Multilingual website: TLD vs subfolder vs subdomain

Introduction to structuring multilingual content

Are you developing a multilingual website for your business? Chances are that you’ve seen all of the following structures being used:

  • Subdomains: en.litebreeze.com and se.litebreeze.com (se for Swedish)
  • Top-Level Domains (TLDs): litebreeze.com and litebreeze.se
  • Subfolders: litebreeze.com/en/ and litebreeze.com/se/

At LiteBreeze we faced this challenge ourselves when planning the revamp of our websites.  We were implementing a new design as well as migrating to the WordPress CMS.

Deciding on multilingual structure is a big decision as it can have a high impact on long-term content marketing efforts and SEO. Our research and conclusions are summarized below.

Pros and cons of subfolders, TLDs and subdomains

Advantages of subfolders:

  1. Backlinks, which are crucial for SEO, will pass PageRank to all language versions. For instance, a backlink from a Swedish blog, to say litebreeze.com/se/careers, would boost the ranking of our English content as well. This is a major advantage that TLDs and subdomains are lacking. More about the value of backlinks and content marketing here.

Advantages of TLDs:

  1. According to Google Webmaster answers: “[TLDs] are tied to a specific country (for example .de for Germany, .se for Sweden), and therefore are a strong signal to both users and search engines that your site is explicitly intended for a certain country.” It’s safe to assume that litebreeze.se would get a “TLD ranking bonus” when a Swedish prospect does a Google search.
  2. For visitors, a TLD show that you have a more serious local presence. It builds trust and authority.

Common advantages of TLDs and subdomains:

  1. A separate domain allows for a separate and standalone CMS install. This is beneficial because:
    1. You probably want to let different staff/freelancers be in charge of different language versions. You might even want to give each person freer editorial permissions to localize content. A standalone CMS allows for content segmentation and a higher degree of localization.
    2. Standalone installs are more secure. E.g. in case one staff member’s credentials are compromised or your CMS install is hacked in other ways.
    3. A standalone install can be hosted in the target country improving load speed.
  2. A language subfolder can complicate categorization of content.
  3. Fewer number of subfolders in the URL of a specific page can positively affect our search engine ranking. litebreeze.se/careers is better than litebreeze.com/se/careers
  4. TLDs will give you shorter URLs. This is not inconsequential, as displaying your full URL in search results pages on smartphones and tablets makes things clearer to end-users.

Common advantages of subfolders and subdomains:

  1. You save a bit of money not having to purchase several TLDs. Personally however, I feel this is a minor factor. If you’re serious about multilingual content, 10 euros or dollars per year shouldn’t hold you back from acquiring a TLD.
  2. You don’t need to waste time on TLD-specific legal obligations. You may need a local nominee for TLDs like .de which can waste expensive time if you run into even minor legal disputes.
  3. You don’t need to write special legal content. For .de you need an AGB (terms) and Impressum (information about legal contacts, ownership and authorship).

 Translations and multiregional content

Don’t machine-translate your content using tools like Google translate. Search engines may punish your ranking unless you add special attributes to the machine translation to make it non-spiderable, alternatively clarify the canonical URL. Computer translated texts also sound very unprofessional, so better stay away from those.

Will your website just be multilingual, or also multiregional? Our own content will differ on our Swedish website, and more so in the future. This plays into our localization consideration. Parts of our websites, such as the careers section for example, will be multiregional; we will hire staff in both India and Sweden.

As of right now (Oct 2017) our career website is hosted at http://jobs.litebreeze.com. Using a subdomain was the wrong choice in terms of SEO as litebreeze.com/jobs would build up backlinks that would have benefited the rest of the domain.

My advice is to localize part of your content to start with. Choose the highest value content. Frequently reconsider what is high-impact and low-effort to localize. How much resources are you willing spend on translations and what is your return on investment? Don’t do everything at once!

Conclusions

  • Use subfolders if you have less of a local presence, your website is not multiregional, and/or you plan to translate your website into many languages.
  • Use separate ccTLDs if you aim to have a strong country-specific presence.

At LiteBreeze we will use a .se to target our Swedish clients and candidates as they very significant to our business. We will also use .de to keep our structure consistent as we only translate our content into three languages. It also allows for future ease of management; we could easily hand over litebreeze.fr for example to a future French content manager.

But different TLDs will reduce the number of backlinks which are very important? My personal take on this is that it is indeed a major drawback right now. However Google continuously works to make their ranking fairer. It’s probable that Google in the future will rank us based on language-specific backlinks as that makes sense to end-users. If we structure content in user-friendly ways we will sooner or later be rewarded. Let’s keep it simple.

Technical complexity for web developers

Which option is the cheapest in terms of the time required by web developers?  An experienced developer can implement either of these three options without requiring much time “extra” time if using a modern development platform / framework.  

Your web developers just need to account for it early on, during the project planning phase. Read about why we recommend Laravel as development platform / framework.

This being said, it might require some extra maintenance to roll out updates across separate TLDs. The effort would be smaller for skilled web developers who structure their code well in version control branches.

ccTLDs, gTLDs and country-targeting

To be precise there are country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) as well as generic TLDs (gTLDs). .com is a gTLD. There are “vanity TLDs” like .me and .tv.

If you use a gTLDs you can country-target it to one country with Google Webmaster Tools (GWT). Google attempts to determine your country-target anyway though. Google says that “If you use an international domain (.com, .org, .eu), we’ll rely on several signals, including IP address, location information on the page, links to the page, and any relevant information from Google My Business.”

If your website targets many countries, like litebreeze.com does, you should leave the country-targeting in GWT blank (official Google source).

Server location has less and less affect on your Google ranking, especially if using a CDN. Load speeds however will affect your ranking, so locating your server near to your target users can make sense.

Appendix and sources

https://searchengineland.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-multilingual-and-multiregional-seo-157838

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