Selecting the Best International Web Structure: ccTLDs vs. Sub-directories or Sub-domains in gTLDs – #CrawlingMondays 7th Episode

In the 7th episode of Crawling Mondays Aleyda will go through the main criteria to select the best Web structure to target international countries, whether ccTLDs, subdirectories along gTLDs or subdomains along gTLDs.

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Video Transcription

In today’s Crawling Mondays, I will be going back to my international SEO roots to answer one of the most common questions I get, again and again and again, and even if I have actually written posts in the past that I’m going to share in a bit. And also, this is one of the main topics that I usually cover in my international SEO presentations. I think it is still relevant, still important to clarify even further and also show you how to do it in a rather easy way, to be able to actually refer to anybody else who asks me about this, because still are questions that I get.

How we can better target international markets. Is it with ccTLDs? It is with gTLDs? Is it with subdirectories in this gTLDs? Is it with subdomains under the gTLDs? What is the ideal web structure that you can use for international markets? And as with everything in SEO, it depends. The answer is, well, it depends, actually, in your own strength, in your own characteristics, in the target market and your competitor in the industry that you are actually trying to run for.

Again, last week I was at Yoastcon talking, speaking about what migration is. And one of the scenarios I discuss, and you can see here the slide in particular, is a migration that happened from ccTLD to integrate that international web version in a bigger domain, in a gTLD, as a subdirectory. And you can see here in the screen how it started to grow massively. And realistically this is not the first time that I see this happen. In their particular scenario, in this particular scenario, it was something positive to migrate from a specific ccTLD towards a subdirectory under a gTLD. However, it might not necessarily always be the situation. There are always pros and cons and a few factors to take into consideration, and today I would like to share with you which are these, so you are able to do this as is meant to. Let’s take a look.

Let’s have our taking a look at the three main type of web structures that we can use for international targeting, the ones that are actually SEO-friendly or supported much more easily. ccTLDs, that are, I have to say, the default way to target international countries, because they are already geolocated. .es for Spain, .de for Germany, .fr for France. It’s very straightforward. They are already fully geolocated. And I have to say, that’s like the ideal default geolocated way to target international countries, other countries internationally.

Then we have gTLDs along subdirectories. Sometimes we don’t have that many resources to use ccTLDs. Sometimes we will need to start right away in an international market where we see that there’s tons of competition, and we are sort of afraid to start in a very competitive market with a new domain, a new ccTLD, from scratch, with zero links, zero backlinks, zero authorities, zero history.

And it might be much more straightforward for us to start competing right away with an already existing, very authoritative gTLD, through which we can enable a subdirectory that we will geolocate with the Google Search Console. So we will have a .com/es for Spain, /fr for France, /de for Germany. And it’s doable, and it’s feasible, and we can do it. And again, it might not be as stream geolocated by default as ccTLDs, but we can, and it’s completely feasible to use gTLDs like .com, .info, .org, and then enable subdirectories that we can geolocate specifically each one of them through the Google Search Console to provide that geolocation signals for Google. And then like this we will be able to consolidate all of the link popularity and strength and authority and leverage the already existing authority of this old domain, or gTLD, that we may have.

What is important to take into consideration in this particular case, though, is that this is doable with a gTLD, but not with an already existing ccTLD. So, for example, let’s say that we are, by default, a British company, and we have started with a ccTLD to target our own country, and we want to start targeting the U.S., the U.S. is our international market. Unfortunately, doing it so with ccTLD … well, in the first place, we cannot enable a subdirectory and geolocate it to the U.S.. The Google Search Console won’t allow us to geolocate anything under a ccTLD, or a ccTLD itself is by default geolocated to its own country. So it will be very very hard for us to do that if we are not providing the right signals that that subdirectory is actually targeted towards, or specific country, the country that we want to use, especially if it is a very competitive country that has already tons of content targeted towards it and competing very well, and very well optimized to compete well.

So realistically, it is ccTLDs, subdirectories under gTLDs, or also subdomains under gTLDs. There is this, has been for a while, this big discussions if Google will treat subdirectories in the same way that subdomains. Realistically we can go back to a few months ago, when John Mueller was at SearchLove with Will Critchlow in a really good conversation, and he confirmed that Google does sometimes treat subdomains differently. Sometimes they try to sort out and identify if they can include subdomains as something that belongs to a website. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. So as far as I can see we really want to make sure, if I really want to profit from the already existing authority, to make sure that my new international version is considered as part of this bigger entity that already exists with my website. I would prefer to use a subdirectory if that is doable also. It is very likely that for us, it would be easier to manage a subdirectory.

So you can see that all of these options have pros and cons. ccTLDs might be the ideal alternative to geolocate if competition is not too high, but if there is tons of competition and our ccTLD is starting from scratch with zero link popularity, we may want to leverage our already existing gTLD to be able to compete in a much more faster way. And if there are so many versions that we somehow need to target, that we need to use to target internationally, if we are targeting 30 countries, 50 countries, that might be a lot to manage independently with specific ccTLDs. We may want to do it like this.

These pros and cons that I am sharing before are also taking into consideration from Google. And they are actually documented by Google, and their Search Console helped the international documentation here using locale-specific URLs. So they discuss every option that I mentioned before with the pros and cons.

