When it comes to choosing a domain strategy, the two most common options for international websites are: Using several country-level domains (ccTLDs – country code top-level domains) or grouping all international versions on one global domain (gTLD – generic top-level domains). This article highlights when and why it might make sense to move from a multi-ccTLD approach to a single-gTLD strategy, by looking at a case study and the SEO theory behind the topic. If you decide to migrate your own international website from ccTLDs to a gTLD, you will also find some technical advice for the migration itself in this article.

>>> In a rush? Jump straight to the TL;DR summary.

Let it be clear that in SEO, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. This article argues for the SEO advantages of a global gTLD solution, but there are cases where switching from ccTLDs to a gTLD will not generate any growth or might even do harm. Please do make sure to always make your own project-based decisions and to not take anything in SEO as an absolute truth, even if there are lots of case studies and opinions pointing in one direction.

Case study: NFON’s international SEO growth after migrating to an international gTLD

To get started, let’s have a look at an example of a business that generated significant growth after migrating several country domains to one international gTLD. NFON is a provider of a cloud telephone system currently operating in 12 countries and they see themselves as the European market leader in their segment. In 2014, they started moving their different country websites from separate domains into subdirectories on a shared international domain (nfon.com). Here’s how their SEO performance in different markets benefitted from the switch.

Austria – Growing higher than the Alps

Austria was one of the first markets NFON was active in and their Austrian domain (nfon.at) had been online since 2010, before it was merged into the new international gTLD in early 2015. The company had been doing fine in Austria – there had been SEO activities conducted specifically for the Austrian domain and market and their SEO performance in Austria was good, compared to their national competitors. Here’s what happened to their visibility when they switched from nfon.at to nfon.com/at/:

visibility-nfon-at

NFON’s visibility in Austria skyrocketed after the migration. Organic traffic grew by 90% in the first five months after the migration, compared to the previous year, and their leads generated through organic search even grew by 100% in the same time frame, year over year (source:  my original case study in German – they were my client at the time, so I had access to their numbers when I wrote the original case study – with their permission).

To be fair, it should be mentioned that the migration also included a redesign, which certainly had a positive impact on the performance, so the entire growth cannot be attributed to the domain switch alone. Let’s have a look at the development in the UK, where the redesign happened several weeks before the domain migration, which makes it a bit easier to compare the impact of the different components.

UK – What happens after Brexit?

The starting point for NFON in the UK at the time of the domain migration was very different from the one in Austria. NFON had only just entered the UK market recently (one of the toughest grounds for SEO in Europe), and they were struggling to grow their organic traffic in the country. Their UK content had been hosted on the domain nconnect.com, which is a gTLD itself (and not a ccTLD), but it included only the UK version of NFON’s website. The redesign (the one that the Austrian website version had received at the same time it was migrated to nfon.com) happened several weeks before the domain switch in the UK, with no noticeable effect on the domain’s SEO visibility. The real boost happened after the UK website version was migrated from nconnect.com to nfon.com/gb/, with no other changes made at the same time:

visibility-nfon-uk-before-brexit

You might have noticed that the above screenshot includes a shorter time frame after the domain migration than the Austrian one we looked at earlier. That’s because in 2017, an interesting little episode happened, that I would really like to share with you:

The NFON UK team were unhappy with their situation. The growth they had got from the common European domain was not enough for them and they thought that all of the SEO budget they were contributing to the European website would be better invested in the NHS their own UK domain. So they triggered Article 50, left nfon.com in May 2017, and moved their content to nfon.co.uk. This is what happened to their visibility in the UK:

visibility-nfon-uk-brexit

Unfortunately, their new UK domain just didn’t have the power to maintain the rankings the international gTLD had previously had in the UK. And worst of all, the UK domain was now competing with the international English language version on nfon.com for rankings in the UK (and even being outranked by it).

The good thing is that SEO is not politics and that there were decent people in charge, so the mistake could be fixed fairly quickly:

visibility-nfon-uk-after-brexit

NFON is now stronger than ever before in the UK. So if you live in the UK, or you’re mad about Brexit for other reasons: There’s still hope!

To wrap this case study up, let’s have a look at NFON’s domestic market, the country they started in and that they have been active in the longest.

Germany – From SEO chaos to stable growth

Before the domain migration, NFON’s German content was hosted on nfon.net (another gTLD that was only used for one country), a domain with a history that goes back as far as 2007. The SEO performance of the old German NFON domain had highs and lows, with the most difficult time between the autumn of 2013 and the spring of 2014, when it took them more than half a year to recover from a manual penalty they had received for unnatural link building. Back then, lots of businesses thought that they could win at SEO by investing in link building, without taking care of their content and technical foundation. Until the end of 2013, NFON was obviously one of them.

