Going International on Google

by Anthony Shapley
Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency

This blog post serves as a guide – and shares a whole bunch of information and configuration advice with regards to taking your business international on Google.

Sub Folders VS Sub Domains

Firstly – do you have an internationally target-able domain name? Google only recognizes certain domain extensions as ‘international' so for example davidnaylor.co.uk, or bronco.co.uk is very unlikely to perform well on the international stage, you can see what domain names Google recognizes here.

Once you've figured that out, you also then have to consider whether to use your current or a new single domain VS having a domain for each country. We've created a table below explaining the advantages and disadvantages to each:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Single International  Less link building – with a sensible internal link structure (e.g. flags) pointing to all the country homepages, you can pass equity around more effectively.SEO Campaigns have wider impactLess site maintenance required. If your link building isn't squeaky clean, it could only take a single penalty to take your entire brand down.Hosting, without larger expense is somewhat centralized to a single location. CDN's can be used to help with this. We'd usually advise central Europe or US for a domain targeting many countries.
Multiple, country specific domains. Less risk, the opposite of what's described as above.Can host in the target country. Meaning a faster site to local users.Hreflang , or Search Console geo targeting becomes optional. You need to run PR/Link Building campaigns on many domain names instead of a single one.More domains to handle and greater hosting expensesMore security considerations, with running many sites.

URL Structures

When using a single domain for multiple locations, it's important to develop a sensible URL structure, we recommend language-country sub directories straight off the domain name. These folders would usually follow the same formatting as the value in a hreflang tag. For example:

  • com/en-gb/ (English, Great Britain)
  • com/pl-en/ (Polish, Great Britain)
  • com/fr-fr/ (French, France)
  • com/fr-ca/ (French speaking Canadians)

There is many possibilities. This is especially useful in Europe, with the likes of Belgium where citizens speak 1 of 3 possible languages. Keeping pages for each locale inside subdirectories like this, allows for them to be targeted via either hreflang or sub folders.

It's always preferable to use sub directories over sub domains, because search engines treat a sub domain in much the same way as a new domain name.

Internal Links

Assuming you have decided to move forward with a single domain, make sure you've got a country selector in the header of the site, we've seen many of these before setup as JS drop downs that redirect onclick. This is fine from a usability point of view but it would be better to have a set of links, whether in a drop down or a line of flags. This ensures equity is passed into all of the countries from the homepage, and other pages.

Redirecting Users

Occasionally a user might arrive at the wrong place, or they may have intentionally hit the UK locale from France. We often get asked if these users should be IP sniffed, location queried and automatically passed on. This has the potential to look like cloaking, although Google has become massively better and distinguishing between the two.

It is our opinion that a simple JS pop up is enough? "Hi, are you in the right place?" then if the user is where they want to be – no harm done, and if they aren't, we can quickly pass them on without risk. So look at the Users IP, if it's not quite right, just ask them – no redirects needed. This should be done with AJAX and JavaScript, to look up the IP. But the actual overlay box should be permanently present in the source of the page, again to ensure it doesn't look like we're cloaking anything.

When passing a user on – pass them to the product in the correct language/locale, do not pass them back to the homepage.

Targeting Options

A number of different approaches available to geo-target a singles sites content.

Hreflang

The new and we think eventually the only way to geo-target a website is using new HTML Tags. The benefit of this over using Search Console is you can target both language and country easily. You can also map similar pages to one another, ensuring everything ranks properly in its targeted location. E.g. you don't have a UK product page ranking in the US, or vice versa.

Implementation is very simple, assume we have pages targeting the UK and France, we would add these tags to both pages:

  • <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.example.com/en-gb/blue-widget.html” hreflang=”en-gb” />
  • <link rel=”alternate” href=”http://www.example.com/fr-fr/blue-widget.html” hreflang=”fr-fr” />

Important: Make sure your canonical tags match the same URL as the hreflang tag!

Full details of implementing hreflang can be read here.

Sub Folders

This is the original targeting method, that's been around for years and years. Very simple, anyone can do it. You can add each subfolder as a new site in Webmaster Tools, simply login to Search Console, on the top right you have a "Add a Property", click it and type in something like:

search-console-image

Once this has been added (if the domain is already authorised, no further verification is needed), you can click through to the sub directory. Inside Search Console, in the left hand navigation select "Search Traffic" and then "International Targeting". Once the page has loaded, select the "Country" tab and select which country you want to target users in.

Repeat this process for each country you want to target.

Common Misconceptions

Below are a few assumptions that are often made when creating a site that targets multiple countries:

  • When targeting different countries, such as US and GB, even though you will have a lot of similar pages – the content between these pages still has to be unique from one another. You shouldn't serve the same content for multiple locales.

Conclusion

My opinion remains generally, in most circumstances a single bigger site is better and more cost effective over having many sites. But this is largely dependent on campaign specifics. I.e. Blackhat VS Whitehat and so on.

Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency
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