How to choose the best URL structure for your international site?
Have you decided to go international?
And you think that your website is a high potential acquisition channel to penetrate new markets?
You are absolutely right!
Today, it is possible to reach an audience in another country through your website without requiring an exorbitant budget.
But before you embark on advanced international SEO techniques, one step is crucial in your internationalisation process: the choice of the URL structure you will adopt for your site.
Don't underestimate it, as it would be a shame if a bad url strategy, technical errors and poor optimisation penalised your international ambitions and growth prospects.
At first glance this may seem like a fairly simple problem to solve, but it actually hides a greater complexity than you might have imagined.
In this article, we will help you to see more clearly the different choices of international url structure that are available to you, those that are recommended and those that it is better not to use at the risk of impacting your SEO more or less heavily.
Here are the questions we will answer:
- What is a URL structure?
- Why is it important to choose the right URL structure for your international site?
- What is the recommended URL structure for multilingual SEO?
- What are the different types of URL structures for international sites?
- How do you target a country with a domain name?
- What are the advantages of each type of international URL?
- What are the disadvantages of each type of international URL?
What is an international URL structure?
An international URL structure is the strategy you use to organise the different versions of your site for each country or language.
First of all, let's remember that a URL is composed of three parts:
- The protocol (HTTP or HTTPS with the "S" for Secure)
- The host or domain name (for example www.nativexpand.com)
- The path that will correspond to a specific page of your site (for example /path/to/page)
We could also add url parameters that come after a "?" at the end of the URL, just after the path. But they do not change the base URL.
Why is it important to choose the right URL structure for your international website?
Some widgets or translation plugins translate the page well but do not allow it to be indexed in search engines for the targeted language.
The first step to indexing your site in other languages, and therefore hoping to have visibility abroad, is to create a unique URL structure for each language or geographical area.
Each version of your international site must have its own URL.
Particular attention should be paid to this stage of thinking about the URL base of your multilingual site because it is never recommended to change the urls afterwards, or at least as rarely as possible!
So if your site is online in several countries with a structure of urls that has been defined for several years, a change of structure should only be considered if it corresponds to a brand strategy (standardisation, acquisition by another player, etc.).
Any redesign carries a significant risk for the performance of your SEO.
Types of URL structures for international sites: advantages and disadvantages.
In this section we will present the available options for choosing the best international URL strategy with their main characteristics, advantages and disadvantages, as well as some things you should definitely avoid doing.
ccTLD: Country-Code Top Level Domain:
If your international site adopts a URL structure with a ccTLD domain name, i.e. the domain extension is directly related to a country (.fr for France, .es for Spain, .de for Germany, ...), you have a very clear and natural geographical targeting. This is the strongest signal for the localisation of a site. There is no ambiguity. That's the main advantage.
As for the disadvantages, this configuration can generate greater complexity in the management of your sites depending on the technical facilities and CMS that you use.
On the SEO side, the authority of the domain name does not benefit from the one of the historical site. Google and the other search engines will consider it to be a completely separate site from your home site. You therefore have to recreate an authority for each new domain.
This is the international strategy adopted by Blablacar (blablacar.fr, blablacar.es,...), Airbnb (airbnb.fr, airbnb.it,...) or Amazon (amazon.fr, amazon.de,...)
Finally, it is also possible that the domain name corresponding to your brand is not available in certain markets, or that certain ccTLDs are subject to usage restrictions.
This can lead to finding other solutions to get around this problem, sometimes by mixing several structures (ccTLD + sub-domains) and very often adds a lot of complexity to the management of the different sites.
Be careful not to base your strategy on a ccTLD domain name combined with a sub-folder structure such as: www.mysite.co.uk/de
At nativExpand, we often see this configuration when a British company internationalises its site and wants to target Germans (in this example).
In some cases it may even be the sites of large and well-known companies (which may be able to afford it because they have a very high authority). But for most SMEs, this configuration is really to be avoided.
