When to ignore the leaders

Normally you follow the leader because they’re the leader for a reason.

Top of their game, they’re always at the front of the pack and the first name to come to mind.

They’re almost always bigger – in every way – size, revenue, market share.

It makes sense to follow them. After all, they’re doing something right so clearly, following them isn’t a bad idea.

But what if it’s ok to ignore the leaders? What if you chose not to follow, but instead take a different path? Or what if you decided that they were wrong, and you were right and nothing could change that?

I’ll use SEO examples to make a point and I’m keeping it local too.

I love local e-commerce success stories like Namshi and Noon. They’re top of mind and own big chunks of the market.

But when it comes to international SEO, they seem to do things very differently to what is usually recommended.

If we look at how Apple works, these 2 sites seem to defy convention.

Now this isn’t always a bad thing. So many great things come from zigging when others zag.

Let me explain.

When you go to Apple.com for the first time, it comes up with a bar on the top of the page that offers you to continue using Apple.com or going to the country version of Apple.com, based on your IP address.

apple country selector

Note, the site doesn’t simply default to the country version based on your IP address. This is good practice because search engine traffic (viz. Google) almost entirely comes from America so if your site doesn’t have a version for America, this can be an issue.

Now in contrast, Noon.com and Namshi.com both of them send you to the country version based on your IP address.

But it doesn’t end there.

Namshi has opted for a subdomain strategy:

namshi uae url

OK this is unorthodox but as long as there is consistency, it should be ok, right?

Actually they really flip the lid on this. Here’s what the English, Bahrain version looks like:

namshi bahrain url

You’d think it would be https://en-bh.namshi.com/ but that’s not the case. I tried this URL and it 302 redirected me to the UAE version.

Interestingly, when I try this with the Kuwait version (using the proper convention), it redirects me to the Kuwait site and not the UAE one.

https://en-kw.namshi.com/ –> namshi kuwait url

You’ll note the full country name is in the subdomain.

Again, this is very unconventional in more ways than one.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend this method.

I should also point out that Apple doesn’t always follow convention though it’s a better option in my books.

Apple’s UAE site is located at: https://www.apple.com/ae/

Note how there’s no language selector in the URL – it defaults to English. If you want the Arabic version, you get sent to this version: https://www.apple.com/ae-ar/

When I did some airline SEO work at Etihad Airways, I recommended that they follow Apple’s approach by giving people an option to choose their country version upon their first visit. They’ve gone along and implemented an IP address detection method instead.

But thankfully, they have maintained a consistent approach with delivering correct content to people based on language and location by using subfolders in the correct convention.

English in UAE? https://www.etihad.com/en-ae/

Portuguese in Brazil? https://www.etihad.com/pt-br/

French in Switzerland or France or Canada?


Language first, country code second. Subfolder, not subdomain.

There’s always more to International SEO than URL structure. You also need to setup your hreflang tags correctly.

This is what it looks like on Namshi.com:

hreflang code from namshi

It’s good to see the x-default tag in there which is used when there’s no country or language target (usually!)

But as you can see, the x-default goes to an English, global version. And there’s an Arabic, global version too which uses ar-us in hreflang. And there’s also en-us which goes to the same URL as the x-default one.

I’m sure there’s a good reason for this. But on the outset, this defies convention and what is normally recommended.

So whilst Namshi may be a multi million dollar enterprise with all the resources to get things done right, this doesn’t mean they always get it right.

Similarly with Apple, who appear to have a near bottomless money pit, they opt to do things differently.

My point with all of this is that you don’t need to feel pressured just because industry leaders are doing things a certain way.

It makes sense in many cases where you know that a company has invested heavily to research and test and find the things that work best. You just need to copy and paste to achieve success; no need to reinvent the wheel.

But with all of the above examples, and especially with International SEO, there’s going to be a lot of variance amongst big players. I’d say it’s good to learn from them and adapt to suit your needs.

If I look at the UAE again, dubizzle is a classic example. It was a Dubai focused site that expanded to cover all of the UAE. And eventually the rest of the region.

They adopt an approach where the location sits in a subdomain, eg. dubai.dubizzle.com and the language sits in a subfolder.

Eg. Arabic, Dubai: dubizzle dubai arabic

This makes sense for them and there is very likely a technical decision behind this.

It’s not wrong and in fact, I can see this being a workable solution.

But what you have to always remember is that consistency with your naming conventions, syntaxes and structure is needed to maintain visibility in search engines.

If the wrong versions of pages appear in SERPs, this isn’t helpful to end users. You lose out on clicks and traffic (and sales!) and your competitors capitalise on it instead.

I recommend the following:

  • plan ahead – think long and hard about expansion plans and catering to a broader audience (.com is great and makes it easier!)
  • think about all possible scenarios and map out examples. You may need to defy convention with URL structure.
  • subfolders over subdomains
  • language-country, not the other way around
  • don’t auto-redirect based on IP: give people the option to choose the version of the site they want to see
  • be consistent and make sure everyone uses the correct versions of everything


Please let me know in the comments section what your recommendations usually are. I love to see different approaches and the rationale behind them. I am a cautious SEO by nature and I’m always looking to learn.

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