After the mess had been cleaned up and a new international SEO strategy had been agreed upon, the German website version was migrated from nfon.net to nfon.com/de/, and here’s what happened to their SEO visibility in Germany:

visibility-nfon-de

For the first time ever, in the three years after the domain migration, NFON was able to generate stable organic traffic growth over a long period of time in Germany, their domestic market. There are obviously several factors at play here, like focussing on content and a solid technical foundation, but I have reason to believe that the international domain strategy is one of the most important drivers of success for NFON. We will discuss some possible reasons for this later on in this article.

Note: It is unknown to me what caused the recent volatility here, but I guess you also noticed it in the graphs for Austria and the UK above. It’s interesting how closely the performance is connected in the different markets, isn’t it? More about this later on…

Great, but this is just one isolated case :/ And what about correlation vs. causation?

You’re right, this is just one case and it does not prove beyond doubt that the domain merger had anything to do with the SEO growth it was followed by. If you’re interested in another very similar case study, you might like the piece “One global domain vs. multiple TLDs for an international brand? 841 percent visibility boost – case study.” by Bartosz Góralewicz. It describes a case that has a lot in common with the NFON case described above, but on a much bigger scale, and with the same result: Strong growth after merging several country websites on different (sub)domains into one international domain with subdirectories. Bartosz’s article also includes a lot of very valuable advice for the migration itself, so I highly recommend it.

It’s not easy to find more case studies with similar scenarios, which is probably mainly due to two factors:

  1. Moving from country domains to an international domain is not something that happens every day, so there aren’t many cases to begin with.
  2. Lots of businesses don’t feel comfortable sharing their data and details of their strategies, so there are even fewer case studies than cases.

I myself have worked on other cases like the ones described above, with similar results, but not all of them generated data that I can easily share. One nice example is ecom instruments, a provider of intrinsically safe mobile devices, who moved their UK website version from a .co.uk domain to their global .com domain, that had already hosted all of their other language and country versions, without making any other changes at the same time. The move generated decent organic growth in the UK:

Maria Saez recommended to check out the recent migration from ccTLDs to a gTLD that Aggreko undertook, and I do encourage you to use a tool like Sistrix, Searchmetrics, or SEMrush to check out their visibility improvements for yourself:

Esteve Castells sent me an example of a business that merged a country domain with a negative organic traffic trend onto an already existing gTLD, and managed to reverse the trend:

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to share any more details about this case – you know what it’s like…

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to ask people in your network if they know of any interesting cases, because often they will be able to share examples with you, even if they haven’t been (or can’t be) made public.

Warning – This might not work for you

Over the last few years, I have spoken to several SEOs that tried and failed to replicate this kind of success, after they had heard of similar cases or seen their competitors succeed with this kind of domain strategy. It is important to note that domain strategy is only one of many factors that play a role in international SEO and that not every merger of country domains into an international domain will lead to success. Let’s have a look at some theoretical concepts, in order to better understand why and when merging several country domains into one international domain can lead to organic traffic growth, and when it might not.

Why can switching from country domains to an international domain improve a website’s SEO performance?

The title of this article is “Migrating from ccTLDs to a gTLD”, but you might have noticed that in the NFON case discussed above, only one of the three country domains we looked at actually was a ccTLD. That’s because in the scenario of merging several country domains into one international domain, it’s not really about ccTLDs vs. gTLDs. It’s about several domains vs. one domain.

My theory for explaining the fact that you can generate organic traffic growth from simply merging several domains into one domain is that there are certain ranking signals that are more easily shared with pages on the same domain than across domains. These ranking signals are mainly link-related, so the relevance that a country or language version of a website receives from its links from other websites is more easily shared with the website’s other country or language versions if these other versions are hosted on the same domain.

Barry Adams explains the phenomenon this way:

Barry’s perspective is that rankings are influenced by PageRank, which is passed on from one page to another via links, but links between pages on the same domain pass on more PageRank than links between pages on different domains. This is a far more sophisticated way of saying what I said above. Note that Barry also expands this concept to pages on different subdomains, not just domains. He also elaborates on the topic in his recent article “URLs, Crawling, and PageRank; Fundamentals of SEO”, which I highly recommend (not just for the parts that are relevant to this topic).

One of the best resources on the ccTLD vs. gTLD topic that I know is the article “How to choose between subdomain, subfolder or ccTLD for international expansion” by Stephen Kenwright. Stephen covers several factors to take into consideration when deciding which international domain strategy to go with. He stresses the risks that are associated with moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD, a topic that we will talk about more later on in this article. When it comes to the advantages of hosting several country or language versions on the same gTLD, he has the following opinion:

“improving your international SEO when using a ccTLD or a geotargeted subdomain requires more budget than using a gTLD with subdirectories as both are literally separate websites. You won’t get the same benefits from the links pointing to your domain and ‘flowing down'”

Stephen agrees with the positions outlined above, namely that pages on the same domain can benefit from each other’s links better than pages on different domains, and, just like Barry, he claims that this is also valid for pages on different subdomains.

