Subdomain or Folders for International SEO: Which URL Structure Is Better for Your Multi-Language Site?

14min.

Comments:1

Subdomain or Folders for International SEO: Which URL Structure Is Better for Your Multi-Language Site?d-tags
14 July 2023
International SEO goes beyond simply translating your web content into other languages. It also includes strategic website structuring, such as selecting an URL structure that appeals to your international prospects. Let's explore the pluses and minuses of your options - e.g. international SEO subdirectories and international SEO subdomains - to determine which URL structure is the best fit for your multi-language website.

14min.

Comments:1

Table of contents

Imagine you’re opening a chain of coffee shops in different countries. Each coffee shop represents a version of your website targeting a specific country or language.

Now, the domain extension, whether it’s through subdomains or subfolders, is like the signboard outside each coffee shop, indicating its location and target audience.

If you choose country-specific domains (ccTLDs) like “.uk” or “.fr,” it’s like having separate coffee shops in the United Kingdom or France. Each shop has a unique address, catering specifically to the local customers in that country.

Similarly, having international SEO subdomains like “uk.your-website.com” or “fr.your-website.com” can represent different coffee shops within the main brand, where customers instantly recognize the country they are targeting.

On the other hand, using international SEO subdirectories within a generic top-level domain (gTLD) is like having different sections or menus within the same coffee shop. For example, your main website can be like the central coffee shop, while subdirectories like “your-website.com/uk” or “your-website.com/fr” represent designated areas within the shop serving customers from the United Kingdom or France.

This is just a general overview of the international SEO URL structures you may choose from. Even though there aren’t many options, deciding which one can bring you the most benefits may be pretty difficult. So, before we discuss each variant in detail, let’s remind ourselves why your URL address is so important both for the users and the search engines.

The Impact of Choosing the Right International Domain Name for Your Website

When selecting an international domain name for the website, it’s important to consider various factors such as brand identity, target market, and product positioning. Also, the domain name should align with your brand, be memorable, and convey the global appeal of your products

In terms of international SEO, a well-crafted international domain name that features relevant keywords can work wonders in increasing search engine rankings and driving organic traffic. It acts as a solid signal for search engines, providing them with valuable insights into the website’s content and sometimes even purpose. Basically, it’s like a big, flashy sign to search engines, helping them understand what your website is all about

When it comes to internet users, a captivating domain name plays a vital role in establishing credibility and trust. It works like a shortcut to delivering the desired information, products, or services.

To help you understand this issue better, see the examples of bad and good international domain names.

Bad Domain #1: “best-cheap-products-online-store1234.com”

Why it’s bad: I guess you agree that this domain is overly long, contains random numbers, and lacks clarity. It’s pretty challenging for users to remember and doesn’t convey any specific information about the website’s content or purpose.

Bad Domain #2: “xyzbusiness-12345.net”

Why it’s bad: This domain uses a generic term followed by random numbers and a non-popular domain extension. It lacks uniqueness and doesn’t contribute to building trust or credibility.

Good Domain #1: www.TastyBakeshop.com

Why it’s good: This domain is short, memorable, and directly reflects the name of the business. It clearly conveys the website’s purpose, which is a bakery or alternatively a bake shop. It’s unique, easy to remember, and has a reputable .com domain extension.

Good Domain #2: www.TravelAdventuresGuide.au

Why it’s good: This domain combines relevant keywords related to travel and adventure. It effectively communicates the website’s purpose and provides a clear idea of the content users can expect. The domain is descriptive, and memorable, and uses a popular .au extension.

Basically, choosing the right international domain name is essential for establishing localization, building trust, improving search engine visibility, enhancing user experience, overcoming language barriers, and protecting brand identity.

So, you’ve done the hard work of selecting an SEO- and user-friendly domain name that resonates with your local market.

Now, as you set your sights on entering a new market, you’re probably wondering about the ins and outs of global SEO. After delving into international SEO and sales strategies, you will come to realize that preparing your website for a new market is a multi-stage process.

One of those stages depends on choosing the right locale-specific URL for your website.

What Are Locale-Specific URLs?

Locale-specific URLs are website addresses that are tailored to specific locales or geographical regions. These URLs are designed to target and cater to the specific needs and preferences of users in particular countries or regions.

The structure of locale-specific URLs typically includes country or language identifiers as part of the domain or subdirectory, making it clear which audience the content is intended for.

For example, a website targeting users in Germany may have a locale-specific URL like “your-website.de” or “your-website.com/de”.

By using locale-specific URLs, you as a business owner can provide customized experiences and content to users based on their location, language, or cultural preferences.

