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When I set up a site in multiple languages, how should I set up my URLs for search engines and usability?

Let's say my site is www.example.com, and I'm translating into French and Spanish. What is best for usability and SEO?

Directory option:

http://www.example.com/sample.html
http://www.example.com/fr/sample.html
http://www.example.com/es/sample.html

Subdomain option:

http://www.example.com/sample.html
http://fr.example.com/sample.html
http://es.example.com/sample.html

Filename option:

http://www.example.com/sample.html
http://www.example.com/sample.fr.html
http://www.example.com/sample.es.html

Accept-Language header:

Or should I simply parse the Accept-Language header and generate content server-side to suit that header?

Is there another way to do this? If the different language versions don't have different urls, what do I do about the search engines?


UPDATE 2011-12-06

Google has new recommendations for meta tags for explicitly pointing to other language content: New markup for multilingual content.

UPDATE 2012-05-25

Related but not precisely: Multilingual and multinational site annotations in Sitemaps

UPDATE 2013-06-12 Targeting site content to a specific country includes discussion of several URL schemes directly relevant to the question.

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This question has some good related information: webmasters.stackexchange.com/questions/961/… –  JasonBirch Jul 19 '10 at 8:11
    
You should also think about using codes like "en-us", "de-de" when you want to localize and not just translate. –  webjunkie Aug 3 '10 at 9:47

7 Answers 7

up vote 27 down vote accepted

There are many acceptable ways to structure your site for both SEO and internationalization. Each have advantages and disadvantages.

Top Level Domains

Buy the same domain name at multiple top level country domains like example.com, example.es and example.de.

Advantages

  • Fully supported by Google. You can add the sites to Google Webmaster Tools where there are options to tell Google about how they are targeted.
  • Often preferred by users who tend to like content published on the TLD for their country
  • The domain name itself can be localized. Many international users may react badly to English words or an English sounding domain name. This can be especially important for languages that do not use a Latin alphabet.
  • Supports localization by country. You can have separate sites like example.co.uk and example.com.au targeted at audiences in different countries. The sites may have duplicate content with slight spelling differences and still rank well. In fact, multiple well localized sites in the same language may rank better than a single site in that language.
  • Hosting can be localized by pointing DNS to a web server in the country being targeted.

Disadvantages

  • Expensive and time consuming to buy many domains. Especially if you have to deal with squatters.
  • Cookies cannot be shared across multiple locales, meaning that users have to log in separately to each site.
  • No good option for localizing only by language since many languages have multiple countries and no country TLD may may the language code. Even in cases where the TLD does match the language code like es, search engines may assume that the site is only appropriate for users from Spain, not for all Spanish speakers.

Sub-domains

Buy a single domain, and use sub-domains such as en.example.com, and es.example.com

Advantages

  • Fully supported by Google.
  • Supports localization by country or by language.
  • Hosting can be localized by pointing DNS to a web server located close to users.
  • Easy and cheap to implement compared to buying multiple domains.
  • Cookies can be shared across all locales, enabling single sign on for a more seamless user experience.

Disadvantages

  • No opportunity to localize the domain name itself
  • May look less local to users compared to a top level domain.

Sub-directories

Buy a single domain, and use sub-directories such as example.com/en/, and example.com/es/

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • The same as sub-domains, except that there is one DNS entry which precludes hosting your site in multiple countries for different locales.

Techniques that are NOT recommended

  • File Names: Using different file names such as index_en.html and index_de.html. This technique is not fully supported by Google. For example, there is no way to set targeting in webmaster tools.
  • URL Parameters: Using URL parameters such as lang=en. It is not recommended for the same reason that different file names are not recommended.
  • Accept Language Header: Automatically switching the language based on the Accept-Language header.
    • Many users do not have this header set correctly. This is especially true for users traveling abroad that may be using a friend's computer, or an internet cafe. It is also often true for international users that install an English web browser and know enough English to be get around, but would prefer content in a different language.
    • Googlebot will only be able to crawl the default language of your site, as Googlebot does not send an Accept-Language header. To be indexed and well ranked for multiple languages, you must have separate URLs for content in different languages.
    • You may use the Accept-Language header to suggest that users might prefer a different version of the site by displaying a message when the site they are visiting does not match the Accept-Language header.
  • Geographic IP Addresses: Automatically switching the language based where the IP address is geographically located.
    • Geo-ip databases are inaccurate. Up to 10% of visitors may be assigned to the incorrect country.
    • Some countries (like Canada) use more than one language
    • Googlebot will have problems as it almost always crawls from the United States.
    • You may use the IP address country to suggest a language or languages that a user may be interested in.

On-page Markup

When supporting multiple languages, you should clearly mark up with language meta-data.

