Whenever the topic of “international SEO” is discussed, one of the very first subjects people want to learn and talk about is which domains to use and how to structure a website at the very top level. In other words, whether to use local domains (ccTLDs), global domains especially the dot com OR sub-domains. Whilst SES London is without doubt the most international of the Search Engine Strategies’ conferences globally thanks to the relatively easy access to London for the whole of Europe, inevitably the conference has so much ground to cover, one session on global SEO cannot possibly go into detail.
The question about domains also crops up in other sessions and yesterday’s first day at SES London was no exception. The debate spilled over into the Industry Specific panel which I moderated immediately after presenting on the Global SEO panel. The whole point of this debate is related to geo-targeting.
What is geo-targeting?
What we mean by geo-targeting is making sure that, for example, MyFrenchSite appears:
- In the “Web” results even if a French searcher goes to Google.com but after Google has filtered the results for the French market to present more relevant local results.
- In the “Pages francophones” radio button which means that Google has detected that the pages are published in the French language – regardless of which country they might be targeted at.
- In the “Pages : France” radio button which means that Google believes that those pages are dedicated to the French geography – whether or not they are actually physically present there.
Why does geo-targeting matter?
There are three main reasons why we worry about geo-targeting:
- To target the right pages at the right audience.
- To give the French pages the best chance of ranking in the country to which they relate and in the various radio buttons
- To reduce the likelihood of duplication causing a problem for my site.
Making sure the right audience sees the right pages could be significant for a marketer if, for instance, they sell different products or products at different prices to the Austrians and the Germans. A duplication problem – potentially caused by not taking care over the geo-targeting issue – would likely mean that the Austrians would see only German pages.
As far as the radio buttons is concerned, most people should now be able to examine in their analytics how much traffic they get from the different Google radio buttons. We have certainly been seeing this data for at least two years and the conclusion that there can be significant volumes of traffic going through searches with the radio buttons set. In the Global SEO panel, I showed a slide with 15% going into the language button and 10% the country. These figures are purely typical figures as it varies significantly from sector to sector and – even – from keyword to keyword.
So, what are our options?
- Use a dot com or other top level domain and set the geographic location in Webmaster Central.
- Use a dot com or other top level domain and host locally.
- Use a local country domain.
In the Industry Specific session both Dave Naylor and Rob Kerry put an additional spanner in the works by saying that Google no longer takes account of the IP address and therefore local hosting non longer has any value. I think that Dave and Rob are thinking about this thread on the use of IP addresses on the Google support forums which was also referred to by SEOMOZ recently.
All Google are saying here is that if there is a Webmaster Central setting or a local domain, then they will ignore the location of the IP address. If these signals are not present, then they will indeed still use the IP address location to help them decide where to “bucket” the site.
Basically, this is a decision-making tree in which Google takes a hierarchical look at different signals:
- Is Webmaster Central geo set?> Yes>> Look no further – ignore IP addresses – ignore geographic location of links.
- Is Webmaster Central geo set?> No>> – Is this a dot com? >> Yes >> Check IP address for location – Check geographic indicator of links.
- This is a local domain>> Look no further – ignore IP addresses – Ignore location of links.
The above is intended as a guide to make this confusing area a little clearer as this area is still more complex than shown above. For one thing when working with a dot com you then need to decide between sub-domains or folders upon which you plan to set Webmaster Centrals geo-targeting option.
My advice is quite clearly this; If you can use local domains – do. Only sectors which find it difficult to obtain local links at all (the adult zones) should opt from choice for a dot com. You cannot set a Webmaster Central geo for a local domain – but then you do not need to because it is a very strong signal on its own. And just to throw a further spanner into the works, I happen to believe that local hosting even for local domains also helps.
Why choose local domains?
1. Clear geo-targeted signal
You actually need to go and buy a country code domain or ccTLD 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.
2. Cost of maintaining content vs. cost of SEO
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.
3. Better conversions rates – people buy locally
Some 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.
4. Easier to obtain local links
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 is especially true that they will be more interested in receiving links from you if you are local – after all, they need local links too. Many local directories will only accept local domain names in any case.
5. Power up internal link structures
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. More stability in rankings
I cannot prove this one to you, but after more than a decade of experience I am 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.
Set up an effective geo-selector
The 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. This is one of the reasons why many jump to the conclusion that dot coms are better even for international sites.
In my long experience, I can confidently say local domains are winners every time.
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