logo-small
Features Prices
News 0
Latest News See All

Temporarily unavailable. Please come back later.

See All
Webinars 0
Upcoming Webinars See All
Upcoming Webinars

Sorry, we could not find any upcoming webinars.

See recorded webinars
Blog 0
Recent Posts See All

Temporarily unavailable. Please come back later.

See All
Kaitlin McMichael

How to Choose the Right International SEO Site Structure

Kaitlin McMichael
How to Choose the Right International SEO Site Structure

When your company is beginning to think about expanding your brand overseas, you’ll need to consider how to structure your website or websites in order to maximize your online presence overseas as well. One of the most important considerations when building new multilingual or multi-country websites is how to optimize your international website(s) for SEO.

Google Webmaster Tools outlines the pros and cons of four different ways to structure your website(s) to target multiple languages or multiple languages. These are:

  • ccTLDs ("country-coded top-level domains")
  • gTLDs ("generic top-level domains") with sub-domains
  • gTLDs with sub-folders
  • URL parameters

This documentation is helpful but not thorough enough to be comforting. There are some pros and cons that are noticeably missing in Google's chart, such as any mention of how domain authority is handled for different types of site structures. So which one really is the best approach?

A much more comprehensive pros and cons discussion of each international site structure is in order. By the end of this article, you will have a much better grasp of the options available for scaling your website(s) appropriately to maximize the return on investment for international SEO.

A Test of Accuracy for International Site Structures

One of the main goals when setting up international sites is making sure that the right users find the right version of your site. International SEO done right means that your users in each target country or targeted language are coming to the proper country or language page of your site. So, I measured the percentage of accuracy for each type of site structure (ccTLD, sub-domain, or sub-folder). I did not evaluate URL parameters, since that structure is not generally recommended. My hypothesis was that ccTLDs are in general, the best at geo-targeting with the highest percentage of accuracy, followed by sub-folders and then lastly by sub-domains. But I wanted to test this empirically.

First, I evaluated ccTLDs. I looked at three brands that use separate, country-coded top-level domains to target their international audiences. This is easy to do using SEMrush's Domain Overview Report. Simply type in the name of a domain, and then select the relevant country's search engine. For example, for tripadvisor.co.uk, you would select UK Google as the search engine.

SEMrush and International SEO

Then, hover over the doughnut chart in the Organic Keywords section to see the percentage of keywords that are ranking for that country. For tripadvisor.co.uk, when you hover over the UK (blue) section, currently has 76.86% of keywords ranking in the UK.

After doing this for multiple ccTLDs for three brands, I found the following results:

International SEO

This chart records the organic traffic from each site, as reported by SEMRush, as well as the percentage of organic keywords that are ranking in the correct country. As you can see from this chart, except for the US*, most sites have above 90% accuracy.

*It is important to note that .com is a generic top-level domain, and if geo-targeting in Webmaster Tools is not set to a specific country and if hreflang is not targeting a specific country, then .com will generally act as the catch-all for all other countries. It is also perceived as the most "global" of all domains, which is in part why The Guardian famously migrated their domain from theguardian.co.uk to theguardian.com in 2014.

Now, in order to get similar data for sub-folders and sub-domains, you need to view data from within Google Analytics or similar analytics platform. I will explain how to pull the data from Google Analytics here.

For Sub-Folders (or Sub-Directories):

To find what percentage of users from the correct country or languages are viewing the correct pages of your site, use the Content Drilldown report. Set the Advanced Segment to Organic, so that you can view only the top organic landing pages. This makes it easy to view metrics based on all pages within high-level sub-folders. You can also set the primary dimension to a Content Grouping, if you need to customize the way your geo-targeted sub-folders appear in Google Analytics.

Then, add Country as a secondary dimension. Here is the report generated for a SaaS solutions company, who has sub-folders targeting the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, Europe, and the rest of the world under "Saas Solutions:"

Add country as selected dimension

As you can see, there are some categories where users from the correct country are not going to the correct part of the site. Note that this company had grouped together whole regions within Content Groups, but were actually only targeting one country per region using hreflang. So actually, we should only expect a high degree of accuracy for the country that hreflang is targeting (not the whole region). Here's the breakdown of what each region was actually targeting:

Breakdown of region targeting

It's important to remember that hreflang can only target on a country or a language level, not on a regional level.

