Many ecommerce or content websites with mass appeal have a global audience, even if they are intending to focus on just one country. However, depending on your product or content you might want to go the extra step and intentionally target international users. The decision to focus your site on an international audience is a big leap forward and there are many logistic and technical complexities to work through.
In addition to issues around language choices and translations, there are also some big SEO and brand requirements, including exactly what domain to use for your international presence.
ccTLD Recommended for Users and Search Engines
Any authoritative international SEO guide will elaborate on the differences between the options of subdirectory, subdomain, and country-code top-level domain (ccTLD). One of the most recommended suggestions is for a site to opt to use a ccTLD (e.g. domain.co.uk) as the domain extension. On Google’s list of what they use to determine the country targeting, the ccTLD ranks even higher than Geotargeting settings in Webmaster Tools and server location.
For the curious, HREFlang only appears in the closing paragraph in their guide. This is because HREFLang is a way of showing which piece of content Google should prioritize once they have made the decision to rank a domain for a specific location. ccTLD and other localization hints are what tells Google that there is any location relevance.
Aside from the documented search benefit, the other reason for the ccTLD recommendation is user experience. A human user would know, even without clicking into a site, that a site that ends with .co.uk is targeting a user looking for UK content. You may be surprised at how much localization matters even for web only products.
An international user might not have a global credit card or be interested in dealing with a company that does not have customer support in their time zone. As a result, even if your current domain already ranks for competitive queries in search engines around the world, you might still be seeing a lower CTR (click-thru-rate) on the search results page from users who are looking for a local brand. Switching to a ccTLD would negate any click avoidance applied by these users.
Downsides to ccTLD
However, what many of these guides don’t spend a lot of time discussing is how incredibly expensive it can be to purchase and hold thousands of global domain names. While most of the popular generic domains can be purchased for under $20 per year, a country specific domain could cost in the hundreds of dollars before even adding on extras like local corporation registration and the need for a local presence. A Puerto Rican (.PR) domain could cost more than $1000 each year for the registration! Expense might be one of the big reasons many companies decide against a ccTLD strategy, but in the grand scheme of things depending on the benefit from the TLD this might be a small cost to pay.
If you have decided the TLD strategy is the right one for your business, you want to make sure to purchase the TLD that is going to give you the best visibility with local users. Most countries will have TLD’s for organizations, (.org) government,(.gov) education, (.edu) but many also have more than one generic TLD.
For example, in Mexico, there’s a .com.mx and a .mx. While, it’s probably a good idea to register both, how do you determine which one is your primary and which to redirect?
Which ccTLD’s to Use?
One way is to research what all the major websites in a country do. You could use Alexa’s top domains by country report or you could just visit the websites of the local telecoms, media and other locally well-known brands. If you are short on time, you can just copy what the major global brands have chosen. Surprisingly, there are very few major brands on Alexa’s top 500 domains list that have chosen to use a ccTLD strategy.
It can be argued that most of the top 500 domains have a brand that probably transcends borders. For example, both LinkedIn and Facebook use subdomains to localize beyond the US, but given the size of their brands, it is unlikely they would even see a boost if they absorbed the extra cost to use TLD’s. Similarly, Twitter and Apple uses subdirectories for languages or countries and these companies also likely would not see an upside from using ccTLD’s.
A Template to Copy
Nonetheless, there are still a few major global brands to copy and you can use these as guides to determine which TLD’s to use as the primary domain and which to redirect back to the primary. Rather than visit each domain manually, I took a list of every ccTLD in the world and concatenated it with the words “Google” and “Amazon.” I then appended https://www or http://www as appropriate to make complete URL’s. Finally, I uploaded these URL’s as a list into a web crawling tool.
Insights From This Effort
The resulting crawl is very telling and has many insights:
Copying other companies should never be a primary business strategy; however, when it comes to appearing local to users and search engines, you probably can’t go wrong by copying Google.
Even if Google made the wrong choice when they set up their global domains, you can bet that having Google on a particular TLD is a strong vote of confidence for that extension. To give you a head start I put the list of all global TLD’s as well as the crawl results for Google and Amazon in a public Google Sheet. Feel free to make a copy and good luck!