How to choose between subdomain, subfolder or ccTLD for international SEO and PPC

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  • June 27, 2017
Stephen Kenwright

Stephen Kenwright

Director of Search

Imagine you work for a business that’s expanding internationally and you care about search traffic. How do you choose the right domain structure?

Subdomains, subfolders and country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) all have pros and cons which, fortunately, are outlined below – along with the questions you need to ask yourself when you’re making your choice (or recommendation).

What is a ccTLD?

A country code top-level domain (ccTLD) is a country-specific top-level domain – for example .co.uk, which is specific to the United Kingdom.

ccTLDs are country specific – not language specific.

ccTLDs are always two letters long (like .de or .fr) – if your website’s TLD is two letters long (even if it has a .co in front) it’s definitely a ccTLD.

What is a gTLD?

You might have noticed that the .com top-level domain (TLD) is three letters long, not two. It’s not officially the ccTLD for the United States – it’s a generic top-level domain (like .org or .net). The ccTLD for the United States is .us, although it isn’t often used.

You can find a full list of TLDs here – Google will treat any domain not labelled “country code” as a generic top-level domain (gTLD, if you’re not sensing the pattern). This means international targeting will need to be set up in Search Console.

What is a gccTLD?

Other examples of gccTLDs include .tv (originally the ccTLD for Tuvalu) or .io (the ccTLD for the British Indian Ocean Territory and not, in fact, San Francisco). An extensive list of ccTLDs that Google now considers gccTLDs can be found here.

This means, for example, that a website with a .io TLD will not be targeted to the British Indian Ocean Territory by default due to its status as a gccTLD. You’ll need to implement international targeting for a website with a gccTLD just like for a .com website.

gccTLDs are further proof that marketers ruin everything.

Your current TLD should determine your choice

Say for example you’re a UK business and your website sits on a .co.uk ccTLD. Up to now you’ve primarily served UK customers but now you want to expand into other countries.

Migrating your website from its .co.uk ccTLD to a .com gTLD and implementing international targeting presents a risk to your UK business. If you have particular territories in mind for your expansion, the safest option is to register the relevant ccTLDs for those countries – if your UK business wants to sell to expats in Spain, for example, or if you’ve identified that your product potentially has a strong market in Germany.

As a rule you shouldn’t move your primary website unless you have to because:

  • The inherent risks to organic traffic when changing URLs
  • A lot of planning is necessary to mitigate these risks and transition smoothly – which often means spending money
  • All the links you’ve acquired to date will have to pass through a 301 redirect which can dilute their effectiveness to a degree – even if Google denies this
  • There will still be a negative impact on Quality Score in your Adwords account and you’ll be paying more for your keywords in the short term

Managing Google Shopping and other feeds is usually easier for businesses with ccTLDs – it’s by no means impossible with a subfolder approach but if you fail to consider feeds in your migration you’ll probably be without them for a few days/weeks/longer until you can fix them.

Why would you move to .com?

Migrating from a ccTLD to a .com gTLD is a good choice for businesses that plan to expand aggressively into multiple countries – especially if there’s no visibility currently on how many countries (or even which). A geotargeted generic top-level domain won’t need to be moved again – even if you end up truly global – so it’s the safe choice.

This is also a good choice if your distribution is good enough to deliver pretty much anywhere and maintain a good experience (I won’t discuss the details around distribution, returns etc. here but I’ll mention a common mistake businesses make is failing to consider the cost of processing returns from other territories, especially when they rely on a click and collect service in their primary region that isn’t available elsewhere).

Migrating from a ccTLD to a .com TLD is also the best option if you have to change your current URL either way e.g. when your UK business is rebranding to reflect a new global proposition there’s little point moving to a new .co.uk website and simultaneously launching new ccTLDs for other countries – move to a .com gTLD and get it over with.

N.B. I was going to give the example of Unilever rebranding its Jif cleaning product as Cif in the UK to reflect its name in the rest of the world but Unilever doesn’t own cif.com or jif.com. I really do feel for SEOs working in FMCG.

Do ccTLDs get a better click through rate?

Anecdotally searchers in certain countries are more likely to click on a website that sits on their ccTLD – the French, for example, are known to prefer clicking on a site with a .fr ccTLD rather than sites with .com gTLDs.

In reality the click through rate (CTR) is more related to the site’s meta data. You might have a reasonable expectation that the content on a website with a France-specific top-level domain is more likely to be written in French – if that’s your native language you might be more willing to click.

As long as your geotargeting is correct and your meta data is optimised (preferably written by a native speaker) this shouldn’t be a consideration. Better meta data and proper markup beats a ccTLD every time.

You can enhance this even further by enabling breadcrumbs: domain.com > FR seems to get a better CTR than domain.com/fr/.

N.B. Interestingly Eli Schwartz conducted a survey finding that users expect a better delivery service – postage  packing, delivery times etc. – from websites using the ccTLD for the country they live in. It’s unclear to what extend this might affect CTR – and since Eli uses well-known brands like Amazon and Target as examples there could be a degree of bias here – but it’s still something to bear in mind.