Here are the results for this company's geo-targeting, along with the results for two other brands that were either country or (in the case with the cannabis company) language targeting:

Country geo-targeting results

As you can see from this chart, the numbers are a lot lower on average than ccTLDs, except for the outdoor apparel company's averages. In that case, the company used a .eu ccTLD to target the European Union, with sub-folders for each individual country. This allowed them to eliminate the need for separate top-level domains for each country, but still target only the EU rather than use a generic top-level domain. This strategy has been very effective for them.

Sub-domains:

For sub-domains, you need to have a roll-up reporting view configured in Google Analytics, and then add hostnames as the primary dimension to the Content Drilldown Report. Make sure you're segmenting by only organic traffic. Then you can add Country as the secondary dimension. Here's an example of what the report will look like:

Content Drilldown Report

Viewing this data can help you see whether visitors are coming to the right version of your site or are ending up in the wrong place. Here are the results for two companies that use sub-domains for geo-targeting. Note that one company uses their "www" sub-domain to target the UK and x-default with hreflang (which is not best practice).

International SEO Besides one exception with the home décor company's sub-domain in Australia, where accuracy is 93.18%, all others are below 90%.

Tallying up the averages for ccTLDs, sub-folders, and sub-domains from these charts, we find these results:

International SEO

This chart confirms my hypothesis that ccTLDs have the highest degree of accuracy, followed by sub-directories and next sub-domains. However, it should be noted that my sample size was small (only 8 brands and 30 sites in total), and there are other factors such as different hreflang implementations that are skewing the accuracy rates. I also do not have access to all these domain’s Webmaster Tools to see whether geo-targeting is also a factor. However, this does seem to confirm a trend that I’ve noticed and I hope others will add to this data set.

So Which Site Structure is Best?

Even though ccTLDs have the highest degree of accuracy, this is not necessarily the best approach for all brands. There are significant costs involved with ccTLDs. Instead, I’d like to propose the following pros and cons chart, and then explain in what scenarios ccTLDs are appropriate:

ccTLDs Pros Cons
  Clear geolocation signal Require IT resources to set up and maintain
  Server location is irrelevant (ccTLD overrides server location) Splits link authority among several domains
  Increased click-through rates from users who prefer local domains Strict ccTLDs requirements for some countries
Sub-Directories One consolidated backlink profile Cannot set up local servers (this is not as important anymore)
  Easy to set up and manage Much weaker signal to search engines than ccTLDs
  Can geo-target within Webmaster Tools  
  Low maintenance with same host  
Sub-Domains Easy to set up Requires IT resources to setup and maintain
  Can geo-target within Webmaster Tools Splits link authority among several sub-domains
  Allows for different server locations Language or country target might be ambiguous (is “am” for America or Armenia?)
  Easy separation of sites  
  May maintain some of the authority of root domain, but not likely  

 ccTLDs are Best For:

This option requires significant investment upfront, but can be the right choice for larger brands, such as internationally-known brand names that already have a presence in international markets. Companies should choose this structure if they have:

  • Significantly large audiences in each of their target countries
  • Development and design resources to build and maintain multiple sites, customized for regional audiences
  • Resources to develop unique, localized content written by professional translators in the local language
  • Resources for investing in regional link outreach
  • Significantly different product catalogs or services for each region
  • Are a retail or e-commerce brand that wants to target by countries
  • Offices in the target countries

Sub-Directories are Best For:

This option is the best for most companies who do not have a global household brand name and do not have a high volume of content or resources to maintain multiple sites. It’s especially good for a well-established website with a high domain authority that is looking to expand into new international markets.

The benefits of geo-targeting signals that come with ccTLDs are generally far outweighed by the loss of link authority split among new top-level domains. It takes concentrated effort to build a healthy backlink profile for one site, so it is likewise difficult to build healthy backlink profiles for ccTLDs. Sub-directories offer the singular advantage of a consolidated backlink profile. Companies should choose this option if they:

  • Want to keep maintenance costs to a minimum
  • Do not have the resources to build and maintain multiple sites
  • Do not have the resources for investing in regional link outreach
  • Do not have significantly different product catalogs or services for each region

Sub-Domains are Best For:

This option is best for companies with a desire to keep their brand name in main domain, but who need separate international sites for internal business reasons. There are typically not enough advantages over ccTLDs or sub-folders to make sub-domains a good option.

