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Global vs. Local Websites: Which Is Right for You?

To effectively reach out to audiences from different countries, owners of global websites must always keep these key aspects in mind.

Global vs. Local Websites: Which Is Right for You?

When it comes to international SEO, geotargeting is one of the first things that come to people’s minds. If not implemented correctly, geotargeting can cause huge headaches for global websites.

From domain and hosting location to localization and hreflang to IP detection, the geotargeting is typically discussed in the context of technical SEO – in relation to how Google and other search engines determine the target location of a website.

But we don’t create a website for the search engines. We create a website hoping to reach the audience.

With global websites, we hope to reach and interact with audiences from different countries.

In order to achieve that, there are laws and regulations website owners must keep in mind and, most importantly, comply with.

Combine these regulations with the unique interests and behavior patterns that are different from market to market, it will take a lot more for global websites to stay competitive against existing local websites moving forward.

Data & Privacy-Related Laws & Regulations

It is impossible to list all laws and regulations to do business in different countries around the globe. But two of the most important sets of laws and regulations for the website owners to pay attention are:

As mentioned above, each region, country, or state can set their own, and it can be a broad policy, guidance, a law, or any other types of regulations.

Some are applied to all websites while others are applied to websites for specific scopes such as Government and Public sectors.

In the European Union (EU)

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is probably the most talked about regulation for privacy and data protection.

It regulates the processing by an individual, a company or an organization of personal data relating to individuals in the EU.

In California

The State of California has passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and many companies expect other states to follow suit and enact similar privacy laws in the near future.

Some sites have already responded by showing the cookie consent message to everyone regardless of the access location.

In Japan

The Act on the Protection of Personal Information was first set up in 2005 in Japan, drastically amended in 2016, and has been in full force since 2017. It mandates Japanese websites to post a privacy policy as well as other requirements.

Ecommerce sites are also required to post the information specified in the Commercial Transactions Law.

Even if the website is managed in the U.S., your Japanese website must meet these regulations, especially if you have a physical presence in Japan.

US footerApple Inc. U.S. Website Footer
UK footerApple Inc. U.K. Website Footer
JP footerApple Inc. Japan Website Footer
CN footerApple Inc. China Website Footer

The above images are from the footer on Apple’s websites in the U.S., U.K., Japan, and China.

In addition to a standard privacy policy, the U.K. site has a page about the use of cookies in relation to GDPR.

On the Chinese site, they indicate the website registration number below footer links as required by Chinese regulations.

Accessibility-Related Laws & Regulations

Last month, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made headlines when a federal lawsuit against Taco Bell was filed. While it was against the restaurant, this got many website owners’ attention.

Currently, there are the IT accessibility laws and policies for U.S. federal agencies, and several guidelines and standards to be considered in general including the Information and Communication Technology Standards and Guidelines.

ADA applies to both public and private sectors including websites. In terms of website accessibility, many points will improve overall user experiences for not just people with disabilities but for all website users.

For many countries and regions, including Canada, China, the EU, Japan, and the U.K., accessibility to web content is often a mandatory policy.

W3C has a great overview and country-specific information on web accessibility laws and policies.

Just like the data and privacy laws and regulations, each country has different requirements for accessibility.

It’s a growing task for website owners to keep up with these rapidly changing requirements, especially for global site owners. Failure to adhere to them can be costly financially and negatively impact brand image.

Local Trends & Competitors

I work closely with websites targeting the Asian market, so I can usually tell if the site is a local company site or global company’s local site from the design and content.

The difference is not caused by the design skill, but usually with how much they understand the local market and the target audience.

Perhaps the easiest way to show this difference is to compare the website’s design. The layout, color scheme, and images are also other telltale signs of where the site was originally created.

For ecommerce sites, how people expect to pay for the orders is also different from country to country. The exchange and return policy are another difference among countries.

While these differences don’t impact the entire site, it can cause customers to abandon the shopping cart.

The differences in the local interests are reflected in website content, too. Often times, global sites’ content is determined by the HQ country, while local competitor websites have content that is designed to satisfy the specific interests of the local audiences.

The inability to satisfy the local searcher’s intent can cause a huge business opportunity loss to the global website.

Now that Google kicked off BERT, poorly localized content that is not particularly written for local audiences won’t be competitive in the search results, either.

Winter boots leather USWinter boots leather Japan

(Product images reflecting the local interests: U.S. and Japan “winter boots leather” Google search results)

One Global Website vs. Multiple Local Websites

If you have global sites under one domain using the same webpage templates for all country websites, create a list of must-meet regulation points from all concerned countries, and implement them regardless of the target country.

While it seems like an enormous task, if you have a smaller team or don’t have a team in each country, this is the best option for you to cover all bases.

In this case, having someone responsible for reviewing and keeping up with laws and regulations would be helpful as these are updated from time to time.

You may want to consider creating a separate website for each target country if you have:

  • A good number of team members in each local country to manage the website.
  • Enough budget to support it.

Even if you separate the sites by regions with similar laws and regulations or similar user and cultural trends, it would give you more flexibility, be better compliant, and properly designed for local audiences.

For example, instead of setting up multiple country and language sites within the EU under one domain set up for the EU market, it is probably easier to manage the website design and content for a specific audience in each country in the EU.

The countries in Central and South America may be another target market that works with one domain with multiple country sites.

Considering the multiple characteristics of the Chinese market – from Baidu’s capability and algorithms to connection speed, website registration policy, and cybersecurity law (a.k.a. “Great Firewall of China”) it may make sense to create a separate Chinese website to many companies that consider China as one of their important markets.

When you have a separate website, you can host it in the country to help improve the download speed.

It is easier to obtain ccTLD with the website registered with the Chinese government and provide the content designed specifically for the Chinese audience.

Final Thoughts

Having a separate website for each target country offers many more options and flexibility to be compliant with the local laws and policies and reflect the local interests to the content and website design.

These are also great for geotargeting in SEO, which is one of the biggest concerns for many global website owners. However, it comes with an increased overhead cost.

It is not impossible to meet the local laws and policies with one domain global website.

As Apple and some of the other global corporations are doing, you can provide local unique content even with different website designs.

Either way, I recommend that site owners keep track of the requirements and understand the different local interests so that they can decide which website set-up is the better option for them.

More Resources:

Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, October 2019


Motoko Hunt

President, International Search Marketing at AJPR

Since Motoko established AJPR in 1998, she has been providing the online marketing services targeting Japan, Asia and other markets ...

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