3 Design Catastrophes To Avoid & 1 Great SEO Solution For Multinational Website Homepages

On any website, getting the homepage right is a critical (and difficult) series of important design decisions.

When you’re also catering for navigation to appropriate countries covering much of the globe, that difficulty is increased and the impact of getting it wrong can be catastrophic for your SEO.

I’ve seen plenty of different solutions in my time, and the number of disasters heavily outweighs the successes. And why? Because they are homepages.

As the highest profile page on a website – and the portal to a brand experience – homepages have so many different (and conflicting) tasks to complete they often veer so far away from a usable, and SEO friendly, experience as to defy belief.

Let’s take a look at a few examples to illustrate the difficulties encountered and (bad) design decisions that have resulted.

1. Localising To Languages, Riding Roughshod Over Locations

A pet peeve of mine, as regular readers of this column will know.

A good (or perhaps not!) example of this common problem can be followed through on British Airways’ global portal: ba.com (which redirects to britishairways.com…mostly. See the end of the article for an SEO chuckle.)

To follow along live, clear your browser cache and use anonymous browsing to avoid legacy cookies. Also, pick some non-UK and non-US web proxies to observe behaviour for non local web requests to see if any server-side detection is being used.

After accessing ba.com (from anywhere) you are presented with a splash landing page, offering the below options (annotations by me).

BAs Flawed Multinational Splash Landing Page.

BAs Flawed Multinational Splash Landing Page.

As I’ve noted, this landing page is only useful for English language speakers, despite seeming to be localised with a language selection box.

In many respects, even the most common splash multilingual landing page disaster: a list of flags; is better than this attempt, as at least the flags are easily recognisable to non-English speakers, though the disambiguation of location or language issue would still be a problem (and that’s a post for another day!).

Unfortunately for BA, the landing page is the least of their problems as following through the selection box to view non-English pages in different locations results in lots of…English language content.

A Hungarian Landing Page With Largely English Content.

A Hungarian Landing Page With Largely English Content.

I wouldn’t describe the above page as terribly Hungarian…would you? Especially not when the booking form selection boxes are entirely English, as are the large splash banners in the middle of the page, the account registration and login links, manage your booking, search prompt, news and all the ‘extra’ content.

2. Brand, Brand, Brand…But What About The Users?

A very common issue for multinational brands, this one. Precisely because they are multinational, big brands often overwhelm their homepage (and therefore their visitors) with a single brand message at the expense of everything else.

Quite often this design mistake is compounded with the Flash video (or, more recently, the HTML5 video) mistake, forcing every visitor to spend vital seconds watching a brand VT roll, delaying them from getting things done on the website itself.

A good (by which I mean of course, bad) example of this is Dolce & Gabbana’s homepage. Rather than take the more common single image splash page approach favoured by big fashion brands (and despised by their website visitors attempting to actually buy something), D&G has gone for the overwhelming attack of brand name + exhortation to buy in a confusing mess of non-standard layout, offering no less than 35 mentions of Dolce & Gabbana, and multiple, differing options to progress to (the same?) shop.

D&Gs Homepage Has A Confusing Mess Of Options To Navigate To The Shop.

D&Gs Homepage Has A Confusing Mess Of Options To Navigate To The Shop.

Brilliantly – or not, depending on if D&G are actually trying to make a profit – trying to get into the shop from the homepage results in two entirely different Flash splash landing pages followed by totally different navigational and shopping cart experiences which are entirely bewildering even to an experienced web user.

Attack Of The Flash Landing Page. Where's My Navigation Gone?

Attack Of The Flash Landing Page. Where's My Navigation Gone?

More Flash, More Confusion. Does My Shopping Cart Persist? Am I On The Same Site?

More Flash, More Confusion. Does My Shopping Cart Persist? Am I On The Same Site?

3. All Flash All The Time

A sub-set of the all-brand-all-the-time disaster shown above.

A classic example is Church & Co’s current solution which, as you can see by Google’s cache of their homepage, and their total lack of SEO performance for anything relevant, means that despite being a superb brand, unless they spend big – and avoid landing people on their homepage – they will never make decent sales from online and will inevitably be outperformed by almost all of their competitors.

No Chance Of SEO Performance When Your Site Is Invisible...

No Chance Of SEO Performance When Your Site Is Invisible...

Of course, when your whole site is built in Flash, and your content for every language is the same anyway, it’s going to be difficult to build out good landing pages for targeted long-tail bid terms anytime soon without some serious redevelopment.

Even assuming they recreate their current user experience with HTML5 & CSS3, opening up their content to search engines, the current landing page is so far away from being a good user experience for anyone other than an English language speaker that starting from scratch would be the best option.

A shame, frankly. And a waste of a superb brand name.

So How Do You Do It Right?

Glad you asked!

