3 Ways to Build an International URL Structure

Lucy Xu
August 21, 2018
4 min read

While processes like localization automation can help you easily scale your localization efforts, there is a little extra legwork involved to set up your website for full international localization success. A successful localization project requires not only accurate translations and effective localization processes but also the more granular aspects of your digital content…like international SEO. Because once you’ve localized your website, you’ll want to make sure that major search engines are able to recognize your new site.

Here are three ways you can build a robust international URL structure for your localized sites. To make sure that both your content and your URLs are set up properly, we’ve also included the sample format for each.

1. Use country-code top level domains (or ccTLDs).

This method is regarded as the most accurate for international search, as reported in analysis by SEMRush, as it provides effective, local search results; it reinforces the strength of your main www. site; and it provides complete flexibility in the user experience you deliver so you can vary navigation, content, and layout. It is, however, the most resource-intensive and costly option as you are technically creating, hosting, and maintaining separate sites for each country.

Sample Format: www.yourcompany.fr

2. Create subdirectories or subfolders.

The subdirectory method also retains the strength of your main www. site. However, you may have less flexibility in your ability to create unique experiences (content or, particularly, navigation) for each country since the sites are not technically unique from one another. It is a much more affordable approach than using ccTLDs.

Sample Format: www.yourcompany.com/fr/

3. Use subdomains.

This approach provides the structure flexibility of ccTLDs. Still, it completely diminishes the impact that your root domain will have on your search results since the sites will be crawled as completely independent domains by the search engines, also noted in the SEMRush analysis above. This approach is best suited for businesses that have highly unique in-country requirements, along with the investment resources required to develop a separate search program that will rank in the specific country of focus. How you set up your URL structure will depend on your business goals and available resources.

Sample Format: fr.yourcompany.com

Extra Credit: Understanding the Technical Infrastructure Behind Localization

On top of your URL structure, there are additional technical optimizations that help your site rank in other languages. These optimizations help the various search engines understand that your site is presented in several languages and are extremely important if you are publishing content based largely on translation rather than custom-created content for each locale. Without using these techniques, search engines could penalize you for publishing duplicate content (since they will automatically translate your pages) if you don’t provide an indication that your pages are designed for separate countries/languages.

To resolve this, you can use something called a “hreflang attribute” — a tag that signifies to Google and Yandex that your site is built for specific languages and possibly for specific countries. For each language, this tag follows the format: where the “language_code” is the two-letter language code specified by ISO 639 (International Standards Organization). A complete tag in your website header should follow the format: Content-language meta tag. In the past, many sources recommended using the Content-Language meta tag in the HTML header. Because this tag is not compatible with HTML5, it is no longer recommended for use.

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This post is part of the #translationmustknows series, built to equip everyone in your localization process – from developers to localization managers – with the knowledge and resources necessary for achieving translation and localization success.

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Lucy Xu
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