So, you’re thinking about optimizing your multilingual website for international SEO. But did you know that subdomains can affect your SEO performance? Is it bad? Is it good? Is it ugly?
There’s a huge debate amongst SEOs and marketers if subdomains affect the multilingual website’s SEO performance negatively or positively. Some say a profound negative effect, some say a firm positive performance.
And who knows what Google is thinking when it comes to subdomains. Is it really that bad?
So, to make it easier, we’ll break it down today to the good, the bad, and the verdict. We’ll find out about subdomains and other factors that should be considered when setting up your subdomains, and even ranking in your subdomain pages. We’ll show you the complete guide to subdomains, and everything to do with your multilingual website’s site structure.
What’s a Subdomain?
By definition, a subdomain is an additional part of your main domain or your main website. Sometimes other websites conflate subdomains with main domains, but they wouldn’t be called subdomains if they were main domains, right?
So there’s a difference between your main domains and the subdomains, which are the divisions of your website, and are separate but related to the main domain.
Your main domain, or primary domain or root domain (according to Google’s definitions), is the name of your website. It’s usually your home page. Examples of the main domain are:
And so on and so forth, the list is as endless as there are websites.
Your subdomains, however, will fall under your primary domain. Examples of this will be:
For a use case example, subdomains are what allows sites like WordPress or Blogger to create user domains that are part of the WordPress/Blogger sphere but are different from the main website of WordPress/Blogger, such as user.wordpress.com, or user.blogger.com. Remember, WordPress or Blogger can be a good place to host a multilingual website. Here’s more information on how to build a multilingual website.
So, to reiterate, subdomains are the divisions of your website, not your main website, which is your main domain. I hope that’s clear enough.
What’s the Difference Between ccTLD vs. Subdirectories vs. Subdomains?
But, when you go into the topic of subdomains, you often encounter talk about ccTLD, subfolders, and subdomains as well. Before we can ask how subdomains will benefit your SEO, we must first break down these other parts of a website, aside from subdomains.
You’ve already learned about subdomains, but what’s a ccTLD? A country code top-level domain (ccTLD) is used in international SEO to indicate the countries or regions.
While your main domain is a gTLD, or generic top-level domain, such as .com, .net, .org or .comfo, your ccTLD will be .gb (if you’re in Great Britain), .us (if you’re in the US), and so on. What’s important to remember here is that a root domain (gTLD) is not the same as a ccTLD
Your French website will look like this: multilingualwebsite.fr
ccTLDs are useful in multilingual SEO if you want to show Google that you’re targeting a specific region or country. Google then assumes that that page is relevant for that specific region or country.
Best Practice: From an SEO perspective, ccTLDs rank better for local searches, so use a ccTLD if you’re only going to be targeting one country, geotargeting, for your whole website. Don’t use it for multiple countries, multiple languages, and multiple regions.
Subdirectory (AKA subfolder)
Subdirectories can also go by the name of subfolders, but don’t let that confuse you: a subdirectory is different from a subdomain.
Subdirectories are basically different subfolders of your main domain. Subdirectories are best for when you want different languages in your website, while your main domain has, for example, English, as its main language. It stands after the root domain.
An example of a subdirectory is:
- maindomain.com/es/ for Español
- maindomain.com/fr for French
Best Practice: Use a subdirectory for a multilingual website, for multiple languages. We’ll see how later.
A subdomain, in contrast, is a subcategory of the main domain. It’s used for blogs, different eCommerce storefronts, and more. Like subdirectories, they also organize your website into different categories. For your multilingual website, you can use subdomains or subdirectories, depending on what you need for your site.
Here’s Google’s breakdown of the differences between the three.
We’ve already shown examples of subdomains at the beginning of this article.
Best Practice: If you handle large industries and want to break it up into smaller segmented mini websites, then use subdomains.
How Can Subdomains Affect Your SEO Performance
Subdomains vs. Subdirectories
There’s a lot of debate about subdomains and subdirectories when it comes to SEO–there are gungho Team Subdirectories, there are Team Subdomains, and there’s some that say it doesn’t really matter.
So what’s the debate all about when it comes to subdomains and subdirectories?
It all boils down to Google’s treatment of subdomains and subdirectories. According to SEMRush, Google treats subdomains as separate entities from your main domain, unlike subdirectories, which are treated as part of the main domain. According to the same source, the content on a subdomain isn’t taken into account when ranking for the main domain, which makes it harder to rank.
But subdomains are great for SEO when they’re treated as their own full-fledged websites. They can rank alongside the main domain, and bring more traffic to your business as a whole, instead of just an extension of your website like subdirectories.
It really depends on how you want to optimize your main domain. Do you want something like a separate website (your subdomain), or do you just want subfolders (subdirectories). If you have two separate niches for your business, a subdomain would work perfectly as well.
