You’ve found success with your SEO strategy and are enjoying a steady stream of organic traffic. Your local audience knows who you are and the unique ways you can help them. Thanks to your marketing efforts, you’re a mainstay on their radar.
So what’s the next step?
Going global, of course.
When you’ve secured the trust and attention of your domestic market, you might start thinking about the many opportunities waiting for you in other countries. Apart from creating a global marketing strategy, you’ll have to get started on your international SEO. This involves localizing your website and content.
Working on your international SEO will help you reach your new target markets more effectively. But, your current SEO strategy will work only for the audience it was initially built for. If you want to cross borders and become a global brand, you’ll need an international site that your audiences effortlessly find on search engines.
Let’s dive in.
What is international SEO?
International SEO is a technique that optimizes your website so that search engine crawlers can quickly decide which countries and languages to show your pages in.
Preparing your website for international SEO ensures that, for example, the German version of your website shows up in search results in Germany instead of other ones. The same applies to all other versions of your website.
Many aspects go into international SEO. These include adding hreflang attributes, geotargeting (on a global scale), language targeting, and figuring out the best international SEO URL structure to use.
Why do you need international SEO?
If you notice a significant chunk of your website traffic coming from different countries, that’s a good indicator of an international audience curious about what you do. Even better, that’s a new market opportunity you can explore.
But to take advantage of this promising new audience, you must create an international website tailored to their language and location. That way, you can give them an even better experience and make conversions frictionless.
Since you have an SEO strategy, you’re familiar with the intricacies involved in how search engines like Google crawl content, index them, and present results to various users. Each search engine is designed to suggest the most relevant, credible content to specific audiences. And what users consider to be relevant or credible varies per country and language.
For instance, someone in Italy looking for washing machines will see a different set of search results than someone in Japan looking for the same product. Both users will use search terms in their respective languages and expect the search results to be in these same languages.
This expectation is because of the invisible ways in which international SEO works. Search engines know that users in a specific country would prefer to read content in their native language and browse products and services local to them. Presenting results in a different language would only confuse and frustrate users. The exact opposite of what Google wants to do.
Curious about what search engine results look like in different countries? We’ve got you covered.
Do you need a multiregional website or a multilingual website?
Companies hoping to enter a new, foreign market successfully must optimize their website for their target audience. An existing, standardized website won’t cut it. People are more inclined to buy when the information they want or need is served on a virtual silver platter. That’s why having different language versions of your websites is important.
So how do you do this? By assessing the best way to reach these new demographics. Then deciding between making your website multilingual or multi-regional.
A multilingual website offers content in many languages. A multi-regional website is designed for users that speak the same language but are located in different countries, like Argentina and Spain.
There are three aspects you’ll need to consider:
- Country-targeting, where you’ll identify your target region or country with a designated URL structure
- Language targeting, where you’ll decide what languages your pages will be in by using language tags
- Producing, maintaining, and re-optimizing your content in each of your target market’s native languages
Note that you don’t need to accomplish all three goals if they aren’t completely applicable to your use case.
What are the URL structures to consider for international SEO?
A crucial part of your international SEO strategy is deciding on your URL structure. This is necessary for targeting a specific country and ensuring that Google suggests you in search results.
There are a few URL structures to choose from:
- country code top-level domain (ccTLD)
- a subdomain, a subdirectory, or subfolder
- a generic top-level domain (gTLD) with language parameters
- or using a completely different domain name.
To understand these, we need to know what the different parts of a URL are called:
A URL describes the whole address, containing the scheme, host, and path. A Uniform Resource Name or URN describes only the path. A Uniform Resource Identifier or URI encompasses all these parts.
Parameters come after a question mark in a URL, as illustrated below:
URL parameters consist of a key and a value, which are partitioned by an equal sign (=). It’s possible to have several parameters in one URL. They’re distinguished by ampersands (&) between each one.
Moving forward, here’s a breakdown of these international SEO URL structures:
According to Google, this type of URL structure uses two-letter country codes to inform users and search engines where the website is registered. It is either a country, sovereign state, or dependent territory.
ccTLDs are easy to spot. For instance, a website using the French country code would look like www.example.fr. A website using Canada’s ccTLD would be www.example.ca.
The Pros and Cons
If you think a multilingual website is more appropriate for you, a ccTLD is the way to go. It will help you narrow your marketing efforts to that specific country. On the other hand, it will limit your ability to rank in other countries since Google won’t think your content is relevant to foreign audiences.
Some websites have taken advantage of certain country codes, like .ai (Anguilla) and .co (Colombia), for purposes outside country-specific targeting. This includes extensions of a brand name, like luxuryhomem.ag (Antigua and Barbuda’s country code) or midnightradio.fm (Federated States of Micronesia’s country code). Though Google still recommends using hreflang tags for multilingual websites, it has removed the International Targeting report from its Search Console.
Additionally, separate ccTLDs means having to manage numerous websites. That means you’ll have to pay for additional hosting and maintenance. You’ll also be starting over, which means creating and implementing SEO strategies from scratch and having no domain authority (yet!).
Subdomains vs. subdirectories
A subdomain looks like th.example.com (website targeted towards users in Thailand) or fr.example.com (targeted towards users in France). It allows you to put your content on a section of your website with its own domain name. An advantage is that it still benefits from the authority you’ve built on your existing domain.
It’s a great option for streamlining your operations, especially for ecommerce websites that have all inventory in one place but still want to reach their target countries. You can also host your subdomain in your respective target regions for faster website loading times. Otherwise, hosting all versions in one place will overload the server and slow everything down.
