Operating Web Sites in Multiple Countries

Setting up Web sites for multiple countries is a common problem for multinational businesses that want to have separate sites for each country where they do business.

For example, let’s say a U.K.-based business wants to operate Web sites in the U.S. and Australia. There are many reasons to do this. Two of the most important reasons:

  1. Even though our example relates to three countries with the same language, there are still local differences in language. Adapting the site to deal with those differences creates a superior user experience.
  2. The way people think about your products and services can also differ from country to country. As a result, the positioning of the products may need to be tweaked to adapt to those differences.

However, because these Web sites are all likely to be extremely similar to one another, there’s a real risk that the search engines will see them as duplicate content. Search engines don’t like it when people create new sites that are substantially copies of one another.

Intent Drives the Search Engine’s Objectives

We need to step back and take a clear look at the intent of the publisher. This is important because the publisher’s intent is what drives the search engine’s desired response.

In our example, the intent is to have one Web site for U.K. visitors, one site for Australian visitors, and another for U.S. visitors. The key here is that the intent isn’t to have the U.K., Australian, and U.S. sites ranking in all three countries, but to have each Web site ranking in one. Based on this intent, this doesn’t represent a duplicate content scenario.

As a result, the search engine’s objective will be to permit the intended behavior. After all, the publisher is trying to offer a better experience for users through local tailoring of the versions of the Web site. This is exactly in line with the search engine’s objectives.

A lot of publishers worry that search engines don’t support these publisher goals, and will try to block this approach, or that they don’t care. This isn’t the issue. Search engines want to support improved user experiences, as this makes their search engine better.

The real challenge is a technical one. Search engines don’t have humans reviewing every Web site to determine quality, or intent. They use dumb software programs (crawlers or spiders) that cruise the Web and try to figure out what’s going on. This is an extremely challenging process that’s prone to error.

To successfully get a multi-national Web site structure treated the way we want, we need to reduce the risk of that error. How? By giving the search engine as many clues as possible.

Help the Search Engines Help You

You can provide a variety of clues, and I recommend using them all if you can. Sometimes this may not be possible, but each one you don’t use increases the risk that the search engines will misunderstand what you’re trying to do. So let’s take a look at the best practices for getting your Web site to rank in different countries:

  1. Host locally. The search engines can easily process the IP address of the Web site and recognize that it is “in-country.”
  2. Obtain a ccTLD. Use a .co.uk domain for the UK, a .co.fr for France, .com.au for Australia, and so forth.
  3. Get local links. Get links from other Japanese sites to your Japanese Web site, links from other Hungarian Web sites to your Hungarian site, etc.
  4. Geo-targeting with Google Webmaster Tools. Use the geo-targeting option in Google Webmaster Tools to tell Google where your intended market is for the site.
  5. Language. Use local language variations. For example, “color” for the U.S. and “colour” for the U.K. In addition, if you can make other tweaks on the pages for local preferences as well, it’s a good idea to do so.
  6. Provide local address information all your pages. For example, have your U.S. pages show a different address than your Brazilian pages.

Sadly, doing everything right doesn’t guarantee success, but these steps should result in success for the vast majority of publishers. If you run into problems, try posting a question in Google’s Webmaster Help Forum, and they may be able to help you out. Just remember, as long as you have the right intent, the search engines want you to succeed.

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