How to choose the right international domain strategy: ccTLDs or gTLDs?

Last updated on Mar 3, 2017

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?

Itโ€™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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.

international-domain-strategy

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.

Hereโ€™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.

  • yourcompany.com/en/
  • yourcompany.com/fr/

Now, if you really need country-specific versions for both countries, you can create two additional versions of your website:

  • yourcompany.com/en-gb/
  • yourcompany.com/fr-fr/

Or, if you have decided to use ccTLDs, the two country-specific versions could look like this:

  • yourcompany.co.uk
  • yourcompany.fr

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 austria

Visibility development in Germany:
visibility development in germany

Visibility development in the UK:
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:

Multiple hreflang annotations pointing at one URL

Summary

  • 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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10 Comments

  1. Matt
    28. August 2016

    Hi.
    Thanks for all the info.

    Can you help me with one question, please?

    I have one .com.br website with some authority, but i want to target some english keywords. What’s the best option for me?

    Use subdomain(.com.br/us) or use one newborn .com domain just for these keywords?

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      29. August 2016

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks a lot for your comment and your interesting question. As with many questions, the answer is: It depends.

      Where is your target audience? If you want to target English speaking users in Brasil, a .com.br domain is fine. If your users are in other countries, a gTLD (generic top level domain) like .com would be better.

      Now, if you have two different domains, you are losing potential from an SEO perspective: It is almost always desirable to host all of your content on just one domain. There are a number of domain-wide ranking factors that all subpages on one domain benefit from. These are not shared across different domains though, even if you link them with hreflang annotations.

      If the future of your business is international, you might want to move your entire content to an international .com domain. This would come with the risk (or almost with the certainty) of a short-term loss of traffic and visibility in Brazil. Changing from an old and established domain to a fresh one without authority always hurts. So this move would only pay off if you see a lot of international potential in the future and if you can wait for middle to long-term profit and survive a short-term dent.

      Feel free to send me some more information and additional questions. I would be happy to help you make a good decision ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
      • Matt
        29. August 2016

        Thank you for the amazing answer.
        I want to target english audience, in the United States.
        As you said, the .com is the best option. However, its possible to “link” the .com.br authority to the .com ?
        Otherwise the .com will be just one normal domain, without SEO value, right?

        Reply
        • Eoghan Henn
          31. August 2016

          Hi Matt,

          You can (and should) link the two domains with hreflang (see the link I included in my last comment and feel free to ask me for help).

          Unfortunately, hreflang does not pass on any domain authority, so it is correct the way you put it: The new .com domain will start without any SEO value.

          I guess it would be a good idea to start off with the new .com domain for the US market, set up hreflang between the two domains correctly, then build up some authority with the new domain and maybe in a couple of years consider moving the Portuguese content from the .br domain to the .com domain.

          I’ll be happy to guide you through this if you need any further advice ๐Ÿ™‚

          Reply
  2. Michael
    29. July 2016

    Hey Eoghan!

    Finally we went live with the new URL structure removing subdomains switching to a www-Version of the URL – with stunning results! Visibility is increasing as well as average ranking by 4-5 positions. Only in countries where Google is not dominating the results are not that good. We will do some local SEO to push it it little bit. But overall the migration was successful and the sleepless nights were worth it! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Cheers,
    Michael

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      2. August 2016

      Hi Michael,

      I’m happy to hear that everything went well for you! Thanks for sharing this information.

      When I read articles about international SEO, I am really surprised how little most SEOs know about this very powerful lever in international SEO. Most authors present a ccTLD structure, subdomains on a gTLD, and directories on a gTLD as three equally good options for international websites.

      ccTLDs – OK! If you’re the likes of Zalando you can pull it off and ccTLDs certainly have local advantages (mostly non-SEO though). But in my opinion, subdomains on a gTLD are a waste of potential. Your case demonstrates this.

      Thanks again for sharing your insights. I am also thinking about re-writing this article and adding some cases that show how much you can gain by merging your international website version into different directories on one subdomain.

      Reply
  3. Michael
    22. March 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Eoghan!

    Regarding the subdomain structure I am sharing your opinion. Actually I am already preparing the project so that it can be rolled out with the next sprint ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      22. March 2016

      Nice! Let us know how it goes ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Reply
  4. Michael
    21. March 2016

    Hi Eoghan,

    great speach at the SMX2016!

    I wonder if you have any insights regarding SEO in China? I am working on a website which is operating globally having a subdomain structure:

    us.domain.com
    cn.domain.com
    etc..

    The SEO performance in China is by far the worst from all 25 countries we are working with and I wonder how big is the issue for Baidu (and other local search engines) with our server being hosted in Europe and not having a .CN domain.

    Would be nice to exchange information on this,

    Many thanks,
    Michael

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      21. March 2016

      Thanks a lot, Michael! I am happy you enjoyed it.

      I do not have much experience with .cn domains but as far as I know, Baidu does prefer .cn domains over .com domains. The same goes for Yandex with .ru domains and probably most other local or national search engines.

      One big potential I see for the strategy you described above would be a switch from subdomains to directories. Ranking factors aren’t shared across subdomains as easily as they are across directories. I believe a switch like this would help your visibility and traffic in most countries. I cannot tell you if it will help your situation in China, though. Sorry about that.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply

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