Today, you’re going to learn about Country Code Top Level Domains or ccTLDs.
This falls under the international SEO category. I’m going to talk about the most important pieces of information you should know about country-specific domains, whether or not you should buy them, as well as the implications of localized and internationalized domains (IDN) for rankings in Google and other search engines.
A Country Code Top Level Domain, or ccTLD, is an internationalized version of what you might already be familiar with. The Network Information Centers (NIC) operate Top Level Domain (TLD). Your perception of this depends on where you are from, where you grew up, and where you may have lived.
For example, I’m from the US. I grew up in the US and, for most of my life, I’ve only seen “.com” domains. Here is a list of domain name systems (DNS) in a few countries:
Education Institutions– .edu, Government Agencies – .gov, Business– .biz, Åland Islands– .ax, Anguilla– .ai, Aruba– .aw, Australia– .com.au or.au, The Bahamas– .bs, Brazil– .br, Bermuda– .bm, Belgium– .be, Chile– .cl, China– .cn, Cote d’Ivoire– .ci
And the list goes on.
The Second-level domain (SLD) refers to the domain registrants in the domain name system (DNS). For example, in clickminded.com, clickminded is the second-level domain of .com TLD.
Another important term used with domains is subdomains. It is the domain part of another main domain. For example, if I have a website called mywebsite.com which has an online store, I might use the subdomain shop.mywebsite.com.
The ccTLDs are all about international SEO. However, keep in mind that SEO is only one piece of a more comprehensive digital marketing strategy—so while it’s definitely important (and I am personally a huge fan of it), it is also essential that you don’t neglect other digital marketing channels.
SEO is just one component—and an SEO country-code TLD is just one element of SEO as well.
It’s just one of the many things you should be doing from a digital marketing perspective.
International Domains & SEO
Country-code top-level domain names are the most powerful way to rank a domain or rank a page in a certain country.
There are other ways to do it. For example, I could technically get a page on our website, clickminded.com to rank in Germany—but I would have to put a lot of effort into this.
In the end, the fastest, most powerful way to rank a website in a specific country is to get the Country Code Top Level Domain of the country in question and use that.
In general, the “apples to apples” rule applies in internationalization too.
For example, if you have two pages that are the same and one is on a “.com” while the other one is a “.de”, the one that’s on a “.de” domain is generally more inclined to rank better in the German version of Google.
Google assumes that all of the content on a Country Code Top Level Domain is designed for that country—so naturally, it will rank the website in that country.
Keep in mind, though: this is unrelated to language. This is just, plain and simple, country-specific.
Documents on a “.de” domain or a “.fr” domain, or a “.com.au” domain—they are designed for Germany and France and Australia but they’re not actually language-specific.
Targeting Country-Specific Traffic
If you are targeting global traffic, it’s best to stay away from Country Code Top Level Domain – it is a country specification and it can be a huge headache if you want to attract global traffic on your site.
For example, when I first moved to San Francisco in 2011, people were getting the “.it” version of a website—but that’s a domain indicating Italy.
Some of these people were offering IT services, and others just made up cute and clever start-up names ending in “.it”.
They were all very confused about not ranking in the search results for the United States—but that “.it” ccTLD was basically a massive signal to Google that the content on their websites was designed for Italians (Latin).
Therefore, the websites were doing great on Google.it, but not on Google.com.
A lot of people still try to get cute with their domain names—but it can hurt them a lot because they used internationalized domain names even if they don’t want to target those particular countries. So, if you want to take the safe path, wherever you are, use whatever is most popular there. It makes things a lot easier.
If you’re in doubt about your domain name, just do the “mom test”
When you pick your domain name, call your mom and mention it to her one time over the phone.
If your mom can go to a browser, input that domain name, and get to your page without clarification from you at all, you’re all set—you’ve got a good domain name. If she can’t do that, you might want to work a bit more on it.
The other version of this test is the crowded bar test.
If you said your domain name one time in a crowded bar to someone, would they be able to remember it and visit the next day? If yes, your domain name is good to go. If not, work on it and find something that’s even catchier.
Global Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLD) is an exception to the general rule. In these cases, Google came out and said: “Okay, yes, ‘.de’ is for Germany, and yes, ‘.fr’ is for France, but it looks like most people are buying certain domain extensions and they’re not really targeting those places.”
For example, “.io” is for the Indian Ocean, but every single one is a start-up or an app.
In these situations, Google decided that “.io” will be global. The same goes for “.co” as well (which was originally the Country Code for Colombia).
And there’s a list of other similar generic top-level domains (gTLD) examples as well—you can find them here.
- .ad – Andorra
- .bz – Belize
- .cc – Cocos Islands
- .cd – Democratic Republic of Congo
- .dj – Djibouti
- .fm – Federal States of Micronesia
- .me – Montenegro
- .sc – Seychelles (although it was used for businesses in Scotland and South Carolina!)
- .su – Soviet Union (there’s a different one for Russia, but “.su” was used with its intended purpose only for 15 months before the fall of the Soviet Union)
- .tv – Tuvalu
All of these ccTLDs have now been recognized to be just top-level domain names and they do not carry internationalization power any longer.
There are, however, many others out there that might still be confusing – such as “.is”, which is actually the ccTLD for Iceland, not for Israel as some may believe. Likewise, “.my” is not a cute ending for your domain name, but the ccTLD for Malaysia.
ccTLDs vs Generic Domains
Before you invest in Country Code Top Level Domains (or an internationalization strategy), there are a bunch of different questions you should ask yourself:
Do you operate in a certain country and you have no plans on expanding beyond that?
For instance, if you’re a French coffee shop chain, you may have one or two retail locations and you might want to build a couple more—but you will never expand beyond the borders of France.
In this case, getting the “.fr” domain name is totally fine and there are no issues here at all.
Do you operate in multiple countries?
Maybe you’re in the US, in Canada, in the UK, or maybe you’re in France and you also want to expand to Germany. In this case, I would still pick one domain but use country code sub-folders.
This is what we did at PayPal. Everything happened on the “.com” domain, but the localized versions of the web application were on country code sub-paths.
For example, all of our Mexican content was on “/mx/”, all of our Spanish content was on “/es/”, all of our French content was on “/fr/”, and so on.
Generally, every time you’re adding an incremental domain, things can get tough.
From the technical side to the crawl budgets, Google Search Console, Analytics, and cross-domain tracking, everything can be really overwhelming.
So, if you’re just getting started expanding, picking a global domain and using a country-specific code subpath is a better way to manage internationalization.
Are you everywhere, with multiple offices in different countries? Does your content come in multiple languages? Are you a massive operation?
If that’s the case, you can go ahead and buy Country Code Top Level Domains. In general, I advise against this—think of the fact that even PayPal wasn’t big enough to actually need this.
At Airbnb, there were about 26-27 different ccTLDs—and that involved intricate engineering on the back-end, specifically for making localized copies of each domain.
It was a fantastic ranking signal, we even had all of our content translated by local translators, and it was all great for the search engines.
However, it was expensive and difficult to maintain—so keep this in mind if you’re considering the option.
If you do not plan on expanding your business into other countries, it’s best to stick with the Country Code Top Level Domain of the country you’re in. Once you start expanding a little bit, build up country-specific sub-folders and you will be fine.
In general, only buy multiple Country Code Top Level Domains if you’re a massive operation and you’re willing to invest the time and the financial resources into building and maintaining such an infrastructure.
That’s it – that’s all there really is to Country Code Top Level Domains (or ccTLDs). It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, but knowing the basics about it can really save you a lot of trouble later on!