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International SEO: Top-Level Domains, Subdomains & Subdirectories

Greg Kihlstrom
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International Domains

SEO for international targets has many facets, all of which require a slightly different approach than SEO within a single country. One of the most important items is how you structure your domain name and your URL.

To signify the country the website is targeting and/or language the website is in, you can approach this in one of three ways, including:

  • Using a top-level domain name (TLD)
  • Using subdomains
  • Using subdirectories

Top-Level Domains (TLDs)

A top-level domain is the extension that follows your registered name (e.g., this website's registered name is "searchenginewatch", which makes its TLD ".com"). The most popular and prevalent TLD is ".com", and it is country-agnostic.

If you're targeting a specific country, you will want to use that country's TLD, or ccTLD. For instance, you would use .fr for France, .in for India, and so on. A full list of TLDs is available here.

Unless you are only actively marketing your product or service in a couple of countries, it probably isn't practical to have a domain in every country that you target. But you should consider them for target countries or those where you have a recruiting presence.

Combining a TLD with web hosts that are located within that country can make an effective international SEO effort, but obviously there are costs and logistics associated with this tactic.

Subdomains

Using subdomains (e.g., france.yourdomain.com) is another option, though this is the least beneficial method of using domain names for international SEO. Google made a change a couple years back to treat results from all subdomains as part of the root domain instead of as if they were from separate domains.

It is more helpful to use subdomains if the sites would be in separate languages and hosted in separate locations. Otherwise, you should just use subdirectories.

Subdirectories

Instead of using a different domain per country, you might consider domain directories for some of the countries that you aren't actively marketing in (e.g., yourdomain.com/in/ for India).

This can be beneficial for smaller companies that don't have a huge website and a large number of inbound links. You can then benefit by having a larger link profile for your root domain, while still making a clear distinction between locations and languages. This doesn't benefit you as much as separate TLDs on the one hand, but the benefit of and overall larger amount of links may outweigh this.

The downside of using subdirectories to separate your location and language sites is that if you choose this method you won't be able to host these directories on a different, international server. So you will lose the benefit of having a server host your site that could be located in India, for instance.

Conclusion

As with all aspects of SEO, and more specifically with international SEO, choosing between domains, subdomains and subdirectories alone isn't a complete strategy. If you choose the best, most practical option, it will complement your other efforts and add up to a whole that boosts your immediate rankings and sets the foundation for a long-term international SEO strategy.


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