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Would a querystring - as in www.mysite.com?language=french -be enough for french SEs to recognise the french language section as a french site. Or would I be better off using different domain names? Or might that upset the search engines because they would all have the same IP address and they would be linked?
This is confusing.
I think the following is an elegant solution (this is what i'm planning to do) - you need to have access to DNS for yourdomain.com.
www.yourdomain.com - Serves the main [English?] language version of the site
www-de.yourdomain.com - Serves a German version of the site
www-fr.yourdomain.com - Serves a French version of the site
All URLs point to the same IP address, and serve the same dynamic content. On first visit, the code looks at the HTTP_HOST server variable to look for a language identifier on the end of "www", and uses the appropriate dictionary if one is found.
You could also drop a language cookie, so that if a visitor returns via www.yourdomain.com (quite likely given familiarity with the "Interweb") they can be redirected to their appropriate language version.
The added benefit is that you have constant control over the language, without?language=something clogging up your URLs.
This has no problem with search engine submission - all you submit to a French search engine is www-fr.yourdomain.com and away you go!
Search engines use automatic language detection. They don't care about what's in your paths.
To help the engines however to understand you have a french version of your site it should reside at least on subdomains.
This concept is also important to get dedicated links to your different language content, especially directory listings.
To recap: The best solution is setting up seperate domains with appropriate ccTLDs. Second best is seperate domains with generic TLDs.
Third best is subdomains, or dedicated subfolders.
countrycode toplevel domain. example.de, example.fr, .es etc.
generic toplevel domain. example.com, example.org, biz, net, info
Having the appropriate ccTLD brings a site into Google's "search only this country" results.
It also may be helpful for being trusted by your visitors, though a lot could be said about that point.
cc = "Country Code"
so a ccTLD is where you have something like .uk (United Kingdom) or .fr (France) or .ru (Russia) at the end of a domain name.
A generic TLD is the part of a URL in the same position as a ccTLD, but where there is no specific country - for example .com, .net or .org