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How to set up a multilingual multinational site...

How to set up a multilingual multinational site...

...And get it to rank on the search engines 

By Mark Blenkinsop, Head of Search at creative digital agency, Pod1

A common query I regularly come across but rarely find a satisfactory response to, is how do I best set up my website so I appear on the correct version of Google for my target audience? (Please note other search engines are available).

The problem with this question is that there isn’t one right answer so I will try to go through the pros and cons of the various options.

Let us consider two possible scenarios

1. Company ABC has a website which serves the UK market and is written in English, now the company has identified that Europe is a potential growth market and to capitalise on this has decided to offer the site in French, German & Spanish.

2. Company DEF has a website which also serves the UK market written in English but now has offices in France & Germany and wants to be able to target customers in all of these countries.

The issue we have here is letting the search engines know where these sites are targeted. The simplest way to let the search engines know which country your website is targeting is using the relevant Top Level Domain (TLD) for each country e.g., & This solution is more suitable for option 2 as the company has offices in these countries and in some countries, like Germany, it is very difficult to register a TLD address if you are not based there.

Unfortunately things are still not straight forward, although country based TLD will ensure you rank well on the relevant search engines in the relevant countries. For example a search for Ford on Google in the UK, France & Germany will show, & respectively. This is all good from a user point of view but Google sees these as 3 completely different websites which means any back links are also site specific, OK, if you are a huge multinational such as Ford not so good if you are just launching in these new countries and you need every back link you can get to ensure you rank as high as possible.

This brings us neatly on to the next option, we have already established that national TLD’s may not be possible for scenario 1 and is not ideal for back links, so to get round this we could use subdirectories e.g. or This allows a company to keep their original domain structure while also targeting a specific country or language, which may seem like the ideal solution as it works for both scenario 1 & 2. This is the method favoured by Apple, a search on Google in the UK, France & Germany will show, & respectively. This solution also makes it simple to serve translated versions of the site. For example if you wanted to create French and German language versions for a Swiss site or This would also work for translated versions of a UK site for tourists.

Staying with Apple if you type into Google you will be shown the US result and taken to the US page, to change country you have to manually select it from a list. Many companies with an international presence have opted to have a landing page with a country selector on the .com version although you could work round this with an IP sniffer which detects which country the visitor is coming from and serves the correct version of the site.

It is also worth noting that Google webmaster tools allows you to manually set your preferred geo targeting which can be useful if your website is hosted in a country other than your target location.

Finally there is a third option, this uses subdomains to differentiate between the various versions of a sites content or geographical target. So would become, & This is the method favoured by Yahoo to display country specific versions of its home page and has the same advantage as the subdirectory version of keeping all backlinks pointing at the main .com version of the domain while letting the search engines know which country the site is targeting. This method has an additional advantage in that in some instances Google will show more than two results from the same domain as demonstrated in the Yahoo search above. A search for Yahoo on shows 9 results for subdirectories e.g., (and in case you are wondering the other one was for their Wikipedia entry.)

So which of the above offers the best solution, the simple answer is all of them work but it really depends on the requirements of the individual companies website. The subdirectory method is easier to set up and maintain whereas the subdirectory method gives you more options. The most important point is that you consider your target market when setting up international websites to ensure you appear in the search engine results for your target audience.

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