International sites: The best domain structure for SEO

Making your website rank high can be a challenge. Making your international sites rank high can be an even bigger challenge. There are just a lot more things you have to do for multilingual SEO: create content for different markets, set up sites for those markets and implement hreflang, just to name a few. Plus there are additional choices you have to make. Like this one: on which domains will you publish your internationalized content? Here we’ll list the most common options you have, and we’ll help you decide on the best option for your situation. 

ccTLD, subdomain or subdirectory?

Let’s say you own a site for your business in the US: myepicbusiness.com. You’re expanding to the UK and want to create multiregional websites. In general, you’d say, there are 3 options for your internationalized content to reside:

  • on a country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD): myepicbusiness.uk
  • on a subdomain: uk.myepicbusiness.com
  • on a subdirectory: myepicbusiness.com/uk

All options have pros and cons, and it all depends on your business which one will suit you best.

ccTLD

Do you have a large multinational business with lots of resources? Then, a country code domain, like epicbusiness.uk is a good option for a multiregional site. It’s the most effective way of telling Google and your audience which country your targeting.

However, it also means you have to acquire the domain and have to build up domain authority from scratch. Domain authority means that Google knows your domain epicbusiness.com and sees it as a trustworthy source. A ccTLD, like .uk, will not profit from the domain authority of your .com domain.

Before you choose a ccTLD you should always properly investigate if it’s worth investing a lot in that market. You should only decide to go for the ccTLD if there are enough opportunities for growth in that country and if you have enough resources to exploit them. In general we’d say: if your .com domain ranks high and your marketing budget is limited, choosing one of the others probably is the better choice.

Subdomain or subdirectory

If the ccTLD isn’t the right choice for your business, you’ll have to choose between a subdomain or subdirectory. In that case, what would be the best choice: myepicbusiness.com/uk or uk.myepicbusiness.com?

Even though you might suspect differently, Google will not see a subdomain as the exact same domain. It’s not exactly clear how Google sees it, but it’s clear the domain authority of myepicbusiness.com won’t completely flow to a subdomain, like uk.myepicbusiness.com. This means you can’t take full advantage of the domain authority you’ve built up for your .com domain. So in this case we’d advise to pick a subdirectory, like: myepicbusiness.com/uk

Countries with multiple languages

 There are countries that have two – or more – official languages. If you want to target audiences speaking multiple languages you’ll have to create multilingual sites. This will force you to make even more choices for your domain structure. In Canada, for instance, there’s a French speaking part and English speaking part. What if you want to show the French and English speaking part of Canada a different website?

ccTLD

Let’s say you’ve got a major business and plenty of resources, so you’ve selected the ccTLD. This means that for Canada you’ve chosen myepicbusiness.ca. In that case you can easily add two language variations as a subdirectory to your site:

  • myepicbusiness.ca/en
  • myepicbusiness.ca/fr

Subdirectory

If you’ve chosen to place your Canadian content on subdirectories, you could best create the URLs below. Do remember to refer to the language first and then to the country:

  • myepicbusiness.com/en-ca
  • myepicbusiness.com/fr-ca

If you want to dive deeper into this matter, we’d advise you to take our Multilingual SEO training. In this course we explain in more detail which pros and cons there are, how you can do your geotargeting well, how to easily create awesome copy in different languages and other important stuff for international SEO, like implementing hreflang. Check it out now!

Multiple countries with the same language

But what about using one website in the same language for multiple countries? Can’t you just use the same English website for, for instance, Australia and the UK?

Country websites or language websites?

If possible, we’d recommend creating different sites for different countries, even if people are speaking the same language. Although it might require more resources, it will be easier to target that specific market with the right content. Things that can differ from country to country are the local vocabulary, contact information, product availability and the currency. If you don’t create different content for the countries you’re targeting, users might get confused about what service and products you deliver in their country.

So this means that, in case of the example above, you’d choose myepicbusinness.com/uk and myepicbusiness.com/au Or, if you have enough marketing capabilities, you could use myepicbusiness.uk and myepicbusiness.com.au.

Don’t forget hreflang!

If you’re targeting multiple countries with websites containing content in the same language you should never forget to implement hreflang! With hreflang you’ll tell Google which of your websites should rank in which country and for which language. On top of that, it will prevent duplicate content issues, which is almost inevitable if you target countries with the same language.

TL;DR

Choosing domains for internationalized content on your site can be a challenge. If you have a large marketing budget you should choose ccTLDs for every country your target and build strong domains for each country. If you’re not capable of doing that, you should choose subdirectories. In case you target countries with multiple languages, you can create subdirectories for each language in a country. In general, always choose country sites instead of language sites to target your audience with the right content and to prevent confusion. And, don’t forget to implement hreflang!

Read more: How to create SEO friendly copy in a foreign language »

Improve your technical SEO skills!

  • Which technical SEO errors hurt your site?
  • Solve them and climb the rankings!
  • Improve your site speed on the go
  • On-demand SEO training by Yoast
More info

13 Responses to International sites: the best domain structure for SEO

  1. Ishitha
    Ishitha  • 9 months ago

    Hey Willemien, Can we choose a domain with our targeted keyword? If so, does it shows keyword stuffing?

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Hi! Using your keyword in the domain name used to be strategy quite some time ago. Nowadays your site won’t rank higher for that reason alone though. Also, picking such a domain name might limit your possibilities of expanding your business when you’re growing and decide to, for instance, sell other products too.

  2. Hi Tehran Hostel
    Hi Tehran Hostel  • 9 months ago

    We let WPML decide on the best structure for this part of our website, and WPML recommended using subdirectory, WPML also automatically implements hreflang tags. Is there anything that we should manually investigate?

  3. Erwin
    Erwin  • 9 months ago

    Minor thing. I think there’s no .au for Australia. Should be .com.au

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Thanks Erwin! Just changed the example, to make it less confusing ;-)

  4. John-Pierre Cornelissen
    John-Pierre Cornelissen  • 9 months ago

    There is a 4th way: the language name added as a parameter like https://www.domain.nl?lang=en)

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Hi John-Pierre, thank for the addition. It is possible, but not recommended, because geotargetting in GSC isn’t possible, URL-based segmentation is difficult and users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone.

      • Rich Owings
        Rich Owings  • 9 months ago

        Hi Willemien, I have a client who has a site that uses the parameter, such as what John-Pierre mentioned. I was considering switching to a subdirectory setup but it looks like there is no way to geotarget that in GSC. Is that correct? And if so, would I do better to leave it alone or move to a subdomain and risk a loss of ranking factors.

  5. Rohini Authority
    Rohini Authority  • 9 months ago

    Thank you so much! Such a great help in making my decision!

  6. Freddy G. Cabrera
    Freddy G. Cabrera  • 9 months ago

    Hey Willemien!

    This is good to know.

    I also speak Spanish fluently and thought about adding a section to my blog in that language. I just don’t know how to go about it.

    But, after reading this I’m getting better ideas. Very helpful info!

    Thank you for sharing this!

    Have a nice week! :D

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      Glad to help, Freddy!

  7. Kevin
    Kevin  • 9 months ago

    They speak the same language in Australia! 🤣

    • Willemien Hallebeek

      They do, right? ;-)


Check out our must read articles about Domains