It’s probably time to address the elephant in the room: The ccTLD vs. gTLD discussion has a lot in common with the subdomain vs. subfolder (aka subdirectory) discussion. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the different positions, here’s a good starting point:

The parallels between the discussions are clear: In both cases, the central question is whether it is true that there are link-related ranking signals that are more easily shared between pages on the same (sub)domain than between pages on different (sub)domains. The main difference between the discussions is that it might be easier to accept for some people that this boundary does exist between domains, even if it might be harder to believe in such a boundary between subdomains. What’s your take on all of this? I’d be happy to read your opinion in the comments section or on Twitter.

In this context, it also makes sense to mention the recent case study published by Pinterest about their move from a gTLD to a ccTLD structure, which helped them grow their organic traffic. The result seems surprising at first, as they moved in the exact opposite direction of the examples we’ve seen so far. If you have a closer look, you’ll notice that they moved from subdomains on a gTLD to ccTLDs, so they probably weren’t benefitting from shared ranking signals on the gTLD in the first place. Nevertheless, the Pinterest case is a very valuable resource, as it shows that ccTLDs do provide other positive ranking signals, and I suggest you read it and draw your own conclusions.

Let’s now talk about some factors that might prevent a merger of ccTLDs into a gTLD from showing the desired positive outcome.

Why might switching from country domains to an international domain NOT work?

As I mentioned above, I’ve seen several cases where this exact type of domain merger didn’t result in growth, or where it harmed the website’s SEO performance. One thing that most of the negative examples I’ve looked at had in common was that they involved merging just one strong domain with several weak domains. If only one of your country domains has a decent number of good links, but most of the other domains have been struggling to generate links in their markets, chances are that a common international domain will not help you either. The cases I’ve studied where this type of domain merger worked out well had in common that some of the different country domains already had a history and had decent link profiles in their markets.

Domain switches almost always do harm in the short-term, especially if you merge your country domains into a completely new gTLD that hasn’t been able to build up any trust and relevance signals with Google yet. Domain switches always involve redirecting all URLs, and redirected URLs tend to lose some of their SEO performance. If you decide to merge your country domains into one international domain, you always risk losing some of your SEO performance in your stronger markets in the short term, so you need to calculate whether the potential gains are worth the loss.

Another thing you should consider is that once all website versions are merged into an international domain, they don’t just share positive ranking signals, but also negative ones. For instance, if one website version has generated harmful links in the past, or has a high amount of low quality content, this might have a negative impact on the entire domain. And this is not just valid in the moment of the migration, but also in future – once all country versions are hosted on the same domain, new negative developments in one market might have a harmful impact on other website versions. Once your different country versions are hosted on the same domain, their performance is closely connected, as we already mentioned when we noticed the similar patterns in NFON’s recent visibility volatility in Austria, the UK and Germany.

visibility-nfon-atvisibility-nfon-uk-after-brexitvisibility-nfon-de

If you want to learn more about this topic and what to do to prevent negative ranking signals from one country version from doing harm to all other versions, you should read Bartosz’s case study about picodi.com, which I already recommended above.

Before you decide to merge several country domains into one international domain, you should ask yourself if your country domains actually have something to share with each other and if you’ll be able to define an aligned international SEO strategy for all markets. If you’re only trying to transfer your domestic market’s good SEO performance to other countries, this might not work out too well. But even if you do meet this requirement for success, a lot can still go wrong. Read on to learn how to make sure your international domain migration becomes a success.

Technical advice for migrating from country domains to an international gTLD

There are lots of factors that should be taken into consideration when migrating a website, but here are the ones that are particularly important for international domain migrations:

Avoid redirect chains

Did you notice that NFON lost most of their SEO visibility in Germany directly after the domain switch?

visibility-nfon-de

This dramatic loss was due to several factors, most of which we already discussed above. The website was migrated to a completely new domain that didn’t have the same authority as the old one and all URLs that were previously ranking were redirected to new URLs. But the main problem was that almost all of these redirects passed through redirect chains. The migration and redesign involved URL changes, so the IT department had received a redirect list with matched old and new URLs. They knew exactly which target the old nfon.net URLs were supposed to redirect to. Unfortunately, they decided to set up a simple redirect rule on nfon.net that redirected all nfon.net URLs to their exact equivalents on nfon.com. Then, they set up another set of redirects that took care of these new (virtual) URLs on nfon.com to redirect them to the previously defined targets. This resulted in 99% of all old nfon.net URLs passing through a redirect chain. And if a redirect results in a loss of SEO performance, then a redirect chain does so even more, as the redirect process is simply repeated more than once.

When switching domains, all redirect rules should be set up directly on the old domain and it should be avoided to generate intermediate URLs, even if this is often the easiest way for the involved developers.

Keep your old domains and SSL certificates

When switching domains, it is important to redirect all old URLs that are generating organic search traffic and that have external links pointing to them to your new domain. In order to keep the redirects working permanently, you need to stay in control of your old domains, so you should make sure to keep them registered. One issue that is often missed is that the SSL certificates for the old domains also have to be kept. If your old domains had https URLs that are now redirecting to URLs on your new domain, these redirects will only keep working as long as you have a valid SSL certificate for your old domain.

