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International SEO and the perils of duplicate content

Asad Imam
Asad Imam
Search Director
6 March 2012

Many brands are considering the huge potential of international expansion in the current economic climate and international SEO definitely presents a unique series of challenges for any digital marketer.

There are three main strategies that are available in optimising internationally:

  • Option 1: New country-specific domains – hosting the international presences on entirely new domains i.e. www.xyz.ie or www.xyz.fr
  • Option 2: Sub-folders – continuing to host in the current format, creating a different sub-folder for each different country required i.e. www.xyz.com/ie or www.xyz.com/fr
  • Option 3: Sub-domains – hosting the different countries on sub-domains of the site, i.e. fr.xyz.com or ie.xyz.com

None of these options are exclusive. Each of the options/routes can also be combined with others. For example brands may choose country specific domains for some countries and then sub-folders and sub-domains for the others. And each of these options has pros and cons – for more details on these this piece Multi-regional and multilingual sites on Google Webmaster Tools is very useful.

This blog is going to focus on Option 2 because of its widespread use, which is down to its cost effectiveness and easy implementation. Let’s take a look at duplicate content and how interesting this option could become:

  • If you use only 1 language – mainly English
  • If you have added rel=canonical on the preferred version of the pages
  • If your primary goal is to optimise for one of the territories, but with the knowledge that at some point you will want to optimise others too
  • If you use /Europe or /Asia as sub-folders and not add a further country coded sub-folder say www.xyz/Europe/France.com
  • If for a solution you have to choose between GWT settings, rel=alternate hreflang=’x’

Duplicate content:

If you are using a single language (say English) to target different countries with only minor currency-based changes on the pages then no matter which of the three options you chose you inherently create a ‘duplicate content’ scenario for yourself.

Duplicate content is obviously a problem you want to avoid – and also one that Google isn’t incredibly helpful about preventing. In an ideal, Google-powered, world every page would be unique. But as we all know, that’s not as simple as it sounds.

There are a lot of potential ways to solve or work-around duplicate content, but none of them are guaranteed – all sites are different, so a lot of it is best-guess work. And, like many things in SEO, you can’t ever predict the results until you test it out. So you have to find the best (and simplest) solution for your site before anything is put in place.

rel=canonical & rel=alternate hreflang=’x’

If your goal is to simply protect the rankings and search engine traffic for a preferred regional version of the pages at the detriment of the all others versions then adding a rel=canonical to the preferred (say, UK) version is the simplest solution.

However, if you are trying to optimise for one of the territories, but with the knowledge that at some point you will want to optimise others too, then you have to choose a solution which will allow you retain rel=canonical on your preferred version of the pages as well as provide you the flexibility to target other regions. This is where combining rel=canonical & rel=alternate hreflang=’x’ is very handy.

After implementing it Google knows about your ‘master’ or default version of the webpages and understands that the other variations in the URL are to be served only if the user is searching in that location.

GWT geo-targeting vs. rel=alternate hreflang=’x’

Brands are often quite hesitant to take the above solution to their web team simply because it’s a page-level rather than a site-level solution, which means it can be time-consuming and expensive. But, if the basics have been implemented by the web developers in the first place the SEO manager can simply use GWT and rel=canonical.

What are the basics?

If  www.xyz.com is your master website (with rel=canonical on each URLs) and you have properly set-up European versions of the website i.e. www.xyz.com/fr or www.xyz.com/de etc, then using GWT you can easily tackle duplicate content and geo-target at the same time.

However, if you have a region specific sub-folder say www.xyz.com/Europe and do not have country specific folders following the GWT route means it’s impossible to target all countries in that region as GWT geo-targeting only allows one country. One obvious solution to the latter would be to add a country specific sub-folder after /Europe say /Europe/Fr. However, this may lead to a massive 404 and 301 redirect situation as it would essentially have been a URL change.

Remember, as in so many things, planning ahead for SEO when planning a marketing strategy and building your sites and domains saves time and money later on. For international SEO, the solution that might seem more time-consuming/expensive at construction stage turns out to make life much simpler later on (unique ccTLDs and Unique content – no penalty, easy link building etc.). Conversely, the solution that’s much simpler to set-up properly in the first place (sub-folders/sub-domains) actually turns out to be much costlier later if it’s NOT implemented properly -  not just in terms of £s but, more importantly, in the incalculable cost you may pay in Google penalties due to your duplicate content.

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