Meanwhile, a subdirectory (or a subfolder) looks like example.com/th/ and example.com/fr/faq/. It’s a subsection that helps organize your main website by dividing it into folders. With our examples, you’ll see a URL for the main Thai page of a website and another URL for the main France page, with a subdirectory for a section on frequently asked questions.
Subdirectories allow you to structure your content and website. You can use them to target specific countries or add more order to your site structure.
The good news? Weglot allows you to choose between subdirectories and subdomains when creating a multilingual website. With everything you need in one place, it’s easier to maintain and optimize your website and its different language or regional versions.
If you want to learn more about subdomains and subdirectories, check out our guide, where we discuss them in more detail.
The Pros and Cons
If you opt for subdomains, you’ll need to add hreflang tags across all of them. Doing so will ensure that search engines correctly display the content to the corresponding audience.
On the other hand, subdirectories offer more flexibility since you can modify each one to target numerous countries or regions that speak the same language. As a bonus, you get to keep your domain authority, and your subdirectories piggyback off your existing SEO performance.
This URL structure is likely the most familiar to you. It’s what websites end with, like .com, .gov, and .org.
It’s also possible to use language parameters with a gTLD, which will then target speakers of that language. For instance, example.com/?lang=en-au would mean that the website is designed for English speakers in Australia.
The Pros and Cons
gTLDs mean shorter, more memorable URLs that your users will appreciate. Since there are even more gTLDs available now more than ever, that means more creative ways to improve your brand’s visibility through a clever URL. For example, if you’re a Thai restaurant in Paris called Orchid Garden, you could go from clunky www.orchidgardenthairestaurant.com to a shorter, sleeker orchidgarden.paris.
However, you may risk looking unreliable, spammy, or confusing, depending on the gTLD you use. There have been reports of users being filtered as spam when sending out emails because of their gTLDs. This is because not all developers are aware of every new TLD extension that’s recently become available.
A different domain name
Another option is to choose a completely separate domain name for your website. Instead of example.com, for example, you can select examplemx.com. This means your new website is located in a completely different root domain. As a result, search engines will treat this as distinct from your main website.
The Pros and Cons
Creating an entirely different domain name means starting from scratch. This could be good if you’re looking to do things from a clean slate. However, that also means you won’t inherit any of your SEO performance from your main page—which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you did!
What should you consider regarding on-page international SEO?
Of course, when you prepare your website to rank internationally, there are some criteria to keep in mind so you’re on track to meeting your goals.
Optimization doesn’t end with your content—it also involves your URLs. Though there are a lot of technical parts involved in creating a new version of your website for a specific country or language, your websites are ultimately created for a human being. That means everything about your website must be easy to navigate and understand. Including your chosen URL.
Think about it. Which one is easier to remember and clearer about its intent?:
URLs should be memorable, simple to read and write, and as brief as possible. All while being descriptive.
Some people edit the URLs in the browser address bar to switch to their chosen language instead of using a language switcher. With this in mind, you’ll want to keep a consistent, sensible URL scheme. That way, people can easily swap languages by modifying the host or path in your URL. Otherwise, an inconsistent URL will only frustrate your visitors and give them a bad user experience on your website.
Research the best practices in your target areas
We can’t emphasize market research enough. When choosing your URL structure for all website versions, you’ll need to account for the cultural differences in various search engines and user bases.
For instance, there’s no hard evidence that having a Japan ccTLD will give you an edge in rankings in Google Japan or Yahoo. If you’re targeting Japan, you should instead use Japanese characters within the URN (the URL path). You must also decide when it’s most appropriate to use kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana.
On the other hand, China’s top search engine is Baidu, which has difficulty crawling URLs with language parameters. If you’re targeting web users in China, it’s best not to use parameters for languages.
Besides that, using some Chinese characters in your path can cause errors. This renders the path unreadable. Another potential obstacle: Baidu favors websites with a Chinese TLD of .cn. But to acquire one, you must have a Chinese business license.
To avoid multilingual SEO pitfalls, do comprehensive research into your target market’s browsing habits and preferences.
If you opt for a ccTLD, it’ll indicate to Google what area you’re targeting. Still, this isn’t the only suggestion that search engines look for. Explore all the available options to expand your international SEO reach and point your website to the correct region and language.
One way to do this is adding hreflang tags. This informs search engines of the different regions and language the page is targeting. It also tells Google not to mark your other language versions as duplicate content, which could otherwise harm your local SEO efforts. However, inserting hreflang tags by yourself can be tricky. Luckily, Weglot does this for you!
Another thing to keep in mind: search engines do things in their own ways. Bing, for instance, retrieves your targeting intent from a “content-language” meta tag, located in the HTML header section of your web page. Yandex, the dominant search engine in Russia, favors websites with keywords in the URL. Thorough research is most definitely essential when choosing the right international SEO URL structure!
Finding multilingual success with the right international SEO URL structure (and how Weglot can get you there)
Expanding to a global market is an exciting milestone for your business. While getting everything perfect in one go for your international site isn’t feasible, you’ll get closer to success by approaching each step with careful, deliberate planning.
Of course, part of that is sharpening your multiregional or multilingual website for international SEO. Choosing the most relevant international URL structure will give you the footing you need to impress your target audience from the get-go, as it helps you optimize your website for usability and detection by search engines.
So, what’s the easiest way of going about this? By using a website translation solution like Weglot!
It’s tailor-made to help you create a multilingual website and optimize it for search engines. No need to worry about setting up separate subdirectories or subdomains for your localized content—it automatically does that for you for each specific language. Even better, it also instantly implements hreflang tags so that search engines immediately know which version of your website to serve international visitors. It’s that simple.
Curious to see how Weglot works? Try our 10-day free trial and see how easy it is to get a multilingual website done in minutes!