Why is the www.mysite.co.uk/de domain configuration wrong?
Because when you use a ccTLD (country-code Top Level Domain), all search engines consider that the site targets the audience of the country to which it is related.
A .co.uk domain therefore targets British people!
When a company launches a website on the German market using its .co.uk site with pages in German to target the German audience, it is a counter-sense. It sends very bad signals to search engines.
The risk is that the site will eventually not be ranked at its true value and will not find its audience in the target market.
Lastly, some ccTLD extensions have become generic (often as a result of marketing-oriented use rather than for geographical reasons), as is the case with .io (British Indian Ocean), .co (Colombia) or .tv (Tuvalu).
Sub-domains based on a gTLD domain name
If the domain name for your brand is not available in many countries, using a gTLD (global or generic Top Level Domain) structure with sub-domains can be an interesting alternative.
The main advantage of this option is that you only need to use one domain name to set up all the versions of your site on that domain.
This makes management much simpler than setting up ccTLDs.
In reality, it will often be appropriate to buy local ccTLD domain names where possible and redirect them to the default URL, as this will allow you to protect your brand in some way and prevent someone from occupying the local domain name, but also to correctly redirect Internet users who type in your brand's localised domain in their browser.
On the other hand, the geolocation signal sent to Google is much weaker than the one provided by the use of a ccTLD, because the domain name here does not refer to a country.
If you use a sub-domain es.monsite.com, we cannot know whether "es" is the language or the country, i.e. whether you are targeting Spanish speakers or people living in Spain.
To ensure that Google and other crawlers display the right pages to the right people, and therefore have a full understanding of the audience you are targeting, it will be necessary to remove the ambiguity by setting the site's international targeting in Search Console.
Subdirectories based on a gTLD domain
Another alternative to using ccTLDs is to use a subdirectory structure based on a generic domain name (gTLD). This option is much the same as the sub-domain option and therefore offers the same advantages and disadvantages.
Its main advantage lies in SEO and in particular in the popularity of the domain name.
Indeed, the more links a domain name gets from third party sites, the more authoritative it is considered to be. In the case of an international site with sub-folders to differentiate each language and country, there is a sharing of the authority of your domestic version (and preferably the one with the most popularity) with the other international versions.
To summarise the benefits and problems of each option, you will find a summary in the following illustration.
What is the recommended URL structure for SEO?
For SEO, it may be more advisable to use URLs based on the same generic domain (gTLD) in order to share the authority provided by international netlinking and PR campaigns.
But this is not a hard and fast rule and it is possible to see ccTLD sites doing very well without any authority. It also depends a lot on the more or less strong competition of your sector in the targeted market, your local implementation strategy, your budget and your financial, technical and human resources.
Do not hesitate to contact us to discuss this and find the URL solution that best suits your business, your brand and your internationalisation strategy.
In addition, some brands use combinations of these solutions, for example, with the subdomain specifying the country, and the subdirectory indicating the target language. This is the case for OUI.sncf: ch.oui.sncf/de, this URL targets a German speaking audience (subdirectory /de) based in Switzerland (subdomain ch.oui.sncf)
In countries with several official languages (Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, ...), using a ccTLD + subdirectories combination can also be a good idea. This is the case for the Swiss railway website SBB: www.sbb.ch/de (targeting Swiss people who speak German).
Conclusion on international URLs
As we have just seen, there are several possibilities for structuring the urls of your international site. Each one offers advantages and disadvantages.
From an SEO point of view, it may seem interesting and less expensive to use subdirectories based on a generic domain name, as all the versions of the site in different languages will benefit from the notoriety of the initial domain.
On the other hand, using ccTLD domain names will give you a very strong localisation of your brand in the export countries you are targeting. This will give the impression that you are very well established in that country or that you want to give yourself a local image. This is always very well received by consumers.
The choice is mainly linked to your overall international strategy and the financial, technical and human resources you are prepared to invest.