In case you are wondering how long you need to keep the old domains and SSL certificates in order to keep the redirects working, the answer is: forever.

Another important task when switching domains is to update all external links to your website that you control. This includes social media profiles, all types of business listing that you have access to, links from other websites that you or your colleagues can edit, and so on. You can also think about reaching out to webmasters of websites you don’t control that link to you. It’s always a good idea to stay in contact with the people that link to you, because you depend on them in a way. And it’s also a good way of letting more people know about your new domain. Sometimes, interesting new opportunities can arise from a simple e-mail exchange.

Use hreflang and Google Search Console’s geo-targeting feature

On your new international website, make sure to link the different versions of your content with correct hreflang annotations. It can be difficult for search engines like Google to figure out which users the different content versions on an international gTLD are targeted at, and hreflang is a signal that can help. If your gTLD contains country directories (and not just language versions), it also makes sense to create an individual Google Search Console property for every country directory and use the country targeting feature that you find by navigating to Search Traffic > International Targeting > Country. In your GSC property for the entire domain, or in properties for language directories that target several countries, make sure NOT to select a country in this menu.

International SEO expert opinions

To round this up, and in order to include some issues that I have forgotten about, I asked some international SEO experts, whose opinions I highly value, for their input. This is the question I sent them (along with an early draft of the article):

Do you think an international website can benefit from being migrated from several ccTLDs to one gTLD? Why or why not?

Here are the interesting thoughts they shared with me:

Maria Saez – Moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD doesn’t always make sense.

Maria Saez is a freelance SEO consultant from Pontevedra (Spain) with lots of international SEO experience. She reminds us that even though merging ccTLDs into a gTLD might help with improving SEO performance, such a domain structure is not possible for all brands and might not even make sense for some businesses:

“I believe that in most cases, the migration to one single domain can be beneficial, however we would always have to look at the specifics of each project.
“In general, the aggregation of several ccTLDs into one gTLD makes sense, because, if done properly, you will group the ranking signals from all of those ccTLDs into a single domain, which by logic would strengthen it. If you also take into account the lesser costs and maintenance efforts involved with having to manage just one website instead of several, you would think this is the way to go. And it is for many companies, but not for all.
“There are specific companies where, for the nature of their business, it is essential to maintain geographical signals, and a ccTLD is a strong one. For example, business owners from industrial machinery companies have argued to me that for them it is easier be able to start conversations with potential foreign partners or clients when they can introduce their website with a local domain. For example, in Russia, a “company.ru” domain would gain more initial trust than one with “company.com/ru/”.
“Also, there are companies that operate in different manners in different countries, sometimes even with different brands, like opel.com, which in the UK is vauxhall.co.uk, and in Spain opel.es. In these cases, it just would not be possible to host all of the websites on one single domain. Would one international domain have a better online visibility? Possibly, but would it fulfil the brand requirements? Not likely.
“Again…every project has its specific requirements and restraints, and ultimately, SEO decisions should be made to benefit the overall business strategy.”

Michelle Race – Moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD is risky, so be careful.

Michelle Race is a technical SEO consultant at Ricemedia, a digital marketing agency from Birmingham (UK). She is generally in favour of moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD, but she highlights the risks associated with such a move and shares some advice for avoiding a loss of SEO performance:

“Moving all existing ccTLDs to one gTLD means that the authority of the gTLD and associated links will benefit all of the website versions under that domain. This can be seen as an incentive to switch, if you have underperforming individual country domains and are not currently undertaking individual SEO efforts for every country. Having all versions under one gTLD can also be easier to manage.
“If you do decide to go down the route of migrating to one gTLD, there are a few things to be aware of. If the gTLD is new or has poor authority, this can have a negative impact. If some of the country domains being combined use or have used negative SEO practices, this can also affect the entire gTLD. By using a subdomain or subdirectory, your website version will not automatically be geo-targeted to a certain country as it would if you were using a ccTLD. If aspects such as hreflang tags are not considered or not implemented correctly, this can cause confusion for search engines about the correct country target, especially for sections using the same language but that are for different countries, e.g UK and US. You would also need to make sure that you set up individual Search Console properties for each of the new subdomains / subdirectories and manually set geo-targeting where possible.
“Keep in mind that server location is also considered by Google to help with geo-targeting. If you only have one server location for all country versions, you should also consider using a CDN (content delivery network) to help with page loading speed for users from different countries.
“Making a move like this also needs a bullet proof migration plan which needs to be carefully mapped out, especially for high ranking pages. Definitely avoid redirect chains! You’ll not want to stop there, you’ll also need a plan in place to update existing backlinks and elements such as Google My Business profiles.”

Jamie Alberico – If you decide to use ccTLDs, go all in.

