Successfully Handling a Single Domain International Site

Posted on 28. Apr, 2011 by in Digital Marketing, Thoughts



Karoline Spiessl wrote on this blog recently about localising content for search and users.  Often, a lot of that tough, expensive localisation work can be undone accidentally, often without doing much wrong.

Most SEOs who have worked on international sites know how to structure domains to allow country specific pages to target the most relevant country’s results.  In the past Google has provided a lot of good advice on structuring the site and setting county targets in Webmaster Tools.

For companies which operate in numerous countries, using country specific top level domains (ccTLDs) is not always an option.  The reasons might be legal, domain ownership related or due to marketing decisions but it is common for sites to keep everything on the same international domain.  Where this is the case, Google often struggles to correctly handle pages with similar content but different country relevance.

In an ideal world, this would be something like what you would expect from a brand search on Google.co.uk:

However, all too often something more like this is returned:

Google US result mockup

Unfortunately, setting the country in Google Webmaster Tools seems to be a fairly weak targeting signal to Google – not completely useless but not too far off.  Sites that really need special targeting are usually the ones where the settings don’t  have much effect.

I investigated seven big brand international sites that you have almost certainly heard of.  Each of them is set up on a single international domain, the countries separated by directories.  Google is not coping well with 4 out of 7. The main problem areas are in countries with shared languages, especially English for reasons I’ll get into soon.  It’s a small sample and I chose the sites more or less at random but what I found on the sites was remarkably consistent even though it was what I had expected to see.

(For those of you who are bored and about to leave, there are some pictures of dogs coming up.  One of them is cute.  They represent my state of mind when geographic targeting goes wrong and when it goes right.)

So, why is Google showing the wrong country/language page in results?

It often comes down to the authority of the pages.  Where one page is more authoritative than a simlar, shared language page, there is every chance you’ll have problems.  When Google sees two near identical pages and one is significantly more powerful than another it can’t see past that – country relevance often goes out the window.

For example:

UK PR4, US PR8. In this case, US pages will appear in UK results over UK pages.

UK PR6, US6. In this case, UK pages will appear in UK results

Where there is a big difference in authority, the US version is likely to be plonked right into the UK results, regardless of other factors such as Webmaster Tool settings.  Google will even rub salt in the wound by stating “United States” next to the URL (see US example above.)  That’s not to say you shouldn’t provide as many geographic signals as possible or that any of the usual factors have no bearing – they do.

The balance of the site is one thing that if you get wrong, anything else you do could be in vain.  This may appear obvious to many, however I’ve never heard it talked about by Google.

I should mention here that when using separate sub-domains or domains the same effect can be experienced.  The difference is that on a single domain the pages are competing directly – only one version of a significantly similar page will appear for the brand query.

Talking about PageRank went out of fashion in SEO circles when Google moved away from talking about it.  That’s probably not a bad thing as too many people misunderstood it.  However, it can still be useful.  The 3 well-targeted sites I looked at all had one thing in common – the country specific homepages were never more than one Toolbar PageRank point away from each other.

So, how can we keep the site balanced?

Chess players balancing on a benchOften, the US homepage is found at http://www.example.com/. This is also the URL that will usually receive by far the largest number of inbound links, making it unnaturally powerful compared to the other country homepages.
A solution is to make http://www.example.com/ a global country chooser.  Users who land here are presented with a list of language/country specific homepage links and little else.  Setting up this way will ensure the value of inbound links is passed evenly throughout the site(s). On choosing their country, a cookie can be set to remember this preference.  Should the user land on the global homepage again, they can be redirected to their chosen country homepage or better still, redirection could be offered rather than forced.

Of course some country homepages will receive more inbound links than others but that will be compensated for with good site architecture.  We’re trying to avoid any huge disparity in PageRank value between homepages rather than needing to know exactly how much PageRank is actually there or trying to sculpt it unnaturally.

Country changer navigation

Country / Language Changer

Making sure your country/language changer is set up well is also important.  It is common for sites to use either HTML forms, JavaScript links or Flash. As every SEO knows, these should be treated as not accessible to search engines.  So, use HTML <a> links and link to the county specific homepage from every other page.

Some other pointers

•    Avoid too much conditional redirect cleverness, it can land you in temporary redirect hell.  Allow the user to choose the country rather than assuming your rules know best
•    Use country specific public site maps.  As well as being great for accessibility they may help spread PageRank
•    Use breadcrumb trails throughout the site, always with country specific (rather than global) “home” links
•    Use meta, HTTP headers and lang attributes correctly.  Google doesn’t use these but other search engines and screen readers do
•    Have a backup plan.  If your site gets a lot of traffic to the wrong directory, provide visitors with an opportunity to redirect to their local country pages

 

Thanks to Xymena and RickC for the use of their doggy pics :-)

Richard Falconer

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