Conclusion

Planning the site structure for your international SEO campaign is one of the most crucial steps. ccTLDs are great for brands with a big budget, but for smaller companies, sub-folders are a viable option, and can be used effectively in tandem with hreflang and localization. Make sure that you evaluate the pros and cons in relation to your business, and decide which site structure makes the most sense given your company’s amount of resources and budget.

Kaitlin McMichael specializes in SEO and has a blog at Kate Ideas Marketing. She has been working in the digital marketing sphere since 2010, and has written on SEO, travel, music, and the arts for dozens of websites and magazines. Follow her on Twitter.

Comments

2000 symbols remain
Andre Van Kets
Andre Van Kets
Hi Kaitlin,

Super-awesome post. Thanks.

We're about to embark on scaling out our travel brand's website www.drivesouthafrica.co.za to multi-countries and multi-languages.

I have SEO-centric question which I'd love to hear your (or your colleagues' and other readers') opinions on. But first the background:

Firstly, I weighed up the options of ccTLDs versus sub-directories:

1. Different ccTLDs for different countries (Tripadvisor.com-style)
2. Everything under .com with sub-folders (Rentalcars.com-style)

Interestingly, both brands are owned by powerhouse online-travel-company Priceline using different techniques (or maybe they're doing some mega A-B testing :).

Both appear to be using hreflang correctly and sending all the right localisation signals (currency, phone number, country-specific terminology, keywords etc) to Googlebot.

So my next point of consideration was: Which route is easier from a development, code maintenance and content maintenance perspective?

So we're looking at WordPress as a CMS. WordPress has some great multi-lingual plugins that allow you to maintain a single code-base and a single back-end interface for maintaining content on multiple sites/folders (and these seem to handle the hreflang quite elegantly).

So far, both options of ccTLDs and sub-directories seem to be staking up fairly equally -- however -- I like the idea of accumulating all future links to a single-domain rather than multiple ccTLDs. Separating the link-juice just seems like a bad idea and harder work to make it to the top of the SERPs for each ccTLD.

Now for the final factor in the equation:

Our existing website www.drivesouthafrica.co.za has been around since 2002. We've built up a reasonably healthy domain authority (36) with over 800 LRDs according to Majestic (we have decent Trust and Citation scores too according too).

So the big questions for me right now are:

1) If we move everything in our co.za ccTLD over to .com with sub-folders in each country, and assuming we do all the correct 301 redirects etc, how much of our hard-earn link equity currently in the .co.za ccTLD will be lost / diluted when redirecting those pages to the .com?

2) Assuming we create 5 x sub-directories for 5 new countries/languages (with appropriate hreflangs between all corresponding page), would the increased number of pages on the website have a positive impact? If so, how significant?

3) When considering the opposing option (separate ccTLDs), I see the biggest benefit being a higher click-through-rate from the SERPs by people loyal to their country ccTLD. Is there any research out there that provides an indication of the % increase of CTR? And perhaps the "degree of loyalty" different in some countries? E.g. I've heard that Australians are very loyal to .com.au sites, whereas other countries might not be as much.

I hope my scenario and 3 specific questions make sense. Would love to hear your feedback Kaitlin, or anyone else at SEMRush or from any readers of this post.

Cheers
Andre
Clare Hoang
Clare Hoang
Hi Kaitlin,

I like your experiments with ccTLDs, Subdirectories, and Subdomain. What is your advice for me for this case please?

Our business domain is gTLD (.me). We plan to position ourselves as a global brand, providing same services to global audience. Our website content is entirely in English.

We plan to focus on SEO this year. Our top 2 organic markets are 1- USA and 2- Australia and we want to improve our website's visibility on both US and AU local SERP.

However, we are still at the early stage for global expansion in order to go for both ccTLDs & Subdomains.

Subdirectories seem not really applicable for our case since our content will be entirely in English and we target global audience with the same global services. Basically at this stage we provide same content (EN) for global audience.

