3 domain strategies for international SEO

When businesses begin to seriously take a look at their international SEO, one important decision that first confronts them is what their domain strategy will entail. This can be confusing to those getting into international SEO for the first time. For example, you might hear conventional wisdom that you should get a top-level domain (TLD) for specific countries. You also might hear about subfolders, or possibly microsites. Before helping you navigate through these choices, a few definitions might clarify these options:

Subfolder: In the URL www.apple.com/uk, "uk" is the subfolder. For a domain, a subfolder is exactly what it says -- a folder under your main domain that holds content. Users would go to your domain and then access international content by clicking through to a subfolder.

Top-level domain: In the URL www.amazon.fr/, the ".fr" is the top-level domain. Instead of the typical ".com," Amazon has a TLD (.fr) specific for France. French users would start directly at the amazon.fr domain, which is different than the amazon.com domain.

Microsite: The URL http://www.coca-colafemsa.com/kof/index_eng.htm would be considered a microsite of Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola FEMSA produces Coca-Cola products for Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. This brand is kept separate from http://www.coca-cola.com/.

On the surface, it appears any of these options can accomplish one's business objectives. However, let's look at the three different international SEO domain strategies, explore their pros and cons, and assess when each are appropriate to use.

Subfolders
Companies with a big recognizable brand often choose to use the subfolder approach. One example is Apple: www.apple.com/uk/. The brand is large enough that the .com is easily recognized as the main brand domain across many countries. Someone in a country other than the United States is already overly familiar with a brand like Apple. If they make few concessions to the local culture, it's largely irrelevant to the consumer in that country.
If you're not an Apple or a Microsoft, subfolders are not necessarily a bad idea. Smaller companies may still prefer subfolders because they are quick and easy to manage. For example, companies may only have a few pages of content that need relevancy for a particular country.

However, subfolders are generally bad for SEO efforts. Subfolders place content several pages deep within a site's structure, which reduces the strength of a company's international SEO. In addition, the site will not resonate as "local" with different nationalities. It's only Apple's high brand recognition that, with brute force, can work so well in other countries. For a smaller company without a powerful brand, international SEO will suffer. There is also a high potential of duplicate content if a company is just using subfolders.

Bottom line: If a business has small or limited international presence, or if a brand has high recognition around the world, it may be sensible to rely on subfolders. Short of those situations, it is not encouraged.

Full page top-level domains
TLDs tend to be the standard for international SEO efforts, and they generally make sense from a business perspective. With this strategy, there are no worries about duplicate content penalties. It's a standard best practice for companies in international markets to replicate their full site for different markets. This guarantees a national focus for each country that feels unique for each native user. For large companies with personnel and presence in multiple countries, this path is wise. And it's also best when increasing your international SEO rankings.

However, setting up individualized TLDs per country can be time-consuming. If executed hastily or improperly, the company may end up with poorly managed content. Localized content for a country cannot be approximated. The language has to sound like someone who has lived there all of their life. No auto-translators -- content needs translating by a speaker fluent in that language.

At the same time, all content needs to properly reflect brand messaging while remaining unique to the local market. Because all of these elements require a good amount of sophistication, they can be easily skipped over or performed wrong. That is a risk for companies.

Bottom line: If you're going to go international, make sure you have in-house expertise or a service provider trained in guiding you through this process. If you slip up, your international brand will take a hit.

Microsites
This is an often overlooked option that can work for companies that don't have a heavy international presence, but need something that goes beyond subfolders to meet the needs of specific international markets. Generally, the microsite is chosen when it is less important for the business to have this site associated with its main site. For example, separate businesses, brands, products, or other content that is purposely separated from the parent brand may be good fits for an international microsite. An example is the site http://www.coca-colafemsa.com/ for Coca-Cola's Latin American bottling division.

This way, businesses can establish a presence in new markets without the cost and labor of a full site translation. You would only need to worry about translating for a specific microsite. A microsite is also easier to manage than a full site, and it can compete with local rankings better than subfolders. However, companies need to be careful that they aren't using a microsite as a shortcut or substitute for a TLD. For countries that have a large focus on nationality, a microsite can be seen as a token effort that users will see through. Companies also will not be able to display a full range of products or services on the microsite, and it's difficult to establish SEO strength for small sites.

Bottom line: There needs to be a clear business reason why a microsite is needed before proceeding down this path. Otherwise, you may get the worst of two worlds -- too separated from your main site and brand, and not localized enough for each country.

Each business has different needs that may require one of these strategies. Despite TLDs being the most common and often best solution, it's not a fit for every business. Before going down a particular path, make sure you weigh pros and cons of each method. It is a good idea to understand your own goals and business intentions first. The right domain strategy is usually apparent based on your business goals and objectives. Use this article as a guideline toward helping you figure out which approach may be best for your company.

Contributors to this article include:
Kevin Howarth, director of content marketing at Nebo Agency
Kimm Lincoln, director of search engine marketing at Nebo Agency
Emily McClendon, director of search engine optimization at Nebo Agency

Brian Easter is one of the founders of Nebo Agency.

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Comments

Charles Voloshin
Charles Voloshin December 1, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Brian, I'm curious why you did not include a section on subdomains. I have had a few client who are using the country abbreviation as their subdomain under the main .com domain and I am interested to hear your agencies opinion on how this technique affects SEO.