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Getting Your International Website Structure Right

An SEO's guide to site structure for international websites

Chapter 2: The Most Common Mistakes in International SEO

If you offer content in different languages, then ideally you need to separate it out by having unique URLs for each language version. This is to make things as easy as possible for users and search engines to access your content, because relying on JavaScript or cookies to change content on the same page is a risky strategy.

Google requires multilingual sites to have some form of URL differentiation.

-John Mueller, Google Webmaster Hangout

The 3 most recommended methods for splitting out and structuring international versions of a website are:

  1. ccTLDs
  2. Subdomains
  3. Subdirectories


A country code top-level domain (ccTLD) is a domain extension which corresponds to a particular country or geographic location, allowing a domain to be as local as possible and prove to search engine algorithms that your site is relevant for searches in that particular market.

This is an example of a ccTLD:

Geotargeting is automatically applied by Google for ccTLDs that have an official ISO country code. New TLDs such as .swiss or .tokyo are seen as generic top-level domains (gTLDs) so would need to be manually geotargeted. Automatic geotargeting means that you need to watch out for vanity ccTLDs. For example, if you have an IT business that you think would look great as, bear in mind that this will target your website exclusively to Italy.

It’s also important to note that ccTLDs only target countries, not languages, so you’ll still need to maintain a URL strategy for separating out content and managing any language targeting on top of this configuration.

Pros of ccTLDS

  • Clear geotargeting signals for search engines.
  • Receives a ranking boost for localised queries in the target country.
  • Easy to separate website versions.
  • You don’t need to use hreflang for country targeting as this is automatically applied.
  • Clearly apparent to users of the target market which implies trust.

The first thing you should choose is a proper web structure that will better connect and target your desired audience, and the more granular the geolocalization is, the better. ccTLDs are definitely ideal for targeting countries due to the signals and image they give to your audience about your website.

Aleyda Solis, International SEO Consultant at Orainti

Cons of ccTLDS

  • Expensive and resource-intensive to host and run different ccTLDs.
  • There can be strict requirements to host them depending on the country.
  • Difficult to rank in a new market above well-established competitor brands if you have a new ccTLD.
  • Consistent domain names may not be available in all desired target markets.
  • Having a lot of ccTLDs requires additional tracking and monitoring across the different domains.

ccTLDs are often described as the best option for geotargeting and geolocalisation, however, it depends on your business’ capabilities. Do you have the resources to manage a variety of different properties across different hosting services?


A subdomain sits on a root domain and is a part of the larger domain, but is a distinctive part in its own right. Search engines such as Google see subdomains as separate entities.

This is an example of a subdomain:

Pros of subdomains

  • Simple to set up and need fewer resources than a separate domain.
  • Can use Google Search Console targeting if using a gTLD.
  • Easy to separate website versions.
  • Geotargeting is straightforward as a subdomain and its subdirectories will fall into the same geotarget.

Cons of subdomains

Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone.
Can’t add to ccTLDs as these are geotargeted automatically based on the domain.
Link equity doesn’t automatically flow from the subdomain to the root domain.

External link signals are only passed between domains and subdomains via internal linking.

-John Mueller, Google Webmaster Hangout


Subdirectories sit on the same domain and/or subdomain, and work as folders which separate out content. They are also known as subfolders.

Here’s an example of a subdirectory:

Pros of subdirectories

  • Simple to set up and cheaper to manage than a separate domain.
  • Can use Google Search Console targeting if using a gTLD.
  • Low maintenance costs as these are hosted on the same root domain.
  • Flexible in terms of targeting as you can geolocate them or leave them as a general language version.
  • Will inherit authority from your established TLD which is useful for new markets.

Cons of subdirectories

  • Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone.
  • Can’t add them to ccTLDs as they are geotargeted automatically.
  • There is more chance of getting penalised if something goes wrong as the versions are connected.
  • Sites aren’t obviously separated as they exist as folders on the same domain/subdomain.

ccTLDs, subdomains or subdirectories are the best way of structuring international page versions. The one you choose will depend on your business.

Hopefully this has helped you decide which structuring method makes the most sense for your business. For more advice on international web structure, take a look at Aleyda Solis’ article on selecting the right structure for international sites.

Chapter 4: A Guide to Hreflang Best Practice & Implementation


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