According to Ignite Visibility, “[If you’re using a subdomain], you basically have two websites.” And if your subdomains generate traffic, it won’t be filtered into your website’s traffic, which makes it harder for SEO purposes. You’ll be competing with yourself, the source adds.
Since ranking is the number of links plus the keywords, your subdomain won’t add any value to the main domain. And since subdomains are supposedly considered a different entity, you can’t do internal linking from your subdomain to your main domain and vice versa, because they’re viewed as external links. This is especially true for cases where your main domain already has a high DA but your subdomain is still building up its authority.
Here’s the verdict:
Google says it really doesn’t matter much.
According to Google’s John Mueller, “We recognize that some sites use subdomains as different parts of the site,” he said. “And, in the same way, that other sites might use subdirectories.”
“With subdomains, the main thing I’d watch out for is that you’re not using wildcard subdomains because that can make crawling really, really hard. If we have to go through all of these subdomains and treat them all as separate hosts…But if you have a limited number of subdomains then that might be an option….
Similarly, if you have different sites that are essentially completely separate websites but they’re in subdirectories– so in folders– then we’ll try to figure that out as well. And say, well, actually these are all on the same domain, on the same hostname, but these are maybe user-generated content– like separate sites that should be treated completely separately– then we’ll try to figure that out as well…So that’s not something that would kind of like improve or hurt rankings. It’s more a matter of us figuring that out. And so far I’ve seen our algorithms do a pretty good job of that.”
A bad site doesn’t have to be about subdirectories versus subdomains. Rather, if it’s organized well, it will be ranked properly as well. If it’s organized poorly, it will alert the search engines to that fact, and you may end up being penalized. And don’t have too many wildcard subdomains, too.
Are There Any Gains for Multilingual Websites in Using Different Site Structures?
So there you have it, the key to a multilingual website is building a great site structure and other elements, whether it’s subdomains or subdirectories you’re using. But for subdomains,
Is your website multiregional too aside from being multilingual? If so, then you have the ccTLD for multiregional, and subdirectories or subdomains for different languages.
One thing we didn’t talk about in this article is hreflang. An hreflang is an HTML attribute that’s used to specify the language of a web page. With hreflang, you’ll be telling Google which parts of your websites should be ranking for which regions or languages.
Some of the debate around subdirectories and subfolders relies on duplicate content being ranked. That means if your website has a subdomain about UK dog grooming and your main domain is about UK dogs, then both of them may be seen as having duplicate content and get penalized. Then you’ll really be competing with yourself. To avoid this, use the hreflang attribute.
You may think it’s a challenge for your multilingual site to rank high. But as long as you have the right site structure for your business needs, and the right localized content for each one there are gains:
1. Reaching a Wider Audience – You should be able to maximize your audience’s reach by doing market research on your targeted international markets. You can also reach a wider audience through your localized content, for each multilingual page you have. You can target by region or by language. The wider your audience, the wider your reach, so don’t limit yourself to only one or two languages. As long as you have the expertise to do multilingual pages, then as many as relevant to your business.
2. Ranking Higher – We’ve talked a lot about site structure and hreflang, but we haven’t covered SEO in-depth in this article. Aside from these elements, your multilingual site needs to also be translated. Stick to one language per page, and make sure you’re translating the metadata too. Internet habits also vary from region to region so make sure you’re paying attention to that too.
3. Lower Competition – In some foreign markets, and depending on your niche, you’ll have lower competition. If you already have a competitor in your niche, breaking into the foreign market first before your competitors can almost guarantee you a larger share of that market.
4. Better Brand Awareness – If you’re just making your name in your industry, a multilingual website can create better brand awareness in foreign markets. Think about it–the more exposure you have in that foreign market by appealing to their particular languages, interests, habits, and cultures, the more likely they’ll know your name.
It’s certainly confusing to use terms like ccTLD, subdomains, subfolders, subdirectories, but if there’s one takeaway from this, it’s to do what’s best for your needs for your multilingual website.
If you have a large business with different segments like blogs or eCommerce shops, then it’s best to have your multilingual website with multilingual subdomains. If you’re a B2B who wants to target a few different language markets at once, then using subdirectories might be best. If you only want to target one local culture, because you’re into local farming in New Zealand, then go for a ccTLD.
It’s hard to gain niche authority right away, but doing it in small markets might be easier. Through ranking in smaller markets, whether you’re using subdomains or subdirectories for your multilingual websites, you’ll be helping out your main domain.
So, the verdict is out. Do subdomains affect your multilingual website’s SEO? Yes, it does. But as everything you do in your website can affect Google’s estimation of you, your multilingual website is bound to change when you apply subdomains to it. Is it for the best or for the worse? It’s up to you to decide.