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?

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

Did you like this article? Say thanks by sharing it:

24 Comments

  1. Akash
    12. April 2018

    Hallo Eoghan,

    Thank you for an excellent article. It has certainly gotten me thinking -:

    • We have a ccTLD (atravelco.in)
    • We’ve noticed a lot of clients are now coming from abroad, and not just India
    • But we are nowhere in the google searches in us/uk/de/ae etc. – where our new clients are coming from, and I want to fix this

    Fortunately, I also own atravelco.com – but I’ve not done anything with it.
    Plus, we’re renovating the website as well

    I thought I should:

    • Launch the new website on the gTLD
    • Set 301 redirects from the legacy ccTLD to the new .com gTLD (but only for the “product pages”)

    Do you think this is an okay strategy?
    Will it drastically reduce my organics in the short term?

    Danke!

    Reply
    • Akash
      12. April 2018

      And just to add –
      The Google console doesn’t have any option to change my country.
      (.in ccTLD, target = India looks like)

      Reply
      • Eoghan Henn
        12. April 2018

        Hi Akash,

        This sounds like a good strategy for expanding your international reach, but you’re right, there is a risk of short term traffic losses when you switch domains. If you prepare the migration well, you can reduce this risk.

        Why do you only want to redirect product pages? It would be best to redirect all pages, or at least all pages that are generating impressions and clicks in search engines or traffic from other sources and all URLs that have backlinks.

        You’re also right about not being able to change the international targeting of your .in domain in Google Search Console. Google automatically associates ccTLDs (country domains) with the corresponding countires and doesn’t allow you to change this setting (more about this here: https://www.rebelytics.com/hreflang-annotations/#step3).

        Please let me know if you have any further questions!

        Reply
        • Akash
          13. April 2018

          Thanks!

          I do have follow up questions 🙂

          1) Assuming I’m running the .in and the .com concurrently with 301’s running from the .in to the .com …. what about my GA code? Can I simple put the same thing on .com as well? Or is it more nuanced than that?

          2) Should I completely do away with the .in domain? As per your article above, my reading is no. As we have local offices here.
          But then, we’ll find that there is duplicate content between both so how should that work? Won’t that penalise me?

          3) Currently we have two “google business” entries where were collect reviews and pics. One is for the Delhi office. And the other is for a bangalore office. Does this tie in with the migration strategy at all? If someone in London searches for us, what would they see?

          Thank you!!

          Reply
          • Eoghan Henn
            24. April 2018

            Hi Akash,

            Sorry about the delay. Here are my replies to your follow-up questions:

            1. You can use the same GA tracking code on several international domains, or you can create different properties with different tracking codes. If you expect a lot of traffic from one international domain to another, it might make sense to use the same tracking code, so that you can easily track sessions across the domains (with cross-domain tracking). There are probably other factors that weigh in, depending on your circumstances, but in most cases, it won’t make much of a difference.
            2. You can keep you .in domain to target users in India and use your new domain for international users. In this case, you wouldn’t need any redirects from .in to .com pages, but you should link both versions with hreflang. You can find more information on hreflang here: https://www.rebelytics.com/hreflang-annotations/
            3. I guess your Google My Business entries in India will not have any impact on search results in the UK, neither negative nor positive, so I don’t really see any implications for your internationalisation strategy.

            I hope this helps! Please let mw know if you have any further questions.

            Reply
  2. Sunny
    29. March 2018

    Hi Eoghan,

    If I got an EMD ending in .co.uk and I want to now target one or two other countries, can I rank on first page of other country local G search results using same domain ending .co.uk?

    .com is not available and I want to avoid setting other sites up and just keep it to one site.

    Thanks

    S

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      4. April 2018

      Hi Sunny,

      It’s not impossible to achieve good results with a .co.uk domain in other countries, but when targeting several countries with the same content, it’s almost always best to choose a gTLD (generic top-level domain) that’s not automatically associated with a country.

      If .com is not available, have you considered other gTLDs? With all of the new gTLDs that are now available, you might find something that fits your website.

      I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any further questions.

      Reply
  3. Stefan Kaufmann
    3. March 2018

    Hi Eoghan,
    Thanks for this great article. We are planning to move from a ccTLD to a gTLD using subfolders to represent specific countries. E.g. domain.com/es for Spain.
    Once implemented, we are thinking of mapping the original ccTLDs to the coressponding subfolders. E.g. domain.de mapped to domain.com/de
    But we are not sure if this would affect SEO. Would such domin mapping make sense? Thsnks for your input

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      7. March 2018

      Hi Stefan,

      Yes, this move will certainly affect your SEO performance, and not necessarily in a good way. Domain changes are always risky and you should at least make sure that you redirect all important old URLs on the ccTLDs to their new equivalents on the gTLD.

      In most cases, moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD has a positive impact on the website’s SEO performance, but I’ve seen this go wrong in many cases. If you like, we can have a chat about what’s important from an SEO perspective and how you can make sure you don’t do any harm to your performance.

      Best regards,

      Eoghan

      Reply
  4. Firouzeh
    28. February 2018

    Hi
    Our business is in Canada. The domain in Google Consol is targetting Canada. But we want to target US too. What is the best way? from what I read, I understand that I have to create a subfolder as https://venturefoodtrucks.com/en-us and copy our website on that folder and use the hreflang to specify the preferred audience (from Canada or US) am I right? In that case, should I submit the US version to the search console target it for US? Does Google consider as duplicate content?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      7. March 2018

      Hi Firouzeh,

      You should only create a second version of your website if you want to create different content for the US. If the content you already have for Canada also works for users in the US, you can simply change your targeting setting in Google Search Console (remove Canada).

      In order to get good rankings in the US, you should promote your content in the US and also generate backlinks from US websites (no cheating though 😉 ).

      I hope this helps! Feel free to ask me more questions if anything remains unclear.

      Reply
  5. Emile B.
    28. June 2017

    Hey Eoghan,

    Great article. We are a local business in travel so we operate in just one country (the product is local) but our customers are both domestic as international. We’ve now been acquired by an international company that operates in multiple countries. So now we have local products in multiple countries, targeting the same international (but also domestical) audience.
    What would you suggest to do?

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      3. July 2017

      Hi Emile,

      Thanks a lot for your comment and your interesting question.

      This sounds like a good case for merging all of your content onto one domain, if possible. This can of course only work if you are planning on using the same brand in all countries in the future.

      You could then have several language versions of all of your content for your different international audiences. The advantage of merging everything onto one international domain would be that the different country domains could unite forces and share a number of domain-wide ranking factors.

      On the other hand, some non-SEO-related arguments might make a move like this impossible. Feel free to give me some more detailed info on your case, so that I can give you some better-informed advice.

      Reply
      • Emile
        3. July 2017

        Thanks Eoghan. If I need more info I’ll contact you!

        Reply
  6. 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 🙂

      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 🙂

          Reply
  7. 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! 😉

    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
  8. 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 🙂

    Reply
    • Eoghan Henn
      22. March 2016

      Nice! Let us know how it goes 😉

      Reply
  9. 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

Leave a Reply