Before you break out the dictionary, you’ll have to decide how to structure the website to serve different countries and/or languages. So in this article, I’ll show you the pros and cons of all the methods for organizing international websites.
The Three Key Methods for Organizing an International Website
There are 3 main methods you can use to organize your international website, including:
- Different subfolders with gTLD (example.com/en-us)
- Different, country-specific domains – ccTLDs (example.ca and example.de)
- Different subdomains with gTLD (ca.example.com and de.example.com)
- (URL parameters are an additional method that I wouldn’t recommend because of the potential errors and scalability.)
As always with SEO, the best method depends on your unique requirements, overall taxonomy, and tech stack, so it’s a good idea to turn this into a bigger project that includes your marketers and developers.
Why Does the Method I Choose Matter?
There are two reasons you need to choose the proper internationalization structure.
Firstly, you want to ensure users find the correct region and language version for their needs. Otherwise, you’ll lose out on traffic and revenue.
Secondly, you need to think about SEO. When you localize content, a lot of issues can pop up – from duplication and canonicalization to the question of whether your SEO efforts for one website version will translate to the other.
Plus, it’s crucial to make it clear to Google which page it should serve when a searcher clicks on your SERP listing.
At the same time, you have to be realistic about what you can (and can’t) do regarding the time, effort, budget, and tech.
Method #1: Use Different Subfolders for International Websites
This is the preferred method; you’ll see it on most international websites. It’s easy to clarify who you’re targeting with Google Webmaster Tools, and it’s pretty cost-effective.
Every country, or every country and language combination, gets a separate section on the website. This could look something like this:
- www.example.com/en-us – for the US English
- www.example.com/es-us – for the US Spanish
- www.example.com/en-ca – for Canada
- www.example.com/fr-ca – for the French Canadian version
- www.example.com/de-de – for Germany
- www.example.com/it-it – for Italy
In this example, we use the ISO codes for language (en) and country (us) as the folder name. It’s best to match with what you’ll use in hreflang tags. However, you're free to choose whatever folder naming you like - as long as it's clear to the visitor.
The Pros & Cons of Using Subfolders for International Websites
Pro: Sharing SEO value across countries
Search engines will consider everything on our main www.example.com domain to be part of the same site, regardless of the subfolder. That means any link-building we do for the US site can also be valuable for versions in other languages. This is a huge benefit in terms of SEO.
Pro: Lower cost
Having just one domain is more cost-effective.
Con: Technical dependencies
With all countries part of the same domain, it can become harder to adjust to the different technical requirements of each country. Everything will be in one codebase, and separating that can be challenging.
Con: Same server location
Since the server for these website versions is in the same location, some visitors could see reduced loading times, so consider a Content Delivery Network (CDN).
In terms of Google recognizing your localized variants, don’t worry; you can set up geotargeting with Webmaster Tools.
Who Should Use Sub-Directories?
- Websites expanding into new areas without having established themselves enough to warrant a more significant investment.
- Websites with a limited SEO budget – sub-directories allow you to “share” your backlink profile.
- Websites that offer the same or similar products in each area.
Method #2: Different Domains for Different Countries (ccTLDs)
Another option is purchasing different top-level domains (ccTLDs - country code top-level domains) for each country to clearly separate the websites.
This is a viable option if your website is big (Amazon does this, wink-wink), but it can get tricky for SEO.
Imagine a company serving customers in the US, Canada, and Germany. Using this method, we’d need to purchase 3 different domains:
- www.example.com – for the US
- www.example.ca – for Canada
- www.example.de – for Germany
The Pros & Cons of Using Different Domains for International Websites
Pro: Easier separation
Separate domains make it easy to technically separate the websites. This is helpful if you don’t sell all your products in all your territories or need a different stack for each site.
For example, the German domain can run on an entirely different platform than the US one, which would be harder to manage if they shared the same domain.
Pro: Clear user signal
Unlike the different subfolders method, the dedicated domain method makes it obvious to users that you have a dedicated channel for their country.
As far as user signals go, this can significantly increase trust and reduce obstacles to conversions (e.g., “Is this just a translated page? Do they offer shipping to my country?”).
Con of using separate domains for international websites: No shared SEO value
Having separate domains has one big SEO drawback: search engines view these different domains as different websites.
Any US SEO activity, whether link building or content creation, will not translate into SEO value for our Canadian and German example websites.
Con: Higher costs
You’ll need more domains for this strategy, some of which may not always be available. Similarly, you don’t have a lot of leeway with the countries you can target – you’ll need a domain for each.
