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International SEO: How to Optimize Your Website for Other Countries

international seo

If your website is focused on a global audience, you've probably spent some time thinking about the best ways to organize and optimize your site for different countries.

There are several important decisions you need to make when bringing your content to an international audience. Determining which domain structure you need is key, but there are a few best practices to keep in mind when using one -- especially if your content is published in a different language.

Below, we'll dive into your domain structure options, explain how Google interprets these structures, and cover some original research and tips on making the best use of international SEO.

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Types of Domain Structure

There are essentially three choices for setting up your international domain architecture:

1. A Country Subdirectory After the gTLD

If your domain is domain.com, you would add a folder called domain.com/german/ to target German language speakers or domain.com/uk/ to target U.K. users.

This is called the subdirectory, and it follows the ".com" (or ".org," ".net," etc.) generic top-level domain -- also known as the gTLD. You can also use them for more than just country notation; as you can see, we have a subdirectory that indicates you're on the "/marketing/" blog.

One thing to note on any targeting that you are doing in URLs: you must use each country’s vernacular in order for the search engines to understand the meaning of the string. For example, “the U.K.,” “uk,” “England,” and “G.B.” are all acceptable while “UnitedK” or “GrBr” would not be.

2. A Country Subdomain Before the gTLD

While a subdirectory implementation can be an easy and inexpensive option, however, it can be difficult for people to understand the location targeting from the URL alone.

This brings us to your section option: subdomains. For example, a U.K. targeted subdomain might be uk.domain.com while a Spanish language subdomain would be es.domain.com.

Subdomains are usually fairly easy to implement, but, like subdirectories, can make it difficult for people to understand what content will appear at that URL. They also can be more expensive to implement when compared to a folder structure.

3. A Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD) to Replace the gTLD

In this option, Canadian site would be domain.ca and a Mexican site would be domain.mx -- replacing the ".com" gTLD completely.

This architecture can be the most complex and expensive to implement, as you would need to have a domain for every focus country. In addition, while a .com domain can be purchased for around $10, there are some TLDs that can cost more than $1,000 and require that you have a local presence in the country.

We'll elaborate on this trickier option in just a moment.

Using Them in Your International SEO Strategy

If you're translating content that already exists in a different language and on a different subdirectory or subdomain, rest assured Google won't flag your website for duplicate content. Google knows what you're doing, and will let you do it!

Duplicate content is also not penalized by most search engines -- rather, it's filtered. This means if you've published an article in two different languages, both will rank in results for each international reader.

So, here's what to keep in mind when pursuing one of the above three URL structures:

You'll Need Multilingual SEO Meta Tags

Because subdirectories and subdomains don't completely separate country-specific websites from one another -- in the eyes of readers and Google -- it's important to use meta tags as well.

Meta tags are the lines in the HTML of a given web page that give Google the proper context when crawling that page. Headers, keywords, and other elements of article structure are some important ones. But language is one of your best multilingual SEO maneuvers.

In HTML, the language meta tag for English looks like this: <html lang="en">. This tag surrounds all the text that is written in that language, helping Google understand what it's reading and whom it's for. Learn more about how to incorporate meta tags here.

Meta tags should resemble both the country and language abbreviation listed in your subdirectory or subdomain. For example, if your Mexican subdomain is mx.domain.com, the meta tags you add to each blog post belonging to this subdomain will be <html lang="es-MX> in order to designate your web page as meant for Spanish speakers in Mexico. Find your country's and language's HTML meta tag here.

This gives Google another layer of data when crawling republished content for search engine results pages (SERPs) you'd see in other countries.

ccTLD Domains Are Valuable, But a Big Commitment

The pitfall of using ccTLD domains is that Google won't transfer the page authority from your original domain to this translated one. Although, regaining that organic power can happen fairly quickly if you optimize your content well in other ways.

Subdirectories and subdomains with the same TLD, on the other hand, receive SEO credit from Google much more naturally.

Google also clearly states that it uses ccTLD to determine country targeting. So, if you have the financial and technical resources, using a ccTLD could be a good idea.

But, a ccTLD can be expensive and the complexity of the setup could create some costly mistakes, so many webmasters will only take the ccTLD plunge if there is a positive impact on their bottom line.

In that case, there would either have to be an extremely significant shift in search rankings where ccTLDs are rewarded (which Google has not reported), or a ccTLD would have to be favored by users in a way that meaningfully impacts clickthroughs to a website.

