Having a true multilingual website needs careful business and technical planning. It is often a big step for many businesses as it means a shift in the way your day to day operations are carried out. There will be more posts under ‘Internationalisation’ as time goes on but let’s take a look at where to store your content and whether it really matters.
Country Specific Websites or One Multilingual Website?
This question is the first one that comes my way in any conversation about how to conquer different countries in the native language. I have included a video below from Matt Cutts from Google’s Webspam team who sums it up well from a search engine optimisation (SEO) point of view. Remember, storing content and promoting content are two different things and need to be handled separately.
There are several approaches to whether you should have one website and one hosting environment or whether you should treat each country as a separate entity and I’ll cover a few main points here.
Creating a Folder Structure
The first approach would be to have a .com domain name and then create country specific folders. Let us imagine your domain name is ‘www.customwidgets.com’. This would be the main native English site with a .com domain extension, which is often referred to as a TLD (Top Level Domain). Taking the example further let’s assume you wish to conquer the French market. Your French site would be accessed at www.customwidgets.com/france. From a technical point of view this is all relatively straightforward to do. The entire French site, in French, and all the French content is essentially in the /france folder on the hosting platform. All your French marketing, promotions and search engine optimisation (SEO) efforts are then focused on driving people to this area of your website.
This approach is quite simple to manage on the surface. You only have one domain name and one hosting platform which means one domain name to worry about and one hosting fee to pay for. It also offers ease of maintenance because you or your webmaster only need to access one site and administer the folder contents from the same control panel. Think of this approach as having a folder on your computer called ‘my documents’ and several folders in the ‘my documents’ folder with the names of the countries you are targeting. E.g. ‘my documents/france’. This works in a similar fashion when the website is hosted on the web. So, maintenance, security, backups and administration are relatively easy to do.
For smaller companies wishing to have a truly international presence, sub folders are a valid strategy BUT there are some caveats. A .com is universal and that can be a plus but all things considered, having a .fr domain name with French content hosted in France is going to be a better option and I’ll explain why further down.
The upside of this approach is that your search engine rankings and optimisation is helped by the fact your main site is content rich and ever growing (your ‘foreign’ folders are, in effect, part of the same site). All SEO and promotional efforts are focused on one main domain and hence more easily managed.
Create Sub Domains
Another approach is to create ‘sub domains’ on the existing site. In our example we would have ‘www.france.customwidgets.com’. The French content is effectively on what is know as a sub domain. With this approach the content for France is more standalone that the first example above with the /france folder structure.
The big difference here is that Google will treat the subdomain as a separate site which can mean more marketing efforts are needed for subdomains because the actual subdomain needs to get credibility from Google (and the other search engines). Sub domains are often used to separate content and thus give different people or teams a relatively separate entity to administer. So it very much depends on what you intend to use your website for.
Buying and Hosting Country Specific Domains
Here is where you can put together a plan for dominating a country based on your product or service. Of course, if your idea is selling mobile phones then you may have an uphill struggle!
I am coming from a marketing and business point of view on this and assuming you wish to gain credibility and standing in the actual country of choice here are some considerations. By buying a country specific domain you are giving yourself quite a handy toolbox with a variety of tools you can use to your advantage.
Let’s stay with our example in France. Somebody living in France is more likely to be more comfortable with www.customwidgets.fr than www.customwidgets.com/france and it also looks more appealing on any publicity. That said, there are ways of redirecting domain names to sub folders, but that’s the subject of another post. Once we have our French domain name it makes perfect sense to host the new website on French servers in France. Google can now fully identify that we have a French site, a French domain, located in France and for a French audience. Any online marketing such as creating back links, pay per click advertising, blogs, news items, product updates, video marketing, submitting to local and specialised directories etc. is going to help promote our French website on the French search engines. In other words, we can compete head to head with our French competitors.
Due to the fact that country and language specific websites (other than English) tend to be easier to get higher search engine rankings for, then this could very well be a good strategy for you because you are only competing at a country level. Add this to the fact that you can regionalise your search engine optimisation once you have a country specific domain and hosting, then this can give you a competitive advantage.