Recently a prospective client asked how best to handle international versions of their online content. They will have different versions of their copy in different languages. Should they create separate websites? Use subdomains? Or use folders in the main site?
The use of separate websites, e.g. www.company.cn vs. www.company.be, has only one SEO advantage over other method: each domain can utilize country-specific Top Level Domains (TLD’s) like .cn for China or .be for Belgium. Many search engines, particularly those that focus on a particular region, may confer some ranking credit for using the TLD of that region. Using the country or region name in the URL may also confer some benefit for localized queries, however this technique is not limited solely to the use of separate websites. A significant drawback of this technique is that backlinking efforts will have been spread across multiple sites, thus diluting their effect.
The use of separate subdomains, e.g. china.company.com vs. belgium.company.com, loses the benefit of the TLD, but it automatically incorporates the region’s name in the URL. However, search engines usually treat subdomains as partly to entirely separate websites, thus this technique also suffers from backlink dilution.
The best and most common technique for internationalization while preserving SEO benefits is to use separate folders on the primary domain. E.g. www.company.com/china/ versus www.company.com/belgium/. While there will now only be one site that can rank well, the concentration of link-building efforts is much more likely to achieve higher search rankings in many languages. This technique also allows the region name to be incorporated into the URL which helps with region-specific search queries.