Multilingual Website URL Structures

URL structures for multiregional and multilingual websites, demystified.

Published Categorized as Marketing

Large companies operate across industry verticals and geographies, and, nine times out of ten, a single global website in one language is not enough.

Business people want and demand websites that present the company’s subsidiary for a specific country and in its own language (in some countries, such as Canada or Belgium, there is also more than one language).

At the same time, most organizations strive for some level of consistency in their online presence. Allowing any country team to use any domain name may run counter to this goal.

There is a risk that the organization will end up with a collection of random domain names (e.g., company.com, company-finland.com, companygermany.de), hampering brand consistency and confusing customers.

So when it comes to domain structure for multinational, multilingual websites, where do you best draw the line between local autonomy and central standardization?

Most multiregional and multilingual websites follow one of three structures for their URLs:

  • Single domain with separate page paths for each country and language;
  • Single domain with separate subdomains for each country and language;
  • Country-code domain names (ccTLDs) for each country and language.

In the first two cases, most websites use two-letter country codes from the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 standard for the country values and two-letter language codes (ISO 639-1) for the language values.

For ccTLDs, domain name extensions are strict and predetermined—usually by the country that regulates and grants its own extension.

Structure 1: Single Domain With Page Paths

Examples

With a structure based on ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 and ISO 639-1:

  • United States: site.com/us/en/home
  • Canada, English: site.com/ca/en/home
  • Canada, French: site.com/ca/fr/home
  • Mexico: site.com/mx/es/home
  • Brazil: site.com/br/pt/home

With a structure based on the Unicode CLDR locales:

  • United States: site.com/us-EN/home
  • Canada, English: site.com/ca-EN/home
  • Canada, French: site.com/ca-FR/home
  • Mexico: site.com/mx-ES/home
  • Brazil: site.com/br-PT/home

Pros

This is the simplest structure of them all:

All you need to implement this URL structure is one domain and a standard for the values of the country and the language. That’s it. No subdomains and A records. No long lists of ccTLDs and renewal dates.

It’s cheap and easy to maintain:

This is a single website on one domain name. So, even if you operate in all 195 countries in the world, you will only need to pay one renewal and one hosting fee. But, as Leonardo da Vinci allegedly once said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And simplicity can be really hard to maintain.

It’s good for global SEO:

When one subsidiary gets press mentions and social shares, all subsidiaries’ websites benefit from the link juice and social signals on Google. If your marketing and sales rely heavily on organic traffic, such a URL structure can help you take your Google rankings to the next level (when implemented properly).

Cons

It requires a lot of discipline:

If the subsidiaries don’t follow a strict structure for everything that comes after the country and language in the URL, the website can (and will) quickly get messy. Such a mess can make tagging, analytics, and benchmarking difficult to impossible.

Structure 2: Single Domain With Subdomains

Examples

With a structure based on ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 and ISO 639-1:

  • United States: us.site.com/en/home
  • Canada, English: ca.site.com/en/home
  • Canada, French: ca.site.com/fr/home
  • Mexico: mx.site.com/es/home
  • Brazil: br.site.com/pt/home

Pros

Geographic targeting:

When it comes to URL structures for multiregional and multilingual websites, many consider subdomains as the happy medium between page paths and ccTLDs.

With a subdomain, website owners can signal that certain sections of their websites are targeted to specific countries and regions without limiting them to language.

DNS zone separation:

Subdomains allow the separation of DNS zones between countries and/or languages. In large, international organizations where countries have their own agencies and teams, this separation can be critical to meeting local needs without relinquishing global control.

Cons

Easy to mistype and hard to remember:

Subdomains are easy to get wrong when typing into the browser address bar and generally difficult to remember. When branding and memorability are critical, a subdomain-based URL structure may be frowned upon.

Adds technical complexity:

In a large organization with many websites, the number of A records pointing to subdomains can easily pile up and become tedious to manage.

The same applies to the Content Management System (CMS) that powers these websites. In most cases, subdomains mean separate CMS instances, which makes developing and maintaining things even more complex. Keep this in mind, especially if your IT team is understaffed.

Structure 3: Country-Code Domain Names

Examples

  • United States: site.us/home
  • Canada, English: site.ca/en/home
  • Canada, French: site.ca/fr/home
  • Mexico: site.mx/home
  • Brazil: site.br/home

Pros

Branding:

Branding is important, especially for international organizations. A local domain name can help distinguish the subsidiary from the HQ in the minds and hearts of customers—and make the company or product come across as more local.

While this won’t matter to some, it will make all the difference in the world to others.

Strong local SEO signals:

As Moz explains, ccTLDs are the best way for a website owner to signal that their website’s content is targeted to a specific country or region without necessarily being tied to a specific language.

For this reason, many international corporations opt for ccTLDs, even though they can be so difficult to buy in the first place (more on this below).

Cons

Difficult to buy and expensive to maintain:

Whereas gTLDs like .com, .net, and .org are governed by ICANN and can be registered by anyone, at any registrar, ccTLDs are a little more complicated… they are issued by regulatory bodies and national registrars in the countries they relate to.

Some countries have strict rules and application procedures for ccTLD registrations, which can make implementing this URL structure slow and downright burdensome. Considering the amount of domain names you have to purchase and renew, it’s also costly.

Each domain/website requires SEO separately:

Another thing that’s costly with ccTLDs is SEO.

When the websites for all branches of a company are hosted under the same domain, all websites benefit from new links from news mentions, press releases and blog posts.

This doesn’t apply to ccTLDs, where link building must be done separately for each website. When you consider the rising costs of content creation and link building, the content marketing costs that result from such a structure can really add up.

Image courtesy of Adolfo Félix /Unsplash

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