When planning your global website presence, one of the most important decisions you will make is how to structure your websites. By structure, I mean your website URL(s). It is important to understand the benefits and issues with each type of structure. Once you get a bit down the road, it is very difficult to switch structures mid-stream. There are three standard ways to structure global websites:

  • ccTLD
  • Subdomains
  • Subdirectories

There is no consensus on which one is best. To some extent, it depends on the size of your company, the size of your global presence, and your global content goals. Let’s take a look.

ccTLD

ccTLD standards for Country Code Top-Level Domain. A top-level domain is the final part of a URL. For example:

  • .com
  • .org
  • .edu

There are two different types of TLDs: generic and country code. Generic TLDs (gTLD) include .com, .org, .edu, .net, and a slew of others that were recently adopted by ICANN, the organization that manages TLDs. Country code TLDs are country-specific. They are two letters long, and are designated for a particular country, dependent territory, or autonomous territory. For the truly geeky among us, ccTLDs are derived from the ISO standard 3166.  Here are a few ccTLDs that you probably recognize:

  • .ae: United Arab Emirates
  • .ar: Argentina
  • .au: Australia
  • .br: Brazil
  • .ca: Canada
  • .de: Germany
  • .es: Spain
  • .fr: France
  • .gb: United Kingdom
  • .jp: Japan

A complete list of ccTLDs is available on the ICANN wiki. Here is the basic structure of sites that use ccTLDs:

  • www.mycompany.ar/
  • www.mycompany.es/
  • www.mycompany.gb/

What’s Good

ccTLDs are great for targeting a particular country. If each of your countries needs to maintain a strong brand, ccTLDs might be the way for you to go. Many of the very large multinational companies use ccTLDs. In terms of international SEO, a structure based on ccTLDs provides search engines and users an independent site for each country. This means that a site that ends in .jp, for example, will rank higher in Japan than using either subdomains or subdirectories. Another advantage of using ccTLDs is the perception of the customer. In many countries, brands that use ccTLDs are more trusted than brands that use a different structure. If I’m in France, I have more trust for a site that uses .fr than one that uses .com. If you use ccTLDs, you will want to register and host each domain within each country and have a local IP address for the domain. There are some ways around this (proxies), but it is a good idea to host locally if you can.

What’s Not So Good

One of the negatives of using ccTLDs is that any links that occur on the domain for one country have no effect on the domain authority of another. Each site is seen by search engines as a separate site. Building an independent ranking for each site in a ccTLD structure can take a lot of time. Finally, purchasing and maintaining all of the ccTLDs can be expensive.

Examples of ccTLDs

Lush is an example of a company that uses ccTLDs for its various international websites. Here is the splash global gateway at www.lush.com:

Lush_com

Here is the page for Lush France. It uses the ccTLD: www.lush.fr:

Lush_fr

And here is the page for Spain. It uses www.lush.es:

Lush_es

Subdomains

A website that uses subdomains for international sites have URLs that look like this:

  • fr.mycompany.com/
  • gb.mycompany.com/
  • jp.mycompany.com/

What’s Good

Subdomains are much easier to maintain than using ccTLDs. And using this structure, you can still have each domain hosted in the representative country and have a local IP address.

What’s Not So Good

On the downside, sometimes the subdomains do not inherit all of the domain authority and trust that you might get from having a separate domain. In addition, you lose the user trust factor that you get with a country-specific site. Someone in Canada might not want to click on your site if it doesn’t end in .ca. There is also a higher risk of people linking to the “www” site out of habit and missing the link that they want.

Examples of Subdomains

Some of the sites for hotels.com use subdomains, such as the French site, fr.hotels.com:

fr_hotels_com

And the Canadian site, ca.hotels.com:

ca_hotels_com

Subdirectories

A subdirectory structure is a good option for a brand that is well-established and looking to expand into many new international markets. You can easily add subdirectories as needed. The structure of a URL for an international site that uses subdirectories looks like this:

  • www.mycompany.com/jp
  • www.mycompany.com/au

What’s Good

The subdirectory method is the best method for targeting specific languages. You can easily separate sites that use different versions of the same language. For example, UK English and US English:

  • www.mycompany.com/en-gb
  • www.mycompany.com/en-us

You can also separate sites that use different languages within the same country. For example, a Canadian site that uses English and a Canadian site that uses French would look like this:

  • www.mycompany.com/ca-en
  • www.mycompany.com/ca-fr

Using this structure, all of the domain authority that the root domain gets is passed down to the subdirectories.

What’s Not So Good

On the downside, a subdirectory structure is a weaker signal to country-specific searching and SEO. In addition, you have the same problem with people in another country wanting to access a site that has their specific ccTLD.

Examples of Subdirectories

Samsung is one of the companies that uses subdirectories. The site for Japan is www.samsung.com/jp/home:

samsung_com_jp

The site for Spain is www.samsung.com/es/home:

samsung_com_es

Which Choice is Right for You?

It is difficult to pick one structure and call it “the best”. Different structures yield different search engine results and different user interaction results. In general, if you are a large multi-national company, with a big budget, and a desire to develop an excellent SEO ranking in each individual country, ccTLDs might be the way to go. If you are concerned with cost and maintenance, and you want a simple structure, subdomains might be the right choice. And if you want to consolidate domain authority and have an easy way to separate different versions of the same language or multiple languages for the same country, you might want to consider subdirectories. Whatever structure you choose, make sure you do your homework. Once you go down a path, it can be costly and time-consuming to change your mind later.

More Information

There are lots of places you can visit on the web for more information on international SEO. Here is a very informative White Board Friday that I found on moz.com: White Board Friday – moz.com

Wistia

Val Swisher
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