By Stefano Re

After successfully building your business domestically, at some point you may decide to go global – but will the localised keyword research and traditional SEO tactics that have helped you rank well at home allow you to thrive on an international scale? 

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What is International SEO?

Growing your business and expanding into new markets sounds exciting, but there are several considerations that you may not be aware of. A successful international strategy relies on a successful international site - and a flawless technical SEO strategy should be at the forefront of this. The domain strategy you use to target your markets has a huge impact on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) and as a result, rankings. Domain strategies can have a strong geo-targeting influence and can affect a site’s domain authority and backlink profile. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

Domain Strategies:

  • Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) (www.domain.de)
  • Subfolders or subdirectories (www.domain.com/fr)
  • Subdomain (fr.domain.com)
  • Parameters (www.domain.com/foo?lang=fr)
  • Locale-Adaptive (Dynamic)


Map of Internal SEO Domain Strategies

Country code top-level domain

A Country Code Top-level domain (ccTLD) is the code that appears at the end of a domain name and usually refers to a country, for example: .co.uk for the United Kingdom, .fr for France or .de for Germany. 

Examples of possible ccTLD

Pros of ccTLDs

  • True geo-targeting as domains are automatically associated with the country they cover (.de to Germany).
  • Better CTR as it is clear to visitors that the site is meant for them.
  • In many countries, customers prefer a locally-based website.
  • In some markets, local ccTLDs perform better in the rankings, and in more extreme cases, only local ccTLDs are shown in search results. This is the case in China, where Chinese search engine Baidu only shows Chinese ccTLDs.

Cons of ccTLDs

  • Increased costs of domain registration (if you are in 20 countries you need 20 ccTLDs).
  • No domain history or links when you launch into a new market, as each domain will have its own backlink profile with its own domain authority.
  • It can be difficult to acquire the same domain name in all targeted countries.
  • It is more difficult to set up language specific websites; a German-language website on a .de domain will look like a German-focused website, instead of one which can also serve customers in German-speaking Switzerland or Austria.
  • SEO work on the authority of one ccTLD won’t benefit other ccTLDs, as they are all separate domains. For example, the domain authority of example.fr won’t be shared with example.de.

Subfolders or sub-directories

Subfolders or subdirectories are language or country codes that can be added to any domain (www.example.com/fr). For this strategy to work properly, the site needs to be on a top-level domain such as .com, and not a local ccTLD.

Example of a URL subfolder

Pros of subfolders

  • SEO performed on one part of the domain will benefit all the country or language folders, as it is a single domain.
  • When entering a new international market, domain authority is inherited from existing domains, so you don’t have to start from scratch.
  • Links between countries are internal links, not external ones, which helps your backlink profile as it will be made up predominantly of links from other peoples’ sites instead of from your own sites.
  • No extra domain hosting costs.

Cons of subfolders

  • Not a strong geo-targeting signal; no country-specific authority to the website.
  • It is not obvious that the country subfolder is specifically for users in that country when seeing it in the SERP. Users with little technical knowledge may see the domain as not trustworthy because of the generic ccTLD (.com) that does not target their specific country.
  • Risk of internal cannibalisation – different international landing pages could compete with each other in search results, making it difficult to get the right landing page to rank in the relevant country’s search.
  • Hreflang tag implementation can be challenging on some CMS.

Subdomain

Subdomains include the country code at the beginning of the domain name (de.example.com). Some CMS tools or proxies default to this behaviour, so it is a popular technique for many international websites.

Example of a French Subdomain

Pros of subdomains

  • Default for some CMS tools, therefore easy to implement and operate. have a connection to the domain authority of the main website, which can help performance (backlink profile) when launching in a new country.

Cons of subdomains

  • Links to subdomains from the language drop-down are still seen as external links. Nevertheless, this is still better than having external links from unique ccTLDs for each country.
  • No automatic association in the search engines with the country you’re targeting (however it is still possible to enable international targeting in GSC, submitting each subdomain as a separate property).
  • Users are less likely to associate your domain with their country, as the language specification is at the beginning of the domain.
  • Risk of internal cannibalization: subdomains could compete with one another for the same search terms if they have content gaps and the languages overlap.
  • Hreflang tag implementation can be challenging.

Parameters (not recommended by Merkle)

Any word after a question mark (?) in a URL is a parameter which can hold values. URLs with different parameter values are considered to be unique URLs by search engines. Websites can have language or country parameters which can be applied to the different language or country versions of the website. This is not recommended by Merkle as it can cause issues with URL differentiation and content duplication.

Example of a parameter international SEO URL strategy

Pros of parameters

  • Can be easy to implement.
  • Acquire authority from the root domain.

Cons of parameters

  • Gives little country-specific authority to the website.
  • Can cause issues with URL/page differentiation.
  • Can create duplication issues if canonicals are not well implemented.


Locale-Adaptive (Dynamic)

These are pages that dynamically change content (language, currency, etc.) based on perceived location from the IP address or preferred language based on the Accept-Language HTTP request header.

This is not recommended by Google, as Googlebot is so far the only crawler with the capability to understand these pages (Bing and other search engines cannot currently index locale-adaptive pages properly). Moreover, since Googlebot might crawl a French dynamic page using a bot from the US, if the website is using locale-adaptive URLs it would be impossible for Google to crawl and index the French version of the website. This would be a critical issue, having huge impacts on traffic and revenues.

Pros of Locale-Adaptive URLs

  • Combine URL authority.
  • Google is the only search engine capable of locale-adaptive indexation.   
  • Google recommends using separate URLs.
  • Banned in some cases according to EU regulations.

Cons of Locale-Adaptive URLs

oogle is the only search engine capable of locale-adaptive indexation.   

  • Google recommends using separate URLs.
  • Banned in some cases according to EU regulations.

How to make the best-informed decision?

After examining every option available, it is clear that there are pros and cons of every domain strategy: each can be the most suitable depending on many factors. The main considerations are the budget that the company is willing to invest in the project, time constraints (they might have tight deadlines because of the launch of a new product in the new market) and CMS limitations i.e. can the CMS support all the technical SEO (link to blog “Search Experience Optimisation”) implementations requested?

Limitations can also come from the markets, and sometimes choosing a domain strategy and applying it to every market is difficult. For example, it might be preferable to use a ccTLD strategy for some markets and a .com subfolder strategy for others.

It is also important to consider additional technical SEO setups that can be implemented to overcome some of the limitations of the domain strategies outlined above. For example, when using a domain strategy with subdomains, which doesn’t give a strong geo-targeting signal, it would be highly recommended to use hreflang tags or lang attributes in the HTTP header or HTML of the pages. These will provide signals to search engines about the language and the targeted audience of a page to help them serve the correct language or regional URL to the proper audience.

So, as you can see, there is no strategy that suitable for use in all circumstances, and variables such as cost of implementation, running costs, geo-targeting, domain authority, CMS capabilities and technologies available can change your plan altogether. 

The SEO team at Merkle is always happy to help or discuss international SEO strategies.

If you want to know more about the services we can offer, check out the SEO Team Page

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