1- Should I have separate keyword / SEO strategies for US and AU markets ?
2- How my website/URL structure should be do you think?
3- How can I measure my SEO efforts for US and AU separately ?

Very much looking forward to hearing from you

Best
Kaitlin McMichael
Clare Hoang
Hi Clare,

Thank you for your comment. I would be glad to give you a little advice concerning the best setup for your site. First, I'm wondering why you've chosen to go with a combination of ccTLDs and sub-domains? Also, why do you say that subdirectories do not seem applicable for your situation?

If your website is entirely in English, and you will be targeting 2 English-speaking audiences (the USA and AU), and you have the same services offered worldwide, then subdirectories would be a fine choice. ccTLDs are a fine choice too, but you have to spend more effort upfront building up the domain authority for each of those ccTLDs, with links from relevant ccTLDs in those countries. If you don't have the resources for maintaining multiple sites, then subdirectories are a great option because you can retain domain authority on one site. For example, you could have your USA market on www.example.com and your AU content on www.example.com/au.

In answer to your specific questions:
1- Yes, it's always a good idea to have separate keyword strategies for your markets. The variance in keyword choices will depend on the type of product or service you provide. In some cases, keyword choices will vary widely from country to country, but in other cases, the same keywords will be used around the world.
2- I prefer to use ccTLDs or subdirectories. Subdomains are not as advantageous because they are treated as separate websites, and they do not have the advantage of geotargeting that ccTLDs do.
3- Set up in Google Analytics or Omniture, or whatever analytics program you use, separate reports that separate out your US and your AU organic traffic, and measure that against your KPIs. Also, you should track keyword rankings in the US and AU, and see how your keyword optimization improves rankings. Lastly, Google Search Console is your friend, make sure to use that to set up separate profiles for the US and AU.

Good luck!
Martin Kura
Good post, Kaitlin!

I would add that going with subdirectories is not only good for small brands without resources, but typically also for larger brands that want to gain a strong international presence and global brand authority, ie. when their global users tend to use their product in a very similar way. Also, for local brands with global audience, i.e. famous restaurants, hotels, universities, tourist attraction etc., a single ccTLD (e.g. touristattraction.com.au for Australia) with subfolders is the best way to attract locally specific traffic in different languages.

You can find more in my post on SEMrush's blog: http://www.semrush.com/blog/th...

Thank you again!
Kaitlin McMichael
Martin Kura
Hi Martin,

Thanks for your comment! It's great to get feedback from other leaders in the international SEO industry :-)
Martin Kura
Kaitlin McMichael
No problem, Kaitlin, thank you for your response! I like it when SEO professionals do some form of their own research, I always learn something new!
Christopher Q
You mention in your post that a few of the companies you looked at were using the hreflang tag. I was wondering if you might be able to answer a couple of questions based on your research.

1) Are there any global brands that you can point to that have used the hreflang tag on a significant proportion of their pages? I've seen lots of companies using the tag on their honepage, but only a few that have used the tag across the majority of their pages. In particular, do you know of any brands that use the hreflang tag on subfolders?

I looked at Trip Advisor and they seem to have most of their pages mapped to each country. However, when I last looked, they were mapping each URL with a ccTLD anyway (as you point out, having the correct country specific domain would probably have been enough to ensure the correct pages ranked in the correct countries).

2)Have you come across any implementation of hreflang tags from a global brand that you could highlight as being successful (i.e. most of the pages appear in their correct country)?

3) Have you ever come across a company who mapped each country URL where each country did not have the same URL structure meaning that would be impossible to do the mapping semi-automatically.

For example, where a brand has something like

.com/fr/fender/guitars

,com/ca/guitars/fender/index.html

.com/it/all/guitar/brand/fender

This would presumably require manual mapping (unless anybody knows of any quicker method) and there is no common structure, so do you know of any sites that have mapped a considerable number of their pages despite having no shared site/url structure to help them.

