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When you set up a multilingual WordPress site using WPML you can choose to have different languages in different domains, in sub-domains or in language folders. This article will explain where each of these options should be used. This isn't a technical question, but rather depends on what you're trying to achieve.

To answer this, we need to think about your site's contents and what appears in each language.

Translated contents or unique contents per language

What's the difference between translated contents and and unique contents per language?

Translated contents means different language version of the same page say the same thing, just in different language. If you're writing in your language and then having it translated to other languages, you have translated contents. Of course, the text itself is different, but it has the same meaning.

Unique contents per language means your site conveys a different message in different languages. This is the case where different languages reflect different service or product offerings. For example, the global websites of Dell have different contents in each language. Dell sells different equipment in different regions and has different pricing. The Spanish pages aren't just a translation of the English pages. They are different. And, in fact, Dell has different Spanish contents for Argentina and for Mexico.

Arranging language URLs to match your type of contents

Your site's URLs, in different languages, tell people what to expect when they visit.

If your site has translated contents, you should use either language folders or language sub-domains. For example:

Language Language folders Language sub-domains
English www.mysite.com www.mysite.com
Spanish www.mysite.com/es es.mysite.com
German www.mysite.com/de de.mysite.com

Visitors who would see these, would understand that the difference between the different URLs is the language, not the actual contents.

Sites that feature real unique contents per language, should clearly convey this to their visitors. It's important so that people know that your offering is different for different places.

In this case, you can use completely different URLs or URLs with different top level domains. For example:

Language Completely different domains Different top level domains
English www.mysite.com www.mysite.com
Spanish (Spain) www.misitio.es www.mysite.es
German (Germany) www.meine-website.de www.mysite.de

The country specific top level domains tell both people and search engines that the contents of that site are specific to that country.

Optimizing for search engines

Just like regular contents, the URL strategy should be developed with human visitors in mind. If you arrange contents in a way that's clear to your visitors, you will discover that search engines are kept happy as well.

Search engines (a.k.a. Google) assume that sites with country specific top level domains (ccTLD) are built for people living in those countries. If your site features English and German, with basically the same contents (translated from one language to the other) you might think that selecting a top level .de domain would help your Google search position.

This might be the case, for a short while. However, what you're doing is actually tricking Google. If your contents aren't written especially for German people, Google will figure it out. The results would be less trust from the Google algorithm (which is later difficult to reconcile) and much lower (if any) positions in search results.

So, people who run independent language sites, each built for visitors from a different country, should register country specific top level domains. The rest of us, who run translated contents, should stick to language folders or language sub domains.

Language arrangement setting in WPML

WPML lets you choose your language arrangement in the Languages admin section.

Language Negotiation in WPML
Language Negotiation in WPML

The different domain per language option, as it name suggests, will let you enter a different domain per language. You can enter a completely independent domain or a sub-domain (WPML default value).

You can see more information on language setup in the Languages section of the Getting Started Guide.

Tell us what you're doing. How did you choose to arrange multilingual contents?