Should you get a country-specific domain name for SEO?

on under International SEO.

Considering a country-code domain for your business?

This is one of the most common questions that we hear and the answer is always the same:

It depends.

But first, let me back up and explain what I'm talking about.

What is a Country-Code Domain?

What a question.. get ready for acronym overload.

A top-level domain (TLD) the last portion of a hostname or domain (such as ".com").

A country-code TLD (ccTLD) is a domain name signaling that content relates to a certain country. For example a ".au" site is for Australia and ".de" is for Germany.

The opposite of a ccTLD is a generic TLD (gTLD). As you'd expect, this signals the opposite: that content is for everybody.

These definitions come from International Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN). In case you're now wondering, I'm not making this stuff up.. that's a real thing and they're in charge of everything.

They have a department called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) who's in charge of maintaining official registries of gTLDs and ccTLDs. They keep it right here. As you can see, other people are in charge of specific TLDs, but all of them report to ICANN.

There's one more option that has nothing to do with ICANN or IANA. Google made it up- it's called a generic country code TLD (gccTLD). Basically, when a ccTLD gets popular enough, Google starts treating these ccTLDs as if they were gTLDs.

A good example of gccTLDs are .io and .co. According to ICANN, these are ccTLDs for the Indian Ocean and Colombia, but practically no one has used them this way. There's a full list of gccTLDs in the link above.

Alright, great. So should I use a ccTLD?

I'll answer your question with a question: where is your market?

There are three possible answers that matter. Below, skip to the one that applies to you.

A: My market is entirely regional/local.

Your market is located 100% inside the country of the ccTLD that you're considering?

And you'd never need to serve somebody outside that country?

Then sure, a ccTLD should perform fine for you.

B: My market is international and this will be my only website.

A ccTLD is not for you. This is why gTLDs exist.

Unless we're talking about a gccTLD (defined above), which should perform fine in Google. Remember, though, that even though Google's market share is huge, they're not the only search engine in town.

Bing, Yandex, and Baidu tend to rhyme very closely with Google's methods, and as of writing this, we have no evidence that gccTLDs are treated the same way by any of the others. So use a gccTLD here at your own risk.

C: My market is international and I'm trying to scale into new markets.

I was hoping you'd say that. Let's talk international SEO.

First, internationalization happens two ways.

  1. Multiple languages
  2. Multiple regions

ccTLDs are all about regions; not languages.

So if you want a French version of your site for French-speaking Canadians, don't use a .fr. That's for the French. Instead, you'd want a very carefully-isolated French section of your existing gTLD website.

Sure, a .fr should be written in French, but that's not why we use that ccTLD.

Let's say that instead, you've been successful on your .com in the U.S. and want to expand to Germany using a .de domain. That's the correct use of a ccTLD. We believe that this helps rankings directly.

This also allows you to host this site in that region, which gives you a regional IP.

And hosting a site closer to your audience is faster for them. We definitely know that performance is a factor.

I could go on, but do I need to? Review the ranking factors and you'll find plenty of indicators that a separate ccTLD, hosted near your audience, should help.

But slow down.

There are factors weighted against these. Half of all of SEO relates to your overall quantity and quality of links. Specifically, how those links relate to your domain and the individual pages that you'd like to rank.

Now, have you achieved success in your current market?

If the answer is "no", it's probably too soon to expand internationally. You'll be dividing your efforts. In this process, you'll need to structure everything carefully so that your multiple sites share authority. In future link building, you can only link to one international version of your content at one time.

Next, are you prepared to give this site the love that a separate brand deserves? That is, if you're launching a Polish site, have you lined up a content marketing agency whose primary language is Polish? Plan on attending a few events in Poland? If not, how do you expect to out-work brands whose native language is Polish? They're attracting links from those .pl sites at a higher velocity than you are.

Don't let me scare you off: just be prepared to compete in this market like those doing it full time.

If you've made it this far, a ccTLD is probably for you. You just need to answer "when" and "how". A good next step is to review our international SEO checklist. It begins with a few more soul-searching questions, before stepping into the tactical nuances that are exclusive to international SEO.

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  • Andy Crestodina

    This post answered just a very important question for one of my clients. Thank you, Northcutt, for the clarity. This was a huge help!