Have you ever thought about what it takes to build a strong digital presence in multiple countries? Following SEO best practices and getting your website to rank highly in your home country can be hard enough, but branching out to other countries is a completely different ballgame.
In this blog post, I’m going to describe the key concepts you must consider as you begin to expand internationally – website structure and digital marketing maturity. I’ll walk you through the main options you have for internationalization, and help you decide which approach works best for you.
First, let’s take a look at the most common website structures you should consider for your internationalization effort. Even if you already have existing web content for several countries, you should periodically evaluate your digital marketing strategy and current performance to determine if you need to use a different structure for regional content.
Country Specific Domains (or ccTLDs)
This website structure makes it very clear that the content is targeted to a specific country. Not only will users in that country feel familiar and comfortable with the domain showing them geographically-relevant content, but search engines will automatically detect that content using this structure should be ranked and shown only in that country. This is the best way to ensure that country-specific content receives the highest clickthrough rates. Furthermore, you’ll definitely want to consider this approach if your business model, main competitors, or your product lines are substantially different between countries. In that case, it really makes sense to build up a unique and relevant web presence in those countries.
But do you remember how much effort you had to put into setting up your main domain to follow SEO best practices? That’s the main disadvantage of using country-specific domains for your internationalization strategy – you’re going to have to build up your SEO presence in each country from scratch. Not only will your marketing department have to spend a lot of time and effort in building up localized content and separate link profiles, but purchasing multiple country-specific domains may be quite expensive. This approach may require a high initial investment, so you must be careful about going down this path unless you have the resources available.
Subdirectories (or subfolders)
If you aren’t comfortable with the initial investment required of country-specific domains, the most common alternative is to use subdirectories. This structure allows you to leverage the strength of your main domain, allowing you to more easily build your presence in new countries. From a technical perspective, it’s also typically much easier (and cheaper!) to create subdirectories instead of entirely different domains.
Given that, you’re probably wondering why you would ever use separate domains instead of subdirectories.
The answer is simple – search engines give preference to country-specific domains instead of more generic domains (e.g. all else being equal, Google UK would rank captora.co.uk higher than captora.com/uk). And in order for content under your country-specific subdirectory to rank well, you’ll have to use auxiliary tools like Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster Tools to specify that your subdirectory targets that country.
In general, subdomains should not be used for internationalization, because they have very few advantages, while facing some issues found in both alternate approaches. For instance, subdomains allow you to use servers in different countries to support each of your subdomains. You cannot apply this same separation when using subdirectories, so if that’s a technical requirement you’ve been told to follow, you’ll want to consider using subdomains.
Otherwise, subdomains typically only inherit a piece of the overall domain strength, with more maintenance costs than the subdirectories approach. And similar to the subdirectories approach, you’ll have to use an auxiliary tool to configure country-level targeting for each subdomain. As a result, you really shouldn’t even consider subdomains unless you cannot use the the above approaches.
Digital Maturity & Strategy
Now that we’ve reviewed the most common approaches to consider, let’s discuss your goals and the questions you should be asking yourself so you can choose the right strategy.
Product & Business Differentiation by Country – Do your products and associated services vary significantly by country? Do your intended regional audiences search for and consume content in wildly different ways? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then it probably makes sense to use separate domains for the respective countries you want to market to, because you’ll likely be doing more than simply translating or localizing your existing content.
If you need to put in the effort to adjust how you pitch your product in different countries, it’s probably a sign you should consider building your SEO presence from the ground up in each of those regions. And since you need to put in all this effort to customize the content and messaging strategy, you may as well take advantage of search engines’ preference to rank country-specific domains over generic domains!
Marketing Resources – Similar to the above, do you have the manpower to properly localize content? Whether your intended countries speak the same language of your main market or not, you should never use automated translations to build your new pages. You should always try to use content creators who are intimately familiar with the local market, so they can speak to the preferred nuances of the target audience.
Furthermore, will you have the bandwidth to apply SEO linking strategies and other continuous optimizations to the new regional content? As we all know, SEO is a continuous and ever evolving process. Do you have enough staff in place that can continue to manage your existing domains, while also starting from scratch for new regions? If you don’t think you have the resources to do this effectively, then you should use subdirectories, which will allow you to take advantage of your existing domain strength.
Existing Demand – Have you looked at the geographic distribution of visitors to your existing pages? Have you used any keyword research tools to view historical search volume in the different countries you are considering? Do you have limited demand in other countries, but are looking to begin establishing a digital presence there?
If you don’t see much existing international demand, and you don’t think your existing website has reached a point of digital maturity, then you probably shouldn’t think about internationalization just yet. Your domestic market is likely to give you the biggest ROI, so don’t neglect that fact and spread your resources too thin. But if you are comfortable with the current state of your main domain, make sure you do your homework to prioritize the countries you expand into.
This is by no means a complete list of all questions you should be thinking through when planning your internationalization strategy. But it does represent the core SEO concepts you must keep in mind in order to successfully build and expand your digital presence in other countries.
What other factors have you considered as part of this process? Leave your comments below.