If you plan to go global, you absolutely need to decide on the optimal locale-specific URL.

So, if you’re about to run a multilingual or multinational website, you need to know which URL structure will make it the easiest to geotarget your website.

Why does it matter that much?

Because this influences user experience, affects search engine visibility, and determines whether you engage with audiences in different regions.

Let’s check which URL structure options for international SEO you have.

cro international

Country-Specific Domains

Example of a country-specific domain: “your-webiste.fr”

When it comes to targeting specific countries with your website, one option to consider is using country-specific domains, also known as ccTLDs (country code top-level domains).

Generally speaking, choosing a country code top-level domain is presumably the most powerful way to signal to search engines that your website is intended for users from a specific country.

To create a country-specific domain, you usually use the two-letter country code as the domain extension. For instance, you can have “.be” for Belgium, “.mx” for Mexico, or “.us” for the United States of America.

What’s important SEO-wise, search engines tend to prioritize locally relevant content, and that’s why having a country-specific domain can help your website perform better in SERP in local search results.

Pluses of Country-Specific Domains

To me, there are 3 main benefits of choosing ccTLDs.

Clear Geotargeting

Country-specific domains, such as “.uk” for the United Kingdom or “.de” for Germany, make it crystal clear which country or region your website is targeting. This helps search engines and users understand your website’s relevance to a specific country, positively affecting your visibility in local search results.

EXAMPLE: A website with the domain “your-webiste.co.uk” indicates that it is primarily focused on the UK audience.


Server Location Irrelevant

With a country-specific domain, the physical location of your server becomes less important. Regardless of where your server is located, the country-specific domain indicates your target audience. This means you can serve content relevant to that country without needing to host your website within the country itself.

EXAMPLE: Imagine you have a website targeting users in Japan, using the country-specific domain “your-website.co.jp.” Despite hosting your server in the United States instead of physically in Japan, the country-specific domain clearly indicates your target audience. Search engines and users recognize this association, allowing your website to appear in relevant local search results for Japanese users.


Easy Separation of Sites

If you have different versions of your website tailored to specific countries, using country-specific domains allows for easy separation. Each domain represents a distinct website, enabling you to customize content, pricing, and promotions specific to each country.

EXAMPLE: A business with a global presence may have “your-webiste.com” for its international site and “your-webiste.fr” for its French site. This way they provide a seamless and tailored experience to users in each of the targeted countries.

Minuses of Country-Specific Domains

Here’s what I find as drawbacks of country-specific domains.

Expensive & Limited Availability

Some country-specific domains can be quite expensive to register and maintain. Additionally, availability may be limited, especially for popular or highly sought-after ccTLDs.

EXAMPLE: Obtaining a “.tv” domain, which stands for Tuvalu or streaming platforms may be more costly compared to a generic domain like “.com.” Limited availability can pose a challenge when trying to secure a desired country-specific domain.


Requires More Infrastructure

Managing multiple country-specific domains requires additional infrastructure, as each domain may require separate hosting, SSL certificates, and maintenance. This means you’ll need to allocate resources and invest in the necessary infrastructure to effectively manage and maintain multiple domains. This in turn may increase the complexity and costs associated with website management compared to having a single domain for all markets.

Strict ccTLD Requirements

Certain country-specific domains may have stricter requirements for registration. For example, some domains may require local presence or documentation specific to the country. These requirements can add an extra layer of complexity to the registration process and may necessitate additional effort to meet the criteria.

EXAMPLE: Suppose you’re interested in registering a country-specific domain, such as “.br” for Brazil. However, the ccTLD registry for Brazil has strict requirements that mandate registrants to have a local presence or provide specific documentation related to the country.


Single Country Targeting

Country-specific domains are limited to targeting a single country or region. If you plan to expand your reach to multiple countries, managing multiple domains can become cumbersome and may not be the most efficient approach. In such cases, alternative strategies like subdirectories or subdomains could be more suitable for targeting multiple countries.

EXAMPLE: Suppose you have a business that primarily targets users in Canada, and you decide to use the country-specific domain “your-website.ca.” While this domain effectively targets Canadian users, it limits your website’s focus to a single country. If you later decide to expand your business and target additional countries, using a single country-specific domain may hinder your efforts.

International SEO Subdomains

Example of an international SEO subdomain: “fr.your-webiste.com”

Subdomains are an alternative approach to structuring international websites. To create an international SEO subdomain, you simply add a prefix to your main domain, as shown above.