4)Finally, in your experience, how much of an impact does implementing hreflang tag actually have? Have you found that it actually works? I've seen brands with 90%+ of pages in a particular country displaying the wrong country (for example, in Australia, it will show pages from Canada, UK, US but not Australia)

My apologies for the long post and so many questions. Thanks for an interesting article. From speaking to a few people, International SEO is definitely hard to get right so articles like this (with data to back up opinions) are a great help.
Kaitlin McMichael
Christopher Q
Hi Christopher,

Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found the article
helpful. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) I have seen global brands use hreflang tags across the site, not just across their home pages. The proper use of hreflang is to use it across all pages that have the same content but target different languages or countries, so it should be applied for any international content, not just for home pages.

2) Most of the clients I have worked with come to us with multiple problems with geo-targeting and, after implementing hreflang correctly and properly using content localization, see a significant improvement in the accuracy of their organic search results. TripAdvisor is actually a very good example of hreflang done right and the high degree of accuracy reflects this.

3) In two cases, the sites were small enough that I have been able to implement hreflang via sitemaps manually. There are also tools to implement this and many CMS systems make this possible. Drupal, for
example, has an hreflang page tagging module. Demandware also has
out-of-the-box hreflang solutions. Also, developers may be able to write pattern-matching logic into their URL writes to map hreflang annotations to the proper URLs.

4) Hreflang, when done correctly, meaning canonical URLs are referenced correctly and there are no return tag errors reported on
any of the sites’ webmaster tools profiles, is designed to be very effective, but I cannot say that it’s 100% accurate. I think in tandem with ccTLDs, it can be close to 98% accurate. Another important factor is the backlink profile of each site. It’s important to build up the domain authority of each site, and to get links from regional sites pointing to the version of your site that targets the same region. For example, Australia backlinks should point to your Australian-targeted content, ideally. This will also help improve the accuracy of your geo-targeting.

Great questions! Do these observations align with what you’ve
seen in your research?
Christopher Q
Kaitlin McMichael
Hi Kaitlin

Thanks for your reply.

I basically want to use the hreflang tag on a .com site (using sub-folders) that has a different URL structure for each country.

I've been trying to research different implementations of hreflang for a while. Like you, I've seen that there are some huge problems with the wrong pages ranking in the wrong country with lots of different sized companies.

I've seen sites use the tag when each of the URLs is exactly the same but I've yet to see it when the URLs between each country are different.

If you know of any sites that use different URL structure for each country then I would be eternally grateful if you could give an example.

In your opinion, what is a realistic expectation for making sure a .com site with subfolders has the correct landing page being displayed in each country?

I looked at Skype (DE), Etsy (IT )Etsy (UK) who both use the hreflang tag across their site (using SEMRush Organic Research > Positions and use the filters Include > URL > Containing and then put in "/de/" for example)

Doing this I found:

Skype had 86% correct pages in Germany
Etsy had 96% correct pages in the UK
Etsy had 90% correct pages in Italy

In your experience, do you think a company with a .com using subfolders can realistically expect to achieve 80-95% success rate for showing the correct URLs in each country? Or do you think those targets are too optimistic? I'm worried about selling in their implementation and then not seeing much of a difference in terms of results so I've been researching for a while and trying to ask as many questions as possible (so my apologies for the long comments)
Kaitlin McMichael
Christopher Q
Hi Christopher,

I can't think of an example of a site where their sub-folders have different directory structures. A sub-folder structure could get a high degree of accuracy, although 95% does seem very high.

Another thing to keep in mind is that custom content and localization signals such as currency, address, local phone numbers, etc, also help to reinforce hreflang targeting.

Overall, even if hreflang is not 100% accurate, it is still the best course of action for any business that wants to target multiple languages or countries (or both).

Hope that helps you out!
Jignesh Parmar
Jignesh Parmar
Impressive post. a person on your own. No-one really is aware how you can to do it properly.
Earl Grey
Earl Grey
Epic article. you are not alone. Nobody really knows how to to do it properly
Kaitlin McMichael
Earl Grey
Hi Earl, Thanks for the comment. It's true how international SEO can be such a tricky subject that it confuses even advanced level SEOs. Glad the article was helpful!
Earl Grey
Earl Grey
Kaitlin McMichael
The problem is that there is no one size fits all. I oversee international see daily and have been in Seo for a decade but still I am trying to figure it out every day. Any advice anyone gives is normally not even close to reality. Even so called international Seo consultants. It's awesome at the moment because there is no right and wrong.
Have a Suggestion?