If you were looking for an elegant, simple user experience solution you can’t go far wrong with serving up content after a bit of server-side detection looking for the default user-agent language set and IP address location.

Then, displaying the homepage content in the appropriate language, for the appropriate country, with a JavaScript overlay for first-time visitors allows them to customise their experience based on their specific needs.

The overlay would be in their language (which we know from the user-agent detection), and would have a short piece of explanatory text stating clearly why they are seeing the overlay (to set their initial preferences) and how they can change it in the future (from above the fold, persistent, navigation site-wide).

There would also be a discreet link above this text promoting its translation should the visitor not speak the language their browser default is set to (unlikely, but does happen surprisingly often and should be catered for). The link would reveal a language selection box, with each language named in its own language translation (i.e. Français, English, Deutsch, etc).

The option presented in the overlay would be:

  • Country selection, preselecting the IP location country, with country names presented alphabetically in the display language.
  • And that’s it. Using any further options in the overlay promotes the use of the overlay (understood to be a temporary interface, ‘magically’ appearing to users and never to be seen again) for critical navigational features.

Making available a language selector (always displaying languages in their local language translation) and a country selector using the current language alongside flags in the main top-level navigation means the visitor can always adjust their preferences easily in future without having to re-access the overlay.

Use of cookies to detect if a visitor has already set their preferences and defaulting to them in future is the final piece of the puzzle.

As search engines will encounter the default version of the content depending on where its crawlers are coming from, and assuming you have followed my guidance for localising big brands for multinational SEO performance, your content will be correctly indexed with no ungainly splash pages in the way to damage domain value flow throughout the site.

An Easter Egg For BA

As promised at the start of the article, for SEOs out there who would like a chuckle, as a reward for making it all the way to the end of a long (but hopefully enlightening!) article, check out the perils of allowing your main, multimillion pound marketing budget promoted domain to be indexed willy-nilly by Google. How. Embarrasing.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: has over twelve years web development experience & is the founder of QueryClick Search Marketing, a UK agency specialising in SEO, PPC and Conversion Rate Optimisation strategies that deliver industry-leading ROI.

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  • http://www.raisemyrank.com/ Bob Gladstein

    Thanks. This is really useful.

    I have one question: since search engines are going to be presented with the page’s content in the language associated with their IP and user-agent language, and because of that they’re going to be presented with the content in different languages on different crawls, and since that content is going to be shared across data centers, do you think there’s going to be an issue with Google recognizing a page as German one day, French the next, and English the day after that?

    Or are you suggesting that they’ll figure out what’s going on over time, and present the German content to German searchers, etc.?

  • http://www.theshiftingparadigms.com S.P.

    Interesting Post! Thanks for the question Bob!

    This is an interesting question because of the way Google’s Panda updates have been handling duplicate content. Is there a specific set of tags that can be presented to tag a site’s version as a specific language when served up, which is of course based on the user’s geo settings, without affecting overall SERP results?

  • http://www.raisemyrank.com/ Bob Gladstein

    Unless I’m missing an important detail here, Maile Ohye seems to disagree with this. The Bruce Clay blog quotes (well, paraphrases) her answering a question at SMX today:

    Q: What if I have url.com and the page can be served in any of several languages?
    Maile: This is not good practice. Separate each language out on different URLs.

    My concern is presenting content to search engine spiders at the root URL of multilingual sites, without forcing users who haven’t accepted a cookie to see the home page in a language other than their own. The company I work for has four such sites, each with either two or three languages, and the way they’ve attempted to deal with this issue in the past hasn’t worked. On a couple of sites they use a JS-based redirect for non-cookied users. Because of that, search engines get a blank page.

    On another site, we default to one language, not by redirecting, but by duplicating that language’s home page at the root. As an example, we put the same content on site.com as we have on english.site.com (which is where users who have indicated an actual preference for English go). That’s not a great option, and it’s decidedly bad in a country where you don’t have a single language that’s clearly used more than the others.

  • http://uk.queryclick.com/ Chris Liversidge

    Hi S.P., and hi Bob!

    There’s a neat solution available to ensure Google gets the right page location and language match each time.

    I covered it in an earlier post on SEL, here: http://searchengineland.com/can-new-multilingual-markup-create-advantages-for-big-brand-optimisation-105384

  • http://www.raisemyrank.com/ Bob Gladstein

    OK, so the idea is to use hreflang to let the search engine know that the content exists in different languages on different URLs, and use user-agent detection to determine which URL to display.

    I do still have to make a decision regarding which language I’m going to use for the content on the domain’s home page. It’s just that that’s less of an issue because most users, even if they follow a link to the domain’s root URL, are going to land on the page that displays their language.

    And once I’ve determined where to send the user to get the content in the right language, what method do I use to send them there? Is it a 302 redirect, so domain.com remains indexed even if the server determines that a particular bot should be sent to the french home page at fr.domain.com?


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