International and Multilingual sites: The Criteria to Establish an SEO Friendly Structure

Although many articles have been written about international and multilingual SEO I would like to dive deeper in the decision making process and the relevant criteria to select the most suitable structure depending on the site business, geolocalization and language goals, requirements and restrictions.

After having managed a certain amount of international SEO processes I’m convinced that if the site owners would have known the most important criteria from the beginning and understood the consequences of their first site internationalization decisions they would have taken them more seriously, probably would have chosen a different option, ended with a much more cost-effective, SEO friendly structure… and I would have had a much easier job afterwards 🙂

So which are the fundamental criteria to take into consideration when you start thinking about creating a new version of your site to target another country or language? Let’s review them:

Alternatives to Geotarget your site

If the site offers its services to different international geographical areas (whether in one or many languages) there are three main domain organization alternatives to target them: ccTLDs, Subdomains and Sub-directories. All of them have pros and cons:

Characteristics

ccTLDs

SubDomains

SubDirectories

Geolocalization

High.

  • Provides Geolocalization signal with ccTLD.
  • Possibility to have specific local IP for each country.
  • Possibility to geotarget with Google Webmaster Tools.

 

Medium.

  • Doesn’t provide Geolocalization signal with subdomains.
  • Possibility to have specific local IP for each. subdomain.
  • Possibility to geotarget with Google Webmaster Tools.

 

Low.

  • Doesn’t provide Geolocalization signal with subdirectories.
  • Cannot have specific local IP for each subdirectory.
  • Possibility to geotarget with Google Webmaster Tools.
Structure

Simple.

Thanks to the geolocalized extension it doesn’t generate an additional level of complexity in the URL structure for each version

Complex.

Adds an additional level of complexity with country subdomains for each version.

Complex.

Adds an additional level of complexity with country directories for each version.

Technical and Maintenance Costs

High.

Each domain could require specific technical support and hosting costs.

High.

Each subdomain could require specific technical support and hosting costs.

Low.

Only one domain would need technical support and hosting services.

Branding

High.

The localized version is easier to market

Low.

Subdomains can be confusing towards users and difficult to market.

Medium.

Subdirectories are not as complex towards users as subdomains but not as friendly as ccTLDs.

Authority / Popularity Signals

Difficult.

Authority signals will be specific for each domain and each one should build their own.

Difficult.

Authority signals will be specific for each subdomain and each one should be build their own.

Easy.

Authority signals will be consolidated on one domain and inherited by all country versions.

The ideal option is to work with ccTLDs –the one that offers more and better geolocalization signals, branding experience and less URL organization complexity-. Nonetheless it’s suitable if you have enough resources to maintain the related costs and build authority signals for each one of the country versions. This is usually the best for already established sites that are looking to expand their business internationally.

The second best option is to use subdirectories, which don’t provide that many geolocalization signals (localized domain extensions and IP’s) as ccTLDs, nonetheless allow you to hierarchically organize the different versions and consolidate authority signals from all of the localized versions in one domain. This option is the way to go if you don’t have the required resources to maintain many ccTLDs and because of this, usually the most suitable alternative for newer or startup sites.

The third, and least recommended option is to use subdomains. On one hand these don’t offer the geolocalization signals of ccTLDs but their maintenance costs and complexity are very similar and on the other, they don’t consolidate the authority signals as subdirectories. In summary, they have the cons of the other two options and almost none of the benefits.

It’s fundamental that once you choose any of these options:

  • You are consistent and stick to only one of them. It’s not recommended to mix the usage of ccTLDs, subdomains or directories since it will be more complex to control and can be also confusing for users.
  • You develop highly relevant, unique, localized, fresh content for each one of the site country versions.

If you cannot accomplish these two criteria at the moment, then please take your time and make sure you can before starting a new international version of the site.

Take also Language Targeting into consideration

 Additionally, if your audience speaks different languages you can have the following situations:

  • Non-geographically targeted language versions

Your audience is not geographically restricted but speaks many languages.

This means that the location of your users is not really relevant to the type of services, products or information you provide, nonetheless, since your users can speak many languages and you want to provide a more personalized experience or specifically relevant content for them you want to enable additional language versions to your site.

Since in this case you will likely have a generic top level domain (you don’t need geolocalized ccTLDs) then the best option is to enable subdirectories for each one of the additional languages, for example: www.yourbrand.com/es/ for Spanish www.yourbrand.com/fr/ for French.

  • Geographically targeted language versions

Your audience that is localized in different international geographic areas speak other languages inherent to their location, so once you have selected an option to internationally geotarget your site (through specific ccTLDs or subdirectories) you will need to decide the language of each localized site version.

This can be a straightforward decision if there is only one official language in the country but sometimes can be trickier if there are many that are also largely spoken, as happens in Switzerland for example.

In this situation you may like to enable additional language versions for each location. The best way to implement this is through subdirectories, for example:

  • If you’re using ccTLDs, your site for Switzerland would be www.yourbrand.ch in German and enable www.yourbrand.ch/fr/ for the French version.
  • If you’re using subdirectories, your site for Switzerland would be www.yourbrand.com/de-ch/ in German and www.yourbrand.com/fr-ch/ for the French version.

A common issue in the situation you target different geographic locations with the same language is that your content end-up ranking for the wrong geographic area.

For example, Spanish content targeting Mexico located in www.yourbrand.com/es-mx/ can end up ranking in Google.es instead of the www.yourbrand.com/es-es/ content that has been specifically created for the Spaniard market.

To avoid this you can use the hreflang attribute along with rel=”alternate” to specify your multilingual content versions and their geographic areas and geolocalize each directory to its relevant country with Google Webmaster Tools.

Don’t forget about your Business Criteria

Last but not least, any of the previous international geolocalization and language targeting options will require a certain amount of resources not only to start but also to maintain.

Because of this it’s fundamental that you first validate if the target market and business opportunities are big enough and scalable to compensate the decision of enabling a new international version of the site and all of its related costs –technical support, maintenance, content development, SEO, etc.-, allowing you to achieve a high ROI of the new presence.

Update at 20:00 – 24/05/2012

Coincidentally Google has just launched the ability to specify the rel alternate hreflang in Sitemaps, which provide us a much cleaner and scalable option than including the tag in the pages head. Let’s test it 🙂

Photo taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/4143908124/

About Aleyda Solis

Experienced International SEO Consultant -service that she provides through her company Orainti. She’s a frequent SEO speaker at international conferences & blogger.