My website DrivingTests101.com allows people to study for state-specific, written driving tests across 12 countries (majority English-speaking countries), and we make money thru ads (free for users). A user only cares about a test for their state (or where in the world they are moving to). My server is based in the US and I am getting penalized for this in the UK and Australia.
1. Do you recommend I use sub-directories (by country) or sub-domains?
2 (a). If sub-directories, how can I make Google believe I have a different IP address for each country? Can I continue to use Driving-Tests101.com/[Country Name], or does it have to be the specific de, fr, etc?
2 (b). If sub-domains, what happens to all of the link juice that originally was sent to .com? Is it all lost or split evenly for ca.driving-tests.com, fr.drivingtests.com, etc?
3. How do I avoid getting penalized for similar content on the country-specific sub-domain or sub-directory landing pages?
PS - we only get 5k UV/month, a couple competitors have 500k UV/month and we cover multiple countries/more content, so I know there is a LOT of improvement we can make for SEO
I have been working in SEO for over 10 years and have built search agencies from the ground up. I've also worked with some big brands on International SEO like Active.com, as well as many US based chains like Extended Stay Hotels.
I suggest sub-directories as they are MUCH easier to manage and promote via SEO.
You can't have specific local IPs with sub-directories, but you can with sub-domains. But that's not hyper critical, there are WAY more important factors. Plus, you can geo-target in Google Webmaster Tools. Your current structure for sub-directories is perfect: http://drivingtests101.com/Canada/Ontario
With subdomains, each will be treated like a brand new site. So you would have to work very hard to get each to gain good authority SEO-wise. Plus managing and hosting lots of subdomains is a ton of work!
In order to not get penalized you need to:
Implement the the "lang" and "hreflang" tags in the HTML of each country directory and all pages within.
Have unique Title tags and descriptions written in each language.
Have unique content for each country and state page. Written in each respective language.
Yes, its a TON of work but hey, you are trying to take over the world! If you are serious about international search traffic then you will do these things and the costs should be balanced out with the extra traffic you'll get. If you can make the root domain super authoritative then it will boost ALL of the internal pages. This is also key to ranking well for international search.
I'm open to a follow up call to elaborate on any of my responses or to answer other questions.
There's no way to answer this effectively via a message. If you want to talk about this and get solid info, let me know. As you already know, we are ranked for some of the most competitive terms in the world... So we know our stuff.
SEO is a VERY dangerous field to "get it wrong" in... Because a Google slap is not something you ever fully recover from... Don't risk that.
The new hummingbird update is currently rolling out too... That makes it that much more important to get it right.
Why use either? Set the site up correctly off the bat with WP and use pages and sub pages. Build an authority site, silo correctly and use a good SEO service.
Let me know if you need further advice as I am an SEO specialist.