Choosing the right domain strategy is an essential factor for the SEO success of an international website. This article deals with the most important questions you should think about before defining your own strategy.
When reading this article, you will notice that I myself am a big fan of using gTLDs (generic top-level domains that are not targeted at users in a specific country), but there are certainly cases where an international structure of ccTLDs (country-specific domains) can make sense.
How many domains do I really need?
It’s a pretty simple formula: The less domains one company has, the better! (More about this later on in the article.)
Do you really need tons of ccTLDs (country domains)? Here are some reasons why you might want an international domain structure with lots of ccTLD (like .de or .co.uk):
- You have a real office with real people in a country. When your company is actually represented by a team in a country, you have a bigger chance of building up an authority for your country domain in that country. This is important because with an international ccTLD strategy, each domain basically has to fight on its own. Lots of rankings signals that are shared across all country versions that are hosted on a gTLD are not shared across a group of ccTLDs that belong to the same company.
- You want to enter a market where Google is not the number one monopolist in the search engine sector. The benefits of having a global gTLD are sometimes outweighed by the disadvantages of not having a local ccTLD, when a local search engine dominates in a certain market. For example, .ru and .cn domains can make sense if Russia or China belong to your target markets.
- You’re a big player in a highly competitive retail sector. In other words: If you’re Zalando, you can pull it off 😉
None of the above apply? In that case, it’s probably best not to go for ccTLDs. You will save yourself from a lot of hassle and benefit from the advantages of having one powerful global .com domain.
How do I structure my language and country versions?
It is strongly advisable to structure your version by languages first, and then by countries, if you decide to have specific country versions at all. If you are operating internationally, you can generate a lot of reach with generic language versions that do not target any specific country. So, in any case, if you translate your content to a language, make sure you have one generic version for that language, before you create country-specific versions.
Here’s an example: Your target markets are France and the UK, so you obviously need your website in French and English. Consider creating generic versions for both languages to target French and English speaking users worldwide.
Now, if you really need country-specific versions for both countries, you can create two additional versions of your website:
Or, if you have decided to use ccTLDs, the two country-specific versions could look like this:
Note that for search engines, especially Google, ccTLDs will always automatically target a specific country. They are thus not suited for generic language versions.
Still not convinced that an international gTLD might be the right choice? Read this:
In a case study that I first published in German language on the rankingCHECK blog (read it here if you understand German), I described how we helped a client improve their visibility, traffic and leads from organic search by merging several country domains into one international domain.
Check out the following screenshots from Sistrix to see how the visibility of the new international domain has grown since the domain switch.
Visibility development in Austria:
Visibility development in Germany:
Visibility development in the UK:
Of course, this positive trend is not only due to the domain switch. We also set up other SEO processes that use international synergies (e.g. synchronised content production), but the merger of the different country domains into on international gTLD was the main lever and the most important driver for the success we see since then.
So, just like the original case study I linked to above, I would like to conclude this part with the following advice:
Go international, go gTLD!
Now, let’s have a look at one more little technical detail you should pay attention to once you have figured out your international domain strategy.
How do I make sure Google and other search engines understand my international domain structure?
If you have a website with more than one language or country version, it is absolutely necessary that you implement hreflang annotations. Currently, only Google and Yandex support hreflang annotations, but that is enough of a reason to use them (and use them correctly).
If your domain strategy includes directories that target groups of countries, like the EU or South America, this article might be interesting for you:
- Choose your TLDs wisely.
- Structure your website versions correctly.
- Think about if you really want to miss out on the potential of using one global gTLD.
- Use hreflang.
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