Thursday, January 13, 2011

International Ranking Factors: URL Best Practices

One of the best ways to get global SEO started on the right foot is to have a URL structure that engines can easily read and understand.  The URL should not only tell spiders what content is most important on your site but also share what country and language the site is relevant to.

CC TLD Importance: Best Case Scenario

There are a number of signals that indicate a site is relevant for international content, and the top level country code domain is one of the strongest.  Server location is another, as Matt Cutts explains in this recent video[i].   We understand that most companies are moving to a central CMS and the server will reside within the US.  Because of this scenario, the TLD will be very important for ranking within country specific engines.  Follow the internationally accepted list of TLD extensions by checking out the official IANA website.[ii]  See examples below.

The top recommendation for a Brazil URL structure would be: or

Additional Note: There are some countries that do not allow the registration of country specific designations with .com (i.e. is an ‘invalid TLD. Therefore will be used. Check with the official IANA website as well as local internet laws for clarification.  

If both the .com and the .country urls are available for registration, it is recommended to register both urls and 301 one URL to the desired live URL.  SEO does not dictate that .com.county has any extra value over .county.  They both give the same signal to the search engines that the content is centric to the given country.  It is not advised that both URLs are live with the same content. 

Distinguishing between Languages

Setting and displaying the content in its proper language is also a key factor.   This becomes increasingly important when dealing with countries with multiple languages (i.e. Canada).  The primary page should always be set in the official language of the represented country (in the case of Canada, it should default to English.  After that, sub-domains should be used for alternative languages.  See examples below.

Canada’s Primary URL:
Canada’s French URL: 

Additional Note: Coding the page with the correct HTML language syntax tag will help engines identify and categorize the language of the site’s content.  This is a simple tag included within the HTML tag at the top of any web page.  See an example for a Portuguese site below.  

<html xmlns="" lang="pt">

You can find an official list at the following website: [iii]


Directory Taxonomy

Organizing and labeling content within a website is of major importance.  Besides increased usability, search engines use the signals of directory name and location to determine relevancy of a particular page.  Hierarchies should follow query intent or should follow a structure that mimics how users search for the website’s content.   For instance, if a directory is talking about “lawn mowers,” then call the directory “lawn-mowers” instead of the more general “products.”  Follow the same mentality for every sub-directory as well (/lawn-mowers/riding-mowers/model-xyz.html)

Also make sure that the website uses the regional word most used.  For example, “lawn mowers” are often just called “mowers” in the US.  Use the Google keyword tool[iv] to research the specific keyword within the desired country to determine how the majority of the population searches for the content in question.  See example below:

Canada URL:
Canada French URL: tondeuse-a-gazon / 

Other basic rules to follow when construction URLs (US or International)

  1. Use hyphens instead of underscores
  2. Try to flatten structure to be 3 directories or higher : www.mydomain.con/directory1/directory2/directory3/page.html
  3. No more than 4 words per directory
  4. Have standard code extensions (html, aspx, php, etc.)
  5. Avoid session ID’s when possible
    1. If session ID’s are required, implement the <rel=canonical > tag and include a sessionid wildcard line in the robots.txt file to reduce effects of duplicate content

International SEO Options without CC TLD’s: Second Choice

CC TLD is the best way to ensure that your company’s content is ranked within the countries’ preferred search engines.  However, business needs may not always accommodate this strategy.   Whether it is due to company structure, global CMS systems, or simply just cost savings, it is ok if you cannot implement the CC LTD’s.  There are two other ways to properly SEO your URLs for international search results.

Basics are Still the Basics

Just because a company cannot purchase and manage a plethora of CC TLD’s does not mean that the best practices of language settings and Directory Taxonomy are not still valid.  In fact, the following 2 methods of URL optimization require that a company follows those two rules even closer.   The CC TLD’s are considered an automatic default for certain content (i.e. if you send mail to a Chicago address, then you would assume that the mail is going to the US).  Given that the presence of the CC TLD is not there, a company has to make sure that it is sending the proper singles to the search engines through proper use of the directory taxonomy and language settings.

Country as a Sub-Domain/ Language as Sub-Directory

The first method is to setup each country as a sub-domain. 

Brazil’s Primary URL:

Engines tend to rank the level of importance of content based on how far from the domain directory.  As a best practice, it is recommended that content should not reside more than 3 levels (example: level-2/ level-3/).   This method allows you to have used one less sub-directory, thus showing a higher level of importance for company’s content.