Use the lang attribute in the html tag:

<html lang="en">

Use rel alternate links to the same page in other languages as suggested by Google:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="http://www.example.com/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es-ES" href="http://es-es.example.com/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es-MX" href="http://es-mx.example.com/" /> 
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="http://en.example.com/" />

Alternately, this information can be put into sitemap files.

Tell Google About Your Site

You should add each language (or locale) of your site to Google Webmaster Tools. This can be done for top level domains, for sub- domains, or for sub-directories.

If your site is targeted by country, you should use webmaster tools to set the site targeting. Navigate to "Configuration" -> "Settings" -> "Geographic target" and choose to target the correct country from the drop down list.

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"The same as sub-domains, except that there is one DNS entry which precludes hosting your site in multiple countries for different locales." -- note that it is not because you have a single domain that you cannot host your one website in many different countries. With all the technology we have, that "easy" to do. And if you use a system such as Cassandra, the data will follow no problem. –  Alexis Wilke Nov 6 '13 at 22:49
    
"Especially if you have to deal with squatters" - What is a squatter? –  Dave Feb 14 at 8:25
    
A domain name squatter buys variations on your domain names. In this case, you might own example.com, but the squatter has snatched up example.co.uk and example.it –  Stephen Ostermiller Feb 14 at 11:12

In my opinion, you should use either the folder or subdomain approach, because they are more intuitive to the user. Which one is a matter of personal taste, I personally find the folder approach clearer. The filename option is far less intuitive.

Parsing the Accept-Language header for directing the user to the correct content on his first visit is a good idea, but you should only do it to redirect on the folder or subdomain url. Otherwise, it would be impossible to link to content in a specific language, and the indexing of your website will be a mess.

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6  
Also, always give the user the choice, no matter what their headers say -- I often switch back to English when being offered the German version, either because the translation is so awful, or because it's easier to read in English (MSDN, for example -- all the code is in English, so having the text in German means more context switching) –  balpha Jul 19 '10 at 14:00
    
+1 balpha -- this is similar to Jakob Nielsen's argument that mobile-friendly sites should always provide a link to the full-desktop version of a page. When multiple versions of a page exist, make an informed guess which one the user wants, but let the user make the final choice. –  Blazemonger Apr 17 '13 at 13:01

Answering a question similar to yours on his blog, Matt Cutts suggests:

If you have sites with say French and German versions for a business, my preferences would be:

  1. ccTLDS such as example.fr or example.de
  2. After than, subdomains such as fr.example.com or de.example.com.
  3. If that’s not possible, I’d use subdirectories such as example.com/fr/ or example.com/de/
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I would not use subdomains. In terms of SEO it's less helpful: http://www.hobo-web.co.uk/seo-blog/index.php/blog-subdomain-or-subfolder-which-is-best/.

Similar talk here: Subdomain versus subdirectory.

If you look at big sites, the most often use subdomains.

It also depends if your business is more of a global or local nature. We are a copyrighting agency, so for use its more local business. Therefore Top Level Domains are better than running everything on .com.

Filename is a concept I have not seen yet.

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This is the same question I asked on StackOverflow. And I got a recource for it, ill post the answer.

I have found a nice resource from Google on the choices you can make. There is a section with pros and cons of each method you can use.

I have been struggling with the multi-lingual websites for a while now.

There are definitely some points in the article that are not mentioned in the answers mentioned. That why I felt the need to post this as an answer. I hope this helps someone out.

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As a German user I hate it when a website won't let me on the English page because it's think it knows better what I want. It might be hard for Americans to understand but there are actually people who speak more than one language.

Sometimes I might want to view the German websites and sometimes I might want to view the English one.

Simply parsing the Accept-Language header might drive me mad.

That especially true if your German page is a cheap translation of your English page.

To make it easy for your user the English version should also have localisation such as domain.com/en/ or en.domain.com.

When I type domain.com you get one guess to give me the English or the German page based on my Accept-Language header. If I however don't like your choice than I should be able to simply exchange the language in the domain name.

Extra hint: If you have the language in front of the domain name both typing ger.domain.com and de.domain.com should bring me to the German website.

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+1 for It might be hard for Americans to understand but there are actually people who speak more than one language. –  TheBlackBenzKid Mar 13 '13 at 15:38

Use subdomain option if you use localized versions (i.e. France != French). Use subdomains, but I think it's better use directories if this country uses diferent languages. For example:

us.domain.com (USA)
us.domain.com/en/sample.html (USA - english)
us.domain.com/es/ejemplo.html (USA - spanish)
es.domain.com (Spain)
es.domain.com/es/ejemplo.html (Spain - spanish)
es.domain.com/ca/exemple.html (Spain - catalan)

Bing relies on geo-meta tags, but for Google you have to use Google Webmaster Tools.

If you want to target global markets use www.domain.com with a prefered user language (browser give laguage priorities on Accept-Language header) when you have it or with your key market language when you don't have it.

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protected by John Conde Jun 26 '13 at 0:48

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