No, this is not another top-level domain vs. sub domain article but one that goes more to a deeper problem global companies are having with a haphazard approach to their local language content management. I have seen far too many global companies large and small cobble together local language sites that make Frankenstein look like the statue of David.
Many just append local market content to the root domain and let it dangle there without any real connection to the main site. Other sites others are using content management systems (CMS) that simply append a country or language parameters to the URL and hope the content they are pulling is the correct. Here are some examples of how to and how not to manage your local language content.
Regional content segmentation
Problems often start when companies enter a new region and don’t have a lot of local content, so they cluster region-centric content in either English or a major local language such as Spanish or Arabic. These regions typically mirror their equally dysfunctional corporate silos. Larger, more aggressively expanding companies will often do this while they are spinning out local content segments, while others believe it is a perfectly acceptable strategy.
I will leave it to a properly trained linguist like my fellow Multinational Search columnist Andy Atkins-Krüger to rant on the linguistic and cultural injustices of this segmentation. Sadly, apart from the obvious currency and ecommerce challenges, from a web operations standpoint there is nothing wrong with this level of segmentation.
It often starts with the most common regional segmentation, APAC (aka “Asia Pacific”) which typically covers the thirty-plus countries of the western Pacific Ocean, Southeast Asia and sometimes reaching into India and parts of the Middle East. This region has many languages, currencies and customs but companies simply lump them into a section of the site affectionately segmented as /apac or /AP.
The Middle East often gets the least localization love, where companies lump all of their Arabic language content into a single “ME” segment designed to represent the 26 countries that use Arabic as an official language. Companies with larger representation in the UAE or Saudi Arabia will often have sites for those locations but not much additional content for other Middle Eastern countries.
The same goes for creating a single Spanish language site and putting it into an “es” or “sp” directory and expecting it to be indexed and ranked well in all 22 Spanish-speaking countries around the world.
While the larger search engines have had aggregate language (Arabic or Spanish) versions of their search engines for years, the trend of late is to redirect searchers to the local country version of the search engine. This triggers local country filtering which means content which is Spanish (for example), without any indication of applicability to a specific country, will typically not perform well for any individual country.
This is further amplified because Google’s geographical targeting cannot be set for regions. You can pick a single country and map the region to that country; however, that will then isolate that region to a country thereby guaranteeing you will not rank well in any other language version of the search engine. While limiting, this may be your best option, if, for example, you are better equipped to do business in Saudi Arabia than Egypt. This will allow you to gain more traction a single country, even as you develop content for the rest of the region.
Country and language URL parameters
While there are challenges with regional segmentation, they are minor compared to the challenges experienced by companies segmenting local content using CMS tools that insert country and language parameters in URLs. These parameters are used to call the specific language content from the database or point to a specific subdirectory where the local content is maintained. Unfortunately, I have found few companies that develop uniform parameters across business lines and countries that can be used to isolate local language content.
Companies that opt to use language parameters in their URL structures should not over-complicate the URL, add too many parameters or be overly cryptic. Note in the table below the various parameters companies have used for segmenting major countries.
The key to maximum success is to not let language and country parameters extend your URL length or add unnecessary parameters, as in the case of the Acer URL structure. Half of the characters of the URL are doing nothing more than setting country and language codes—something that can be handled more efficiently using different techniques.
While the Dell example which indicates Sweden and Swedish in the URL parameters (“c=se” and “l=sv”) there is currently no provision in Google Webmaster tools to indicate that this content is for Sweden. Hopefully in the future Google will allow a variation of the current parameter setting to be used for geographical settings as well.
Country and language directories
The most efficient of the common language handing options is to use sub-directories but these can get out of control fast if companies do not have the proper management system in place to rein in regions and business units.
In the case of Mercedes, there is no way to set the Google geographical setting for the Honduras since the URL lacks any segment to indicate the local market other than page name.
The Oracle example is an example of the “lang” and “global” directories being extraneous, and is most likely legacy code. There are many enterprise sites that have hundreds of URL variations thanks to country/language variables in URLs.
Here are a few examples of IBM URLs from the same site for the same service category, but with different URL’s structures and the location of the country designator within the same site.
Setting Google geographical targets for these segments is a significant resource challenge due to the country code being placed in a different directory position in each country, further complicated by the country-level servers all having different numerical server names requiring different listings for each in Webmaster tools.
These segmentation challenges further demonstrate why the SEO team needs to be better aligned with the web operations teams of large companies. They also call our for more rigid web content management standards. Beyond an SEO problem, these types of issues create problems that can adversely effect linking, but more importantly usability and customer satisfaction as well. Most of these issues could be effectively managed if the teams knew the downstream implications of their lack of control of content segmentation.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.