Working with multi-regional websites

Friday, March 12, 2010 at 7:50 AM

Webmaster Level: Intermediate

Did you know that a majority of users surveyed feel that having information in their own language was more important than a low price? Living in a non-English-speaking country, I've seen friends and family members explicitly look for and use local and localized websites—properly localized sites definitely have an advantage with users. Google works hard to show users the best possible search results. Many times those are going to be pages that are localized, for the user's location and/or in the user's language.

If you're planning to take the time to create and maintain a localized version of your website, making it easy to recognize and find is a logical part of that process. In this blog post series, we'll take a look at what is involved with multi-regional and multi-lingual websites from a search engine point of view. A multi-regional website is one that explicitly targets users in various regions (generally different countries); we call it multilingual when it is available in multiple languages, and sometimes, the website targets both multiple regions and is in multiple languages. Let's start with some general preparations and then look at websites that target multiple regions.

Preparing for global websites

Expanding a website to cover multiple regions and/or languages can be challenging. By creating multiple versions of your website, any issues with the base version will be multiplied; make sure that you have everything working properly before you start. Given that this generally means you'll suddenly be working with a multiplied number of URLs, don't forget that you'll need appropriate infrastructure to support the website.

Planning multi-regional websites

When planning sites for multiple regions (usually countries), don't forget to research legal or administrative requirements that might come into play first. These requirements may determine how you proceed, for instance whether or not you would be eligible to use a country-specific domain name.

All websites start with domain names; when it comes to domain names, Google differentiates between two types of domain names:
  • ccTLDs (country-code top level domain names): These are tied to a specific country (for example .de for Germany, .cn for China). Users and search engines use this as a strong sign that your website is explicitly for a certain country.
  • gTLDs (generic top level domain names): These are not tied to a specific country. Examples of gTLds are .com, .net, .org, .museum. Google sees regional top level domain names such as .eu and .asia as gTLDs, since they cannot be tied to a specific country. We also treat some vanity ccTLDs (such as .tv, .me, etc.) as gTLDs as we've found that users and webmasters frequently see these as being more generic than country-targeted (we don't have a complete list of such vanity ccTLDs that we treat as gTLDs as it may change over time). You can set geotargeting for websites with gTLDs using the Webmaster Tools Geographic Target setting.

Geotargeting factors

Google generally uses the following elements to determine the geotargeting of a website (or a part of a website):
  1. Use of a ccTLD is generally a strong signal for users since it explicitly specifies a single country in an unmistakable way.
    or
    Webmaster Tools' manual geotargeting for gTLDs (this can be on a domain, subdomain or subdirectory level); more information on this can be found in our blog post and in the Help Center. With region tags from geotargeting being shown in search results, this method is also very clear to users. Please keep in mind that it generally does not make sense to set a geographic target if the same pages on your site target more than a single country (say, all German-speaking countries) — just write in that language and do not use the geotargeting setting (more on writing in other languages will follow soon!).
  2. Server location (through the IP address of the server) is frequently near your users. However, some websites use distributed content delivery networks (CDNs) or are hosted in a country with better webserver infrastructure, so we try not to rely on the server location alone.
  3. Other signals can give us hints. This could be from local addresses & phone numbers on the pages, use of local language and currency, links from other local sites, and/or the use of Google's Local Business Center (where available).

Note that we do not use locational meta tags (like "geo.position" or "distribution") or HTML attributes for geotargeting. While these may be useful in other regards, we've found that they are generally not reliable enough to use for geotargeting.

URL structures

The first three elements used for geotargeting are strongly tied to the server and to the URLs used. It's difficult to determine geotargeting on a page by page basis, so it makes sense to consider using a URL structure that makes it easy to segment parts of the website for geotargeting. Here are some of the possible URL structures with pros and cons with regards to geotargeting:

ccTLDs
eg: example.de, example.fr
Subdomains with gTLDs
eg: de.site.com, fr.site.com, etc.
Subdirectories with gTLDs
eg: site.com/de/, site.com/fr/, etc.
URL parameters
eg: site.com?loc=de, ?country=france, etc.
pros (+)
- clear geotargeting
- server location is irrelevant
- easy separation of sites
- legal requirements (sometimes)
pros (+)
- easy to set up
- can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
- allows different server locations
- easy separation of sites
pros (+)
- easy to set up
- can use Webmaster Tools geotargeting
- low maintenance (same host)
pros (+)
(not recommended)
cons (-)
- expensive (+ availability)
- more infrastructure
- ccTLD requirements (sometimes)
cons (-)
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone (is "de" the language or country?)
cons (-)
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
- single server location
- separation of sites harder
cons (-)
- segmentation based on the URL is difficult
- users might not recognize geotargeting from the URL alone
- geotargeting in Webmaster Tools is not possible

As you can see, geotargeting is not an exact science (even sites using country-code top level domain names can be global in nature), so it's important that you plan for the users from the "wrong" location. One way to do this could be to show links on all pages for users to select their region and language of choice. We'll look at some other possible solutions further on in this blog post series.

Dealing with duplicate content on global websites

Websites that provide content for different regions and in different languages sometimes create content that is the same or similar but available on different URLs. This is generally not a problem as long as the content is for different users in different countries. While we strongly recommend that you provide unique content for each different group of users, we understand that this may not always be possible for all pages and variations from the start. There is generally no need to "hide" the duplicates by disallowing crawling in a robots.txt file or by using a "noindex" robots meta tag. However, if you're providing the same content to the same users on different URLs (for instance, if both "example.de/" and "example.com/de/" show German language content for users in Germany), it would make sense to choose a preferred version and to redirect (or use the "rel=canonical" link element) appropriately.

Do you already have a website that targets multiple regions or do you have questions about the process of planning one? Come to the Help Forum and join the discussion. In following posts, we'll take a look at multi-lingual websites and then look at some special situations that can arise with global websites. Bis bald!

Comments:

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