International SEO domain strcuture

Choosing the best international domain structure

Posted on Posted in Digital media localisation, English posts

That's it, you've decided to go global with your website, reach foreign audiences, penetrate new markets. You have translated and even localised the content of your website and are ready to conquer new digital audiences. But there it comes, the complex question: which international domain structure should I pick?

When it comes to domain structure for foreign website versions, there is a lot of debate on which domain structure is best to choose. The international domain structure will have an impact on brand image, website experience, level of localisation and international search engine rankings.

Quick reminder

Every domain is made of at least two parts: the actual domain name and the TLD or Top Level Domain. In our case 2m.com.au, “.COM.AU” is the TLD and the “2m” part is a domain name or domain label we chose for our site. You’ve surely heard of some other top-level domains like .COM, .FR, .ORG, .ES etc.

Many of these TLDs are associated with a country: .co.uk is the United Kingdom, .co.nz is New Zealand etc. By this time you should have started to understand why this is an important component of your international website deployment strategy and that it will impact various factors.

What are your international domain structure options?

When it comes to international domain structure, there are four different URL structures you can choose from:

URL structureExample
Country specific (ccTLDs*)example.de
Subdomainsde.example.com
Subdirectories with gTLDs**example.com/de/
URL parameters (AVOID USING IT)example.com/?lang=de

*Country Coded Top Level Domains

**Generic Top Level Domains

Which international domain structure is the best for my foreign website?

People tend to swear by ccTLDs, saying that in some markets users prefer to buy from local sites, resulting in higher click-through rates. Others opt for subdomains or sub-directories. 

Global brands' international domain structures

global brands international domain structure

There is no one answer to the best international site structure. You can be successful using any of these options. We've seen websites of all site structures dominating in their verticals. However, there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each, so it's best to evaluate your options and decide depending on your business goals, budget and localisation strategy which one is best for you.

In any case you should NEVER use the URL parameter option.  They send a very poor geo-targeting signal to search engines and prove to attract irrelevant traffic (i.e German users browsing in German language are less likely to get these pages in SERPs).

Pros and Cons

domain structure

domain structure

ccTLDs

- Clear geotargeting
- Server location irrelevant
- Easy separation of sites

- Expensive (can have limited availability)
- Requires more infrastructure
- Strict ccTLDs requirements (sometimes)
- Split link authority among several domains

Subdomains

- Easy to set up
- Can use Search Console geotargeting
- Allow different server locations
- Easy separation of sites

- Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone (is "de" the language or country
- Much weaker geo-targeting signal to search engines than ccTLDs

Subdirectories with gTLDs

- Easy to set up
- Can use Search Console geotargeting
- Low maintenance

- Users might not recognise geotargeting form the URL alone
- Single server location
- Separation of sites harder
- Much weaker geo-targeting signal to search engines than ccTLDs

international domain structure

ccTLDs

- Clear geotargeting
- Server location irrelevant
- Easy separation of sites

Subdomains

- Easy to set up
- Can use Search Console geotargeting
- Allow different server locations
- Easy separation of sites

Subdirectories with gTLDs

- Easy to set up
- Can use Search Console geotargeting
- Low maintenance

international domain structure

ccTLDs

- Expensive (can have limited availability)
- Requires more infrastructure
- Strict ccTLDs requirements (sometimes)
- Split link authority among several domains

Subdomains

- Users might not recognise geotargeting from the URL alone (is "de" the language or country)
- Much weaker geo-targeting signal to search engines than ccTLDs

Subdirectories with gTLDs

- Users might not recognise geotargeting form the URL alone
- Single server location
- Separation of sites harder
- Much weaker geo-targeting signal to search engines than ccTLDs

Domain structure and international SEO

In term of search ranking, choosing the right domain structure will have an impact on your domain authority, search performance and therefore your website's traffic. Depending on what's best for your business, consider whether you want to target at a language level or a country level. Then decide how much effort you want (or can) put behind building up domain authority to your new domains.

Subdirectories with gTLDs have the added benefit of help building domain authority, while subdomains and ccTLDs have the disadvantage of making it harder to build up domain authority. Although ccTLDs represent a very strong geo-targeting signal which improves traffic accuracy. In my opinion, subdomains are the least advantageous of the 3 options because they don't allow such geo-targeting that ccTLDs do, and they don’t have the advantage of a consolidated backlink profile that subdirectories do.

International SEO domain strcuture

In a simple way, it could look like this:

  • ccTLDs are a good option if you’re a big player: If branding budget isn’t a problem for you, if you have your own PR, if building up domain authority and handling multiple domains is no big deal, then ccTLDs are a good way to go.
  • Subdirectories are a good option if you’re comfortable technically: You’re able to get the job done using only what you’ve got.
  • Subdomains are a good option if you are looking for a quick setup: You are looking for the easiest, fastest way to get your foreign website versions out.

However, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to take a good, thorough look at your business and consider variables like:

  • Marketing budget you have available for each target market
  • Crawl bandwidth and crawl budget available for your site
  • Costs associated with localisation and site maintenance
  • Site performance concerns
  • Overall business objectives
  • Level of localisation expected

As part of your global digital strategy and international SEO optimisation, domain structure is a key decision. Find out more about other components on our dedicated International SEO page or in our blog international SEO and where to hide a dead body. If you are ready to pick a domain structure, great! Still unsure about what's best for you? Get in touch with us.

Written by Thomas Lespes-Muñoz, Digital Marketing officer at 2M Language Services.