How to get your international domain strategy absolutely right
Once you have got your UK-focused website right – technically well structured, easily found via search engines, rich in content which meets audience intent, with a look and feel which reinforces your brand – it is time to do the same for each of your target markets internationally. The aim is to create websites that can be found easily by your target audience in your target markets in their own language on any device.
International websites are about getting known in a new market. If you are a major brand, you may already have some brand awareness. But if you are not and you need to approach new customers, you need to make it easy for them to find you. This is where international SEO comes in.
International SEO is the branch of SEO devoted to optimising websites so that your online brand presence is as visible as possible for users in your target markets and languages. A central part of international SEO is domain strategy.
Firstly, do you need a site for each country?
If the market is large enough for you to invest in, then potentially yes. A dedicated site for each country could provide a better user experience for local visitors, as well as SEO benefits. However, this may not be a feasible option for you, at least not at the beginning. In that case, you should instead have a site for each language that is spoken in your target countries. This is a good approach if you want to test the waters first before you dive in too deep. You can use hreflang tags to tell Google which language and country each site is created for.
Hreflang tags are a technical solution for sites that have similar content in multiple languages. The owner of a multilingual site wants search engines to send people to the content in their own language. For example, if a user is German and the page that ranks is English, but there’s also a German version, you would want Google to show the German page in the search results for that German user. This is the kind of problem hreflang was designed to solve.
Choosing the right domain structure
There is no clear right or wrong answer to the question of which domain strategy is right for you. It will depend on your circumstances. Key questions to consider include:
- Which CMS (Content Management System) are you using and what opportunities and limitations does it provide?
- What domain strategies are your competitors following in your target markets?
- What budgetary constraints are you operating under?
- What words will be used in your domain name i.e., the address of your website? Usually this is your brand name but depending on the domain strategy you follow, check that the way words are combined in your domain does not look odd to an audience who speak a different language. An English example would be Experts Exchange which could look like ‘expert sex change’ in the domain name.
There are three main options for your domain structure:
- Country code top level domains (ccTLDs)
- Subfolders or directories
There are pros and cons to each approach, and the right solution will depend on your circumstances. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Country-code top level domains (ccTLDs):
Country-code top level domains are specific to a country – for example:
- Amazon.fr — for France
- Amazon.co.uk — for the UK
- Amazon.de — for Germany
- Strongly associated with the country they cover (for example – .fr for France)
- Usually rank better in the target market
- More trusted by website users, leading to a better click-through rate
- Additional cost – i.e. if you are present in 20 markets, you need 20 ccTLDs
- Starting from scratch means when you launch into a new market, you don’t have a domain history or links to rely on
- Increased work required to roll out SEO improvements across all markets
- Can be harder to measure performance in Google Search Console
Sub-folders or sub-directories:
If you require country or language specific content, one of the easiest options is to create localised sub-directories on your own site. These sub-directories can be geotargeted in Google Search Console and can contain country-specific content and language. For example:
- yourbrand.com — root site targeting the USA
- yourbrand.com/uk/ — UK
- yourbrand.com/de/ — Germany
- yourbrand.fr/ca – targeting French speakers in Canada
- You are only expanding your existing site, so there may be less technical management and overhead – e.g. no extra domain hosting costs
- The sub-directories will inherit authority from the parent domain
- You only have one site to promote, so whilst you will still want country and language specific links, this is simpler and more cost-effective than promoting multiple sites
- Technical SEO improvements performed on one part of the site will benefit all the country folders
- Links between countries are seen by search engines as internal, not external, links. This helps your backlink profile as it will be made up predominantly of links from other sites and not mainly from your own
- Easier to measure performance in Google Search Console
- In the search results, it is not as obvious to users that the country subfolder is specifically for users in that country – that is, /fr could be a page about your French products rather than a page specifically aimed at French consumers
- There is a risk of internal cannibalisation – different international landing pages can end up competing in search results, and it can be a challenge to get the right landing page to rank in the relevant country’s search
- SEO mistakes made on one part of the site can affect all the country folders
Sub-folders can be an easy way to get started with international SEO, but it is important to be aware of the limitations of this approach. A potential obstacle to watch out for is automatic optimisation settings in your CMS. The last thing you want is your sensitively localised website for the Spanish market to have a default title tag and meta description on every page which is in English. You can avoid this by turning off any automatic optimisation settings.
Subdomains add the country or language content to the beginning of the domain – for example, for France, it would be fr.yourbrand.com. Because some CMS tools default to this option, in the past it has been a popular technique for many international websites.
- Maintains some connection to the current SEO authority of the parent website, so you are not starting from scratch when launching into a new market
- Benefits from some market recognition from users when the country code appears at the front – e.g. us.example.com
- Some CMS tools offer this option as a default setting so can be easy to execute
- Users are less likely to associate your domain with their country as the language specialisation or country is at the beginning of the domain
Oban client example: The international insurance giant
Oban helped a leading insurance company select the right domain strategy to meet its objectives. The brand sells private medical insurance to a globally mobile audience. Oban suggested using a gTLD as they needed to target prospects all over the world yet had a finite development budget. Having one /en/ English sub-folder for the English language content allowed them to reach expatriates in over 100 countries with a curated handful of pages.
- A key aspect of international SEO is domain strategy.
- The first question to decide is whether you need a site for each country.
- There are three main options for your domain strategy:
- Country code top level domains (ccTLDs)
- Subfolders or directories
- Each option has pros and cons – the right approach will depend on your circumstances and objectives.
- Google is not the only search engine to consider (though it is the most dominant).
. . .
This is an edited extract from Oban’s book Going Global: How to improve digital marketing performance in any market on the planet.
To find out how Oban’s network of Local In-Market Experts can help you succeed internationally, please get in touch.
Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.