Choosing the Right Domain Structure for International Expansion

Subdomains, Subfolders or ccTLDs, what's the right choice for you?

By Graeme Watt, 18 January 2018


When it comes to expanding your digital presence internationally, one area which requires important consideration is how your domain structure will impact your new multilingual or multi-country websites search traffic (SEO).

Subdomains, Subfolders and Country Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) are the three main choices which you have when it comes to deciding on a structure, and they all come with pros and cons which need to be considered.  

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So how do you know which choice is best for your business? 

ccTLD

A country code top-level domain is a country-specific domain so, for example, .co.uk for the United Kingdom or .de for Germany.

A ccTLD site is its own site and as such has its own domain authority.  If you choose to expand internationally in this way you are effectively marketing a brand new site. They are generally seen as expensive to purchase, to set up and maintain. The more countries you target in this way, the more difficult it becomes. A completely new strategy is required each time.

That being said, it is sometimes a requirement, for example, if you are targeting China it is almost impossible to rank on Baidu without a Chinese (.cn) domain.

Native users may also place more trust in a ccTLD as they are familiar with the URL structure, this can often be invaluable for lesser known brands particularly when it comes to click through rate (CTR) from search engine pages.

ccTLDs are also the single strongest way to show a search engine that your content is specifically targeted to a certain country or region (not language!)This gives you more chance of ranking within this area.

However Google has also been known to fold versions of a site together if it has the same content, eg showing .com to a UK user even though there is a .co.uk version available which makes the argument for ccTLD much less persuasive if your content does not change per country. Google will automatically show what they consider to be the stronger version of the site.  (More info can be found here)

Subdomains

The second choice for international expansion is using subdomains (eg. de.example.com – this would be a German targeted subdomain)

One of the main problems with going this route is there is no guarantee that any search engine will use the authority of your main site when deciding how to rank the sub-domain. This could result in you needing an entirely new marketing strategy for the subdomain, a similar problem to the ccTLD but with less of the benefits.

This is certainly a lot cheaper to set up and maintain than ccTLDs and is well understood by search engines. Users, however, may become confused about what content they can expect to find at your URL as it is not as a familiar to them as a ccTLD.  

Subfolders

The third option which is available for international expansion is the use of subfolders; this is only really an option if you are using a global TLD such as .com or .net. eg (www.example.com/de  this would be a subfolder on a .com domain which was targeted to German users)

One of the main advantages of this type of structure is the subfolders all benefit from the authority of the root domain. They are also very easy to implement and scale. These are almost always preferable to subdomains for these reasons.

As an additional step you can also visit the Google search console and claim your subfolder and geo-target it, this is a further indication to Google of where you want to target this area of your website.

Subfolders can also be used as a means of targeting different languages as well as countries. 

Conclusion

The argument was always that if you have the money and resources then choose ccTLDs however I’m not sure this can be made anymore. If Google, as their spokesperson John Mueller has stated, is now folding some ccTLDs together as a result of duplicate content then there seems to be little reason to use them for this use case.  

The cost of implementation in addition to upkeep and marketing makes it even less appealing. That being said if the content varies between countries then using ccTLDs would still be advisable if possible.  

Subfolders are cheaper, gain the authority of the main site straight away and through the use of country codes like www.example.com/de can be easily identified by the search engines.

The subfolders approach has been adopted by many large organisations including Apple and LG.

https://www.apple.com/es/ (Spanish version of Apple) 

www.lg.com/jp (Japanese version of LG) 

Ultimately you should weigh up the benefits of each and make an informed decision based on what works best for your business at this moment in time.

If you would like to discuss internationalisation in more detail or would like to discuss some of our previous work in this area please get in touch with our team

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