Running your business in multiple countries comes with its own headaches. There is a whole level of complexity that comes from an SEO point of view - get it right and your business will flourish. Get it wrong, on the other hand, and it could go all terribly wrong.
Often businesses see multilingual SEO as a complex process primarily because of the amount of variables at play. By the time you've finished reading this, we hope to change your view by making the best practices for your current multilingual set up clear. To make it easier to follow we've divided the article into three sections. First of all we will cover the theory. We'll then look at how to implement the campaign. Finally we'll cover the common mistakes that you will need to be aware of - avoid these and you'll increase the chances of your campaign being a success.
Whenever a larger business is operating in multiple markets they often get confused as to whether to structure their site based upon language or based on the country the site is targeting. There is a simple rule to follow in regards to how to structure your site and it goes as follows:
If your site is targeting readers then structure your site round language. However if your website's aim is simply to sell then you need to structure your site dependent on countries.
The main reason for this is currency. Just because a country speaks English, it doesn’t mean they will pay in US dollars; similarly, if they speak French the user won't necessarily pay in Euros. By structuring the site to target the correct country this means you can target the correct currency.
You can also cater for countries which speak more than one language (e.g Canada, which is populated by American and French speakers) by creating different language variants for the individual country. Apple are a great example on how to do this correctly with URLs for https://www.apple.com/ca/ and https://www.apple.com/ca/fr/
If you look at the likes of Amazon they operate a multiple domain strategy. These means they use a local ccTLD (a Country Code Top Level Domain) - for example amazon.co.uk to target that market. So for every country they have a separate domain.
One of the biggest benefits to running this setup is that local ccTLD are easier to rank in their target country. They also never get in a situation where two international ccTLD compete in the same market; for example the .fr ranking in Google UK. It is also far easier to control the anchor text profile for country-by-country bases.
Your business may already have this setup and to carry this on may seem like the obvious choice. However, it's not that simple and there are potential issues to consider.
Firstly, there is the complexity of running, operating and maintaining so many different websites. It is very difficult to ensure all the multiple sites in your group implement the same system - companies will often have developers situated in each of the countries, running independent teams. Not only does this incur extra cost from a staffing point of view it would probably require a separate SEO agency for every website.
Breaking into new markets would also be difficult. It means you will have to start off with a completely brand new domain name without any history. You would have to work very hard building links and earning your place in Google for that specific country.
There is also the added problem that your domain name isn’t available in your targeted country. This could prove expensive to buy or result in a lengthy legal process in order to obtain the domain.
When we talk about a sub domain strategy it is the halfway point between a multi domain and single domain strategy. Like any compromise you are often left in a situation where you're missing the best benefits from the other strategies.
In terms of cost, sub domains are cheaper to implement than a multi domain strategy. You would never have to worry about your domain name being free because you control the domain. There would be no benefit for Geo targeting like we get in using local ccTLDs. It would also mean that every new sub domain you launch would start off with no authority because Google treats sub domains as brand new sites.
Sub Domains are best suited to target different languages because local ccTLDs target countries and not languages. A good example would be Wikipedia, which uses sub domains like the following:
If your business is an e-commerce enterprise and is currently using the sub domain setup then we would recommend moving over to a single root domain strategy. We have handled this for many of our clients and even though it’s a complicated process, if done correctly it can be very lucrative. You may also want to go a multi domain strategy: however this would involve a lot of work and would also increase costs.
An alternative to both multi domain and sub domain strategy is using a single domain. This is a strategy that Red Bull uses with its site http://www.redbull.com/ in which it targets each country using separate sub domains. For example, in the UK it's http://www.redbull.com/uk/en
One of the main benefits from running a site on a single domain means that the link juice is spread throughout the domain. This means you could set up a new section of the site to target a new country and benefit from the juice in the root domain. It will also bring the entire link juice from all the other sites back onto the single domain, boosting its power further. It is also easier to maintain consistency across the whole domain, which will be fit for purpose in regard to SEO.
In terms of costs these would also be reduced as you would only need a single SEO agency and also because the development could be carried out centrally. Also the additional costs of SSL certificates would be greatly reduced by not having to purchase one for each country.
If you have been, or are practicing, dangerous link building processes you could be in a risky position though. Getting a penalty on the domain would affect the entire domain, which could in turn then affect all of the countries. It is also difficult to maintain the anchor text profile when you have separate marketing campaigns operating in separate counties.
There is some code that we can put on your site no matter whether you are running a sub domain, multi domain or single domain. The code is called hreflang, which is additional code you need to put on to every page on the site.
The code instructs Google and other search engines what language the page is targeting, and more importantly, the alternative language pages are.
The code looks like the following:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="language-country" />
As an example, if we were implementing hreflang code on a fictional site called Zazzle Phones for its iPhone page in the UK:
In the source code on: http://www.zazzlephone.com/uk/iphone/
You would need to put the following code within the <head> tags:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.com/uk/iphone/" hreflang="en-GB" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.com/it/iphone/" hreflang="it-IT" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.com/ie/iphone/" hreflang="en-IE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.com/de/iphone/" hreflang="de-DE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.com/fr/iphone/" hreflang="fr-FR" />
What the code above does is specify the country and the language the page is targeting along with a range of relevant alternatives. This code needs to go on to every page one of each site that has an alternative version in a different language/country. If the site was set up on a multi domain strategy the code for the iPhone page would look like the following:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.co.uk/iphone/" hreflang="en-GB" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.it/iphone/" hreflang="it-IT" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.ie/iphone/" hreflang="en-IE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.de/iphone/" hreflang="de-DE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://www.zazzlephones.fr/iphone/" hreflang="fr-FR" />
In the site was set up on a sub domain strategy the code for the site would look like the following:
<link rel="alternate" href="http://uk.zazzlephones.com/iphone/" hreflang="en-GB" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://it.zazzlephones.com/iphone/" hreflang="it-IT" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://ie.zazzlephones.com/iphone/" hreflang="en-IE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://de.zazzlephones.com/iphone/" hreflang="de-DE" />
<link rel="alternate" href="http://fr.zazzlephones.com/iphone/" hreflang="fr-FR" />
There has often been talk about whether having the site hosted in the targeted country is a ranking factor. In the past it was widely regarded that hosting did make an impact. However, with the introduction of cloud computing we believe that there is no benefit in where your site is located.
Instead we encourage our clients to use a content delivery network. Page speed is a primary focus and the quicker your site loads in all countries the better for everyone.
One of the biggest issues with single domain and sub domain strategies is using a ccTLD to implement it. For example, trying to implement these strategies on the main Zazzle domain would be wrong:
Ideally we would need the .com version, which is currently owned by someone else.
Alternatives could be .org, .net or any other non-geographical domain ending - however, .com is often the preferred international domain.
Always check Google webmaster tools to check if the hreflang is set up correctly. It will highlight any issues that are occurring as well as suggesting fixes that need to be implemented.
Getting the foundations right is critical to the success of your campaign. Ultimately it's best to implement the strategy that best fits your business. Often this needs to align to your current set up. Each method has it drawbacks but with any problem there is often a reward for overcoming it.
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