This isn’t the first time venerable British brand Marks and Spencers has graced the 4Ps blog (that’s what happens when you’re a favourite brand of the agency’s head of SEO) but this time we’re going to step off the UK high street to have a look at their international structure. Econsultancy already noted some interesting UX issues at launch with the new antipodean website over on their blog but how does the SEO setup look for the brand’s international presence overall?

The first thing I noticed is the inconsistent approach – always a bit of an alarm bell. The domain setup as reached from the main www.marksandspencer.com reveals the .com for the UK, www.marksandspencer.eu with language/location options for various EU territories, www.marksandspencer.fr for France (in both English and French) and www.marksandspencer.ie for Ireland.

Marks & Spencer International Selector

No link to the new Australia/NZ website on the main brand presence…bit of a UX shortfall there. Fortunately I know it is on www.marksandspencerlondon.com with subfolders for NZ and AU respectively. Interestingly the new domain links back to the UK site if you select UK shipping, which raises the question of why that link is only one way. Perhaps a restriction of the different architecture?

M&S Australia Region Selector

So straight away we’ve got a non-uniform structure – a ccTLD for Ireland but then three generic TLDs for Aus/NZ, UK and EU (remember that “EU” is not a “region” recognised by search engines any more than “Asia” would be, and for similar common sense reasons). The IE site probably comes off healthiest of the internationals with this setup, s it is a straightforward top level domain with no additional region or language selectors, although the URL structure on it is pretty diabolical – a couple of experimental clicks revealed this monster:

M&S Ireland URLs

Things are much the same on the .fr and .eu sites, although points to the Aus/NZ site at least for nicely mimicking the URL format already present on the UK .com. Now aside from the fact that URLs with underscores and commas in them are far from SEO friendly, the issue with a non-uniform structure like this is that it makes it hard to systemise the relationship between all the sites. Sure enough, there is no rel alt hreflang tagging set up between the domains. The .eu and .fr domains have all their internal rel alts configured but make no reference to the alternatives available on the main .com or anywhere else. The .ie only includes a self-reference and there’s no hreflang on the new Aus/NZ site at all.

This is a particular problem when playing with multiple top level domains which aren’t country specific, and the lack of a subfolder structure on the FR and EU sites means that it is also impossible to set up geotargeting at the Search Console/Webmaster Tools level to assist in getting the right version of a page served to the right audience. With no cross domain hreflang markup there are a lot of confusing international signals going out to Google, and the meta language tag isn’t set up properly either so goodness only knows what poor Bing is making of the situation.

So chances are that M&S are going to be struggling a lot with self-competition between their domains and language/location page variants, especially when the content is still in English, and are probably struggling to get the right URLs to surface where they want them. The use of brand new top level domains with little to no accumulated authority will likely mean that the UK .com still takes priority for most queries, so the overseas M&S experience may be somewhat lacking for users entering from an organic search touchpoint.

What Can We Learn?

When it comes to serving international content the first question to ask is what you’re going to be serving to different visitors. If the answer is just currency and delivery options then really you shouldn’t be playing about with multiple URLs at all – Harrods, for example, gives you the marvellously-executed option to choose your delivery and currency options without impacting the URL you see.

Harrods International

No duplication, no self-competition worries, nice and clean. ASOS only offers particular URLs where it actually has a distinctive offering to make – either a fully translated site like asos.de or another English site with a tailored product range and content bespoke to that audience, as with asos.com/au/ – and makes appropriate use of hreflang tags to indicate to search engines which version is aimed at which country and language audience across its (admittedly rather oddball collection of) top level and subdomains.

ASOS International

The mistake a lot of brands sadly make is thinking that currency and delivery options are somehow all you need to make your content “different” enough to warrant its own “version” of a site. In fact a lot of big brands will just go ahead and implement tons of 99% duplicated URLs to “go international” before they even bring their search considerations into the scenario. This brings us almost inevitably back to the user experience portion of SEO – are you offering something to a user in country B that is really tailored and useful to them compared to a user in country A?

If you’re basically giving the first user the same thing as the second user (content, product range, even product descriptions) but with different currency symbols and an option to deliver, there isn’t really justification for having a whole other site version as it’ll just get confusing for people and cause issues with search engines. Remember hreflang markup is not there to handle duplication like some kind of international canonical tag – it is there to specify that this URL is aimed at this user and this URL is an alternative aimed at that type of user.

Hreflang Not Canonical

If on the other hand you’re offering the second user a genuinely localised experience – bespoke content for them as an audience, tailored ranges for their seasons, making sure you’re spelling things the way they do and use the right idioms so they know what you’re talking about – then you have a justification for offering another “version” of your site with its own URLs to offer a clear differentiation between the two.

That’s when technical setup like rel alt hreflang, Search Console subfolder geotargeting and meta language tags need to enter play to send the strongest possible signals to search engines to help them serve the right version of a page to the right user – and if you are making use of multiple top level domains, make sure everything is wired up behind the scenes to communicate so you can get the markup you need across all site iterations.

With the new site aimed at Australia and New Zealand, M&S have certainly paid attention to the biggest caveat I usually end up warning brands about when venturing internationally – go local with your content or go home! There’s still some work to be done on the merchandising front (as Ben Davis on Econsultancy quite rightly points out, a “thong” is a very different article of clothing in Australia, but this is not reflected in the M&S Australia site search!) but I would be just as worried about the inherent inconsistencies and gaps in the technical setup. Lacklustre organic performance through self-competition is one of the biggest risks when taking a site international, and I’d hate to see a brand like this suffer through it when their antipodean offering is otherwise off to such a promising start.

Thong In Australia
One of these things is a thong in Australia…and one of them is not!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an aunt living in Queensland who is going to be very excited to learn that she can buy M&S bras without having to pay a fortune for overseas shipping…

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