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International SEO 101: Which Domain Structure Should You Use?

international-seo

If your website is focused on an audience larger than just one country, you probably have spent some time thinking about the best ways to organize and optimize your site for different countries. 

One of the first and most important decisions most people need to make when expanding their horizons to an international audience is determining which domain structure should be used for additional languages and countries. 

Below, we'll dive into your domain structure options, explain which ones you should think about choosing from an SEO-standpoint, and cover some original research one which types of structures users actually prefer. 

Domain Architecture Options

There are essentially three choices for setting up your international domain architecture:

1) Create a separate folder on your existing root domain for the new country and language.

For example, if your domain is domain.com, you would add a folder called domain.com/german/ to target German language speakers or domain.com/uk/ to target U.K. users.

One thing to note on any targeting that you are doing in URLs: You must use each country’s vernacular in order for the search engines to understand the meaning of the string. For example, “the U.K.,” “uk,” “England,” and “G.B.” are all acceptable while “UnitedK” or “GrBr” would not be.

While a subdirectory implementation can be an easy and inexpensive option, it can be difficult for people to understand the location targeting from the URL alone.

2) Create subdomains for each country or language.

For example, a U.K. targeted subdomain might be uk.domain.com while a Spanish language subdomain would be es.domain.com.

Subdomains are usually fairly easy to implement, but, like subdirectories, can make it difficult for people to understand what content will appear at that URL. They also can be more expensive to implement when compared to a folder structure.

3) Create individual country-targeted websites on Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLD).

For example, a Canadian site would be domain.ca and a Mexican site would be domain.mx.

This architecture can be the most complex and expensive to implement, as you would need to have a domain for every focus country. In addition, while a .com domain can be purchased for around $10, there are some TLDs that can cost more than $1,000 and require that you have a local presence in the country.

What Does Google Think?

Google very clearly states that they use ccTLD to determine country targeting. So, if you have the financial and technical resources, using a ccTLD could be a good idea.

That being said, a ccTLD can be expensive and the complexity of the setup could create some costly mistakes, so many webmasters will only take the ccTLD plunge if there is a positive impact on their bottom line.

In that case, there would either have to be an extremely significant shift in search rankings (which Google hasn't let on about), or a ccTLD would have to be favored by users in a way that meaningfully impacts clickthroughs to a website.

What Do Users Think?

Since there is no better way to predict user behavior than just asking users what they prefer, I decided to launch a survey on SurveyMonkey’s Audience tool, which collects data from a pool of millions of respondents across the United States, Australia, and the U.K. Respondents are selected at random, and because the sample is statistically significant, the sample should mirror actual user behavior pretty closely -- this type of survey was even used to correctly predict election results in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

For this survey, I collaborated with Sam Mallikarjunan at HubSpot to craft and analyze the surveys. We created two nearly identical surveys: one targeted to a representative sample in the U.S. and one to a representative sample in Australia.

Here's what we found.

User Awareness of ccTLD

Before trying to understand how users related to ccTLDs, we needed to validate the assumption that users even know that general TLDs exist. For all we know, marketers may be overly concerned with whether their domain is a .com, .info or even .com.mx, but user might not even notice.

To establish this foundation, we asked respondents to pick which TLD might be the one in use by a nonprofit. Nearly all respondents correctly identified a TLD ending with .org as the one most likely to be used by a nonprofit. Interestingly, only 4% of people in the US stated that they were unsure of the correct TLD compared to 13% of Australians.

U.S. Responses

nonprofit_org

Australian Responses

nonprofit_int

To build on this awareness of ccTLD, we wanted to know if users made the connection between ccTLD and countries. We asked respondents to identify the location of a local business using a .ca TLD extension. The majority of respondents correctly chose Canada. Oddly, 67% of Australians chose the correct answer while only 62% of Americans did the same. Additionally, more Americans (23%) fell for the trick answer of California than Australians (15%).

Based on the previous results, it is apparent that users are aware of ccTLDs in domain addresses and also usually understand the connection to local countries. But without knowing if users make decisions based on TLDs, a country’s TLD could just be a vanity portion of a URL and certainly not worth the investment. Therefore the real test of TLD choice is how it impacts ROI. This type of data point is, of course, hard to gauge in a survey where customers are not actually buying products, but we did want to try to see if there might be a way to measure purchasing decisions, too.

Revenue Impact of ccTLD

To achieve this result, we compared two different online retailers and asked respondents to choose the establishment that they thought would have the most reliable express shipping. It was assumed that respondents would consider an in-country retailer to be able to ship products faster than an international store.

In the US survey, we compared Amazon.co.jp to BestBuy.com. In the Australian survey, we compared Bigw.com.au (a well known brick and mortar retailer similar to the U.S. Target.com). (Interesting fact: There is a Target in Australia that is not affiliated with Target in the U.S. and their website is target.com.au -- more on that later.) The intent of the question was to see if users zeroed in on the recognizable brand name or the domain extension.

U.S. Responses 

bestbuy

Australian Responses

int_shipping

In the U.S., while 39% said that both websites would offer reliable shipping meaning that both TLDs have the potential to ship from the U.S., 42% still said that Best Buy with a .com TLD would be the better option. Australians may have been confused by the incorrect Target website, since 61% said both websites would have reliable shipping, but 34% chose Big W.

The data in this question is a bit inconclusive, but we can say that while a large portion of users are blind to domain extensions, when selling online it, would still be better to use a familiar domain extension.

What Should You Do?

To answer the original question, if you lack the resources to craft a ccTLD architecture, should you do it just for the user experience?

The answer would be: It depends. Based on the data we collected, we can definitively declare that users are aware of the differences between TLDs and do make decisions based on TLDs; however, the jury is still out on how important a TLD really is.

If you are debating whether ccTLD is the right choice for your site, it might be a good idea to launch a test on AdWords using a ccTLD as your display URL and measure whether there is any change in CTR. Alternatively, you can deploy a survey to your own customers and just ask if they are more likely to buy from a local domain. Nonetheless, if you do have the budget and development time to create ccTLDs, you certainly can’t go wrong with it. Good luck!

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