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Translation and URLs. A guide to domain structure

By Josian Phillips, 

One of the most common questions we get at Brightlines, from companies who are looking to translate their website, is around domains.

“What domain structure should I use for my
website languages?”

Usually this is
because companies want to choose the best option for SEO, without the hassle of
managing multiple sites and installations. Many web developers aren’t experts  – and the client finds themselves searching
for the answer.

If that sounds like
you, hopefully we can help. There are a few options, and in this post we’ll run
you through the various ways you can set up your domain.

Option 1: in-country domain


When in Rome, do as
the Romans do. The idea that when you’re in a place, you should adopt the local
customs and fit in.

That saying applies to
websites too – you can go hyper-local by getting an in-country domain. For
example .de for Germany, .fr for France or for the UK.

Benefits include:

  • Clear geo-targeting
  • Increased
  • Maximum
    SEO visibility
  • A clearer
    divide between your regions
  • Benefit of
    linking between your domains
  • A visible
    dedication to that market
  • You can
    easily customise your website for each region (localisation)

Here’s an example from
DFS, who have gone for as their domain.

This is also the
approach of large companies like Google and Coca-Cola, who have a separate
domain for every country.

There are drawbacks to
this approach:

  • Technically
    harder to manage
  • Changes to
    main site are not easily transferred to other regions
  • In-country
    domains lack the prestige of a .com
  • Difficult
    to build up domain authority as you are starting from scratch
  • Best
    domains may already be taken

Option 2: Subdomain


You’ve already done a
lot of work to build up your domain. You have a global brand. And you don’t
really want to customise your offering for each country.

That’s where a
subdomain comes in. For example,

There aren’t many
brands using this approach. One who does is Wikipedia, presumably because they
have such a huge volume of content in folders, they internally find it easier
to organise using a subdomain for each country.

The pros of this
approach are:

  • Easy to
    organise content
  • Simpler to
    manage than in-country domains
  • Able to
    use Search Console geo-targeting

The cons are a short
list, but all significant issues:

  • Not as
    good for UX as the structure can be confusing
  • Difficulty
    in building domain authority
  • Generally
    not great for SEO (explanation below)

The issue is that
Google doesn’t always know how to deal with subdomains (even though they say
they do). Here’s a recent example…not international, but illustrating the
difference. It was taken from this LinkedIn

You can clearly see
the huge spike in visibility (and therefore traffic) as a result of switching
to folders as opposed to subdomains.

The reason it works
for Wikipedia, but not for others, is they have one of the most frequently
updated and largest sites around – so Google is regularly crawling for updates
and understands their structure. Your site is unlikely to be as popular as
Wikipedia, so this approach probably isn’t best.

Option 3: Sub-folders


This is probably the
most popular and best way to manage international domains in a smaller company.
When you are limited in resources, you would probably take this route.

This involves having a
.com domain, and then a subfolder for each country. For example, this is
exactly what the iconic English footwear and clothing brand, Dr Martens, has

It’s also the default
for CMS systems like Shopify, which has built it this way based on expectation
from users.

Gymshark, is an
example of a Shopify store that’s done international eCommerce really well. Gymshark
has seen a tremendous success over the past few years, hitting £41M in sales in
2017. It was also named Britain’s fastest-growing company by the Sunday Times
Fast Track in 2016.

If you have a sharp
eye you might note that there is English on the site. But this is intentional,
as it forms part of the brand in terms of country of origin branding. However
all the vital parts such as CTAs and menu options are translated.

Other options:

There are some other
options, which are not very attractive for various reasons. We’ll outline them
quickly here:

URL parameters: These allow you to display an in-country domain
using a URL parameter, which is usually used for tracking, and looks like a
piece of code. It feels like a bit of a hack and doesn’t give your users great
confidence or trust so in our opinion, should be avoided.

Translation plugin: Something like Google Translate can display
your website in a different language for users in that country. Unless your
website is info only and non-commercial, it’s not really a good choice. It
doesn’t give you the flexibility to keep a consistent message, shows lack of
commitment to a region and often can be inaccurate. It’s also not very good for

What next for my online presence?

So you want to decide
on a way forward…but how? The main question is around resources and

First thing first,
subdomains and other options are better left alone in our opinion.

If you have
significant resources, and in-country messaging is important for you, then you
should take the route of the in-country domains. This would also be a good
route if you want to adapt your offering for each country. This is probably the best option for bigger brands who want to create a
truly local offering.

If you are limited in
budget, or you want to allocate resources elsewhere, folders would do just
great. If you have a fairly standard offering in each region, and want to make
your life easy, without compromising SEO, this is a great approach. This is the best approach for 90% of
companies, and is easy to manage through plugins like WPML, which Brightlines
offers its customers.

If you’d like further
advice, need help with the technical side of translation, or even the words
themselves, we’d love to talk!

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