ccTLD vs. sub-folder vs. sub-domain Which should I adopt?
When entering international markets, companies have a decision to make about the organisation of their website and how they arrange their folder structure to accommodate multiple language websites. This is an important decision, and each available option has its own pros and cons.
We asked our Head of Technical SEO, Jamie White, what the major influencing factors to consider are, and how each structure ranks in terms of quality, so you can make more informed decisions about which method to adopt in your global online expansion plans.
The three main structure options (we have used a new French website as our example) are as follows:
1. ccTLD (country code top-level domain) - e.g. example.fr
2. Sub-folder - e.g. example.com/fr
3. Sub-domain - e.g. fr.example.com
The key decision-influencing factors were identified as:
5. Short-term impact
6. Long-term impact
In terms of authority, the domain authority for each site would be self-contained and would not be shared across the sites. This is not ideal. You would need to duplicate online marketing efforts (specifically SEO) in all your markets as domain authority is unable to be directly shared between your language-specific sites. However, you could utilise some internal linking which would help to distribute some of this authority.
On the other hand, a native user in each market is likely to place the highest degree of trust in a ccTLD that is specific to their country or region. It is more familiar, and this can be a big advantage in a new territory where your brand may be less well known.
One key consideration is cost. The additional cost of buying, setting up and maintaining each domain could be expensive, relatively speaking, depending on the size of your site. Despite the cost implications, a ccTLD is a strong location signal to Google, which increases ranking potential so this Is often considered the preferred option if you can invest the necessary time and resources to optimise it.
Essentially, a ccTLD would need some time to build link authority. As a brand new domain, the site may not rank as quickly as a sub-folder. The benefit of this method however is that an authoritative domain on a unique ccTLD would have strong long-term ranking potential and is likely to be conducive to an improved and sustainable performance.
Using a sub-folder is beneficial if you want to build authority more quickly. Each sub-folder you create would benefit from the link authority possessed by the top-level domain, especially if internal linking was used efficiently. This means some of the benefit of the SEO applied to your top-level domain will be passing through to your in-country sites. While you should be promoting and optimising each site in its own market, this method can be seen as a way to combine the impact of your wider marketing efforts online.
A localised sub-folder would be looked upon favourably by a search engine to some degree, but native users may place less trust in this structure compared to a ccTLD. Trust is something that needs to be balanced with the other internal factors that affect your decision on which method to adopt.
Using a sub-folder will be a lower cost option. It's less expensive to set up each individual sub-folder and maintain them through the parent domain.
Geo-targeting is also important. The region-specific sub-folder would be viewed favorably by Google, but only if it is hosted on a generic top-level domain such as .com or .org.
Short term, the sub-folder has more immediate authority, because it is being passed directly through from the top-level domain which already holds inbound link authority. Longer term, a localised sub-folder on a generic domain has the potential to hold a lot of link authority, ranking potential and be appealing to native users so it provides a solid option for many businesses.
Authority is more of a problem with this route as the site will struggle to benefit from authority held by the main site. You will need to consider your online marketing efforts and how they should be distributed between sub-domains to achieve maximum results.
Much like a sub-folder, a localised region-specific sub-domain would be looked upon favourably by search engines, but some native users may place less trust in this compared to a ccTLD. Again, the sub-domain should be hosted on a generic top-level domain such as .com or .org.
The good thing about this option is that costs to set up and maintain are kept low. Be sure to consider, however, if in certain markets you may want to invest in local hosting to maximise the site's potential.
Using this method will mean it takes a while to build link authority for a brand new sub-domain, therefore the site may take longer to rank than one using a sub-folder. An authoritative sub-domain on a generic TLD would however have high long-term impact. It will have strong ranking potential and lead to improved future performance.
Ultimately, it’s down to each company to consider what their individual needs are. If companies wanted their various country sites to rank as quickly as possible, for example, then implementing a sub-folder structure would be immediately beneficial. However, if long-term consumer trust and geo-targeting were more important to a business, then a ccTLD might be the most appealing choice. The best option is to assess each structure on its strengths and weaknesses and implications to you, starting with the advice above, before making a final choice.
If you need more tailored advice on taking your website into new overseas markets, please feel free to get in touch.