The debate rages on: international domains versus a sub-directory or folder structure. Which should you choose?
There are several options outside of having a .com, .net, .org, etc., that have consistently proved to be better then the other. What follows is a rough guideline that can help you provide solutions to your clients.
Please note, these are all in order, meaning that I prefer ccTLDs first over subdomains, and I prefer subdomains over subdirectories.
A country code top-level domain is a domain that is used or reserved for a country. For example, .co.uk, .ru, .jp
Pros of Choosing a ccTLD
- Trust: People in other countries actually want to see sites that are local unless you're an international brand or your product/service is scarcely available in their home country. A ccTLD puts you on the road map of trust and gives users a feeling that you're local.
- Organic ranking: Although you can argue that subdirectories and subdomains have benefited you in organic search, search engines do provide a benefit to those with ccTLDs. As it relates to trust, search engines prefer local sites over foreign sites. If you show trust and act local, you have an advantage.
- Link building: If you want to rank well in search, the methodologies are the same in other countries. Get links. Only thing is, your links have to be from the country you're targeting. It's a lot easier for someone to link to a ccTLD than remembering your subdomain/subdirectory methodology.
Cons of Choosing a ccTLD
- Name likely already taken: In this world of domains, you will be pretty lucky if someone hasn't already swiped your .com brand name with a ccTLD.
- Expensive: If you were to target 30 countries, you are obviously going to pay every year for those domains. In some situations, you will find ccTLDs more expensive and many cases almost impossible to get unless you're physically located in that country. It's pretty expensive to hire and utilize a vendor who can set up your domain when you need to have a physical presence.
- Difficult to manage: Every change you do on your site, you will have to do on these ccTLD sites. There aren't a whole lot of Content Management Systems (CMS) systems that have done a good job facilitating this for you too. You have to think of each ccTLD almost as a separate business, which means between 2 and 10 times the amount of work.
A subdomain is part of a larger domain and is most commonly used by organizations that wish to assign a unique name to a particular country or language. An example of a subdomain would be "fr.searchenginestrategies.com."
Pros of Choosing a Subdomain
- Flexibility: As long as you know how to create a subdomain, you will realize that they are easy to create and very flexible as far as naming conventions go. If you plan to do international search marketing, create your subdomains per country. You can do anything you want, however, see my note below on why you should be careful with choosing subdirectory languages or regions.
- Inexpensive: The great thing about a subdomain is that you can still use your ".com" and if you worked hard to build a brand, this might be the avenue you take that makes the most sense.
Cons of Choosing a Subdomain
- Link building: It can cause a problem if the linkor forgets to put the subdomain link and puts the root domain link instead. This would help your root domain but can cause serious issues for your search rankings in that country. Especially if you have a country that shares the same language, then you run into a duplicate ranking nightmare.
- Trust: Trust is diminished, especially if your domain isn't a recognized brand in that country and could get even worse if your domain is an English word or phrase. If you had "uk.freewilly.com" and were marketing your film online in the U.K., you may find your British visitors a little (bad word to describe), um, more or less offended.
- Set up: Like Google's Matt Cutts wrote in his blog "Subdomains-and-Subdirectories" it can be difficult for a novice to set up.
These are really folders off of your root domain. For example: Searchenginestrategies.com/fr/. You can have an unlimited amount of them, you can be flexible. And they are easy to create.
Pros of Choosing a Subdirectory
- Better than nothing: This is really the last choice beyond utilizing some auto-translate tool on your website.
- Cheap: By far, it's the cheapest, since it only involves creating a folder.
- Easy to create: It's simply a folder.
Cons of Choosing a Subdirectory
- Link building: Getting other people to link to a specific folder of yours reduces your chance quite a bit with a subfolder. Ask yourself this first, would you link to some foreign companies "English" folder on his site so he can rank better here?
- Trust: There is little or no trust benefit at all, unless you have a known brand in that country.
- Organic ranking: Considering proper linking will be an issue and you're showing no signs of being local, organic ranking is going to be more challenging. Hopefully you're first to market in that country or you have no competitors.
Subdirectories are fine for paid search landing pages or even if you decide to target via language instead of country. They may work fine for you in organic SEO too, especially if you have a great brand or recognizable names. If you were to create a Spanish version of your site and you have no intention of marketing to Spain or Latin America directly but want to offer your visitors a Spanish language alternative, then a subdirectory will be just fine.
IDNs and RegionalTLDs
An IDN stands for Internationalized Domain Name and is a new structure that allows you have language-specific script, like the Arabic, Chinese, Russian alphabets. Regional TLDs are those such as ".eu" that covers an entire region.
Although I respect IDNs, so far there is a lot of debate on how useful they are and if companies can gain some sort of benefit. In the long run, they should work out as well as ccTLDs. But for now, if you can reserve yours, you should. As far as regionalized TLDs go, they are just about as good as a subdirectory and were not nearly as adopted as many people thought.
I always prefer people to design and develop around a country first and not a language. I can imagine what Wikipedia, which creates subdirectories based on language, must be feeling when you have an issue with languages who keep alternating the spelling or in the case with Chinese and Japanese Kanji where the words are the same but can mean entirely different things.
ccTLDs are best for companies that have the resources to find and purchase all of their top level domains from other countries and can manage them. If you're just starting out, you may want to buy all of the ccTLDs you can and over time implement them for each individual country.
Subdomains are best for those either targeting via language or country and don't have the resources to manage so many ccTLDs.
Finally, subdirectories are your last alternative and can be a quick way to make PPC landing pages or language versions of your site, but may not be truly beneficial with country targeted search.