What’s important, this prefix acts as a separate entity within your website and can be used to categorize content based on language, region, or any other desired segmentation. In plain English, Google sees subdomains as individual or separate websites, which has a massive impact on international link building.

When mentioning link building and subdomains, it’s worth noting that Google’s ability to pass authority between them is not entirely reliable. This means that the link juice and authority you’ve built for one subdomain may not have a significant impact on the others.

If you have multiple subdomains for different languages or regions, it’s important to be aware that it can dilute the authority you can share between them. This means each subdomain may need to focus on building its own backlink profile to establish authority and visibility in its specific target market.

Pluses of Subdomains

Here is what I see as the benefits of international SEO subdomains.

Easy to Set Up

Creating subdomains is typically straightforward and can be easily set up within your website’s hosting configuration. It involves creating a prefix before your main domain, such as “no.your-website.com” for the Norwegian version of your website. This simplicity makes subdomains an attractive option for expanding your online presence internationally.

Allows Different Server Locations

With subdomains, you have the flexibility to host different versions of your website on servers located in different regions or countries. This can be beneficial in terms of website performance and user experience, as content can be served from servers closer to the target audience, reducing latency and improving loading times.

Easy Separation of Sites

Subdomains provide a clear separation between different language or regional versions of your website. Each subdomain acts as a distinct entity, allowing you to customize content, languages, and offerings specific to each target market. This separation simplifies website management and makes it easier to maintain and update individual versions of your site.

Minuses of Subdomains

On the other hand, here is what I find troublesome about going for international SEO subdomains.

Users Might Not Recognize Geotargeting from the URL Alone

One potential drawback of using subdomains is that users may not immediately recognize the geotargeting or language targeting from the URL alone.

EXAMPLE: When seeing “dk.your-website.com,” users might question whether “dk.” refers to the language (Danish) or the country (Denmark). This ambiguity may require additional visual cues or language selection options to ensure users understand the intended targeting.


SEO Impact

While subdomains can be effective in separating and organizing content, they may not carry the same SEO benefits as subdirectories or country-specific domains. Search engines may not associate subdomains as closely with the main domain, potentially diluting the overall domain authority. The good news is that sometimes proper implementation and optimization can mitigate this impact to a certain extent.

Maintenance & Complexity

Managing multiple subdomains can introduce additional complexity in terms of maintenance, updates, and content synchronization. Each subdomain may require separate configuration, updates, and tracking, which can increase the workload and resources needed for website management.

EXAMPLE: “es.your-website.com” may need its own update and maintenance, independent of “no.your-webiste.com.”

International SEO Subdirectories

Example of an international SEO subdirectory: “your-webiste.com/fr”

International SEO subdirectories, also known as international SEO subfolders, allow you to keep different language versions or country-specific content on a single domain. You just create separate folders for each language or country, and hence this “/fr” you see at the end of the URL.

When you organize your content into language or regional subdirectories, it makes it easier for search engines to understand and sort the different versions of your website. This, in turn, helps search engines show users the most relevant content based on their language preferences or where they’re located.

The cool thing is that since all these folders belong to the same site, setting them up and keeping them running is a breeze, and you don’t have to invest a lot. Plus, because these folders are part of the main domain, you get to benefit from any link authority and reputation you’ve already built.

So, when you earn backlinks for your website, the SEO benefits spread to all the subdirectories too. This means that each subdirectory can improve its own SEO performance and become more visible to users.

This basically means that any SEO campaigns you run in the future will also boost the performance of these subdirectories.

Pluses of Subdirectories

Here is what I like about international SEO subdirectories.

Easy to Set Up

Implementing subdirectories is generally a straightforward process. It involves creating new directories within your existing website structure to represent different languages or regional versions.

EXAMPLE: You can use “your-website.com/se” for the Swedish version and “your-webite.com/bs” for the Bahamian version. This simplicity makes subdirectories an accessible option for expanding your website internationally.


Low Maintenance (Same Host)

With subdirectories, you can maintain all versions of your website on the same hosting infrastructure. This means you don’t need separate hosting accounts or servers for each subdirectory. It simplifies maintenance, updates, and resource allocation since you are managing a single website entity with language or regional variations.

Minuses of Subdirectories

Let’s see what can cause some SEO-related problems when choosing international SEO subdirectories.

Users Might Not Recognize Geotargeting from the URL Alone

It’s important to note that users may not immediately recognize the geotargeting or language targeting from the URL alone.

EXAMPLE: When seeing “your-website.com/es”, users might question whether “es” refers to Spain, the Spanish language, or another Spanish-speaking country. Additional visual indicators or language selection options can help users understand the intended targeting.


