for Gymshark’s German site – de.gymshark.com
One caveat – you cannot create subdomains targeting other countries on a ccTLD.
- Subdomains are the default for some CMS tools
- They have some connection to the current SEO authority of the main website, which can aid performance when launching in a new country.
- It does not require the purchase of new domains.
- Subdomains are considered as a separate entity to the parent domain for links, therefore each subdomain will require a unique SEO and link building strategy.
- No automatic user association with the target country, unlike ccTLDs.
- Not a common use of language targeting, which might confuse users.
Which URL structure is right for me?
Deciding on which solution is best for your business depends on a wide range of criteria.
If you already use a ccTLD:
If your existing site sits on a UK ccTLD (.co.uk, for example), it might be best to purchase the equivalent ccTLD (such as .fr or .de) in your target market to avoid a costly website migration to a .com gTLD.
If you’re planning on expanding into multiple territories:
If you plan on expanding to multiple territories and would like to share any authority built across each country, it may be best to choose the subdirectory route (for example, .com/gb/). Choosing this path can also be less costly than purchasing and hosting numerous ccTLDs.
If you’re deciding between multiregional and multilingual:
Another consideration is whether your goal is primarily multi-regional or multilingual. If you purchase a ccTLD, it is almost impossible to rank in any country other than the one targeted. On the other hand, subdirectories are slightly more flexible and can be tailored for targeting multiple countries and regions with the same languages.
The subdomain route offers similar benefits to the subdirectory route, but search engines appear to not pass on authority to subdomains. It also doesn’t benefit from the advantages of the separate domain route, making it perhaps the least attractive of the three options.
A summary of each option can be found in the table below:
A table showing the pros and cons of each website setup option
Choosing the best URL structure is the first step to making sure your website(s) are visible in every country and market you operate in. If you’re interested in learning more about the opportunities available for your business, contact our team of international SEO specialists today.