How to choose a domain for a multilingual website

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 March 2016

When creating a multilingual website, or "going international" with your existing website, choosing the right domain(s) is one of the first major decisions you will be faced with - and getting it right from the start will pay you dividends.

Below I am going to provide a short, jargon-free overview of the types of domain available, and a concise business owners guide to choosing the right domain.

Country Domains and General Domains - what's the difference?

A Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) for example .co.uk for the United Kingdom, .it for Italy and .us for the United States can be considered domains designed specifically for websites targeting a specific country. They are the single strongest way to show users and search engines where the site originates. All things being equal, yoursite.it will rank better in Italy than yoursite.co.uk.

A General Top Level Domain (gTLD) for example .com, .net and .org is not country specific. All things being equal, yoursite.com and yoursite.net should rank equally well worldwide. This stressed by Google in their official webmaster guidelines.

As a simple rule of thumb - use a general domain to rank well world wide. Use a country code domain to target and rank well in a specific country.

Now lets look at the different permutations of this.

Choosing the right domain for your international website

1. When to choose a country level domain (e.g. .it)

A country level domain is the best choice when your website is targeted to just one country. For example, a .it domain is best used for Italian websites targeting the Italian market.

Why? From a search engine point of view, a .it domain is ranked higher than a comparable general domain website in Italy.

2. When to choose a general domain (eg. .com)

A general domain such as .com and .net is ideal for business wanting good visibility around the world but without the budget and resources to invest in a language website for each country.

Why? From a SEO point of view, general domains are your solid all rounder that will perform reasonably well in every country.

Disadvantages - in a specific country general domains do not rank as well as the country domain. So we do not recommend this approach for business who want to heavily target a specific country.

If you consider your business international, purchasing a .com as well as the country domain is always a good idea for branding and future expansion online. If you ever decide to target other countries, you will be glad of having secured your .com domain. See (3) below.

3. When to acquire both the country and general domain and use just one of them

For any business with international ambitions, it is a good idea to at least purchase your own country level domain and a general top level domain. Even if you never use both domains, you can ask your web agency to set up a redirect from one domain to the other.

Why? Having both domains in the bag shows a strong sense of branding, and keeps your options open for international expansion at a later date. Anyone typing yoursite.it will be taken automatically to the yoursite.com and you will not lose clients. It also avoids businesses snapping up your yoursite.com and offering it back to you at hefty price.

Recommended for: small businesses and startups with international ambition but without the resources to manage and market two separate websites (see 4 below).

4. Acquire your own country domain and a general domain and run 2 separate language websites

This is probably the most common situation we see for businesses entering online international waters. For example, most Italian businesses started out years ago with a .it domain. Over many years they built up a local following and strong search rankings within Italy. However when they decide to go international and translate their website (usually into English) they are faced with a dilemma: their website is on a .it and the new English language content will not rank well overseas. Moving everything to a .com will cause a big hit on Italian traffic. Their best choice is to open a separate general domain (.com or .net) and for their English language website.

Why? Whilst maintaining focus on the local market, the business can branch out and test the international waters with their second language website.

Recommended for: medium sized business with resources and budget to maintain and market two websites in 2 or more countries. As a rule of thumb, a business should have at least one person dedicated full time to each local language website. This person should be mother tongue, familiar with the market and culture, and preferably based in the target country.

5. Acquire a general domain and a country code domain for each target country

It is no coincidence that global brands such as Apple, HSBC and Starbucks all have regional websites on the corresponding country level domain for each country in which they operate.

Why? This offers the best search engine rankings within each country, the possibility of a website customized to local tastes, as well as other advantages in fields such as consumer psychology and local marketing that I will not go into here.

Recommended for: multinational companies with the resources and budget to run and market a website in each country and usually a bricks and mortar base in each country.

Conclusion

When setting up an international website you will be faced with some important decisions. Choosing the right domain, website structure and where to host your website are the first and some of the most important decisions you will take. We are specialized in international websites and multilingual SEO. With our experience will help you make the right choices quickly and efficiently so that you can get on with running your business. Contact us today for a free consultation regarding your multilingual website.

Find out more:
» Can clients find you abroad? Discover multilingual SEO
» Detailed analysis of country Vs general domains » Get professional multilingual content writing for your website
» Can clients find you abroad? Discover multilingual SEO

Mike Fitzpatrick

Mike Fitzpatrick is the founder and web developer at Jeyjoo web design. He works with both individuals and companies to grow their businesses online.
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