If you are reading the Hover blog you probably already understand the various components of a website address. But just to make sure we are on the same page, a quick summary.
If we take https://www.yoursite.com as an example:
- The https:// part of the web address is known as the protocol. Specifically, HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. The S on HTTPS means it is secured with encryption.
- www is the sub-domain.
- yoursite is the second level domain.
- And lastly, the .com part of the address is known as the top-level domain, or TLD for short.
When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) it used to be the case that having your target keywords in the sub-domain or second level domain could have a big impact on your rankings. This is not the case these days, but domain name choice can still have a big impact on your ability to rank depending on the market you are in. In this article we’ll explain why.
How domain names can impact search visibility
To understand how domain name choice can impact search visibility we need to understand two key concepts:
- Google adjusts rankings based on the searcher’s location. If you are in Toronto and you search for “emergency plumber” you will see results for local emergency plumbers in Toronto, and of course if you are in Los Angeles you will see a different set of results for local plumbers there. That much seems obvious but consider different types of search query…what if you search for something like “cheap web hosting”. Does it matter where the results are from? It is probably less important because you don’t necessarily need to have a local web hosting company. How localized the results are will depend on the nature and intent of the search query itself, as well as the location of the searcher.
- When it comes to top level domains, there are two main types. The .com extension for example is known as a global top-level domain, also known as a gTLD. Global top-level domains are intended for a global audience, so they have no association with any place. If you have a .ca or .co.uk domain, they are known as a country code top level domain or ccTLD. Country code TLDs are obviously intended for specific country markets.
So, knowing that Google will localize results for specific types of query and for people in specific places, and knowing that the ccTLDs are intended for specific countries, the impact on domain choice is clear…
If you specifically serve a local market in your country then a local ccTLD would be an appropriate choice, because it provides a clear signal to Google that your site is intended for a specific country and so, all other things being equal, ccTLDs tend to rank better in local search results.
But if you want to go global and expect to attract traffic and/or business from all over the world you should be using a gTLD, like .COM, or one of the many new gTLDs designed for specific types of business. gTLDs have no specific country focus and so can rank all around the world.
Is it better to have one global site or many local sites?
Because ccTLDs tend to do better in local search results, particularly for queries with some local intent, many global organizations do use ccTLDs for all the markets they enter. From a purely SEO point of view, running local sites on relevant ccTLDs makes good sense.
This is certainly why the world’s largest online travel agent, Expedia, runs local sites in just about every country, e.g. expedia.ca, expedia.com.au, expedia.co.uk and many more for specific countries all around the world. Having local websites for each market allows them to localize each site based on local language (even English language usage can vary from market to market), as well as merchandising their product for the local market as well.
Of course, Expedia is a large global enterprise with the technical and marketing resources to do this, and SEO is not the only consideration for most companies. If you have global ambitions but relatively limited resources then a single global site on a gTLD is likely the best bet, and it doesn’t stop you from rolling out country specific sites in the future. Expedia does of course have expedia.com in addition to their various local country sites.
What if my site is on a ccTLD but I want to attract global search traffic?
Sometimes a business will launch itself on a ccTLD, but later decide they want to attract a more global audience. In this case you really do need to look at moving your site to a gTLD.
This happened to our business. When we first launched, we were wpthemes.co.nz, a local WordPress theme shop in New Zealand. Fast forward a couple of years and our new focus was on developing content and themes for a global audience, so we rebranded as wpdevshed.com. We migrated our site and content to the new domain, ensuring that all our pages were properly redirected to the new domain, and almost overnight we started to see more search traffic from a global audience.
Can I use a single gTLD, but have different versions of my site for each local market?
Yes, you can use a single gTLD to run multiple versions of your site, each one intended for a different geographic market (or country). You can also have specific language versions for each country.
Another commonly used approach for global businesses online is to serve different versions of their website on the same domain for different markets. For example, Chinese smartphone manufacturer Oppo has different versions of their site for each country they do business in. Oppo.com/au/ for Australia, Oppo.com/fr/ for France and Oppo.com/my/ for Malaysia, and many more. You can choose to serve each country version as a sub-directory like Oppo does or as a sub-domain where you’ll have versions such as au.example.com or uk.example.com. Either way works just fine.
It is important to note that this approach alone doesn’t provide the same clear signal the search engines that a ccTLD does for each market. In this case you must take advantage of the hreflang meta data standard that helps Google and the other search engines understand what market each version is intending to serve. Hreflang allows you to define in the meta data of the page which country and/or language the page is intended for, as well as linking to all the variations for other countries and/or languages. This provides the signal that Google would otherwise get from the use of a specific ccTLD. You would also use hreflang for the same reason if you have a multi-language site on a ccTLD, e.g. an English and French version of your .ca website.
SEO & Domain Names: In Conclusion
Your choice of top-level domain can influence your ability to rank in search results around the world. If you are a local business focussed on local customers in a particular country, you should use the appropriate ccTLD. If you want to go after a global audience, you should use an appropriate gTLD or develop local sites for each country in which you operate using the relevant ccTLDs. For global sites that serve multiple countries and languages you must also implement the hreflang meta data standard so to provide the search engines with the signals they need to understand the different versions of your website.