Search engines don’t want just to serve their users with the best search results to answer their questions; they ultimately want to serve the most relevant search results. Aside from cheating at trivia or looking up lyrics to the hottest pop song, users want search engines to provide answers specific to their location.
This goes without saying, but a user in Spain probably doesn’t want search results to include listings from French or British websites. International SEO is all about sending out relevant signals in hopes of capturing the attention of audiences in targeted regions. The beauty of promoting a business online is that no country is off limits and search can be a powerful tool.
URL Structure & International SEO
The truth is that international SEO tactics have some overlap with traditional SEO tactics, but there are a few glaring differences. One of the biggest strategies to employ when it comes to international SEO is considering URL structure.
Typically, URLs are best kept short and sweet, and with as few subdirectories as possible. However, regarding international SEO, there are three ways to optimize URL structure to attract customers in a foreign locale via organic search. Before diving in, it should be noted that implementing more than one of the following will only give off a “spammy” vibe, so be careful only to use one of the following.
Most websites will often consist of the primary domain with a .com or other extension, but some sites own and operate multiple subdomains. For example, Google segments many of its products through the use of subdomains:
Gmail -> https://mail.google.com
Google Drive -> https://drive.google.com
Google Docs -> https://docs.google.com
If you didn’t catch it above, the subdomain is a word or series of characters before the actual domain name. So while you can visit google.com to search for something, going to mail.google.com will bring you directly to their Gmail service. Both are separate properties yet they still live on the primary google.com domain.
Subdomains can be a great tool if you’re looking to attract users in a specific market or if they speak a designated language. Sites will either want to stick with a country or a target language. A site looking to target French speaking users in France would have their subdomain look like one of the two below.
Subdomains don’t usually cost that much, if at all since they are merely extensions of a domain name that has already been purchased. You have the freedom to title a subdomain as you wish and you can have an infinite number of them.
The one risk of using subdomains is the fact that each subdomain will function as a separate install of a website. In addition to the maintenance of the primary domain, each subdomain must be treated just like it were its own site, therefore the resources needed to maintain them will be higher.
2. Subdirectories (aka Subfolders)
One of the easier URL structures to implement for SEO purposes is a designated subdirectory for content intended for the target audience. Here is an example of a site that uses a subdirectory to reach customers in the United Kingdom:
The biggest advantage of using a subdirectory on the site is the ease of setting up and maintaining. Because the subdirectory lives off of the root domain, it is a natural way to sort and segment internationally driven content without the hassle of separate installs like with subdomains.
Subdirectories do run the risk of being detected as duplicate content, so this is something to be avoided as much as possible. The second disadvantage is that subdirectories have been noted to be less impactful on SEO than subdomains and the other URL structure to consider, ccTLDs.
3. Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)
Lastly, and one of the more potent URL structures to consider for international SEO, there is the country code top-level domain. All websites have some kind of a domain extension and the most common extension is known as a gTLD (generic top-level domain). The gTLD covers common extensions like .com, .org, .net, etc. On the other hand, a ccTLD (country code top-level domain) is an extension that was created for the express reason to reach users in that ccTLDs target country.
Here’s what a gTLD looks like versus a ccTLD:
Google.com (gTLD) vs. Google.de (ccTLD)
While you can visit either domain, the first example is what most people use to search via Google. In Germany, most users will visit the .de ccTLD since that version of Google’s site is intended for those people living in that country.
At the lowest level, gTLDs are generic and therefore cover a wider pool of potential visitors and ccTLDs are typically intended for users that are physically located within the ccTLDs country of origin. For that reason alone, ccTLDs are one of the stronger signals to suggest local relevancy to search engines.
In addition, ccTLDs also provide an added bonus of branding in foreign countries and authority. In the United Kingdom, most websites there end with the “.co.uk” domain extension. In many countries, these extensions are looked at as the standard and can carry some weight when users are considering choosing a link to click on via search results.
Much like the subdomains route, ccTLDs need to be purchased separately, often through vendors in those countries, and then treated like it’s own website. Again, like subdomains, ccTLDs will ultimately require more time and resources to maintain over time.
Which is best?
While each has its own set of drawbacks, any of these three tactics help improve international SEO. IF the resources are available, a ccTLD is going to be the best bet for SEO impact, trustworthiness in the target countries, and the added bonus of branding in that country. However, this option may not be for everyone, so you may want to consider subdirectories next in line as they require minimal maintenance costs. They won’t have as much value as using a ccTLD, but it’s certainly a proven option to think about.