When It Comes to Multilingual and Multi-regional Sites, Which URL Structure is Stronger?

When it comes to Multilingual and multi-regional sites, Google suggests two set-ups when it comes to the url structure for different versions of the site for multi-languages and multi-regions. These are the use of subdomain or a subdirectory. 

For example, if you were setting up a French version of your site, you would be using the “fr” identifier as:

If you had a page for a specific keyword, the structures would be:

The question now is, which structure is better between the two? Is there really a difference? Will one be able to rank better than the other? 

Generally speaking, both structures are presented as “equal” in the eyes of Google. Some experts have weighed in on the issue and most prefer the subdirectories structure. In particular, MOZ is all about subdirectories. 

Here is an interesting discussion in the MOZ community forum where someone questions Rand Fishkin about it and he responds with what he calls “data not opinion”: https://moz.com/community/q/the-great-subdomain-vs-subfolder-d ebate-what-is-the-best-answer.

While we completely respect the examples that Fishkin provided, these are not tests, rather, they are anecdotal evidence of something that might be true but might also not be true. While we think that most SEOs would agree that subdirectories are the way to go, we in the SIA, chose to test it and see what the real deal is.

Test Set-up

Two tests were set up for this particular test. The first test is set up focusing on just the homepage of both structures – fr.mysite.com VS mysite.com/fr. The homepages were optimized exactly the same.

For test two, it focuses on the situation where you might want to rank for a particular keywords using an internal page of the site – es.mysite.com/target-keyword or mysite.com/es/targetkeyword. The pages had the exact same optimization for the target keyword.


For both test 1 (homepage) and test 2 (internal target page), the subdomain version won. These are some pretty cool results and are the opposite of what we thought would happen. 

An obvious drawback of the tests is that we were only running two page tests (subdomain vs subdirectory) and they might not be as reliable as multi-page tests. However, the test was ran two more times and the results came up the same each time, with the subdomain version winning all the tests done. 

We do have a huge caveat. If your site is currently ranking, we recommend not changing the url structure. There are far too many examples of people moving content and getting ranking drops. We would only consider the structure change for new content or content that is not ranking. We think that the benefit of a particular structure does not outweigh the ranking signal of aged content. If you move content from one place to another, Google may see it as new content and factor that into its algorithm accordingly. 

Clint’s Feedback

Check out Clint’s feedback on whether to go for subdomain or subdirectory for multi-language or multi-regional sites below.

This is test number 45 – Subdomains vs Subdirectories.

We’re actually talking more about using sub domains versus sub directories, when making multiple copies of your website, and then translating them into different languages, i.e. Spanish, French, Russian, whatever. 

And this is really important, especially if your target audience is in multiple markets, and they’re not primarily English speaking, you want to reach out to more of them.

For the most part though, probably a general small business in any country is probably not going to expand too far beyond their company, their country, or their language base. Just for obvious reasons because scaling at this level gets to be a little bit hard.

It is not to say that you can’t target multiple keywords in multiple countries with pages just using the keywords. I’ve ranked Over the top SEO for example, like when I was a head SEO over there, we ranked in Israel, Brazil, and a bunch of other countries right on the main domain. We didn’t even worry about creating sub directories or sub folders, we just taught the algorithm what our page was about and we created the content to meet that. We didn’t translate anything, so everything was in English, but we ranked in Brazil, the version of Google with our English page, probably not the best for conversions, but it can be done. 

Here’s what we’re actually testing out. Let’s say you want to have a French and Spanish version, for example, or you’re in like where I am , Southwest Arizona, it will probably do me some good to actually have some Spanish versions for let’s say, my Yuma, Tucson, and Phoenix pages because the Hispanic market, and these Hispanic small business community is fairly strong here in the southwest. 

I could do that if I wanted to and the test was looking at – is it better to do it as a sub directory, or a sub domain. 

Now this has been done recently and a whole bunch of other people have seen it and our results were the sub domain won and I think a lot of people at the time, we’re seeing the same thing. They’re seeing that there’s their sub domain won the test, and got the results that they were looking for, versus the sub directory.

But I’ve also seen the inverse of that where people were testing their sub directories versus their sub domains, and the subdomains or subdirectories won

You really got to play with it with your market and see and know exactly what you’re doing, I will tell you, my recommendation would be to actually set up a subdirectories using a hreflang tags to send the different languages to the to the correct translated pages inside of there, and just boost up the overall authority of your one website. 

Let’s say you have a Spanish, French ,and English version, and you’re using the sub domains, that’s three individual websites, those are three individual URLs, and essentially for the purposes of explaining three different domains.

So you’ll have to rank and SEO three websites versus the subdirectory thing where you’re only doing one, and you can let the power in interlinking and all that stuff, kind of boosts everything up together, versus doing it with the subdomain. 

It’s not impossible with subdomains. As a matter of fact, people are still doing it today and still doing it just fine, interlinking their subdomains with their main websites, and inter linking all that stuff together. It just takes about the same amount of work but when you think about duplicating plugins, duplicating code, duplicating changes, duplicating conversion optimization stuff and not only do you only have to do it one time, you got to do it 3, 4, and 5 times depending on how many languages you’re targeting. So keep that in mind as well.

Again, the test. Our tests, subdomains won in both instances of the test. We tested this twice as part of test 45 and that’s how that shaked out for us. This was a while ago so this definitely needs to be looked at again.

And my recommendation would be to use subdirectories because it’s easier and I’m lazy. I worry about translating. That’s that’s a different thing, but if I’m changing the CTAs, and changing the locations of the CTAs, and all that stuff, why do would I want to do it on four different websites when I can do it on the one and the language translations are all still there and I don’t have to redo all that stuff.

So that’s just something to keep in mind, see how much work you want to take on, use the href Lang. That’s what it’s designed for for sub directories. You can use it on subdomains, but it’s designed to help support you with your new sub directories too. And I know at the base time of this test, there was no mention of href lang being used in the sub directories, which could have caused the indication of why the subdomains won. The site was English. And yeah, you had those different sub directories in different languages but did you use href Lang to indicate that and that’s not in the test, it’s not part of the write up in this test. So that needs to be there. That’s why it should be retested and we’ll see how that ends up.

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