International SEO: should I target by country or language?

Avatar Thierry De Marre January 25, 2021
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Why would you want to stay local when you can explore international markets? Offering your products and services to a global audience is easy. Selling them may prove a bit more difficult though…

International SEO opens new frontiers for your business, but how do you make it work just as well as your efforts at home? To do it right, you’ll need to set up a strategy, define your targets, make choices. An international SEO strategy covers everything from deciding how to handle your URL structure to using hreflang tags. In this article however, we’ll limit ourselves to one of the choices you have to make: should I target by country or by language? In other words: how do I make sure that search engines show foreign users the correct content in the right language on my website?

There’s a lot to say in favor of country targeting, but sometimes it is not (yet) advisable. It depends on your business. For an eCommerce site, country targeting is more important than for a service provider like Skype, which offers the same service around the globe, and can just focus on different languages. It also depends on the country. If there’s not enough organic search volume to target a specific country, start by targeting the language instead. This way you can get traffic and conversion traction and later migrate to the preferred country-targeted approach.

Country targeting

Targeting by country requires the use of ccTLDs (country-code Top-Level Domains) like www.example.be, as they are the strongest signal you can give search engines that your content focuses on a specific country. Using a country-targeted approach is preferable because of the influence that Google places on geo-targeting. The search engine assumes that a site is specifically relevant to the geographic area targeted by the ccTLD, and should appear on SERPs in that area.

A ccTLD strategy has pros and cons.

Pros

  • You will rank higher in the SERPs for local users.
  • Search engines and users can quickly identify the origin of your website.
  • Your offers and your content are clearly divided per area, making marketing easier.
  • The country extension helps build trust with your target audiences.
  • Your website will not be affected by a Google Panda or Penguin update if another ccTLD is penalized.

Cons

  • You will need a separate SEO strategy and a separate website for each country.
  • It may turn out to be rather expensive to host and maintain each domain.
  • Your websites will be crawled separately.
  • When you target a new country, you’ll start with zero domain authority.

Language targeting

If you target all your global audiences with the same products or services, and the location of your prospects is not a factor, language-based targeting is a logical choice. It allows you to keep all your communications on one website, which will save time and money. From an SEO perspective, you can choose from two possibilities: subdirectories or subdomains.

Subdirectories

On your main website, you can set up a subdirectory structure, and create a folder for each target country, labeled with the country’s two-letter ISO code. For example: example.com/en/

Adding subdirectories to your website is simple and cost-effective. You only need one website domain, and the authority you build for that domain applies site-wide. Compared to a ccTLD though, the SEO signal of a subdirectory is weaker.

Subdomains

The other choice is to set the main language as the www domain, and additional languages as sub-domains. In this case, the URL will look something like fr.example.com. This strategy is especially effective if you have a large number of pages to be indexed, but there are some disadvantages. The international SEO signal is weaker for a subdomain than for a country domain. And although Google denies it, it may also be more difficult to take advantage of the authority of the main domain for subdomains. Many SEO experts believe that pages on a subdomain don’t reap the benefits of the root domain and may actually dilute the authority of the root domain. Other things to consider are the costs of hosting each subdomain and the need for separate link-building and SEO efforts.

Best practices for language targeting

  • Don’t rely on automatic translations. Poor quality text will not sell to people and is poorly optimized for search engines. The best advice is to make use of native content writers, who have complete command of their language.
  • Use one language only on each page of your site. Navigation, headers, and content should only be in this language.

Wrapping it up

If you want to expand your market by targeting new countries, you’ll have to convince Google and other search engines that your website content is relevant for the people over there. International SEO starts with making choices. “Should I create ccTLD sites or use subdirectories or subdomains on my existing site?” is just one of them. As the choices you make will be decisive for success or failure, it’s probably a good idea to avail yourself of the expertise of international SEO consultants to create a strategy and help set up the best technical structure.

Thinking about international SEO? Let’s exchange ideas.