Jamie Alberico is a technical SEO expert from Denver (USA) who has a lot of experience with big international projects. She reminds us how much effort it takes to properly execute a ccTLD strategy, which can also be an indirect argument for gTLD approach in some cases:

“If you’re going to make the investment for ccTLDs, fully commit. A new ccTLD needs to be for the users it’s intended to reach. That takes money, time, and resources.
“Do you have fully (and properly) translated content for the language? Does the content reflect the culture of your customers there? Do your policy pages reflect the country’s regulations and policies? Do you have servers in the country? A slow experience is a bad experience the whole world round. Is the mobile site experience fast and easy to use? Chances are users in that international market primarily browse the web on a mobile device.
“Carefully consider the cost of these assets and establish a break even point. (Check out Aleyda‘s International SEO ROI calculator). If it’s a new market, analyze the macro and micro conversions by users in the region.
“Don’t create a new ccTLD to game rankings. It’s probably not going to work. If you’re creating a new ccTLD domain to better serve your customers, go for it.”

Alexis Sanders – SEO doesn’t come in one shape or size.

Alexis Sanders is a technical SEO consultant at Merkle, a performance marketing agency with offices around the globe. She sees potential in consolidating domains, but also stresses the risks of site migrations, while emphasizing that different solutions can work in different scenarios:

“Whenever a site has major changes, especially related to shifts in information architecture and URL alterations, there are going to be significant shifts in organic ranking performance. Search engines rearrange results, evaluating relevance, authority a site has towards the new queries, and confidence that the result is being displayed to the user. In the case of consolidating domains, there is potential to focus link equity and on-page optimizations to target high importance queries (and the users, who require such information). Often times in site migrations the largest risk is highly competitive, non-brand keywords (i.e., queries that aren’t hyper semantically related, like brand terms).
“In terms of international strategy, it’s first and foremost vital to ensure all local clientele’s website needs are met. There are multiple methods of achieving success, which should be outlined before engaging in developing a strategy. In Eoghan’s case study, the most brilliant aspect is that it challenges preconceived notions that a site must operate one way to have a successful international SEO strategy. By consolidating domains the site began performing significantly better in search. The beauty of SEO is that it doesn’t come in one shape or size. Every site should work to maximize their potential, which may manifest in various ways.”

Gianna Brachetti-Truskawa – Consider a mixed gTLD / ccTLD solution.

Gianna Brachetti-Truskawa is an international and multilingual SEO consultant at Bold Ventures, a software and consulting company from Cologne (Germany). She points out that consolidating country websites might not be an option if it would require a rebranding, and she suggests to consider the option of a mixed approach, with ccTLDs for some countries, and a grouped gTLD for other markets:

“In your aforementioned case, the international website has used the same brand name across all countries. In my opinion, it was definitely the best idea to move to a gTLD, if all risk factors have been considered to prevent from ongoing traffic loss.
“However, if some time during their internationalisation a company decided to create a specific brand name for each target market (which can under some circumstances make sense), combining different brands to one because you want to move to one gTLD becomes incredibly more difficult and risky. We’re talking rebranding here. For instance, if the Aufeminin group decided to combine all domains under a gTLD, they’d have to decided which of their brands gofeminin.de, ofeminin.pl, taofeminino.com.br, alfemminile.it, enfemenino.com (Spain), sofeminine.co.uk, and aufeminin.com (France) they’d like to promote to the main brand (or create a new brand that might be well understood, positively connotated and easily remembered and spelled) and redirect all the others to it. Many of these “regional” brands have been around for a long time though, so creating something entirely new is very likely to result in traffic and reputation loss and it is questionable if rebranding would actually be worth the effort.
“What’s more, with Google deciding to show domains in SERPs again (after they removed them in mobile search results for some markets in 2015), domain locales trust factors came into play again. Some target audiences, when given the choice, tend to prefer ccTLDs over gTLDs – French users, for instance, might prefer a .fr domain over a .com. Even for users being indifferent towards a .com domain, not all gTLDs are equal. Some are still quite unusual (see the new gTLDs, such as .shop, .beer, .amsterdam) and their creative approach might work for some brands, such as startups, and not work for others. Some might be old and from a user perspective not logically or easily associated with the brand, such as .net, *.org.
“Of course it is still possible to analyse which domains have the biggest audience and show best performance in traffic and/or revenue and decide to have a mix by just moving a few domains to the new gTLD, and keep the most important ccTLDs for some markets. Companies should be aware that this can increase complexity for the initial migration and future maintenance and closely evaluate if they can dedicate enough resources to deal with this in the long term.”

