Last Updated: March 11, 2020 7:21AM
While URL formatting will never win any awards for the most difficult decision you’ll make when breaking into a new market, the choice of how to lead customers to your sites can have a lasting impact on your brand’s presence in a country.
You have three main choices for separating your sites by language: country-code top-level domains, subdomains, or subdirectories. Depending on the size of your enterprise, the complexity and rate of change of your content, and your willingness to take on technical debt, you may weigh local brand impact, SEO, set-up, and cost accordingly.
Ready to go global? Here’s what you need to know about your options for your website’s URL format.
1. Country-code top-level domains
Ever noticed how your Google search URL changes just a little when you’re traveling—from google.it in Italy to google.de in Germany, for example? This is an example of country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), the high end of geography-specific sites. This approach is best for big companies with plenty of resources, from time and money to brainpower, as each domain needs to be registered and maintained separately.
Such an investment, though, can pay dividends when it comes to customer trust: consumers are more likely to trust familiar country codes in their domains when making purchasing decisions. Separate domains have the unfortunate effect of initially reducing global SEO, as your brand’s trustworthiness won’t automatically transfer to new in-country domains.
There’s light at the end of the SEO tunnel, however—rankings can rise with a boost in visitor trust, which yields increased page views and longer page visits. Some of the world’s best-known companies, including Amazon, Unilever, and Tata Motors, use the ccTLD system.
Using subdomains is another common way to localize content based on language and geography. This is the “Country.Company” format you’ve likely seen for other uses as well: e.g., m.facebook.com brings you to a mobile version of Facebook, and mail.google.com goes directly to Gmail.
Using subdomains for localization is simply another application of the same process: tokyo.craigslist.org, for example, sends you to Tokyo-specific Craigslist. This system also allows much variation in pages across geographies and is especially useful if your messaging varies by region. Search Console geotargeting, the process of telling Google directly where you want your site to appear in results, is relatively simple to set up for subdomains.
A subdomain is also the Goldilocks choice for price, as it requires just one domain purchase instead of several—though hosting subdomains in different markets may increase the total cost.
As for SEO, Google seems able to parse subdomains just as well as subdirectories, the third option for segmenting sites for geotargeting.
This is the easiest, cheapest system for providing targeted content to different audiences. The format will be familiar to anyone who has set up a basic directory of web pages for a site: “CompanyDomain.com/Country/InformationInRelevantLanguage.”
Quick and affordable sounds great, but subdirectories don’t give the same sense of strong in-country presence as your other options. Some of your subdirectories will benefit from the influence of the central domain, but the subdirectories with weaker reputations may drag down the others. Additionally, using subdirectories means you will need to maintain each independently—and that can yield out-of-date or incorrect content if your team is not properly staffed.
If you’ve begun to feel that there’s no right way to make your digital entry into a new market, take heart—there’s not a wrong way when you enlist one of the options above. Need an expert opinion on the approach best-suited for your particular brand? Reach out to partner that specializes in transcreation.