The downside to this method is that it tends to be a little harder to explain to international counterparts.  It also tends to be more taxing on CMS systems and IT resources (as compared to the last of the two methods). 


Country & Language as a Sub-Directory

The second method is to place each country and language in its own sub-directories.  See example below.

Brazil’s Primary URL:

This method is simple to understand, explain and implement.  The first directory is always the country and the second URL is always the language.  Each directory thus signals to the engine the content is specific that country and language.  The added bonus is that most engines will consolidate link popularity to the sub-domain.  So, if all directories are on one domain, then it is possible that the PR and adverting that a company does in one country can actually help it rank better in another country. 
The downside of this method is that you place one more directory in front of the most important content.  Again, best practice state that you should not have content more than three levels from the domain (example: level-2/ level-3/).  This method already forces the most important content to the 3rd level. 


Region Settings within Webmaster Tools

For Google specifically it is recommended to set region-specific URLs within a standard .com TLD within Google Webmaster Tools. This provides the engines with another signal of international origin and relevance.


Regional Non-Country Specific: Third Option

Business reasons may dictate that a certain country or region has to be lumped into one area.  This presents a problem when it comes to giving the proper signals to the search engines as to the nature of the content.   For instance, a company is starting to enter the Latin American markets and has deemed a small set of countries as top priorities.  However, the company does not want to ignore the other countries because it still has the ability to service those customers.  In this case, the company has dedicated its efforts to those high priority countries and needs a stop gap for the rest of the region. 


Region Structure & Taxonomy

All rules apply as laid out in previous options; however, the directories or sub-domains will be broken out into region instead of country.   Because the engines do not recognize regions, it is important to spell out the region by universally accepted names and in the main region’s language (if possible).  For instance, the main language of Latin America is Spanish.  See example below.
In the cases where a specific language cannot be specified, such as in the EU, it is critical to include as many of the languages as business resources dictate.  Like Latin America, the EU is comprised of several countries and thus will not have an TLD recognized by search engines.   Each major language should be created in different directories.
EU English: /en/
EU Spanish: /es/
EU French: /fr/
EU German: /de/

Make sure to include the language html setting mentioned above.  The importance of these two steps is critical in making sure that the engines understand that this content is specific to that region and language, making the content seam relevant to the consumer’s query.


  1. These are definitely the best practices to consider in SEO. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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  2. This is more like Geo-targeting. Optimize it locally and you’ll get lot traffic and back links on your targeted country.
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  3. I already read a lot of articles that claim to have the "best practices", but this one is as close as it can get to delivering. Great post.

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  4. Right Steven, I arrived at the same conclusion. It's better to optimize on a local scale; it ensures you of a better-targeted market that yields more conversions.

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  5. Nice things to consider. Targeting local searches can be easier than targeting global searches.

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  6. Bradley, though I agree with you, that doesn't apply to all business. Some knowledge-based businesses cater on an international audience and need those hits from global search.
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  7. A URL should contain no unnecessary folders (or words or characters for that matter), for the same reason that a man's pants should contain no unnecessary pleats. The extra fabric is useless and will reduce his likelihood of impressing potential mates. web design

  8. There's really no issue in using hyphens instead of underscores on Search engines result. The only problem is how it would look on your address bar. Hyphen looks cleaner than using underscores.

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  9. I like how you thin Andrea, and I share the same opinion as yours. Those extra folders will bear no fruits and will, in fact, lessen your chances at gaining audience.

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  10. Clear answer but please Google keep in mind there are people that are targeting for example Germany and have a server of blog etc. running in the United States or another country combination. windows dedicated server

  11. It will be much easier if you target local searches and even traffic. You can then optimize your site globally after some time.
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  12. These are long and huge information. You tackled how far SEO and search engine will goes around to enhanced and maintain the web naturally.

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  13. See to it that the address suits your brand. You can also consul with long island seo on the best practices when it comes to marketing.

  14. I do agree that hypen do a lot of help rather than using an underscore. I learned some of my tips from a friend who is a seo consultant in orange county.

  15. Static URL is prefer URL for website. One should avoid symbols like question marks in URL to get best ranking on search engine. Best SEO Company

  16. Most people have URL with various character and the reason behind this is default setting of CMS which we at imcastle seo companythink need to be fix from custom url setting option of CMS

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