For Canadian businesses who are looking to expand to target US users (and vice versa, for that matter), knowing how to go about it can seem daunting and complex.
Do you use subdomains? Or folders? Or register a whole new domain? Do you need the .com and the .ca versions? And what about currency switching? User location detection and redirecting?
We’ve helped countless businesses on both sides of the border to make the leap and expand their geographic reach with international SEO, and these are just a handful of the questions we hear time and time again.
In today’s article, we’re going to answer all of those international SEO questions, and our goal is to give you a clear roadmap for how to successfully target both US and Canadian searchers using the exact strategies we implement for our clients.
Let’s do this.
Here are the basic steps we’re going to go through:
- Choose your domain and URL strategy. You’ve got 4 main options here and we’ll unpack them all shortly, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each and why you might want to choose each one.
- Decide if you need to do location detection and redirection (for most businesses, we recommend not, but some need to for legal or logistical reasons). There are also some very important SEO considerations if you’re going to do this, so make sure you stick around for that or you might end up with a major ranking issue.
- Implement your chosen URL handling strategy.
- Utilize the href lang tag across all URLs and domains to avoid duplicate content issues and to help search engines understand which page is targeted towards which users.
In the next sections, we’re going to drill down into each of these steps one by one, explain all your options, advantages and disadvantages, and run through some common scenarios. We’ll also pause for a short Q+A after each one, but if you have any questions that aren’t covered here or you just want a second set of eyes on your plan, feel free to reach out to us here and one of our SEO specialists will get back to you.
Step 1 – Choosing your domain/URL strategy
Your main options here are:
- .com for US + .ca for Canada
- 1 domain but with 2 subdomains. E.g. ca.example.com + us.example.com
- 1 domain with folders/directories. E.g. example.com/ca/ + example.com/us/
- 2 different domains, e.g. example.com for Canada and example2.com for US (this one’s less common, but still an option if the .com or .ca version of your original domain isn’t available, but you’re set on using 2 domains).
We’ve got clients who have successfully used each of these strategies, and there isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it.
As long as you understand the implications of each, it’s mostly about how you implement your chosen strategy, rather than which strategy you use.
Everything else being equal, we usually recommend using both the .com and .ca versions of your domain for US and Canadian audiences respectively. If that’s not an option, either subdomains, folders/directories on one domain, or two completely different domains are all equally viable options from an SEO perspective.
Step 2 – Location Detection and Redirection
Do you really need location redirection?
Paul Teddy, from WPRemote, sums up the potential use cases for geo location redirection based on users IP addresses:
- The branding for the website is distinct in different regions and may cause confusion.
- The brand is not able to provide the same products or services in all regions.
- The brand is not able to fulfill shipping orders across regions.
- There is a significant drop-off when transitioning from one version of the site to another.
- Google or another search engine is habitually serving the wrong version of a page in some or even all regions.
If you fit into any of those situations, an IP based redirect might be a good solution, but just be aware of the potential pitfalls we’ll discuss below and consult with an expert if you’re in doubt.
If you don’t fit into any of the above scenarios, we’d probably urge you to consider a popup prompt that asks the user if they want to switch to a different version of the site, instead of auto redirecting them.
This is generally a much safer SEO option and can often lead to a better user experience too.
I need geo redirection. How can I do it without hurting my rankings?
This part is probably where we see the most frequent mistakes, in terms of getting the technical SEO implementation correct.
Unfortunately, it’s also the point where you can have some really serious ranking consequences if you don’t get it right.
Honestly, it’s a huge topic and a complex one, and one that we’ll probably need to cover separately in its own post. For today though, we’ll stick to talking about it on a high level so you can decide if it should be a part of your international SEO strategy and also arm you with what you need to avoid the most common problems with regards implementation.
What’s the problem exactly?
Google crawls websites with a spider or user agent called Googlebot.
Googlebot runs from a number of IP addresses – most of which are located in the US.
If you implement a blanket rule for location detection based on IP address and redirect users accordingly, there’s a good chance that Googlebot will only ever be able to see the US version of your site.
That’ll be a problem if you want to get, say, a Canadian version of the site crawled, indexed and ranking in Google Canada.
