How to create an international website using one domain
If you aspire to run a global start-up, one web address can present an easy, unified front to customers. But how do you overcome the main challenges?
An international website using a single domain is often the simplest and most powerful way to establish an online brand that presents a unified face to customers, not just in the home country but around the world.
Any business that seeks to address an international customer base via the web really has two options. The first is to set up a series of sites in target markets using country specific domains such as .co.uk, .fr or .es. It's an approach that's often adopted by internationally minded b2c businesses that want to emphasise a close connection to their local customers by using national or regional web addresses.
But setting up a local site for each territory can be time consuming and expensive in terms of buying and registering a unique web address for each target country. And it can also be a frustrating process. For instance, let's say you want to trade online under your company brand name. If the same name is being used by an overseas company you may be able to register a co.uk address, but find that the .de (Germany) or .fr (France) domains are already taken.
Sticking with a single domain
An often better alternative is to create a universal web address using a single domain such as .com.
This approach has many advantages, not the least of which is that it is quicker and easier to register just one web address, rather than several. Equally important, it makes things easier for the customer. Think of it this way. Anyone who wants to, say, find Microsoft online probably won't resort to a Google search. It's much easier to simply type in the company name followed by .com. It's simple and intuitive. Meanwhile, from the company's point of view, a single domain for the whole world emphasises that this is a global business.
That's not to say that establishing a single domain business across national borders is easy. The fact that you are trading internationally means that you will have to address the expectations of your target customers in each country or region and that can be a complex undertaking.
So what are the challenges of establishing a global site – and how do you overcome them?
Choosing a top level domain
The first step is to choose a domain.
The top level domain is the suffix (.com or .co.uk) at the end of a web address and there are a huge number to choose from. International domains include not only .com, but also .biz, .org, .info and .net.
Generally speaking, many commercial businesses tend to gravitate towards an address ending in .com, in part because customers might try the .com domain first if they're seeking to find a company without using a search engine.
The international web address is a universal gateway, but once customers arrive at the home page, they will usually require a local experience.
This can be achieved relatively easily by deploying software that identifies the location of incoming customers. Thus, if a British customer keys in Microsoft.com, the site directs the individual – based on geography – to a local version of the site.
This is possible because every web browser contains IP (Internet Protocol) information that reveals the approximate geolocation of the user. Once you know that, you can redirect the customer to a particular part of the site.
So how does this work in practice? Well, one way to do it – and this is the case with Yahoo – is to set up a series of country-specific sub-domain addresses. For instance, a UK customer keying in “www.Yahoo.com” is actually directed to www.uk.yahoo.com, a version of the site with British content. Because they are part of a top level domain address, these localised addresses don't have to be registered separately.
Alternatively, you can use a sub-directory. This is really just like a directory on a PC, where specific information can be stored. A directory-defined local web address looks a little different from a sub domain URL. For example, key in Microsoft.com from the UK and you default to Microsoft.com/en-gb/. This defines both the country and the language.
Finally, you can have a single web address such as Google.com, but direct all traffic to local top level domains. Type in Google.com and, as a UK customer with a UK IP address, you normally go straight to Google.co.uk. But again, the local domains have to be registered individually.
It's also worth noting that subdomains and directories can be used to create an experience specific to smartphone or tablet users. The same principles apply. A visitor keying in mysite.com on a smartphone might be directed to www.m.mysite.com.
What does localisation actually mean?
First and foremost, a customer from Spain, France or Brazil will usually expect to see content in their native language.
In effect, that will mean creating versions of the site (in subdomains or directories) that are translated for your target markets, taking into account language and culture. This can be done relatively easily by using design templates based on a globally uniform look and feel to maintain brand consistency. (Services such as BaseKit, Wix and WordPress all offer hundreds of web design templates that you can download to help build a website, or range of websites, quickly and easily).
The look and feel doesn't have to be identical, though. It can be changed in line with local sensibilities.
But localisation doesn't necessarily stop at language. If your business can support it, it's a good idea to provide contact details and phone numbers specific to the market. And in some cases, you may need to change aspects of the product – from packaging through to brand name – to comply with local expectations.
Rules and regulations
It's important to remember that having an international site – regardless of where it is hosted – doesn't free you from the requirement of complying with local trading rules. If you're seriously targeting a market, you need to research the regulatory environment and make sure that your offer is in line with all legal requirements.
To take an example, one jurisdiction's rules on returns policy might be different from another and that, in turn, may have to be reflected not only in the way you conduct business, but also in your published terms and conditions. Once again, you can address differing regulations by tailoring the information on sub-directories or domains to each market.
One key question you should ask yourself is whether you can handle the logistical requirements of an international site. For instance, if you're providing language specific pages for French and German customers, can you deliver physical products in a timely fashion and provide a system that makes it easy for customers to send back goods that aren't suitable?
And if you're fulfilling orders across borders, it's important to comply with all the export regulations and ensure that any additional costs are priced in. Otherwise, you could find yourself losing money.
Try this experiment. Open up Google and key in a product search term, such as “camera” or “iPad.” The on-screen results will likely show a range of results, including retail outlets. The chances are that all the shops on the first page will all be in your own country and perhaps even in your own town. In other words, if you run the search in London, you probably won't see US or Canadian sellers at the top of the list. That's because search engines typically attempt to determine – approximately – where you are and often deliver the content accordingly. Some believe that geolocation information is provided not only by your computer's IP address, but from additional sources such as tool bars or mobile phone tracking.
To deliver relevant content, the search engine must not only know where the searcher is, but also which sites to put at the top of the ranking in terms of their location. But what if you're running an international site? How does Google or another search engine know which markets you are addressing?
Well, this is an area where single domains may be less effective than a series of country-specific addresses, simply because the .co.uk or .es provides an indicator of location. However, Google uses crawlers to tag content. These will pick up localised material and may aid with the ranking process.
However, you can register your country- content with Google, which some believe may also be an aid to targeting. In addition, most search engines will take account of subdomains and local content.
The more general point is that you or your developers will have to design and optimise the localised parts of the site to ensure a good ranking on search engines. Unless you have a good knowledge of SEO (search engine optimisation) this is something that is normally best done by your design agency or a specialist company.
The need for speed
The performance of your website could vary, depending on where in the world your customers are logging on. This represents more than an inconvenience for potential buyers. As long ago as 2010, Google announced that speed would be taken into consideration as part of the ranking process.
Tools are available to monitor performance, enabling site owners to identify and rectify problems.
In the case of e-commerce, a truly international site will allow customers to pay in their own currencies. It won't necessarily be a deal breaker – if you ask a US consumer to pay in sterling, credit cards will handle that without a problem – but a single currency option makes pricing less than transparent and may ultimately reduce your conversion rates.
The answer is to find a payment provider that enables you to charge in multiple currencies across your local site.
An international site containing subdomains or subdirectories with local content is a multi-faceted creation. Put simply, localisation means you will have more pages targeting not one, but many audience groups and that complexity impacts on security and privacy policies. You may, for example, need to comply with national or regional rules relating to how data is stored, processed and secured and that in itself can be something of an undertaking.
You should also be prepared to adapt to local expectations. To take an example, British consumers are accustomed to occasionally having to supply a bank password before a transaction is completed. This would be a deal breaker in the US.
If you intend to establish a global brand, then a site accessed by a single domain name may be the best solution. But remember that thinking global often requires you to think local as well.
This article is a part of the ‘Getting Online’ series sponsored by Verisign