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Geotargeting: TLDs, Sub-Folders & Sub-Domains

15 November 2010 BY

Geotargeting for International SEO isn’t a new topic by any means; however the question of how to get the right geotargeted content ranking for each particular country continues to rear its ugly head. Here I’ll be covering the options, the pros and cons and my views on how best to deal with it.

When it comes to geotargeting (i.e. if you want specific content to rank in different countries) essentially you have three options:

1) Create separate sites for each ccTLD e.g. domain.de (for a site targeting Germany); plus you should write the site in your target language, and host it in the country you are targeting too.

2) Create sub-folders (e.g. domain.com/uk) for each of the countries which you are targeting. Here, make sure all content in the sub-folder is written in your target language and then geotarget the sub-folders to your target countries within Google Webmaster Tools.

3) As per option two, however instead of creating sub-folders, create sub-domains (e.g. uk.domain.com)

Pros & Cons

Sadly, there’s really no ‘right’ answer and there are pros and cons to each of the approaches:

The first approach is the most likely to solve your geotargeting problems (i.e. you are less likely to see problems like your US site ranking above your UK site for searches in the UK). However it can raise a whole new issue; namely that your content might not rank at all. Almost without exception a single site will be stronger than many – as the all inbound links to a given domain contribute to the site’s strength; so all pages on the domain receive a boost (albeit only a small one) when any given page on the site receives a link. If you elect to go with the first approach you’ll have to build a number of sites from the ground up – so whilst you’ll probably dodge the geotargeting bullet you’ll need to be prepared to put some serious link building work into each ccTLD in order to get it to rank.

The second approach brings with it precisely the opposite issue – i.e. it’s likely that you’ll find it easier to rank as you’ll probably be dealing with a stronger domain (assuming all of your target location sub-folders are attracting links); however you may find it tricky to get the correct geotargeted content ranking.

The third approach; using sub-domains isn’t something I’d ordinarily recommend, as it’s kind of the worst of both worlds. Despite having everything on the same domain, sub-domains don’t get the benefit of the strength of the main domain (NB however, some studies seem to indicate that in some cases where there are a small number of subdomains, some strength is passed). Plus, as with the sub-folder approach, you may also see some issues with the wrong content ranking. Bad times!

Sub-domains can be used to good effect for presenting different products and services – perhaps when you want the freedom to use a different website structure but don’t want to use a brand new domain; however from a geotargeting perspective I think there are probably easier ways round the issue.

Examples…

Play have elected to create separate sites (and you could argue, separate brands). They’ve always used play.com to target the UK, so for their US site they’re using playusa.com. Right now the UK site is ranking for ‘play’ (http://www.google.com/search?&q=play&gl=us) – and PlayUSA is nowhere to be found. However, if you search for ‘play usa’ playusa.com ranks first.

Amazon have created separate sites for each of the countries which they target. In fairness they’ve been doing this a lot longer than Play, and as such have reaped the rewards.

Salesforce utilise the second approach and have created separate sub-folders for each of their target geolocations. Complete a search for ‘salesforce’ on Google.co.uk (from the UK) and you’ll see salesforce.com ranking above salesforce.com/uk/ – not the end of the world; but still, I’m guessing that they’d really prefer to show UK content – particularly if they’re running different offers etc. Likewise if you search for ‘online crm’ in the UK you’ll see salesforce.com ranking rather than salesforce.com/uk/. It’s not all bad however, for the phrase ‘crm’ salesforce.com/uk/ ranks.

Apple also utilise the second approach and are faring better than Salesforce with apple.com/uk/ now ranking above apple.com for searches on ‘apple’ on Google.co.uk; however – this wasn’t always the case!

Which approach is right?

Obviously I can’t tell you what to do… but I can tell you what I’d do ;)

If I was working on a large brand, who I felt would probably get a reasonable number of links naturally; plus I had lots of time, resource and budget – then creating separate domains is the way I’d go.

However, if I was struggling in terms of brand strength (just because a brand’s big in one location – doesn’t mean it’s big elsewhere) and/or was struggling for time, resource and budget I’d use sub-folders. Sub-folders are also a good option if you’re risk averse. Provided there’s a clear and easy route for visitors to reach the correct section of your website (e.g. UK to US) then chances are you’re not going to miss out too much in terms of conversion activity. I’m sure most would rather have US content ranking first in the UK than not have any presence on the first page at all.

Further Reading…

If you are interested in reading more about geotargeting I’d recommend you check out the following:

Geolocation & International SEO FAQ – SEOmoz
Local SEOs Share Geolocation Tips from Around the World – Distilled
Multiple Domains vs Subdomains vs Folders in SEO – WebSEO Analytics
Guide to Geo-Targeting For SEO & Usability – Blogstorm
Ranking Foreign Domains – SEOmoz

Image created using Wordle

AUTHORED BY:
h

Hannah Smith is an SEO Consultant working for Distilled in their London office. She manages technical, link building and content campaigns for clients across a range verticals in addition to managing one of the internal SEO teams at Distilled.
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