The site structure you choose will have a huge impact on your international SEO strategy. We look at the pros and cons of the options available for your company.
You saw in our last blog how important research is when deciding whether to target by country or by language.
Although targeting by country generally allows you to be more specific, this doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. It can be expensive and if there’s not enough organic opportunity, it may not be a worthwhile investment. In this case, focusing on language targeting instead can be a good start, while you’re working towards targeting by country.
Whichever way the research leads you, setting up your site structure is vital to getting things off on the right foot. For international websites, there are typically three different approaches you can take. We’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of each one in turn.
Country Code Top-Level Domains – or ccTLDs – are often considered the best approach to take when you’re targeting by country, as they geo-target automatically.
Examples of this include google.fr and amazon.de, both of which take you to country-specific website versions. This makes it easy for you to show the right information to the right people in the right language, improving their user experience.
However, it’s worth highlighting a few commonly used domain names that are not ccTLDs: .eu, .me, .co, .net and .org. Google classes these as Generic Top-Level Domains (or gTLDs), which can’t be used to geo-target your audience. So if your website uses one of these domains and you’re targeting by country, you’ll have to geo-target using other means. But that’s OK – we’ve written an article here [add hyperlink] to help.
Despite the advantages of this structure, ccTLDs can be quite an expensive option, as Google treats each one as a discrete website. This means that you’ll need to put more investment into growing the site’s popularity and reputation from scratch, which can take time to bear fruit.
They can also cause a bit of a headache when it comes to expansion later on as subdirectory geo-targeting is typically less effective within ccTLDs.. For example, garyreilly.ca/us would not work to target the US, as the ccTLD would continue to geo-target Canada automatically. The only way around it would be to purchase a new URL – like garyreilly.us and then apply relevant geo signals.
Pro tip: If you’re targeting purely by language, ccTLDs might not be the best option for you. But if you’d like the option to target by country in future, it may be worth buying the ccTLDs now so you have them ready.
2. SUBDIRECTORIES with gTLD
The chief advantage of subdirectories with a gTLD (Generic Top Level Domain) is that they can be easily scaled as your business requirements change. They can be used to target by country, by language or by a combination of the two. Examples include spotify.com/fr and apple.com/au or microsoft.com/en-gb
If you’re using this approach, subdirectories will be able to leverage the existing domain authority of the gTLD, which gives it an advantage over ccTLDs when targeting by country.
Your development teams will also be happy with this choice as it’s scalable for implementation of hreflang tags.
3. SUBDOMAINS with gTLD
However we’d typically recommend avoiding this structure as there is still quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the subdomain approach may impact organic performance.
Subdomains are generally considered as separate entities, so you’ll have to work to develop their popularity – much like with ccTLDs.
And if you use subdomains to target languages, but later decide to switch to country targeting, you’ll have less room for manoeuvre. For example, if I were to use fr.garyreilly.com to target French speakers, but later decided to target mainland French speakers specifically, I’d have no natural way of doing this. I’d either have to switch to a new site structure or come up with a very fiddly workaround.
So, which site structure is right for your business? As with all these things, there’s no single right answer. In fact, it’s a broader business decision that depends on a number of factors – technical limitations, growth objectives, how much time and effort you can afford to invest, how you want to target users.
But regardless of which approach you choose, the most important thing is to be consistent. Mixing different site structures together usually creates quite a mess which may harm search visibility, impede user experience and cost more time, effort and revenue in the long run.
If you’re not sure which site structure is best for your company, drop me a line – I’d be more than happy to discuss it in more detail with you.