Google’s John Mueller had this to say in a recent Ask Goolgbot Q+A session:
“The most important aspect here is that Googlebot usually crawls and indexes a website just from a single location. If you’re showing different content by location only one version will be indexed for search. Because of that, if there’s something you consider important on your website, make sure it’s on the default content that’s shown to all users. And finally, if there’s any page you want to have findable in search, make sure that you’re not blocking users in other locations from reaching that page.”
You can watch the full video that quote is taken from on YouTube here.
That last sentence in John’s quote, is the key.
“…make sure that you’re not blocking users in other locations from reaching that page”.
It’s OK to redirect based on IP location if you need to, but make sure you include a way for users to navigate to the alternate version(s) of the page and bypass the redirect too.
A country switcher option in the top header of every page on the site is a good way to handle this.
If a user in the US loads up your .ca page, it’s fine to redirect them to the com one automatically, but make sure you have a clear and easy button they can click if they do in fact want to access the .ca version of that page.
For extra Google ranking brownie points, ensure that clicking that button takes them to the alternate version of the exact page they were on – not just to the home page of the alt version.
And finally, make sure you read Step 4 in this guide too as that’ll be extra important to make sure you keep things as clean and simple as possible for Google to understand your sites.
Don’t do location detection and auto redirection unless you have to. If you do have to, make sure you have the option for users to manually switch back and forth between versions and bypass the redirection.
Step 3 – Implement your chosen URL handling strategy
We’d highly recommend consulting with an SEO specialist or even a web developer for this step, as the steps needed will look different depending on which strategy you chose in step 1 above, as well as what CMS you’re using.
Let’s go over some of the most common scenarios.
If you don’t find one that fits your situation below, or even if you do but you just have questions or want to chat, drop us a message using the “ask a question” form on the right of this post and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
“I’m on Shopify and want to use both .com and .ca domains”
- In shopify, go to Settings – Domains
- Click “connect existing domain” and follow the steps to connect the other version of your domain into your main shopify account
- Click “manage” next to the domain you just added
- Click “Don’t redirect to the primary domain”
- Select the language and country for that new domain
- Click save.
Both domains should now resolve.
“I’m on Shopify and want to use subdomains”
- Log into your domain name registrar
- Set up a new subdomain – steps for doing this will vary depending on where your domain is registered, so check your registrars help docs if you’re unsure or ask their support teams.
- Follow the same steps 1-5 in the section right above this, and treat the sub domains in the same way you would treat different .com and .ca domains within your Shopify backend.
“I’m on WordPress”
The easiest way to do this on WordPress is to use a plugin.
We really like WPML.
If you use WPML, the process is exactly the same no matter whether you’re using .com and .ca domains, different domains entirely, folders/directories or subdomains.
Simply install the plugin and follow the steps in the setup wizzard.
Step 4 – Href Lang Tags & Avoiding Duplicate Content
By this stage, you’ve evaluated the pros and cons of each possible solution, chosen the right one for you, and got your solution working – whether that’s sub domains, directories or different domains.
There’s one final step you need to take care of though, to help make sure your site can rank in both Google US and Google Canada simultaneously, without triggering any duplicate content based penalties.
You need to help Google understand which version of each page is aimed at Canadian users, and which version is aimed at US users.
And you can do that with something called a href lang tag.
Without the href lang tags, there’s a risk that Google may see the 2 different versions of your site as duplicates, without realizing the US/CA connection.
A href lang tag is a short snippet of HTML code that sits in the <head> section of every page across both versions of the site, and it tells Google:
- Which language and region this page is aimed at
- The URL(s) of the alternate version(s) of this page
- The language and region that these alternate version(s) are aimed at
Here’s a quick overview of how it looks:
If you’re page was, for example, http://example.com/page-a , this is the line of code you’d need to place into the <head> section:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.ca/page-a” hreflang=”en-ca” />
And vice versa, if on http://example.ca/page-a your code would look like this:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://example.com/page-a” hreflang=”en-us” />
“en-ca” and “en-us” are ISO country codes where the 2st half is the language and the 2nd half is the region.
So “fr-ca”, for another example, would be French language for Canadian users.
This href lang tags code needs to be implemented across every page on both versions of your site.
If you couple this with the steps above, you’ll be on a great track for successful rankings in both the US and Canada.
Matt is Marwick Marketing's Division Leader for SEO & Web Development and has over a decade of digital marketing experience in everything from local to national and international campaigns. He's led high impact strategies for major brands and currently oversees Marwick's global SEO and Web services.