The Multilingual SEO community is debating if Multinational websites should have multiple domains, leaving marketing executives to guess the most effective approach to reach international markets. Our goal is to provide the best method for building a multinational website, without breaking your budget.
Should I create one, or more than one, website?
If you are seeking advice on the best approach to multilingual search engine optimization as part of web design, start with the decision of whether to create one or more than one website/domain. Many large companies have moved to local-country domains, such as domain.de, domain.co.uk, etc. This implies increased maintenance costs for hosting, registering, and managing the domains. In addition, several International markets view .com as US-centric. Therefore while consolidating your sites into one website like a .com is an option, it may not be an ideal choice.
Google Approved Options for Multilingual SEO and Web Design
You must operate under one of three Google Approved options to multilingual website design described in the table below. These options keep your translated content in a search engine friendly URL structure, making it easy to geotarget your site, or parts of it, to different regions.
|URL structure||Example URL||Pros||Cons|
|Country-specific domain |
(country code top-level domain, aka ccTLD)
|example.de||Clear geotargeting |
Server location irrelevant
Easy separation of sites
|Expensive (can have limited availability) |
Requires more infrastructure
Strict ccTLD requirements (sometimes)
|Subdomains with gTLD||de.example.com||Easy to set up |
Can use Search Console geotargeting
Allows different server locations
Easy separation of sites
|Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone (is “de” the language or country?)|
|Subdirectories with gTLD||example.com/de/||Easy to set up |
Can use Search Console geotargeting
Low maintenance (same host)
|Users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone |
Single server location
Separation of sites harder
Avoid two popular Myths of Multilingual SEO and web design
The following SEO Myths are incorrect and should not guide your decision:
Myth 1 – Your website will get penalized for duplicate content.
Google Does not like duplicate content and will penalize your website if you have the same version of English for both the USA and the UK.
Fact – There is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty.
While Google prefers unique content on all websites, there is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty. Google provides two acceptable methods of indicating when content is duplicate:
- Canonicalization and
- hreflang attributes to explicitly state your language – or region-specific pages
Google realizes that having duplicate content can serve a legitimate business purpose. However, web designers need to use proper coding methods to indicate the reason for duplicate content and which page hosts the original content.
Myth 2 – Multiple domains are less effective due to Low Domain Authority
Creating a separate domain means that you will start from scratch, and the new site (URL) will not receive the benefit of the High Domain Authority of your main corporate website, which has years of experience. One idea in SEO is that sites that accumulate age and links also collect what is called domain authority.
Fact – Google does not rank web pages based on domain authority
This concept of domain authority, although widely used, is a made-up concept with no SEO value. Google has stated that its algorithm does not use domain/site authority for ranking websites. However, this myth continues to creep into blog posts and SEO arguments. For more information on this fact, see John Mueller Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google recently Rebuts Idea that Google Uses Domain Authority Signal.
Should I use ccTLDs? – Pragmatists vs. Idealists
Pragmatists argue against ccTLDs
Pragmatists point out that the cost to build and maintain multiple websites is cost-prohibitive and not worth the time and effort. They typically argue the Domain Authority myth, that the most linked-to company domain is typically the main corporate website. With it being the oldest domain, it tends to have the most significant number of backlinks and the highest Domain Authority (remember Myth 2). They argue that creating multiple separate domains can “water down” your investment in multilingual SEO. As a result, the content on the new sites will not have the advantage given to it by the company’s main website.
Idealist argue for ccTLDs
Idealists say that PageRank is not the only algorithm used by Google to order search results. There are several publicly known search algorithms used by Google, see Google Penguin, Google Panda, and Google Hummingbird. In other words, Google is more concerned with the quality of your content. Your website’s strategy should not be to maximize backlinks and PageRank; but instead it should give the best possible experience to your customers. Thus your strategy should include using a ccTLD that matches where website visitors are geographically located.
Moz Studies on ccTLDs and SEO
Idealists can reference this MOZ study describing the advantage of using the (ccTLD) domain for the target country. It shows that people in the UK favor domain.co.uk and people in France prefer www.domain.fr instead of .com or .net. (Although .us has not taken off in the United States as people there have a strong affinity to .coms.) Therefore the study shows that people usually prefer ccTLDs because they have an affinity for a local experience.
This MOZ study references the use of folders and subdomains vs. ccTLDs and argues that a company needs to conduct an ROI analysis before they can decide on the best approach. Overall, this article does a good job explaining the topic and even takes a stab at break-even analysis of cost for new domains inclusive of the ROI for improved conversions and click-through rates (CTRs). Hence ccTLDs have better CTRs, conversion rates, etc. and perform better in the long run.
Proper localization is the most effective approach to Multilingual SEO
The Idealist argument is strongest if the company managing the websites respects the unique cultural differences of each target country. For example, a company might have marginal results with a ccTLD strategy if it uses the exact same content to create multiple sites that target Spanish speaking people in Spain (.es), Mexico (.mx), and Argentina (.ar). It can be especially problematic when the translated version is incorrect, out of place, or confusing to the target audience. However, it could be even worse. The company could attempt to use a singular site (.es) to target all three markets effectively making customers in Mexico and Argentina “shop” in Spain. Imagine if your United States customers were directed to a site that was yourcompany.co.uk or yourcompany.ie? You will definitely lose some sales as a result.
Alternatively, a company might get a higher long term return on its investment if it localizes the website to match the unique needs of the region. As a result, the ccTLD approach may be best for maximizing PageRank opportunities for SEO, since getting links from websites and blogs in the local region is going to be easier if your site is using the ccTLD of that country.
Is it affordable to set up a Multiple Domain Multilingual Website with one CMS?
There are many affordable options for managing multiple domains from a single CMS (content management system). For example, affordable open-source systems like WordPress or Drupal make it possible to implement this solution with minimal costs. Companies can either use the WordPress Multisite feature to create multiple sites using the same installation. Another option is to use a plugin like WPML to manage the entire translation process. Thus, it is possible to have one content management system that supports multiple domains with different versions of a language like Spanish that target specific countries like Spain (.es) and Mexico (.mx).
As a result, you can use different Country Code Top-level domains (ccTLDs ) for targeting multiple countries, affordably, using one CMS.
Proper Multilingual Search Engine Optimization involves Localizing Website Content across Multiple ccTLDs
Using multiple ccTLDs is an SEO friendly approach. It is easy to implement when using a CMS with multilingual support. The CMS does the work of inserting proper hreflang annotations on translated and local content pages where they are needed. As a result, you could get domains for Mexico www.domain.mx, Spain: www.domain.es, Columbia: www.domain.co, and Argentina: www.domain.ar and show them all the same Spanish version of your website. However, we also know that proper localization requires creating different Spanish content and images based on the legal, cultural, and social differences of that country. Using this localization approach enhances your message and strengthens the connection with your local customers. The results include higher long term click-through and conversion rates when people recognize you as a local company.
ccTLDs are the Best Approach to Multilingual SEO and Web Design!
Although there is an additional cost, we feel the localization benefits substantially outweigh the costs of having multiple domains. Therefore, we recommend using a Country-specific domain URL structure. As a result your website visitors can interact with your website the way they would interact with your in-country sales office, as a local company. Therefore the multiple ccTLDs approach can produce the highest ROI if you take the time to properly localize your website. We hope this article helps with the decision making regarding the best approach to multilingual web design. Let us know if we can help you implement a cost-effective strategy for your next multilingual web design project.