Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week Casey Henry from SEOmoz brought up an interesting SEO problem that has been troubling a lot of folks through QA and that I think a lot of SEOs have questions about. There are some best practices though that are going to help guide us through this.
So, the first part, it’s international SEO, but not just how do I target different countries, but really where do I host and how am I supposed to target these visitors and these searchers in these different countries in the most effective ways.
I’ll present the basic problem. The premise of the problem is that essentially in a perfect world we would have one domain and we could have content of all different kinds, different languages, different countries on it, and the engines would easily recognize which content was targeted to which countries and we might have separate filters to make sure that there are no duplicate content issues. They’d say, “Oh, well, this is the Canada content and it is in English. This is the United States content, that’s in English. This is the UK content, the Australian content, the South African content, the New Zealand content. Great.” We can figure it all out. But unfortunately, the engines aren’t quite this sophisticated yet. So, we have to play a little bit with the best practices and the rules around this. So walk through with me some of the options that we’ve got here.
First, option A. You can go with a root domain ccTLD. This would be for example, let’s say our friend Roger Mozbot is starting up a blog. He has got content in lots of different languages. I assume Roger Mozbot is like C3PO or R2D2 from Star Wars. He can speak any language that he likes probably. So, Roger Mozbot, he’s got his DE site. That’s for Germany. Then he’s got an FR one for France. A CA for his Canada stuff. A dot com dot AU for Australia. This is an option, right? He can build all these separate domains, own each of them, put different content on them according to the language and the preferences of the people there, target those currencies if he has got something to sell, make sure that they are regional friendly, that the hosting is in each of those countries so it comes up the fastest and so the engines know that that is where he is based. That could work. The frustrating part around this is that there is going to be a bunch of links that come to this one, that come to the DE one, but those links won’t necessarily boost the domain authority or importance of the dot FR one, and likewise the dot FR won’t boost those of the dot CA or the dot DE or the dot com dot AU. So, it can get a little frustrating. You’re sort of thinking to yourself, “Boy, it’d be really nice if all of these links could count towards that one domain.” There’s way to do that with option B and with option C.
Option B, of course, being subdomains. You can see Wikipedia doing this. They have en.wikipedia.org, de.wikipedia.org. You use that subdomain to segment the language and country targeting. The problem with subdomains, at least as I see it, is that sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes the subdomains don’t inherit all the domain authority, trust, value that you might get from separate subdomains or from all of the content being on a single root domain. So, de.RogerMozbot.com, maybe that will be interpreted the same way that www.RogerMozbot.com or fr.rogermozbot, or ca.rogermozbot, but it might not. That can be a frustrating experience as well.
Option C is probably the best way to do the domain authority collapse. We’ll talk through some of the weaknesses here, too. But this is essentially saying, you know what, everything is going to be on RogerMozbot.com/DE. You can see some sites, Microsoft owns a wide variety of sites that do precisely this. They’ve got like an EN-US and an EN-UK, saying essentially that is our English language site targeting the UK and they do it all in subfolders, so the Microsoft.com domain is getting all of the domain authority assigned to it and hopefully that is passing through to these subfolders. In most cases, it is going to.
The weaknesses around the subfolder and subdomain, even though they have the strength of potentially inheriting some of that root domain authority, is really two things. Number one, it’s called the French searcher problem, which is essentially that some research has shown that people who are searching in France really like to see dot FR in the websites. In fact, they are going to be more likely to click on those results and more likely to buy from those. This French bias in France applies to many other countries as well. I believe some research was showing that the Czech Republic has the same thing with dot CZ domains. In fact, in Canada for a long time, I’m not sure if it is entirely true now, but in Canada for a long time they would click dot CA domains particularly around e-commerce types of websites because many US sites wouldn’t ship to Canada and that could be frustrating. Same problem with the UK. So, there is this inherent biasing from users saying, “Hey, I’m not sure that I am going to click on this and I’m going to be able to get what I need.”
Then there is also the issue of the search engines having a very strong, especially Google and particularly over the last few years it has seemed particularly strong that essentially a dot DE website doesn’t need nearly the links or authority or ranking power or metrics that a de.RogerMozbot or a RogerMozbot.com/de needs. Having this top-level ccTLD, country code TLD, essentially gives you that extra boost in the search engines when you are targeting those international countries. That is why, generally speaking, if you are a big brand, big site, and you’ve got a big budget, I would recommend getting these specific ccTLDs, building up those country presences around those language groups.
There is something sort of even more frustrating, which is that technically Google Webmaster Tools will allow you to go into Google Webmaster Tools and you can say I want to target de.RogerMozbot.com specifically to Germany or to Deutschland. You can do the same thing with slash DE. Weirdly, even though you can do this in Google Webmaster Tools, it seems to us, and obviously we’re not perfect, we don’t know everything about Google, but it seems to us and to a lot of other SEOs that this targeting inside Webmaster Tools doesn’t give you the same benefits that hosting on the dot DE does, particularly if you’re hosting on the dot DE and you’re hosted in that specific country, meaning the IP address is coming from that country. That’s another very important thing to be thinking about.
So, knowing this, there’s strengths, there’s weaknesses. How do I make a decision? It is a tough, tough call, but there are a few things that can help guide you through.
First off, think about the brand reach and the marketing potential. If you are a brand that is big enough or powerful enough or you have enough of a marketing presence and a budget, or you think you will in the future have that presence and budget, I would go for option A, the root domain with the ccTLDs that are separate, the dot DE, dot FR, dot CO dot UK, those kinds of things. The reason being essentially that if you can build links to those, build up their authority, they’re just going to have a much higher propensity to rank well in the search engines and they get through this problem of users being picky about what they like to click on, as well they should be. They’ve had bad experiences in the past with domains that aren’t targeted to their country, so they don’t want to click those anymore. So, you really want to get these domains.
The second thing to think about is languages, and this is a really tough one, particularly for English but also for a lot of languages that are spoken in multiple countries. You have languages like French which is spoken in parts of Polynesia, parts of France, I believe in Senegal, in France itself, in Quebec in Canada. You have got this kind of diverse group of folks. You go, well, which one should we have a dot CA and a dot FR, but it’s going to be basically the same language. How do we tell those people that they’re getting the same thing? This can be a challenge. What I generally recommend is if you think you’ve got a substantial population group in that specific country that speaks the language, in multiple countries I’d build those two separate websites, assuming you’re a larger brand. If you’re not, if you are sort of a smaller brand and you’re okay with reaching out — SEOmoz for example, we’re fairly international, we’re on a dot org. We own the dot com as well. It’s okay to basically say, you know what, we’re just going to be the dot com and that’s going to serve all of US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. All the places where English is a primary language. This is a fine way to go if you are sort of a small to medium size brand or if you’re fairly sure that there is not a big need to be separately geotargeted. Now that said, in the future it is possible that we might invest along these lines. Nothing prevents you from owning those sites and just redirecting them for now.
I’d also be thinking really hard about user behavior and preferences. So, if you know, for example, that you’re targeting a country that is going to be very sensitive to an outside presence or to the particular type of domain that you are on, you’re let’s say Fairyland and Ogreland and those two lands just don’t get along with each other very well. You’re in Fairyland. You’re thinking I’ll make a Fairyland TLD and that will target Ogreland, and the ogres are just thinking, no, I don’t want any part of that. I don’t want to use real countries because I don’t know, maybe everybody gets along nowadays. Let’s hope so. So, user behavior and preference is another thing that I think about.
All right. So, this is a complex issue. I’m looking forward to some discussion in the comments. I certainly can provide some links to other resources on this one. I hope that next week you’ll join us again for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.