How should I structure my urls for both SEO and localization?
My company currently has its main (English) site on a .com domain with a .co.uk alias. In addition, we have separate sites for certain other countries - these are also hosted in the UK but are distinct sites with a country-specific domain names (.de, .fr, .se, .es), and the sites have differing amounts of distinct but overlapping content,
For example, the .es site is entirely in Spanish and has a page for every section of the UK site but little else. Whereas the .de site has much more content (but still less than the UK site), in German, and geared towards our business focus in that country. The main point is that the content in the additional sites is a subset of the UK, is translated into the local language, and although sometimes is simply only a translated version of UK content, it is usually 'tweaked' for the local market, and in certain areas, contains unique content.
The other sites get a fraction of the traffic of the UK site. This is perfectly understandable since the biggest chunk of work comes from the UK, and we've been established here for over 30 years. However, we are wanting to build up our overseas business and part of that is building up our websites to support this.
The Question: I posed a suggestion to the business that we might consider consolidating all our websites onto the .com domain but with /en/de/fr/se/etc sections, as plenty of other companies seem to do. The theory was that the non-english sites would benefit from the greater reputation of the parent .com domain, and that all the content would be mutually supporting - my fear is that the child domains on their own are too small to compete on their own compared to competitors who are established in these countries.
Speaking to an SEO consultant from my hosting company, he feels that this move would have some benefit (for the reasons mentioned), but they would likely be significantly outweighed by the loss of the benefits of localised domains. Specifically, he said that since the Panda update, and particularly the two sets of changes this year, that we would lose more than we would gain.
Having done some Panda research since, I've had my eyes opened on many issues, but curiously I haven't come across much that mentions localised domain names, though I do question whether Google would see it as duplicated content. It's not that I disagree with the consultant, I just want to know more before I make recommendations to my company.
What is the prevailing opinion in this case? Would I gain anything from consolidating country-specific content onto one domain? Would Google see this as duplicate content? Would there be an even greater penalty from the loss of country-specific domains? And is there anything else I can do to help support the smaller, country-specific domains?