Fierce competitors Nike & Adidas make for a compelling study of differing approaches to internationalizing your website… and salutary lessons in what can go wrong for even the biggest brands’ international SEO campaigns.
Fundamentally, there are two domain architectures to consider for your international brand: a single top-level domain (TLD) or multiple TLDs (e.g., .com, .co.uk, .fr, .de, etc.). In theory, both are equally valid options and can deliver exactly the same level of SEO benefit.
In practice, the two options have wildly different risks and challenges that should be considered when choosing an international structure (and when auditing your international SEO technical platform).
Nike has taken the single TLD approach, hosting all of their multinational content on the nike.com domain and generally redirecting the various local TLDs to that domain:
(Unfortunately, not all nike.[TLD] variations fit so easily into that pattern. See nike.co.uk, which redirects to a UK company called “Nike Computing.” I’m not sure how much traffic nike.co.uk gets from accidental visits, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it may be significantly higher than the number correctly looking to purchase miscellaneous IT supplies….)
Meanwhile, Adidas has taken the multiple TLD approach:
The theory is that these structures are exactly the same for SEO. The reality is there are a number of issues that can trip up either structure. Let’s look at issues for our two test cases.
Adidas & Multi-TLD SEO
One of the greatest benefits a single domain multinational business has for SEO is an ability to perform very strongly in multiple target country search engines thanks to a strong backlink profile. Google’s treatment of hreflang should translate that ability across multiple top-level domains. In reality, if your implementation is slightly off, you’ll lose that ability with catastrophic impact on your rankings in all territories.
One issue that can cause that drop off is performing server redirects to the “correct” TLD based on IP location. This behavior is performed by Adidas on its main .com domain currently.
In other words, try to access Adidas.com from the UK, and you’ll receive a 302 to Adidas.co.uk. (A 302 is a temporary rather than permanent (301) redirect, and is known to cause issues in the wild, despite Google’s assurances to the contrary.) Adidas has set up this redirect based solely on your IP address location, and it is independent of cookies.
Why is this a problem? Well, aside from the 302 issue, Google attempts to spider websites from all over the world, so they will get different redirect rules for the same URLs for IPs in different countries. That’s a serious problem for indexing.
When we have a client with an issue like that at QueryClick, we usually find massive duplication issues as a result, and the wrong country version URLs performing in all countries. This is often the case even after implementing hreflang mapping over and above this behavior.
How can you tackle this issue? The correct hreflang implementation to use — one that retains the IP redirect behavior currently in play on Adidas.com — is to nominate the .com as the X-Default either in HTML hreflang tags, or via an XML sitemap (again using the hreflang schema).
Sadly (for Adidas), there is no evidence of HTML hreflang tags, and when I tried to access their sitemap.xmls (listed in their robots.txt, via an index sitemap.xml) they both returned 404 not found errors. Oops!
I managed to get some XMLs to return on the other TLDs and found no hreflang information there. The only other way to supply location is via Webmaster Tools, and it is possible that additional XML sitemaps are listed there and not in the robots.txt. (Still, this would make them only effective for Google and would represent a point of easy failure, so is not recommended.)
However, solving the 302 redirection would not be possible just using location settings in Webmaster accounts, as there is no X-Default option available with this method (at time of writing!).
In addition to this 302 issue, Adidas is also struggling to migrate a number of counties from their .com onto their (new) TLDs. Witness their site operator index showing Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Germany, and more located to the .com, shown here:
Yet, visiting any of these links triggers a 301 redirect to the local TLD.
Oh dear, Adidas! You won’t be gaining much backlink value internationally from that approach.
To get an idea of the impact of this problem, consider the below graph. It shows the main Adidas.com backlink data (from the excellent ahrefs.com), with millions of links. With a correctly hreflang-ed international solution, the total amount of links to all domains would be considered aggregate, and all domains would perform as if they had that profile in addition to their own and all other associated domains.
Impact? Adidas would probably capture exponential organic traffic increases in all international territories within a few weeks. Worst case, that’s potentially tens of millions of dollars each year left on the table for their competitors in all countries outside the U.S.
Oh dear. What would Run DMC say?
So, Adidas has a pretty serious issue with their architecture. What about Nike? They should be safer with their single domain approach, right?
Nike (Goddess Of Messing Up International SEO) & Single TLD
Here’s the issue. Remember the graph showing how their redirects work? Well, they’re all cookie-powered.
Try to hit, say, nike.ca with a user-agent that rejects cookies (as Google’s does), and you’ll be given a 302 to the same URL; essentially, the redirect fails.
That’s Googlebot’s default behavior, so those TLDs are not passing backlink value to the .com with cookie-dependant redirects. That’s a major fail. Multiply the issue by all the TLDs involved (and it looks like most of them have ~10k+ backlinks) and that serious local backlink opportunity left on the table.
However, it gets worse: there’s no evidence of hreflang HTML or sitemaps listed in the robots.txt (although there’s an excellent bit of branding in there as an easter egg — check it out).
Now, it may be the case that Nike’s trying to handle all of this localization via Webmaster tools, and that would allow localization to be effective, but there are a number of issues with this approach.
- It’s not possible to effectively handle X-Default, which is needed.
- Should someone change a single dropdown option against one of the territories, your rankings are gone. Immediately. That’s scary.
- If there’s any duplication issue at all onsite (and there is!), then this localization can fail to be correctly applied. Again, this is from experience in the “wild.”
- Check out these local homepages — that’s awful localization!
Location Selectors: Why Does Everyone Hate Them?
Why can no one get regional and language selectors right?
It’s not that hard to get a visual and local language solution in place that’s easier to find than a flag tucked away in the footer of the page — especially one that is regularly covered by your browser’s URL target information box.
There’s a great post (from 2012!) about how to handle this (and X-Default) more elegantly for the SEO and Conversion Rate win.
I’d call this race for the worst international SEO a tie. There are definitely no winners!