TL;DR / Summary of what we’ve learnt

  • Moving international website versions from several ccTLDs to a shared gTLD can help improve a website’s SEO performance.
  • The same is true for country versions on different gTLDs that are merged into one international gTLD.
  • The positive impact of such a move is most likely due to the fact that pages on the same domain share ranking signals with each other more easily than pages on different domains.
  • Different subdomains seem to be treated like different domains in this regard, so an ideal structure on an international gTLD would be subdirectories.
  • It is not guaranteed that merging country domains into one international domain will generate SEO growth.
  • When only one of the merged domains has a significant number and quality of backlinks before the migration, the merger might not generate growth.
  • Domain switches are always a risk for the SEO performance of a website and should be executed very carefully.
  • An entirely new gTLD will have a harder time ranking than an already established one.
  • Once different country or language versions are hosted on the same gTLD, they might also share negative ranking signals.
  • When switching domains, there is a high risk of generating redirect chains. Make sure all old URLs redirect directly to their new targets (and not via intermediate URLs).
  • All old domains and their SSL certificates need to be kept. Otherwise, the redirects will stop working and relevance signals will be lost.
  • Merging all international website versions into one global domain might not work for businesses that use different brands in different countries.
  • In some countries, there is a strong preference for the local ccTLD vs gTLDs.
  • A content delivery network (CDN) can help with page load times all around the globe for an international website hosted on one global domain.
  • A ccTLD strategy only really works with a certain amount of resources invested into each ccTLD, which is another indirect argument for a gTLD approach.
  • A decision for or against a global gTLD approach should always be made considering all specifics of the case. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
  • A mixed solution with a shared gTLD for some markets and ccTLDs for other markets is often a viable option.

Thanks to Maria, Esteve, Michelle, Jamie, Alexis and Gianna for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me and to Bartosz, Christian, Barry, Stephen and Rand for posting the great resources I used for my research. If you’re not following these people yet, you should start today.

Eoghan Henn

Author Eoghan Henn

Eoghan Henn is responsible for searchVIU's marketing. Before joining searchVIU, he worked as an SEO consultant for 6 years and built a reputation as a blogger and conference speaker.

More posts by Eoghan Henn

Join the discussion 27 Comments

  • Keith says:

    Hi Eoghan.
    Thanks for the article – it is insightful
    I have a question that I cannot seem to find an answer to anywhere and maybe you can provide some clarity.
    At the moment our site is on a gTLD (.com) but is targeted at Ireland (.ie). I have been redirecting the ccTLD to the gTLD and all the links have been build to the gTLD. I am thinking that the ccTLD might perform better for SEO in our target market. I’d prefer not to reverse the setup i.e. have the site on the ccTLD and then redirect the gTLD to it (although this might be the best option). I am considering building a carbon copy of the site on the ccTLD and using the hreflang in the header to direct traffic to whichever site is relevant. The issue with this is that I would have two installs to maintain and update which ideally I don’t want to do. Is there any plugin’s or a method that you might be aware of that could suffice. I do want to maintain our search engine ranking on the .com side, but want to improve our ranking on the .ie – it appears that .ie are favoured in search results.
    Thanks in advance.

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Keith,

      Thank you for your interesting question. I’m afraid there is no simple answer.

      If you are only targeting users from Ireland, then I agree what a .ie domain would probably be the best way to go. But don’t you ever get requests from the UK, the US, or other countries? The great thing about you current .com domain is that it works well for users all around the globe.

      Having two identical copies of the same website is never a good idea. Google would probably decide to fold the two versions into one and only show one of them to all users, so your entire plan might not work.

      Switching from .com to .ie would also be associated with a certain level of risk, as domain switches almost always cause harm. Google has to process the new content and the new domain has to build up trust from zero.

      I think the best thing for you to do right now would be to stick with your .com domain. The potential benefit you might get from switching to a .ie domain is not worth the risk and the additional effort. There are probably also other things you could do to optimise your website for Irish users more, which would not involve a potentially dangerous domain switch.

      I hope this helps for now. Please let me know if you have any further questions.

      • Keith says:

        Thanks, Eoghan

        All very valid points. My only problem is that TLD even though it is targeted for Ireland, rarely appears in the top 10. Nearly all domains that do are ccTLD (.ie). Checking our domain authority on various sites such as Majestics, ahrefs etc… and comparing it to the top performs, our stats appear stronger.
        The mind boggles 😉

  • Akash says:

    Hallo Eoghan,

    Thank you for an excellent article. It has certainly gotten me thinking -:

    • We have a ccTLD (atravelco.in)
    • We’ve noticed a lot of clients are now coming from abroad, and not just India
    • But we are nowhere in the google searches in us/uk/de/ae etc. – where our new clients are coming from, and I want to fix this

    Fortunately, I also own atravelco.com – but I’ve not done anything with it.
    Plus, we’re renovating the website as well

    I thought I should:

    • Launch the new website on the gTLD
    • Set 301 redirects from the legacy ccTLD to the new .com gTLD (but only for the “product pages”)

    Do you think this is an okay strategy?
    Will it drastically reduce my organics in the short term?

    Danke!