Single Server Location

Unlike subdomains, subdirectories rely on a single server location. This means all versions of your website are hosted from the same server, which may not provide the same performance benefits as serving content from geographically diverse servers.

EXAMPLE: Users farther away from the server location may experience longer loading times compared to those closer to the server. This can affect website performance, especially if your target audience is geographically dispersed.


Separation of Sites Harder

Subdirectories do not offer the same level of separation between different language or regional versions as subdomains or country-specific domains. It requires careful organization, efficient content management systems, and clear delineation between language or regional sections to ensure proper targeting.

EXAMPLE: Managing content, customization, and updates within a single website structure can be more complex.

URL Parameters

Example of an international SEO URL parameter: “your-webiste.com/loc=fr”

URL parameters are extra values added at the end of a URL to give specific information to a website or server. They’re usually created by adding a question mark “?” followed by the parameter name and its value, separated by an equal sign.

As an SEO specialist, I have to admit that this isn’t the best way of doing multi-language SEO because – generally speaking – this method presents more disadvantages than advantages.

Minuses of URL Parameters

Here is what I see as the drawbacks of URL parameters.

URL-Based Segmentation Difficult

URL parameters make it difficult to segment and organize content effectively. With URL parameters, the language or region information is embedded within the query string, making it less intuitive to maintain a clear hierarchy or structure. This can result in a complex and convoluted URL structure, which can impact both user experience and search engine crawlability.

Users Might Not Recognize Geotargeting from the URL Alone

URL parameters alone may not provide clear indications of geotargeting or language targeting to users.

EXAMPLE: If a user sees a URL like “your-website.com/?lang=fr,” they may not immediately understand that it represents the French language version of the website. This lack of clarity can lead to confusion or uncertainty for users, affecting their browsing experience and potentially leading to higher bounce rates.


Limited SEO Benefits

URL parameters generally provide limited SEO benefits compared to other methods like subdomains or subdirectories.

EXAMPLE: Search engines may not prioritize or understand the language or region targeting as effectively when it relies solely on URL parameters. This can impact the visibility and ranking potential of your website in language-specific or region-specific search results.


Complex Implementation and Maintenance

Implementing and maintaining URL parameters for language or regional targeting can be complex. It often requires custom programming or modifications to the website’s codebase. Additionally, managing and updating URL parameters across a large-scale website can be time-consuming and error-prone. Any mistakes or inconsistencies in the implementation can lead to technical issues or incorrect targeting.

Potential Duplicate Content Issues

URL parameters can create duplicate content concerns if not handled properly. Search engines may interpret different URLs with the same content but varying parameters as duplicate content, leading to potential ranking dilution or penalties. Managing canonical tags or implementing URL parameter handling correctly becomes crucial to avoid these issues.

International SEO in WordPress

When you have already decided on which URL structure you want to go for, you need to know how to set it up in your content management system. You also need to know how to set up different regions and languages, right?

Here is how you do this in WordPress.

Setting Up a URL Structure in WordPress

STEP 1 Begin by installing a multilingual plugin such as WPML (WordPress Multilingual Plugin) or Polylang. These plugins enable you to create and manage content in multiple languages within your WordPress site.

STEP 2 Once the multilingual plugin is installed, you can decide on the URL structure that aligns with your international SEO goals. As you’ve just learned, you may go for international SEO subdirectories or international SEO subdomains.

Once you’ve done that, we can smoothly move on to…

Setting Up Different Regions & Language Versions of Your Site

STEP 3 In the multilingual plugin settings, configure the languages or countries you want to target. Specify the default language or country and set up additional language versions accordingly.

STEP 4 It’s time to translate and localize your website content for each targeted language or country. Remember to run separate international SEO keyword research for each of your target audiences or countries as this significantly improves your chances of being discovered by your new customers.

STEP 5 To ensure search engines understand the language or country targeting of your content, implement hreflang tags. These tags indicate to search engines the relationship between language or country versions of your web pages, helping them deliver the appropriate content to users in the right region.

STEP 6 Include a language switcher on your website to allow users to easily switch between different language or country versions. This can be done using the features provided by the multilingual plugin or by using a customizable language switcher widget.

STEP 7 After setting up the URL structure and translating your content, thoroughly test your website to ensure that each language or country version is functioning correctly. Monitor the performance of your international SEO efforts using analytics tools to track organic traffic, rankings, and user engagement.

Summary: International SEO Subdirectories or Subdomains?