Be aware that you may also want, at some point, to use your ad parameters to facilitate this, or use even cookies or scripts to show even different content targeted towards different countries through the same specific URL, by geolocating the user through their IP. This is not recommended. It is important that each piece that you create that is meant to be targeted to a specific independent country is shown, is featured through their own specific URL, to be independently crawl and index, and you can specify with our proper signals that this is actually geolocated and meant to arrive in this particular country and is in this particular language. And your ad parameters are also not the best possible way to do it, because if at some point you want to geolocate using your ad parameters and you are showing the country through your parameters, there’s no way to specifically create a new Google Search Console profile for each one of them that would be geolocated as you can do with subdirectories.

So knowing the different type of web structure options to target internationally, to international country markets, whenever I am asked to help to decide which is the best possible option for that particular business, knowing the different alternatives, their pros and cons, and also the characteristic of the business, I do an analysis. And I always love to start by taking a look which are the type of properties, the type of domains, that are actually ranking in the new, potentially to be targeted countries with the new website versions, which are this type of website that already ranking there, to which I will need to start competing with. And to take a look at, really, all ccTLDs. Are there enough gTLDs out there? Is it Google, somehow? What is the role that link popularities have in these searches? Is it more about the relevance of the content? The popularity? Everything? Geolocation, if these domains are only ccTLDs, the ones that are being run there, oh my God. Well, let’s analyze, let’s take a look.

So for example, let’s compare car insurance. And I will say that is a very competitive type of keyword out there. We can see how, for example, in the U.S. in this case, of course, it’s only mainly .com. And I wanted to check if that was also the case in the UK, how many of this were actually gTLDs or if there were also potentially ccTLDs. And we can see there is a .com here, another .com, .com, .com, so most of this I can see are gTLDs, until here, It is a ccTLD. So realistically I see that of course a very competitive term is also English, so it’s very likely that these huge players of there are not necessarily only UK focused, or if they are, they select that right away .com to target the UK market. So we can see that no, there are gTLDs ranking there very well.

The link popularity metrics. So car insurance quotes in the UK, and I come here and check again these players ranking the best positions. How much is their authority and link popularity? How many links do they have as a whole domain, and specifically links going to that particular page? Is it a lot? Is it not? Is it more than the ones that I already have with my gTLD, or is it very little and I will be able to start competing right away with a new domain, with a ccTLD that will provide me this ideal geolocation type of signal? I will be able then to start answering these questions by doing this type of analysis.

To facilitate the decision making process was that you have been able to see all of this different metrics and asses them taking into consideration the initial criteria that I mentioned, is to come and do this type of decision making process that I am showing and for which I did this flowchart. What is the international target? If it is a country target, it’s about having the ccTLDs, subdirectories, subdomains. So of course the best possible scenario if all of our competitors are using ccTLDs and we can see that their domain authority, link popularity is very little. So to be able to compete right away and be able to be in the same terms, I will say, we can use ideally ccTLDs, because we can see that all of them are having ccTLDs and their link popularity is very low, so we don’t need maybe to do much even to be able to be at their same link authority level.

On the other hand, if we see that the market that we are looking to target, there’s a mix and there are gTLDs ranking very well with subdirectories or subdomains. Not all of them are ccTLDs, so it doesn’t seem that there is an extra incentive there, and it is completely doable to do it with a gTLD to geolocate it toward that particular market.

And then on the other hand we see that the players already ranking for this market are very authoritative, have already tons of links, so if we want to be able to compete with them right away in a much more straightforward way right from the start, maybe we will choose in this case a geolocalized subdirectory under a gTLD that hopefully has already a stronger precision, has much more link authority, link popularity, that will allow us to compete in a much more straightforward way.

And then of course we have this other scenario with language targeting. And I didn’t discuss it because it’s not even as complex, I will say, with country targeting, but a few of the rules of course still apply. In this case, without the geolocation complexity, and of course if you wanted to target Spanish, French, English, different languages, not country, different languages, each one of these versions should have their own specific URLs again as in the other country targeting case, and in this case we have only two options, which is to use subdirectories or subdomains.

I do know already the comment that I did before regarding subdirectories being a much more straightforward and very likely easier way to provide a signal, that these are part all of the same entity and simplify the whole process to make the search engine understand that you want to really be seen as part of the same entity and profit from its authority in a much more straightforward way. So I will say, let’s use subdirectories if possible. If not, then, because maybe again, there are technical reasons, there are legal reasons, whatever, and you need to differentiate more, or you need to assign a different IP, or you want to etcetera, etcetera, you have specific needs, or you want a simpler URL structure, I don’t know. There are some restrictions and constraints, and then you need to use a subdomain, then you use a subdomain in that particular case.

So I hope that with this explanation it is much more straightforward for you and we can start performing and competing there in a much more straightforward way, in a faster time, and seeing results fast. Because at the end of the day remember that it’s all about results. Better rankings for more traffic, more conversions and a higher profit. And this is what international SEO also should be about, expanding and targeting international markets.

I hope that this has helped to clarify any remaining international web structure doubts. And if you still have doubts just let me know, I’ll be happy to answer your doubts in the comments. Also, if you have any other question that you would like me to address with a new Crawling Mondays, just let me know in the comments or send me a tweet @CrawlingMondays too. I’ll be happy to do an episode about that. Thank you very much and have a great week.