If you’re launching a multilingual website then one of the first choices is how to structure your website to show all the different languages.
The most common way to structure the different languages is by using separate domains, sub-domains or sub-folders for each language and we will explore the pros and cons of each, taking into account international targeting, the complexity of the web development process, link building, SEO, branding and user-experience.
First, a quick mention of two ways that are best avoided:
- Having the same URL (web address) for each language and using Cookies to define which language is displayed. This is bad because search engines will only be able to index one version of your website, as they index unique URLs and if anyone follows a link to your site, they might expect a different language than the one they arrive at. In short, it’s bad for SEO and bad for user-experience.
- Showing all languages on the same page. While search engines will index all the text if you do this, they try and define the language of each page on the internet and therefore this method also creates poor SEO. It also creates a poor user-experience.
Having got those two methods out of the way, what are the other options?
If your main website, example.com targets English speakers and you are creating a French version of the site, you could consider one of the following possible structures:
- Different domain: example.fr
- Different sub-domain: fr.example.com
- Different sub-folder: example.com/fr/
Note that there’s no need to change the English version of your site to en.example.com or example.com/en. If you have an established English website, it’s best to keep the web address the same.
Use International Targeting to tell Google your site's location
International Targeting, previously called geotargeting lets you tell Google where abouts you are in the world and is far more important as a ranking factor than where your host is located.
If you have a .fr domain name then Google will show your site higher in the search results in France and lower in the rest of the world. Same goes for .es and Spain, .de and Germany, etc. Google therefore use country specific domain extensions to determine which country you're targeting.
If you have an internatinoal domain extension (e.g. .com, .net or .org) then you can create the same result by telling Google that you’re targeting a specific country using their International Domain targeting tool.
This is country specific, so you have to specify 'France' for example, rather than 'French'.
This is a major advantage of using separate domains for multilingual websites covering multiple countries.
Conclusion: Different Domains are best for International Targeting
How Web Development Complexity Impacts Best Practice
With many of the latest CMS systems (including Drupal, Wordpress and Prestashop) it’s relatively simple to choose whether you want separate domains, sub-domains or sub-folders for each language and have a shared database across languages.
This can be very helpful if you have an e-commerce site for example and it’s likely that if you add a product to your English site, you will also want to add it to your sites in other languages (but with a different price and text, obviously).
The other advantage of having a shared database is that if you change the design or configuration on one site, it automatically changes it on other websites.
Having separate databases for each language is only advisable if you offer a very different product range for each language, or your sites will have a different structure or are largely unrelated in other ways.
If your CMS can’t handle multiple languages on one database, you have the option to copy the whole thing and translate it (giving you two completely separate websites), or change to a different CMS.
Conclusion: Same Database, Any Structure is best for long-term web development
What About Multilingual SEO and Link Building?
There are a lot of forums discussing subdomains vs sub-folders vs different domains in relation to multilingual link building and SEO and the advice often contradicts each other, as this is a complex area with many possible permutations. Our advice is therefore based on our own research and experience of the best way to structure multilingual websites.
John Mueller from Google is very clear that choosing between sub-folders and sub-domains only makes a tiny difference, if any, and creating quality content is more important; that’s Google’s official policy. On the other hand, Rand Fishkin of Moz.com said in relation to moving a blog from a sub-domain to the main domain (e.g. a sub-folder):
“We've seen recent examples where moving content from a subdomain to the main domain instantly improved rankings very dramatically on highly competitive keywords. I don't have permission to share them all, but Moz is a great example.”
Experts seem to either say “It makes no difference” or “Sub-folders are better”, therefore it would make sense to put your blog in a sub-folder, as it’s either the same or better!
With websites in separate languages, the other option is a completely separate domain name. Our experience is that it’s slightly better for SEO if we’re building links to a site that have a separate domain name. An exception to this might be if the main domain name already has many high-quality links to it.
When deciding which results to display Google favours websites with more quality links going to them and this would suggest that having one domain for all languages is better, because the links to that domain are counted for all languages. However, Google also looks at the internal link structure and typically an English / French bilingual website will only have one link per English page to the French site and one link per French page to the English site. This means that relatively little ‘link juice’ is passed between sites and it’s therefore essential to build French links from external sites to the French pages anyway.
In short, you need to build French links to your French pages and sometimes people prefer to link to an exclusively French website, therefore it can be easier to gain links with separate domains.
Conclusion: It’s complicated! Separate domains or sub-folders seem to be better than using sub-domains.
Cross-Linking Between Languages
If you opt for separate domains, we recommend that each page links to the other website once only (ideally going to the equivalent translated page). If you have a bilingual website using sub-folders, you may consider adding one or two extra links in the footer linking to the foreign language using keyword rich text. This helps your most important foreign language pages gain extra benefit from the links to your English site.
With a multilingual site with 3 or more languages, simply keep to the one link per page rule, regardless of your configuration. Too many foreign language links looks odd and could reduce the SEO of your main site.
Branding and User-Experience
If you have separate sub-domains then you have the freedom to choose whether to keep the same brand name, or if your English domain name is keyword rich, to translate this to a French sounding domain name, in addition to just adding .fr.
If your brand name is internationally recognised, then using it in your domain name in all languages is highly recommended (97 of the top 100 most visited websites in the world DON’T have any keywords in their domain name).
If you use keywords in your domain name, which helps attract clients to smaller businesses and gives you a small SEO benefit, then it’s typically best to translate. If you use numbers instead of words (e.g. sk8, 4-peace, etc) or other local expressions that won’t be understood in a different language, it’s also best to localize them, rather than keeping the same domain name, but with a .fr on the end.
Users also often feel safer visiting a site with a local extension, particularly an ecommerce website, as it implies that the currency will be local, delivery won’t be too expensive, etc. Separate domains therefore imply a better user-experience.
Conclusion: Different Domains give you most freedom for branding and give the best perceived user-experience.
If you’re launching a brand new website, we would recommend using separate domains for each language as it allows you to internationally target them and is best for overall SEO.
If you have an existing site, then it’s necessary to weigh the different factors up carefully. How your structure your website is less important than having a great design and content and an ongoing commitment to marketing.
If you do decide to move an existing site (e.g. changing a sub-domain to a separate domain) then it’s ESSENTIAL to implement a 301 redirect strategy to forward the old pages to the new ones.