By aligning your domain structure with your international SEO strategy, you ensure that users feel connected, understood, and engaged with your website, just like coffee lovers appreciating the authenticity and local touch of their favorite neighborhood coffee shops.

You also help search engines in organizing and categorizing website content, making it easier for them to understand and index the site. This allows search engines to more efficiently analyze and present relevant information to users, leading to improved visibility and ranking potential in search engine results pages.

While the decision may not always be straightforward, finding the optimal URL structure sets the foundation for achieving high rankings in your global target markets.

To help you make up your mind, let’s run a quick summary of the biggest pluses and minuses of every type of URL structure we’ve talked about.

Country-Specific Domains

your-webiste.fr

✔️ Clearly targets specific countries

✔️ Server location doesn’t matter

✔️ Allows easy separation of websites

✔️ Promotes trust among users

❌ Can be expensive and availability is limited

❌ Requires additional infrastructure

❌ May have strict requirements for country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)

❌ Limited to targeting a single country

Subdomains

fr.your-webiste.com

✔️ Easy to set up

✔️ Can use different server locations

✔️ Enables clear separation of websites

❌ Users may not immediately recognize geotargeting from the URL alone

❌ Each subdomain may need to focus on building its own backlink profile to establish authority individually

Subdirectories

your-webiste.com/fr

✔️ Easy to set up

✔️ Low maintenance as all content is on the same host

✔️ Every backlink contributes to enhancing the authority of the whole website

❌ Users may not immediately recognize geotargeting from the URL alone

❌ Content is located on a single server

❌ Separation of websites can be more challenging

URL Parameters

your-webiste.com/loc=fr or your-webiste.com/lang=fr

❌ Segmentation based on URL parameters can be difficult

❌ Users may not immediately recognize geotargeting from the URL alone

Remember, finding the right URL structure is just the beginning. Continuous monitoring, adaptation, and optimization are key to ensuring your website performs effectively in international markets. That’s why remember that if you’re in need of expert guidance and support with international SEO and in general with expanding your online presence across borders, we’re here to help.

Stay informed, stay flexible, and keep refining your approach to achieve success on a global scale.

Author
Wojciech Urban SEO R&D Specialist
Author
Wojciech Urban

SEO R&D Specialist

R&D specialist in SEO and web analytics. He feels most comfortable in the area of technical SEO, and his main task is to ensure that websites are optimized for search engines and achieve high rankings in search results.

Author
Wojciech Urban SEO R&D Specialist
Author
Wojciech Urban

SEO R&D Specialist

R&D specialist in SEO and web analytics. He feels most comfortable in the area of technical SEO, and his main task is to ensure that websites are optimized for search engines and achieve high rankings in search results.

Comments

Leave a comment

FAQ

What are the advantages of using international SEO subdomains?

  • Easy to Set Up: Creating subdomains is straightforward and can be easily configured within the website’s hosting settings.
  • Allows Different Server Locations: Subdomains provide flexibility to host versions of a website on servers located in different regions, improving performance and user experience.
  • Easy Separation of Sites: Subdomains allow for clear separation between different language or regional versions of a website, simplifying customization and maintenance.

What are the disadvantages of using international SEO subdomains?

  • Users Might Not Recognize Geotargeting: Subdomains alone may not immediately indicate the target country or language to users, requiring additional visual cues.
  • SEO Impact: Link authority between subdomains may not be passed as effectively, requiring each subdomain to build its own backlink profile.
  • Maintenance & Complexity: Managing multiple subdomains adds complexity to maintenance, updates, and content synchronization.

What are the benefits of using international SEO subdirectories?

  • Easy to Set Up: Implementing subdirectories is straightforward, involving the creation of folders within the existing website structure.
  • Low Maintenance (Same Host): All versions of the website can be maintained on the same hosting infrastructure, simplifying maintenance and updates.
  • SEO Benefits Spread: Subdirectories benefit from the link authority and reputation of the main domain, improving overall visibility.

What are the drawbacks of using international SEO subdirectories?

  • Users Might Not Recognize Geotargeting: Geotargeting or language targeting may not be immediately evident from the URL alone, requiring additional visual cues.
  • Single Server Location: Subdirectories rely on a single server location, potentially impacting website performance for users farther from the server.
  • Separation of Sites Harder: Subdirectories may require careful organization and management to ensure clear separation between different language or regional versions.

Get a
Free Quote

Awards

Award - Deloitte 2021 Award - European eCommerce Awards 2022 Award - European Search Awards 2022 Award - Global Agency Awards 2022 Award - IPMA Award - US Search Awards 2021

SEO SEM Agency based in Europe