One of the most important decisions in website creation is related to website structure: the hierarchy of pages, subjects and separation of languages. In this article we’ll review multilingual websites and various ways of separating multilingual content.

Decisions involving multilingual website structure are extremely important, not because of their complexity (most of these methods are simple to implement), but because future changes to structure are extremely complex and have heavy impacts on the search engine performance of the website. Therefore, making the best possible decision from the start is crucial.

Traditionally websites were only made of folders and html files; this built the natural structure of the website (folder names and file names made the URL). However, unless you have an extremely small website, this method is near obsolete and most websites now makes use of Content Management Systems (CMS). Therefore, our examples will imply the use of a PHP-based CMS on an Apache server.

Each of the following methods have pros and cons, we’ll explain each of these as we go. Many important factors will be covered:

  • Geographical targeting
  • Transfer of domain trust and authority
  • Impact on link building campaign
  • Technical complications

This article is only meant as a technical SEO review of each available method for creating multilingual websites.

Multilingual website using Subdirectories

http://website.com/fr/
http://website.com/en/

Using subdirectories is by far the easiest way of structuring a multilingual website. Technically speaking, you shouldn’t have any issues with this method. We strongly suggest this approach for small websites ( less than 100 pages of a given language)

It is important to note that this method will cause all URLs to be longer and all content to be 1 level deeper on your website. While this doesn't have a dramatic impact it is worth considering since search engines tend to give more weight to content in the first three levels of a website.

Using subdirectories to separate multilingual content
Geo targeting Bad
This method is the least effective in terms of geo-targeting since only one domain extensions is used. Your only hope is to use geo-meta-tags in the head of your web pages to help Bing, and use microdata to semantically markup your company’s location, when possible.
Domain trust & authority Good
Since only one domain is being used (and no sub-domains) the domain’s trust and authority is accumulated all in the same website (primary domain) and benefits the entire site.
Link building Good
For the same reasons as domain trust and authority, link building campaigns have a great impact with this website structure since we are keeping all our incoming links on the same domain.
Technical complications Good
No technical complications should arise from this approach. Make sure to use this naming protocol for your lingual sub-directories

Multilingual website using Sub-domains

http://en.website.com/
http://fr.website.com/

Sub-domains are another technically simple approach. However, this type of multilingual structure has very different impacts than that of subdirectories.
We suggest that medium to large websites use this approach since sub-domains are treated as separate websites.

Using sub-domains to separate multilingual content
Geo targeting Bad
This method is in no way better than the subdirectory technique, you are still limited to one “domain” and the real problem is the geographical location of your hosting server.
Domain trust & authority bad
Since sub-domains are considered independent websites, domain trust and authority will be diluted between each sub-domain.
Link building Bad
Because sub-domains are treated as independent websites, each incoming link will be beneficial only to the sub-domain which it targets.
Technical complications Good
No technical complications should arise from this approach. Make sure to use a country-code for your sub-domains

COMMON QUESTION:
What if the country I am targeting has multiple languages?
We suggest two approaches; it will be up to you to choose which you deem most suitable:

  1. Use a country code for the sub-domain, and use a language code as a subdirectory. For example, targeting French-speaking Canada, we would use: http://ca.website/fr.com
  2. Use the full W3 supported language codes: http://www.w3.org/International/articles/language-tags/Overview.en.php. For example, when targeting French-speaking Canada, we would use: http://fr-ca.website.com

Multilingual website using different domain extensions

http://website.ca
http://website.fr

This is one of the best methods (in our opinion) for very large websites. However, this method can be tricky since it will be difficult to find a domain-name that is available with all the needed extensions.

Using country-specific domain extensions to separate multilingual content
Geo targeting Good
Each domain can be hosted on a geographically relevant server.
Domain trust & authority Bad
Since each domain is independent, domain trust and authority is diluted between all domains.
Link building Bad
Because each domain is independent, each incoming link will be beneficial only to the domain which it targets.
Technical complications Bad
To take full advantage of such a method you will need to host on multiple servers. In addition, managing content will become a greater challenge; few open-source CMS are able to manage a multi-server, multi-language setup in a user-friendly way.

Multilingual website using URL tags

http://www.website.com/product&lang=fr_ca
http://website.com/product&lang=en_us

URL tags have the bad reputation of being un-search-engine-friendly… nothing could be farther from the truth. URL tags are an extremely efficient way of managing multilingual content, though there are greater risks of duplicate content if this method is improperly implemented.

Using URL tags to separate multilingual content
Geo targeting Bad
This method is the least effective in terms of geo-targeting since only one domain extensions is used.
Domain trust & authority Good
Since only one domain is being used (and no sub-domains) the domain’s trust and authority is accumulated all in the same website (primary domain) and benefits the entire site.
Link building Good
For the same reasons as domain trust and authority, link building campaigns have a great impact with this website structure since we are keeping all our incoming links on the same domain.
Technical complications Bad
This method requires more programming skills than others. However it is simpler than the multiple domain extension previously mentioned.

Multilingual website using different domain names

http://website.com
http://siteweb.com

This method can be very interesting since, especially when you combine it with country-specific domain extensions. This method is suggested only for very large web projects.

Using different domain names to seperate multilingual content
Geo targeting Good
Each domain can be hosted on a geographically relevant server. In addition, the domain name will appear more relevant to local searchers.
Domain trust & authority Bad
Since each domain is independent, domain trust and authority is diluted between all domains.
Link building Bad
Because each domain is independent, each incoming link will be beneficial only to the domain which it targets.
Technical complications Bad
To take full advantage of such a method you will need to host on multiple servers. In addition, managing content will become a greater challenge; few open-source CMS are able to manage a multi-server, multi-language setup in a user-friendly way.

Key elements to keep in mind when making the decision on how to structure a multilingual content

  1. Geographical targeting: what countries are you targeting, what languages your target market speaks.
  2. Domain name relevance: keep in mind that domain names also need to “sound” linguistically close to the spoken language of a searcher. A domain name such as “http://gingerbread.fr/ isn’t necessarily appealing for a French user, even if it is relevant based on that user’s search query.
  3. Search engines favor local results: keep in mind that the more “local” your website/domain appear to be, the better it will rank for local searches. When a Canadian user searches on google.ca he will rarely (if ever) see a SERP result a website (with the India domain extension) from India, even if that site’s content is in English.
  4. Resources: even if you could use the multiple domain extension technique, do your needs truly justify all the investments required in such a technique?
Pros & Cons of multilingual content seperation methods
Method Directories Sub-Domains Multiple Domain Extensions Multiple Domain Names URL tags
Geo targeting Bad Bad Good Good Bad
Domain Trust & Authority Good Bad Bad Bad Good
Link Building Good Bad Bad Bad Good
Technical Complications Good Good Bad Bad Bad

Keep in mind that “technical complications” are very relative to each person’s competence. In some cases this row can be entirely ignored. In addition, each web project has varying objectives which could justify using one technique over the others.

We would like to remind that this article is only meant as a technical SEO review of each available method.