What if I’m expanding into countries where multiple languages are spoken?

If you plan to translate your content into different languages and more than one language is relevant to visitors from a particular country this can complicate your choice of domain structure. Examples include Switzerland, where French, German and Italian are equally prevalent – or Canada, where English and French are spoken in different regions.

Hreflang attributes allow you to specify which version of a page should be shown to a user depending on their location and language preferences. We’ve already published a guide to implementing hreflang tags so I won’t cover them in detail here.

ccTLDs present multiple options, listed here in order of preference (for what that’s worth – realistically all of these methods are fine):

  1. domain.ca/fr/ and www.domain.ca/en/
  2. domain.ca and en.domain.ca
  3. domain.ca/*page*/?lang=fr and www.domain.ca/*page*/?lang=en

Google uses both options 1 and 2 in an example here and states they’re equally easy to understand.

gTLDs with subfolders also present multiple options, again listed by preference – but when it comes to multiple subfolders usability is a much more poignant question:

  1. domain.com/ca-fr/ and www.domain.com/ca-fr/
  2. domain.com/ca/fr/ and www.domain.com/ca/fr/
  3. domain.com/ca/*page*/?lang=fr and www.domain.com/ca/*page*/?lang=en
  4. domain.com/ca/*page*/fr/ and www.domain.com/ca/*page*/en/
  5. domain.com/ca/ and en.domain.com/ca/

If you don’t care enough to translate your content then what are you worried about? (Apart from CTR, rankings and conversion rate). Machine translations e.g. Google Translate just aren’t good enough so don’t even think about it.

Subdomains vs. subfolders for international SEO

Subfolders or subdirectories (i.e. domain.com/uk/) are almost always preferable to subdomains (i.e. uk.domain.com). The only exception is when the use of subfolders is impossible for some technical reason, such as a differing product offering per country and an inability to differ the top navigation to reflect this.

I’ve worked with several brands who have experienced an increase in organic traffic when migrating from international subdomains to international subfolders – this usually occurs when there’s a lot of link equity in one or two countries and less-favoured international sites are underperforming (e.g. a UK brand, consistently marketed in the US for a number of years, could expect an improvement in the visibility of its French and German sites when it migrates from international subdomains to international subdirectories). Again bear in mind the risks involved and planning required for any kind of migration.

A further consideration is whether your website currently makes use of subdomains (e.g. for products like many iGaming companies do such as https://sports.ladbrokes.com/) – this effectively rules out international targeting using subdomains. You’ll have to use folders.

Expanding internationally without additional budget

Registering a ccTLD for each country can be costly – especially when coupled with hosting costs and SSL certificates.

Server location has historically been considered a strong signal in geotargeting e.g. a site using a .com TLD and hosting in the US is thought more likely to rank in the US. However:

  • This is potentially less significant than previously thought
  • Using the appropriate ccTLD is a stronger signal than server location so it becomes a moot point
  • Geotargeting in Search Console is comparatively recent so again probably overrides the issue of server locale
  • It’s not possible to use local servers for a website using subfolders to target internationally and you’d be hard-pressed to find an SEO who doesn’t think that the improved flow of link equity gained using this method is a stronger ranking factor

…so buying local hosting is less of a consideration when it comes to cost.

Ultimately improving your international SEO when using a ccTLD or a geotargeted subdomain requires more budget than using a gTLD with subdirectories as both are literally separate websites. You won’t get the same benefits from the links pointing to your domain and “flowing down” – so you’re going to have to spend more resource or agency hours building links to be able to compete.

gTLDs with subfolders tend to be the cheapest options overall.

Local link building

At the risk of contradicting myself links from local websites undeniably make a difference to international rankings. You’ll get so far leveraging US links on a .com gTLD with a subfolder in France but links from French websites are the arbitrage opportunity – you need to show your French website is trusted in France if you’re serious about doing business through search engines there. This is true regardless of whether you use a subdomain, subfolder or country code top-level domain.

Does Google have an opinion?

Google’s preference is to use ccTLD to determine country targeting in the same way that Google prefers responsive design to m. websites:

  • It’s easier for Google to understand
  • You’re less likely to make a mistake that makes Google’s life difficult
  • …but it’s not for everyone.

I’d recommend reading the Webmasters article above – it makes a good case for ccTLDs for usability and ease of understanding but make no mention of links (should be a key consideration in any international SEO decision).

Summary

A gross oversimplification of the decision making process is included below, but my key considerations:

  • gTLDs with subdomains are very rarely the best options
  • ccTLDs are usually the most expensive but often the best for users
  • gTLDs with subfolders make the best use of link equity – if you’re not going to be building links specifically for a ccTLD version of your website this is probably the way to go.

I’d love to hear the results of your international expansion in the comments or on Twitter.

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