How People See Your Domain

Since there is no better way to predict user behavior than just asking users what they prefer, I decided to launch a survey on SurveyMonkey’s Audience tool, which collects data from a pool of millions of respondents across the United States, Australia, and the U.K.

Respondents are selected at random, and because the sample is statistically significant, the sample should mirror actual user behavior pretty closely -- this type of survey was even used to correctly predict election results in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

For this survey, I collaborated with Sam Mallikarjunan, Executive Strategist at HubSpot, to craft and analyze the surveys. We created two nearly identical surveys: one targeted to a representative sample in the U.S. and one to a representative sample in Australia.

Here's what we found:

User Awareness of ccTLD

Before trying to understand how users related to ccTLDs, we needed to validate the assumption that users even know that general TLDs exist. For all we know, marketers may be overly concerned with whether their domain is a .com, .info or even .com.mx, but user might not even notice.

To establish this foundation, we asked respondents to pick which TLD might be the one in use by a nonprofit. Nearly all respondents correctly identified a TLD ending with .org as the one most likely to be used by a nonprofit. Interestingly, only 4% of people in the U.S. stated that they were unsure of the correct TLD compared to 13% of Australians.

U.S. Responses

Bar graph of U.S. responses to non-profit website domains

Australian Responses

Bar graph of how Australians interpret a non-profit web domain adjusted for international SEO

To build on this awareness of ccTLD, we wanted to know if users made the connection between ccTLD and countries. We asked respondents to identify the location of a local business using a .ca TLD extension. The majority of respondents correctly chose Canada.

Oddly, 67% of Australians chose the correct answer while only 62% of Americans did the same. Additionally, more Americans (23%) fell for the trick answer of California than Australians (15%).

Based on the previous results, it is apparent that users are aware of ccTLDs in domain addresses and also usually understand the connection to local countries. But without knowing if users make decisions based on TLDs, a country’s TLD could just be a vanity portion of a URL and certainly not worth the investment.

Therefore, the real test of TLD choice is how it impacts ROI. This type of data point is, of course, hard to gauge in a survey where customers are not actually buying products, but we did want to try to see if there might be a way to measure purchasing decisions, too.

Revenue Impact of ccTLD

To achieve this result, we compared two different online retailers and asked respondents to choose the establishment that they thought would have the most reliable express shipping. It was assumed that respondents would consider an in-country retailer to be able to ship products faster than an international store.

In the U.S. survey, we compared Amazon.co.jp to BestBuy.com. In the Australian survey, we compared Bigw.com.au, a well-known brick and mortar retailer similar to the U.S. Target.com. (Interesting fact: There is a Target in Australia that is not affiliated with Target in the U.S. and their website is target.com.au -- more on that later.)

The intent of the question was to see if users zeroed in on the recognizable brand name or the domain extension.

U.S. Responses

Bar graph of what the U.S. thinks of consumer websites with ccTLD domains

Australian Responses

Bar graph of what the U.S. thinks of consumer websites with ccTLD domains

In the U.S., while 39% said that both websites would offer reliable shipping -- meaning that both TLDs have the potential to ship from the U.S. -- 42% still said that Best Buy with a .com TLD would be the better option. Australians may have been confused by the incorrect Target website, since 61% said both websites would have reliable shipping, but 34% chose Big W.

The data in this question is a bit inconclusive, but we can say that while a large portion of users are blind to domain extensions, it would still be better to use a familiar domain extension when selling online.

What Should You Do?

To answer the original question, if you lack the resources to craft a ccTLD architecture, what should you do?

It depends. Based on the data we collected, we can definitively declare that users are aware of the differences between TLDs and do make decisions based on TLDs; however, the jury is still out on how important a TLD really is.

A good place to start is to list your business in country-specific directories. This will help that portion of your site or that country domain generate quality inbound links back your website -- boosting page authority if you're trying to build it back up for a new domain.

Use Google Local and do some research to find popular website and blog directories that'd be worth broadcasting your new site from. Generating more than 80% of inbound links from French users and directories to your domain (whether http://fr.domain.com or http://www.domain.fr) will let search engines know that French-based traffic should be funneled there appropriately.

If you're debating whether ccTLD is the right choice for your site, it might be a good idea to launch a test on AdWords using a ccTLD as your display URL and measure whether there is any change in CTR. Alternatively, you can deploy a survey to your own customers and just ask if they are more likely to buy from a local domain.

Nonetheless, if you do have the budget and development time to create ccTLDs, you certainly can’t go wrong with it. Good luck!

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