In 2003 I first began speaking on international SEO at conferences and seminars and have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the question, “Is it better to use local domains or dot coms with a folder or sub-domain for my site?” To me, the answer to this question was obvious even a decade ago but the debate has continued to rage. The next question in popularity is always “…and do I need local hosting?”
I’ll address the hosting issue in a future column. Today we’ll look at the top six reasons why local domains are for winners and dot coms for runners up. I’ll also attempt to put on record why newbies to the promotion of international sites are seduced by the songs of the dot com siren and how to spot those who have been enchanted away on magical waves of sound.
First, I need to give you a little track record to explain my perspective. The very first web site I launched was in 1996 targeting the major western European countries. It used good quality content, local domains and keywords researched by native-speakers (not keywords translated from English). It was this site which led to me discovering SEO but at the time my role was as the straightforward corporate marketing manager who had been given the task of improving the wider European presence of my employer. 13 years later, that site is still the top for its target keywords and has seen competitors, as well as major algorithm updates, come and go without any significant impact.
In the intervening years, my work has involved a great many international and multilingual projects for small, large and very large organizations. In fact, I have not worked actively on any non-international website promotion project since before the millennium and it would be accurate to say that my day is full of “international.” So here are the six reasons why I believe local domains are the clear winners when trying to promote international sites.
1. Clear unequivocal geo-targeted signal
To own a country code domain or ccTLD (in this article called local domains), you actually need to go and buy them and register with a local authority. As such, the local domain has always represented the best controlled and strictest identifier of a specific geography. There are some exceptions of course, but these are mostly to do with certain domains, such as .tv (the tiny island state of Tuvalu) having found that their particular geography had a gold mine domain name it could use to generate revenue.
On several occasions I have been approached by engineers employed by search engine specifically who were working on geo-targeting of their results. In all cases they have given the local domain as the first and best signal they would look for in determining a local result.
We have launched a great many local domain websites that weren’t hosted in the country they were targeted. If they were operating under a local domain, you could virtually guarantee that, within a matter of hours they would show up in the right place in search results. In other words, if the site was a French site, operating under a .fr domain, within hours of a search engine crawl, the site would show up in the area called “Pages de France” or pages from France—even if the site was actually hosted in the US.
2. Good site architecture
The argument is often put forward that it’s far too expensive to switch an existing dot com website with zillions of pages over to its relevant local domains in the various countries its owners wished to target. It can, of course, be expensive to switch the domain used and this needs to be done with great care. However, when corporations calculate the cost of making the change, they tend to give less financial value to the ongoing cost of SEO and of compensating for not having the relevant local domain. This could mean additional local hosting costs or even substantial link building to overcome the inherent disadvantages of the dot com.
By the way, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who simply cannot make the move to local domains or for whom it really is cost-prohibitive—there are indeed some firms for which that is the case. However, even they should have “going local” as an ultimate part of their long term plan. This might be when the site, or parts of the site, are fundamentally re-built, for instance.
Many great SEOs will repeat to you over and over again how important it is to have good site architecture. I’m a firm believer that using local domains for your site is a very good place to start when structuring your site.
3. People generally buy locally
Purist SEOs may not see conversion factors as the most important in recommending which steps a client should take. However, I firmly believe users read URLs in the search engine results and that it has a direct impact on how many of them click on links. Say you’re looking for a “second hand car” and you live in Germany. If you know nothing else about a website, which is most likely to be the most compelling: “secondhandcar.com” or “secondhandcar.de?” To me, it is clearly the latter.
Even beyond the results page, the local domain plays in the mind of the user. “If this is a .de and I live in Munich, then they’re more likely to deliver” is a reasonable conclusion for most folks to draw.
4. Link attractiveness
Having a local domain also helps in your link building programs. Other sites in the same country are much more likely to link to you if you have a local domain. But it’s especially true that they’ll be more interested in receiving links from you if you’re local—after all, they need local links too. Many local directories will only accept local domain names in any case.
5. More powerful internal linking
Links between sites of the same dot com are less valuable, in my view, than links between truly international versions using local domains. So a site which splits its dot com into many countries has an opportunity to reap some benefits from the many different domains it now controls—subject to the normal caveats such as having quality content and offering a good experience to the user.
6. Resistance to the shifting sands of algorithms
I can’t prove this one to you, but after more than a decade of experience I’m convinced that local domain sites tend to be more stable in results than dot coms which move up and down when search engine algorithms change.
Enchantment from the dot com sirens
Why do so many talented SEOs first conclude that dot coms are just as acceptable as local domains when they first start working in the international field? The first issue is that many look at the situation in the UK as a test case for what happens internationally. This is not a good idea as the UK is a very odd example indeed where US sites are often as acceptable to British folks as home-based UK ones. The balance between .co.uk and dot com in the UK is NOT typical of how it works in the wider world.
Second, the structure of a site’s geo-selector—the method by which countries and languages are chosen—plays a key role in sharing link values around the site. Dot coms have an advantage here,but only because using local domains shows up the poor structure of the geo-selector. With improvement, they will easily overtake the dot com.
The third reason is that SEOs just love research and data. So they head into the search engines and check some keywords and then assess how many dot coms or local domains show-up. I have seen this so many times. The problem with this approach is that you would have to check a huge number of keywords to get a sensible result, you’d have to check the correct language keywords and you’d have to work out how competitive the sector is. If it’s relatively uncompetitive—more dot coms will show up. And if you use the wrong keywords… well, that’s a story for another column.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.