    • Akash says:

      And just to add –
      The Google console doesn’t have any option to change my country.
      (.in ccTLD, target = India looks like)

      • Eoghan Henn says:

        Hi Akash,

        This sounds like a good strategy for expanding your international reach, but you’re right, there is a risk of short term traffic losses when you switch domains. If you prepare the migration well, you can reduce this risk.

        Why do you only want to redirect product pages? It would be best to redirect all pages, or at least all pages that are generating impressions and clicks in search engines or traffic from other sources and all URLs that have backlinks.

        You’re also right about not being able to change the international targeting of your .in domain in Google Search Console. Google automatically associates ccTLDs (country domains) with the corresponding countires and doesn’t allow you to change this setting (more about this here: https://www.rebelytics.com/hreflang-annotations/#step3).

        Please let me know if you have any further questions!

        • Akash says:

          Thanks!

          I do have follow up questions 🙂

          1) Assuming I’m running the .in and the .com concurrently with 301’s running from the .in to the .com …. what about my GA code? Can I simple put the same thing on .com as well? Or is it more nuanced than that?

          2) Should I completely do away with the .in domain? As per your article above, my reading is no. As we have local offices here.
          But then, we’ll find that there is duplicate content between both so how should that work? Won’t that penalise me?

          3) Currently we have two “google business” entries where were collect reviews and pics. One is for the Delhi office. And the other is for a bangalore office. Does this tie in with the migration strategy at all? If someone in London searches for us, what would they see?

          Thank you!!

          • Eoghan Henn says:

            Hi Akash,

            Sorry about the delay. Here are my replies to your follow-up questions:

            1. You can use the same GA tracking code on several international domains, or you can create different properties with different tracking codes. If you expect a lot of traffic from one international domain to another, it might make sense to use the same tracking code, so that you can easily track sessions across the domains (with cross-domain tracking). There are probably other factors that weigh in, depending on your circumstances, but in most cases, it won’t make much of a difference.
            2. You can keep you .in domain to target users in India and use your new domain for international users. In this case, you wouldn’t need any redirects from .in to .com pages, but you should link both versions with hreflang. You can find more information on hreflang here: https://www.rebelytics.com/hreflang-annotations/
            3. I guess your Google My Business entries in India will not have any impact on search results in the UK, neither negative nor positive, so I don’t really see any implications for your internationalisation strategy.

            I hope this helps! Please let mw know if you have any further questions.

  • Sunny says:

    Hi Eoghan,

    If I got an EMD ending in .co.uk and I want to now target one or two other countries, can I rank on first page of other country local G search results using same domain ending .co.uk?

    .com is not available and I want to avoid setting other sites up and just keep it to one site.

    Thanks

    S

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Sunny,

      It’s not impossible to achieve good results with a .co.uk domain in other countries, but when targeting several countries with the same content, it’s almost always best to choose a gTLD (generic top-level domain) that’s not automatically associated with a country.

      If .com is not available, have you considered other gTLDs? With all of the new gTLDs that are now available, you might find something that fits your website.

      I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any further questions.

  • Hi Eoghan,
    Thanks for this great article. We are planning to move from a ccTLD to a gTLD using subfolders to represent specific countries. E.g. domain.com/es for Spain.
    Once implemented, we are thinking of mapping the original ccTLDs to the coressponding subfolders. E.g. domain.de mapped to domain.com/de
    But we are not sure if this would affect SEO. Would such domin mapping make sense? Thsnks for your input

  • Firouzeh says:

    Hi
    Our business is in Canada. The domain in Google Consol is targetting Canada. But we want to target US too. What is the best way? from what I read, I understand that I have to create a subfolder as https://venturefoodtrucks.com/en-us and copy our website on that folder and use the hreflang to specify the preferred audience (from Canada or US) am I right? In that case, should I submit the US version to the search console target it for US? Does Google consider as duplicate content?
    Thanks

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Firouzeh,

      You should only create a second version of your website if you want to create different content for the US. If the content you already have for Canada also works for users in the US, you can simply change your targeting setting in Google Search Console (remove Canada).

      In order to get good rankings in the US, you should promote your content in the US and also generate backlinks from US websites (no cheating though 😉 ).

      I hope this helps! Feel free to ask me more questions if anything remains unclear.

      • Eoghan Henn says:

        Hi Stefan,

        Yes, this move will certainly affect your SEO performance, and not necessarily in a good way. Domain changes are always risky and you should at least make sure that you redirect all important old URLs on the ccTLDs to their new equivalents on the gTLD.

        In most cases, moving from ccTLDs to a gTLD has a positive impact on the website’s SEO performance, but I’ve seen this go wrong in many cases. If you like, we can have a chat about what’s important from an SEO perspective and how you can make sure you don’t do any harm to your performance.

        Best regards,

        Eoghan

  • Emile B. says:

    Hey Eoghan,

    Great article. We are a local business in travel so we operate in just one country (the product is local) but our customers are both domestic as international. We’ve now been acquired by an international company that operates in multiple countries. So now we have local products in multiple countries, targeting the same international (but also domestical) audience.
    What would you suggest to do?

