Website Structure for International SEO

Contents

The first question you need to answer when starting an international SEO project is how you structure the website to serve different countries and different languages,

This article explains the pros and cons of different ways of organizing your information:

  • Different subfolders
  • Different domains
  • Different subdomains

There's no simple answer to which setup works best for you. As always with SEO, it depends. The best solution depends on your organizational setup and your technology stack. It's a good idea to discuss this with your marketing and developer colleagues.

Photo of a globe

Every country, or every country and language combination, gets a separate section on the website. This could look something like this:

  • US www.example.com/en-us for the US
  • English/Canada flag www.example.com/en-ca and for Canada, English
  • French/Canada flag  www.example.com/fr-ca and for Canada, English
  • German flag www.example.com/de-de for Germany

In this example, we use the ISO codes for language (en) and country (us) as a folder name. That's easy because it matches what we use in hreflang tags. However, you're free to choose whatever folder naming you like - as long as it's clear to the visitor.

Benefits of using subfolders

Sharing SEO value across countries

Search engines consider everything on our www.example.com domain to be part of the same site, regardless of the subfolder it sits in. That means that any link building we do for the US site can also be valuable for Canada and Germany. This is a huge benefit in terms of SEO.

Lower cost

Again, having just one domain makes it cheaper.

Challenges of using subfolders

Technical dependencies

With all countries part of the same domain, it can become harder to allow for different technical requirements of those countries: everything is often in one codebase, and separating that can be a challenge.

The world is yours

Different domains for every country

Imagine we have a company that serves customers in the US, Canada, and Germany. Using different domains, we need to purchase 3 different domains:

  • US www.example.com for the US
  • Canada flag www.example.ca for Canada
  • German flag www.example.de for Germany

Benefits of using separate domains

Easier separation

Separate domains make it relatively easy to technically separate the websites. This can be beneficial when the assortment of products sold differs, or when the technology stack needs to be different. The German domain can run on an entirely different platform than the US one, which would be harder to manage if all sites shared the same domain.

Clear user signal

From a user standpoint, it's a clear signal that the company has a dedicated marketing channel for their country. This can increase trust.  

Challenges of using separate domains

No shared SEO value

Having separate domains has one big SEO drawback: search engines view these different domains (rightly) as 3 different websites. Any SEO activity for the US, whether it's link building or content creation, will not translate into SEO value for our Canadian and German websites.

Higher costs

For this strategy, you need more domains, which may not always be available. That can make this setup more costly than the other options.

Complicated hreflang setup

Hreflang tags are used to tell search engines which country and language a page is meant for. Specifically, for every page, it tells search engines what the alternate localized variant is for different languages or countries.

Although that still works across different domains, the setup may become more complex.

Language targeting not included

Although we have separate websites, we're not done yet. In Canada, we want to have an English and a French website. This adds another layer of complexity: do we create subfolders or subdomains for the different language variants? In other words, separate domains are not enough to solve the country and language problem.

Different subdomain per country

Instead of having different domains, another option is to have one domain with different subdomains:

  • US www.example.com for the US
  • Canada flag ca.example.com for Canada
  • German flag de.example.com for Germany

Benefits of using separate domains

Lower cost

Since you only need to acquire one domain, the costs can be reduced.

Lower technical complexity

It's still possible to separate the subdomains and run different tech stacks on the different domains, while at the same time managing subdomains is generally easier than managing different domains.

Challenges of using separate domains

Limited sharing of SEO value

To some degree, subdomains are not considered the same domain for search engines. That means any SEO domain value of www.example.com is not automatically carried over to ca.example.com or de.example.com.

Although Google is getting smarter and recognizes that the different subdomains belong together, it's easier to share the SEO value of sites on the same domain.

Language targeting not included

Just as with separate domains, subdomains do not provide a solution for different languages, unless you want to use subdomains like ca-fr.example.com. But let's face it: that doesn't look great.

Worldwide

Which option to choose?

Again, it depends. But for SEO, using subfolders on the same domain presents a massive advantage. So if you have that option, go for it.

Hreflangs

Regardless of the structure you choose, you'll need hreflang tags to target pages to their specific language and country audience. Read more about Hreflang tags.

Switching between countries and languages

In every setup, visitors may end up on a page that's not in their language, or that's not serving their country (pro-tip: hreflang tags reduce the risk of this happening).

Therefore, we need to offer a way to select their country and language. There are a couple of ways to do this.

Automatic redirect

You could detect the user's country by their IP address, and their language from their browser settings. Using that info, you could redirect them to the right section of the website.

Big warning sign: don't do this. Ever. Here's why:

Search engines often crawl your website from the US. By redirecting them based on their IP address, you basically make the non-US websites uncrawlable for Google and other search engines. We don't need to explain what the effect of that is on your international SEO.

Also, you may guess the country and language wrong. Now, you're redirecting someone to the wrong page. That's a horrible user experience, especially if there's no way to switch to another country or language.

Country / Language selector

As mentioned, avoid automatic redirects. A better option is to offer a country / language selector in the navigation, helping people switch to the website targeted at their region and language.

Although this prevents search engines from being excluded from localized parts of the site, some visitors may miss the language selector, and leave the site instead.

A language and country selector

Best of both worlds: suggest a local variant

There's a better solution that works great for SEO and for your visitors.

Don't redirect a visitor based on their country or language, but suggest a localized version instead. This helps users to navigate to the content that's right for them, while at the same time allowing search engines to crawl the entire site. Apple does this really well:

Apple suggesting me to visit a localized part of their website

While visiting from The Netherlands, I can visit apple.com, but it's suggesting me to go to apple.com/nl instead if I want to purchase something. Smooth!

Conclusion

The key learnings from this article:

  • If you can, use subfolders instead of separate domains or subdomains for your localized websites
  • Never redirect someone to the 'correct' site. Make a suggestion to visit the local site instead, while keeping the entire site accessible for all visitors and search engines.