This can make this method pricier than the other options.
Con: Complicated hreflang setup
Hreflang tags 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.
For example, suppose your main page is example.com/best-hiking-gear. Hreflang tags would tell search engines there are localized versions such as:
- example.com/cr-es/best-hiking gear
And so on!
Although the tags will work, the setup may become more complex.
Con: Language targeting isn’t included in the separate domains method
Although we have individual 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 aren’t enough to solve the country-and-language problem.
Who Should Use Separate Domains for Website Localization?
- Big websites with an established presence in local markets.
- Websites with differing product catalogs depending on the location.
- Websites that want to target the audience with specialized content and dedicated outreach.
- Websites with a big SEO budget.
Method #3: Different Country Subdomains
Finally, you can choose subdomains for each target country.
- www.example.com – for the US
- ca.example.com – for Canada
- de.example.com – for Germany
This isn’t as complicated as separated domains but doesn’t offer the SEO benefits of hosting localized variants in subfolders.
The Pros & Cons of Using Subdomains to Localize Website Content
Pro: Lower cost
Since you only need to buy one domain, the costs are lower.
Pro: Lower technical complexity
It's still possible to separate the subdomains and run different tech stacks on the individual domains. For example, you’ll be able to use different server locations.
At the same time, managing subdomains is more straightforward than managing different domains.
Con: 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.
Con: Language targeting not included
As with separate domains, subdomains only provide a solution for different languages if you want to use hyphenated subdomains like ca-fr.example.com.
But let's face it: that doesn't look great.
Who Should Use Different Country Sub-Domains?
- Websites that are still considering expanding into new territories but don’t want the hassle of setting up different sub-directories.
- Websites that want to rank content for different regions separately.
The Verdict: ccTLDs vs. Sub-Domains vs. Subfolders
I’ve seen the best results with ccTLDs for large-scale internationalization.
If you want to get started with something lighter, subfolders offer the additional SEO benefits of allowing you to share authority equally, regardless of the localized website.
This is something to plan out, so make sure your strategy is clear before committing. For example, a growing eCommerce store may be happy with a subfolder setup today, but as it grows, it may need to scale to dedicated country code domains.
Google's stance on localization.
Other International SEO Best Practices & Considerations
Hreflangs Are a Must
Regardless of your structure, you'll need hreflang tags to target pages to their specific language and country audience.
Read more about Hreflang tags.
How to Switch Between Countries and Languages
In every setup, visitors may end up on a page outside their language or region. This is a major headache, so use hreflang tags to reduce the risk.
Secondly, you’ll need to offer a way for visitors to select their country and language. You have a few options:
Option #1: (Don’t) Use Automatic Redirects to Switch Between Countries and Languages
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.
Now, here comes the big warning sign: don't do this. Ever.
Search engines often crawl your website from the US. By redirecting them based on their IP address, you make non-US websites uncrawlable for Google and other search engines. Your international pages won’t get indexed and ranked.
Also, you may guess the country and language wrong. Now, you're redirecting someone to the wrong page. That's horrible for the user experience, especially if there’s no way for them to choose their country and language.
Option #2: (Do) Use a Country / Language Selector to Switch Between Regions and Languages
A better option is to offer a country/language selector in the navigation.
Even if directed to the wrong version, your prospects will be able to self-identify and choose the right version.
This option ensures that search engines can see the localized parts of the website. However, some visitors may miss the language selector and bounce instead.
Option #3: (Do) Suggest a Local Variant
There's a better solution that works great for SEO and for your visitors: suggesting a local variant with banners.
Instead of redirecting a visitor, suggest a localized version instead. Users will be able to navigate to the right versions while allowing search engines to crawl the website. Even Google’s John Mueller recommends it:
“Use banners to suggest different language sites so Google can index them.”
Apple does this really well:
While visiting from The Netherlands, I can visit Apple.com, but it's suggesting I go to Apple.com/nl instead. Smooth!
Avoid Overcomplicating Things
Map out the most necessary variants and keep it simple! You’ll need to tag all the pages with hreflang accurately, so if you can avoid an unnecessary localization (or language change), do it.
Monitor Your International SEO
As your website grows, keep track of the pages and ensure there aren’t any errors causing indexing and ranking problems. You can do it manually or use a tool like SiteGuru, which will automatically flag the hreflang tag and other technical SEO errors for you.
It’s Time to Go International!
Finally, remember to choose the best option for your website today – and your plans for the future. Give yourself room to grow, and make sure you set everything up correctly in the beginning.
After that, scaling will be a breeze!