In today’s business world, a website is your company’s front door. And with few exceptions, effective search engine optimization (SEO) and a well-branded experience are the difference between long-term success and bankruptcy. Managing the transition of a website into international markets can be crucial.
Most companies initially set up their websites in one of two ways. One is to create a website with a generic Top Level Domain (TLD) such as www.company-name.com. The second is to choose a domain and TLD that’s specific to their home market (ex. www.britishcompany.co.uk). But there comes a time in a company’s foray into international markets when decisions about structural changes should be made. Company leaders ask:
Do we ignore differences between markets & leave our website strategy alone?
OR… Develop a sub-domain structure or subdirectory structure within our company site to accommodate for the new foreign markets?
OR…. Localize with TLD Country Codes to create market-specific sites?
As with most international business questions, the answer is, it depends!
The Main Website Internationalization Options
- Leave the Website Alone
Let’s start with the easiest option, which is essentially to do nothing fundamentally different with the website structure. The typical international fix is include an international contacts page listing local distributors. If I had a company called “Great Idea”, then my company website domain might be www.GreatIdea.com in order to stay geographically neutral.
- Develop a Sub-Domain and/or Sub-Directory Structure within Your Website
Some companies choose to manage their websites all within the same TLD. Websites with Sub-Domains are actually considered separate from their parent sites. In the Great Idea Company, a subdomain could be www.french.GreatIdea.com or www.France.GreatIdea.com.
A Sub-Directory Structure would involve a directory structure like: www.GreatIdea.com/France/ or www.GreatIdea.com/french/. What some companies don’t realize is that sub-domains and sub-directories can be used together, if the situation is right.
- Localize with TLD Country Codes
In this approach, your company would create separate sites for each market. For Great Idea Company, I would create a site for each of my key markets: www.greatidea.com, www.greatidea.co.uk, www.greatidea.cn, www.greatidea.de, etc. You would also have the option to rebrand your product or subsidiary name locally: www.buenidea.es, www.goedidee.nl, www.brilliantconcept.co.uk , etc.
What are the Trade Offs Between Approaches?
There’s no right answer about which approach is best, only that certain situations call for one approach over another. I have been working with a Canadian services company with a company.ca TLD. As they look to expand into first the American market and then further into European markets, their Canadian country code TLD will become increasingly confusing to their markets. They will need to decide how to move forward. Here are some of the trade offs that this company and all internationalizing organizations should consider:
- Better In-Country SEO – This is one of the top reasons to add country-specific sites. The SEO for Google.fr, Google.ca, etc. is much higher for TLDs with Country Codes. There is some benefit for the sub-domains and sub-directories. And non-altered sites get very little in-country SEO.
- Control Over Localized Customer Experience – Customers in other countries may approach the buying process in completely different ways than in your home market. There may be different influencers, a different level of comfort with online sales, and different motivations for buying. With separate sites, and to some extent sub-domains and sub-directories, you can tailor this experience.
- More Websites to Manage – Additional websites with TLDs varying country codes OR new sub-domains will take more effort to manage than sticking with your original single website. There are staffing time considerations.
- More Expensive to Register and Maintain – Multiple sites mean more domain registrations. There may even be cyber squatters who have registered your brand’s domain name under other country codes. (This has actually happened to my domain name in Hong Kong and Mainland China.)
- Local Market Expectations – Do foreign market customers look for your type of product or service mainly in their own language and country code? A recent survey by Smartling found that 9 out of 10 of B2B industry professionals only looked for products and services in their own language.
- Local Support Expectations – When the website TLD is country specific, there can be an expectation that customer support is local and that support is in the local language.
These are just a few considerations when deciding how to structure your website to support international markets. If your company has not yet chosen an international website approach) keep in mind the future so as to not create extra work developing a domestic-only site without the flexibility to expand into the world.