Domain Types for International SEO
For international SEO, having country-specific top level domains, subfolders, or subdomains can help both people and search engines distinguish which audiences you are targeting.
A website that has content in more than one language is considered to be a multilingual site. For instance, a site dedicated for the United States can use both English and Spanish. This site will be trying to optimize itself for more than one language.
A website that is trying to target more than one country is considered to be a multi-regional site. For instance, a site dedicated to the Commonwealth countries might use British English only, but it will target many countries.
Sites are generally both multilingual and a multi-regional. A site can also provide different languages and target different regions at the same time.
Domain & URL Structure for International Sites:
After making the decision to begin international SEO and deciding on who to target, the next big step is choosing the proper URL and domain structure for your site. There are pros and cons to each structure, so pick the best for your business (which are listed, but taken from Google).
This article assumes you understand Top-Level Domains.
Country Specific Top Level Domain
A Country Specific Top Level Domain (ccTLD) can easily show users and engines which geographical region a site is trying to target. It is an extremely effective indicator for search engine ranking signals; especially for search engines that focus heavily on showing their users relevant information from within their own country, like Baidu (China’s main search engine) or Yandex (Russia’s main search engine).
A ccTLD tells the difference between which country, dependent territory, or sovereign region the site is registered. Take a look at the example of a ccTLD:
domainname.pl -- this domain uses the ccTLD for Poland
domainname.us -- this domain uses the ccTLD for the U.S.
domainname.co.uk -- this domain uses the ccTLD for the United Kingdom
Usually, the ccTLD uses two letters, like .pl and .ch, to show where the site is registered; However, sometimes ccTLD can contain non-latin characters (for example, Cyrillic, Chinese or Arabic), and it can contain more than two letters as well,(for example, .co.uk).
Benefits of a ccTLD:
- Strong ranking indicator; especially when reaching markets outside of the US
- Great for regionalized backlink strategies
- Customizes the experience for specific audiences
- Able to override a server’s location
- Typically achieves a higher CTR and Conversion rate, due to people preferring local results
Disadvantages of ccTLD:
- Can be expensive and there is sometimes limited availability
- More infrastructure work for your tech team
- High barriers to enter for some countries
- A new link building technique is needed for each ccTLD
A great example of a company using ccTLD is Fiat. Check out: fiat.com vs. fiat.pl.
Typically, ccTLDs are ideal for businesses that have a strong brand presence, or really just want to show the viewers and engines which regions they are targeting. It also allows a business to have more control over each of their sites individually.
However, ccTLDs can be difficult since each site is not connected to the other and you will have to have separate SEO strategies for each. Also, ccTLDs can be quite pricey, which can be difficult new businesses on a budget.
A subdomain with a generic top-level domain
A subdomain with a generic top-level domain (gTLD) will show which country, dependent territory, or sovereign region the site is targeting at the beginning of a URL. This will take that main] broad domain and break it up into even smaller domains.
Take a look at these examples of subdomains with gTLDs.
Benefits of subdomains with gTLDs:
- Super easy to set up!
- You can use Google Search Console for geo-targeting
- Allows different server locations
- Customizable UX on each subdomain
Disadvantages of a subdomains with gTLDs:
- Subdomains get indexed as separate sites
- Less link juice; less juice passed from the root domain to a subdomain
- Visitors might not understand if the subdomain is referring to a language or region
- Not super user-friendly; if users typically type www. prior to the domain, it can cause confusion
Many companies do not end up using subdomains with gTLDs as it is usually not beneficial to lose the strength of their main domain.
Companies that decide to use a subdomain with gTLDs tend to do it for positive international link juice. For instance, when a user in a different country links to a site, they tend to also copy the gTLD subdomain as well. This gives a company more strength for that particular country. Also, using a subdomain allows a company to have a certain type of freedom to provide users with a unique experience based on their language or region.
A good example of a company using subdomains for languages is majestic.com. Check out majestic.com vs. de.majestic.com.
Subfolders/Subdirectories with a gTLD
A website can use a subfolder to direct users to correct content for their country, dependent territory, or sovereign region. A subfolder for languages and country falls after the root domain.
Take a look at the example subfolders:
Benefits of a gTLD with a subfolder:
- Super easy to set up!
- Can use Google Search Console for geo-targeting
- Low maintenance cost, since all is hosted on the same site
- No lost link juice since it’s all on the same domain
Disadvantages of a gTLD with a subfolder:
In search engines, users might not see the geotargeted URL and recognize that it’s targeted at them Only able to have one server location Separating sites is more difficult
Sites with a strong domain and wish to keep their link juice in one place tend to go for using subfolders. Also, subfolders allow separating certain pages of a site that’s worthy of translation. This is the optimal solution for brands with limited content in certain languages and resources. For instance, you might translate the homepage, pricing, and features pages in a subfolder, but keep the blog in English.
What makes sense for one company may not make sense for another. Therefore, it is ultimately your decision whether to use a ccTLD, a subdomain, or a subfolder. Keep in mind the audience you are targeting and which search engines they are most likely going to use for their region. Once you decide on your domain type or URL structure, focus your efforts on getting Search Console set up, avoiding duplicate content, using hreflang tags, and many other international SEO techniques.