Multi-Regional Vs. Multi-Lingual - International SEO

One of the many benefits of being SEO consultants to Enterprise level organizations, is that we get to dive in and apply some deeper SEO audits and strategies that go well beyond the basics of on-page optimization, or back-linking. One of these opportunities was a deep dive into a Forbes 500 tech-company's international web-presence. We found precious few resources on the subject, so we thought we would share some of our findings with the SEO Community, you know, just in case you find yourself facing the same questions. Of course, as always your input and feedback is appreciated and welcomed.


First we would like to briefly overview the potential strategies considered for International SEO. Essentially there are three strategies for consideration. Each alternative should be carefully weighed against whether the intention is to target a specific language group (lives in multiple countries) or whether the strategy is to target a specific geographic area that speak that language? Or both?

Language vs. Country Targeting

Understanding the difference between these strategies is very important to identifying which direction to pursue. It’s important to understand that there is no “one-size-fits-all” mutually exclusive International SEO strategy. These strategies can live side-by-side with each other effectively, you may choose one strategy for French, another for Spanish, and still another for Portuguese for example.

All countries have their own culture, currency, language, and colloquialisms. In addition, test after test confirm that localized results (localized content, phone numbers, address, etc.) improves conversion rates. Clearly the best-case scenario is to target countries individually, but this is just not always possible, cost effective, or reasonable.

A decision tree should be considered for each language and country considered. A few questions to consider to assist you in determining whether your strategy should be Language targeting, or Country targeting:

International Audit And Strategy

Language Targeting

A Language targeting strategy is appropriate when:

  1. Your foreign language audience is spread out over many countries that speak the same language, and
    1. collectively represent an audience worth targeting, but;
    2. Individual country traffic volumes are not high enough to Country target individually.
  2. Your audience does not require a physical presence in their geographic area to evaluate a purchasing decision.
  3. Your audience can purchase your product in your currency, and doing so in a foreign currency will not affect conversion rates.
    1. Note: Offering products and services in a local currency increases conversion rates.
  4. Your product or service can be delivered or shipped to your audience regardless of their physical location.
  5. Having a local service delivery office to field phone calls in the language is not necessary.
    1. Note: Offering a local phone number and address increases conversion rates.

Country Targeting

A Country targeting strategy is appropriate when:

  1. Your potential foreign language audience from a particular country is large enough to merit localized content.
  2. A physical presence in their geographic area, either a direct presence or through local affiliates and partnerships, would assist the purchasing decision and improve conversion rates.
  3. Offering your products and services in the local currency, either through an international payment processor or local affiliates and partnerships, would improve conversion rates.
  4. A local presence is necessary for the delivery of services and products.
  5. You already have, or plan to offer a local service delivery office for local purchasing and service support, either through a direct expansion or local affiliates and partnerships.

Hybrid Language and Country Targeting

A hybrid strategy is appropriate when:

  1. Your foreign language audience includes both:
    1. Countries with a large enough audience to merit a Country strategy and:
    2. Multiple other countries that speak the same language, but individually do not meet the criteria for a Country specific strategy.
  2. A physical presence is only possible and cost effective in certain of the target countries.
  3. The broader language targeted audience can purchase your product in your currency or there is a large enough foreign language population in your Corporate HQ country.

An example where a Hybrid strategy would be appropriate: you may have a corporate presence in Mexico and a large enough audience interested in your product. You can choose to target Mexico as a Spanish speaking country with a .mx ccTLD website with localized content and prices in Pesos; and simultaneously target Spanish speaking Americans with a .com/es sub-directory and US$ pricing.

Pros and Cons

Depending on which strategy you wish to implement, there are three options available;

  • ccTLD – - (ideal for geographic or country targeting)
  • Sub Domain – or
  • Sub Directories – -  (ideal for language targeting)

ccTLD’s Pro's and Cons


  • Domain Authority does not flow between unique domains.
  • Age of the domains does not flow between unique domains.
  • Unique domains linking do not flow between unique domains.
  • Buying, annual payment, DNS setup CMS etc. has an attached cost to using more domains.
  • Labor intensive setup and manage Robots.txt and Sitemap.xml documents properly.


  • As can be seen from Matt Cutts' wrap-up, a ccTLD has bonus attached when it comes to geotargeting. With folders and subdomains you have to stick with the less effective GWT console. Most international SEOs agree this is correct.
  • Better marketing options.
  • Automatic geotargeting, no additional coding necessary.

Bottom line on ccTLD's - If you use a ccTLD website properly you can expect higher CTR, higher conversion rates and higher spend per order. On the downside, you have to invest more in order to get a critical mass of incoming links to your domain. This is the ideal solution for Country targeting.

Sub Domain Pros and Cons


  • You can only expect partial (or occasional) flow of domain authority to sub domains
  • Subdomains also require a correct DNS setup, special handling in the CMS etc.
  • Causes some confusion. For example: is “pt”a reference to the country Portugal, or the language Portuguese?


Bottom line on Sub Domains – The worst out of the three options. The cons far outweigh the pros.

Sub Directories Pros and Cons


  • CTR and conversion rates are typically lower


  • You can expect Domain Authority to flow freely to subfolders
  • Pages receiving good Domain Authority will rank without external links, just as you see with any article published on Wikipedia.
  • Low cost for CMS access etc.
  • Unique domains linking flow through to sub folders
  • Site age and domain authority flows to sub folders
  • Individual sub directories can be verified through webmaster tools and individually geo-targeted on a “per sub directory” basis.

Bottom line on Sub Directories - This option allows you to leverage your existing sites authority and infrastructure to position well out of the gate. Has a lower operating cost and quickest ROI potential. The ideal solution for Language targeting.

In our next post on International SEO we will discuss several examples of common International SEO issues and best practices.





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