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Emile,

      Thanks a lot for your comment and your interesting question.

      This sounds like a good case for merging all of your content onto one domain, if possible. This can of course only work if you are planning on using the same brand in all countries in the future.

      You could then have several language versions of all of your content for your different international audiences. The advantage of merging everything onto one international domain would be that the different country domains could unite forces and share a number of domain-wide ranking factors.

      On the other hand, some non-SEO-related arguments might make a move like this impossible. Feel free to give me some more detailed info on your case, so that I can give you some better-informed advice.

  • Matt says:

    Hi.
    Thanks for all the info.

    Can you help me with one question, please?

    I have one .com.br website with some authority, but i want to target some english keywords. What’s the best option for me?

    Use subdomain(.com.br/us) or use one newborn .com domain just for these keywords?

    Thank you

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks a lot for your comment and your interesting question. As with many questions, the answer is: It depends.

      Where is your target audience? If you want to target English speaking users in Brasil, a .com.br domain is fine. If your users are in other countries, a gTLD (generic top level domain) like .com would be better.

      Now, if you have two different domains, you are losing potential from an SEO perspective: It is almost always desirable to host all of your content on just one domain. There are a number of domain-wide ranking factors that all subpages on one domain benefit from. These are not shared across different domains though, even if you link them with hreflang annotations.

      If the future of your business is international, you might want to move your entire content to an international .com domain. This would come with the risk (or almost with the certainty) of a short-term loss of traffic and visibility in Brazil. Changing from an old and established domain to a fresh one without authority always hurts. So this move would only pay off if you see a lot of international potential in the future and if you can wait for middle to long-term profit and survive a short-term dent.

      Feel free to send me some more information and additional questions. I would be happy to help you make a good decision 🙂

      • Matt says:

        Thank you for the amazing answer.
        I want to target english audience, in the United States.
        As you said, the .com is the best option. However, its possible to “link” the .com.br authority to the .com ?
        Otherwise the .com will be just one normal domain, without SEO value, right?

        • Eoghan Henn says:

          Hi Matt,

          You can (and should) link the two domains with hreflang (see the link I included in my last comment and feel free to ask me for help).

          Unfortunately, hreflang does not pass on any domain authority, so it is correct the way you put it: The new .com domain will start without any SEO value.

          I guess it would be a good idea to start off with the new .com domain for the US market, set up hreflang between the two domains correctly, then build up some authority with the new domain and maybe in a couple of years consider moving the Portuguese content from the .br domain to the .com domain.

          I’ll be happy to guide you through this if you need any further advice 🙂

  • Michael says:

    Hey Eoghan!

    Finally we went live with the new URL structure removing subdomains switching to a www-Version of the URL – with stunning results! Visibility is increasing as well as average ranking by 4-5 positions. Only in countries where Google is not dominating the results are not that good. We will do some local SEO to push it it little bit. But overall the migration was successful and the sleepless nights were worth it! 😉

    Cheers,
    Michael

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Hi Michael,

      I’m happy to hear that everything went well for you! Thanks for sharing this information.

      When I read articles about international SEO, I am really surprised how little most SEOs know about this very powerful lever in international SEO. Most authors present a ccTLD structure, subdomains on a gTLD, and directories on a gTLD as three equally good options for international websites.

      ccTLDs – OK! If you’re the likes of Zalando you can pull it off and ccTLDs certainly have local advantages (mostly non-SEO though). But in my opinion, subdomains on a gTLD are a waste of potential. Your case demonstrates this.

      Thanks again for sharing your insights. I am also thinking about re-writing this article and adding some cases that show how much you can gain by merging your international website version into different directories on one subdomain.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Eoghan!

    Regarding the subdomain structure I am sharing your opinion. Actually I am already preparing the project so that it can be rolled out with the next sprint 🙂

  • Michael says:

    Hi Eoghan,

    great speach at the SMX2016!

    I wonder if you have any insights regarding SEO in China? I am working on a website which is operating globally having a subdomain structure:

    us.domain.com
    cn.domain.com
    etc..

    The SEO performance in China is by far the worst from all 25 countries we are working with and I wonder how big is the issue for Baidu (and other local search engines) with our server being hosted in Europe and not having a .CN domain.

    Would be nice to exchange information on this,

    Many thanks,
    Michael

    • Eoghan Henn says:

      Thanks a lot, Michael! I am happy you enjoyed it.

      I do not have much experience with .cn domains but as far as I know, Baidu does prefer .cn domains over .com domains. The same goes for Yandex with .ru domains and probably most other local or national search engines.

      One big potential I see for the strategy you described above would be a switch from subdomains to directories. Ranking factors aren’t shared across subdomains as easily as they are across directories. I believe a switch like this would help your visibility and traffic in most countries. I cannot tell you if it will help your situation in China, though. Sorry about that.

      I hope this helps!

Leave a Reply