You’ve been in business for a while now and rank well in Australia, so it’s time to expand to New Zealand/China/UK or another country with a market just waiting to be disrupted. But how do you expand your website so it’s just as visible on Google in your new country as it is at home?
International SEO has a reputation for being one of the toughest gigs in online marketing, but it’s much simpler than it appears. In this guide you’ll learn the 3 different methods to structure your website when targeting multiple countries and be able to choose the most sustainable option for your business. Whether you’re a business owner entrusting digital to another, or the Marketer/Developer with the big job, it’s vital to understand why your site is structured in a particular way as it could make a huge difference to your development costs!
There are three separate ways to structure your site (or sites) to target different countries:
- Country-Coded Top Level Domains (ccTLDs)
Before we get into what each is, as well as the pros and cons, we need to know what encourages Google to rank a website in one particular location. You may be familiar with the basic elements they’re looking for (relevant backlinks, quality content etc.) but in this case we’re talking solely about location signals. To rank a business in a particular region, Google wants to be confident that it has a real physical presence there, or has at least tailored its online content and delivery method for local people.
The top signs it looks at are:
- Whether the site has a ccTLD - For example, a domain name ending in .com.au for Australia or .co.nz for New Zealand.
- The server location - A nearby server enables the website to load much faster for local users.
- A local Google My Business profile (i.e. a Google Maps listing) - Listings of a local address and landline phone number on directories also count.
- International Targeting Settings - Google Search Console, Google’s free online tool, has an International Targeting feature, allowing website admins to tell Google which country their site is targeting.
Signals that were once thought to be relevant, but no longer are, include:
- HTML Geo Tags - Lines of code that denote a geocoordinate, place name or country that can easily be manipulated.
- Hreflang Attributes - Also elements of HTML code, these are only used by Google to determine which page to display in search results when multiple versions exist (usually one page translated into different languages). Google does not use hreflang to determine where a site is based.
Which site structure do I use?
With this knowledge, let’s look at the pros and cons of each site structure. There’s no universal winner, as with most questions, the answer is: 'it depends…'.
Real world examples:
A country-coded top level domain gives one of the strongest signals to both Google and your customers that your site is relevant to their location. However, unlike the other solutions you’re not adjusting your own site, you’re purchasing an entirely new domain name and essentially starting a new website from scratch. This can be costly and time consuming, particularly if someone else has already registered the domain name you want for a different service.
On the other hand, if you have the resources to maintain this site as a separate entity (perhaps you have an Aussie marketing team and a NZ marketing team), running two websites may be worth the effort. You can add links from the mother site to give your new baby some SEO love, plus, if your regional office is building new links with local websites your link profile will be much more relevant, which is another positive location signal.
Unlike the other options, it’s not essential to use the International Targeting option in Google Search Console or to have a local server as a ccTLD provides a strong enough signal to Google, however it’s still a good idea to implement both. Long load times can harm your rankings and encourage visitors to bounce, which can be overcome with a local server or a Content Delivery Network (CDN).
Real world examples:
Sub-directories (also known as sub-folders) are typically the least time consuming for Developers to set up. In this approach you’re creating a separate folder for each country and placing localised versions of every page under this folder, including the home page, contact page and so on. You can duplicate your entire website and have an identical set of pages for each country if you like (there’s no such thing as a duplicate content penalty), however it’s best to tailor your content to match the local dialect as well as cultural differences in the region you’re expanding to. For example, American customers may not trust a brand that speaks to them in Australian English or uses images that are stereotypically Australian.
Each regional sub-directory can be added to Google Search Console as a unique property, meaning you can define a different country to target.
Many brands use the two-letter ISO Country Code to denote the region as it keeps the URL short, however this can be confusing for customers. For example, does the sub-directory /ca/ take you to the Canadian page or California? A URL ending in .com/au/ could also confuse Australian users, who may type in .com.au and end up at a completely different site.
Sub-directories can also invite visitors to view other regions, which you may not want for marketing reasons. If your pricing structure or product release dates vary significantly between countries, or you don’t want competitors to see where you’re expanding, you may not want this information so easily discovered.
Real world examples:
spanish.alibaba.com vs german.alibaba.com
The sub-domain approach is a very clear way to communicate your local relevance to visitors because you can write the full country name, or whatever you want, at the beginning of the URL. When comparing search results, many people look at URLs to determine the trustworthiness of the page, so this has a big impact on click-through rates.
Like sub-directories, sub-domains can be added as unique properties to Search Console, giving Google a strong signal of which targets which. It’s also possible to host each domain on a separate local server so your site loads fast in the region it targets.
The compromise is that when you create a sub-domain you are dividing your domain authority by two. This means that if you earn a quality link, the SEO benefit that flows from it can only go to one domain, in other words, one country. Smaller businesses may not have a marketing/SEO team in each region to build a separate link profile. In this case sub-directories may be better as the authority boost from one relevant link could benefit all versions of the site.
Sub-domains can also be more labour-intensive for Developers to set up and maintain, so it depends on your resources.
How about language?
Now that we’ve covered multiple countries, what if you need to translate your website to reach people speaking a different language? Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to read the next instalment as soon as it’s posted.