International SEO: A few thoughts on the topic of best practice

International SEO: A few thoughts on the topic of best practice

30th November 2011

As you may have read in Jackie’s excellent summary post on the International Search Summit, I spoke there last week on all things international and SEO. I thought I’d jot down a few of my own personal thoughts for you lucky State of Search readers in the wake of this. This is predominately on one topic. It’s a beauty.  Disclaimer: these are my opinions not the truth!


Subdomains vs Subfolders vs ccTLDs

Let’s not dance around the number one question everybody always has on their mind – which one is the best. Well at ISS, I think Martin, Andy and I all had a slightly different perspective. Of course this was entirely rehearsed purely for the audience’s entertainment. In reality, us SEOs are one united body working in fluid harmony. Ahem.

I think the simple answer probably should be – if you can afford to run a separate site on a separate ccTLD, you should consider it for a number of wider trust and conversion considerations.

What do I mean by this? Well ccTLDs inspire trust. If you see and you are in the UK, you are more likely to visit it, convert on it and link to it. Same if you see if you are in France. The site just doesn’t have the same ring to it now does it?

Having said that, I really genuinely do think that too many people spend too much time worrying about ccTLDs and not enough time thinking about budget, resource, targets and reality. I’ve seen so many sites that use all the correct ccTLDs for each different country but don’t actually put any decent amount of effort into link building for those new independent sites. So what’s the point?! It can be the most trustworthy site in the most obscure country but that’s not a lot of help if you don’t have the time and resource to make the most of it.

From my point of view, there is something to be said for testing the water with a sub folder. You can target these using Webmaster Tools. Yes I know it’s not an exact science but I’ve had some decent results from it. It means you can immediately benefit from the existing strength of the main site and just get an idea of how difficult it may be to rank in the new international market without dedicating as extensive time and resource.

One tip I will always say is that no matter whether you are planning on actually USING them, always try to buy the relevant ccTLDs now anyway. Better now than years down the line when you may find yourself paying through the nose thanks to a wily domainer.

My viewpoint does come from the perspective of someone who has worked with a lot of SMEs over the years and has found this to be the most practical and effective approach. It is not THE solution.

If you have the money, especially if you are a big brand for example, then why not jump straight in with separate websites for separate countries.

Having said that (again), one of the examples I used in my ISS presentation, as a useful 20 second check-up on how others do it,  was that of the Apple website. I personally feel they’ve done really well to clean up their site, which used to be a monstrosity for international visitors, and I quite often refer to them just to get a second opinion on how a cross-country situation might be tackled. And those guys use subfolders. But they’re a big brand. WTF. Now what?!

Well I think it works for Apple BECAUSE they are a big brand. I’d say more like an omni-brand. They are everywhere, they seem to know everything. Therefore the earlier concerns over trust and conversion have less of an impact as people have less fear and more trust. Maybe? This starts to step into the realm of psychology (a key aspect for both link building and conversion admittedly) and opens up far too large a can of worms.

A key area to consider on the topic of trust is of course that of link building – will people link to a sub folder? Are they more likely to link to a ccTLD or a subdomain? Instinct suggest, yes they are more likely to link to the more obvious site. BUT considering how many different countries and varieties of website there are out there, maybe it’s not the end of the world to not always use the top level domain.

As for subdomains… well… I have to admit I am not a fan. Again a number of us disagreed at ISS but for me personally, the benefit of it being a subdomain just isn’t enough to outweigh the disadvantages. It takes a lot of work to promote it –  it’s just separate enough to cause trouble and not quite separate enough to get out it. The main advantage of it is it is easier to set up than a brand new ccTLD site and more independent (read ‘trustworthy) than a subfolder. Is that enough? Well I think that’s a matter of opinion.

And therein lies the case in point really. Unhelpfully there really is no right or wrong answer. Ask a different internationally focused SEO to write this monologue and you would get a hugely different set of reasonings. In fact, just considering the length of this post – I had planned for this post to cover a variety of  other topics and my own personal thoughts on them however my diatribe is running away with itself and that is perhaps best left for a different post. When you lovely readers have had time to digest round 1.

My takeaway point is this:

Consider how big the opportunity is for you before you jump into building a brand new country-focused site. Sometimes it is very much worth it. However sometimes the level of resource required means it may just be better to focus your time and effort on creating great content sitting on sub-level of an existing site, target it to the relevant country and instead build up your brand. Your brand can stand you in good stead, no matter the country. Sometimes that is more important than the bespoke site and domain.

Just a thought…


Flag quiz picture: Hippo Mobile


Written By
Originally from the UK via France and Malaysia, Annabel Hodges is a digital marketer with long experience in the industry now residing in Sydney. She heads up the Digital Marketing at Next Commerce, working across an array of products, channels and brands.
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