Generic vs Local TLDs: Some data, some thoughts, and some pretty graphs

One of the most frequent questions we get asked, both at Distilled and SEOmoz Q&A, is how a business should set up their website(s) to target multiple countries or multiple languages.

The majority of the questions boil down to whether a site is better being on one big global website (.com) or whether there should be a website (local top level domain) for each country. To help us answer this question, we wanted to take a look at the distribution of generic and local top level domains across the various regions - the theory being that generic domains are likely to be targeting multiple countries or languages, and that local tlds have been optimised for the local region.

To get some relevant data, we ran a couple of experiments.

First we took 50 random keyphrases (which were harder to generate than you might think!). We then looked at the top 10 results for these in Google UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.

We then pushed all the keyphrases through Google Translate to translate them into Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Italian. With our translations in hand, we queried the relevant “foreign” Google (NL, DE, FR, ES and IT) and looked at the top 10 results for each.

The following graph shows the split between generic TLDs and local TLDs across the 4 English-speaking countries we looked at. There probably isn’t much of a surprise here:

generic-vs-local-tld-en
It’s worth pointing out that this experiment was run during the prolonged period of rubbish in the UK search engines. For this reason, this is the last you will hear of the UK results! On that note we are also ignoring the US results based on the fact that the .com has become synonymous with “American” and the .us local domain is all but irrelevant.

You get two interesting graphs when you look at the spread of generic vs local domains ranking in Google NZ and Google AU:

Generic Vs Local TLDs in Google NZ

Generic Vs Local TLDs in Google NZ
Generic Vs Local TLDs in Google AU
Generic Vs Local TLDs in Google AU
Across the first page of SERPS in the sample keywords, there is a definite trend towards more local TLDs at the top of the results. In the Australian SERPS, 75% of sites that ranked in position 1 have a local TLD, compared with only 25% ranking in position 10. You can draw your own conclusions, though please note there is a big difference between correlation and causation, ‘nuff said.

The next interesting data point arose when we compared the distribution of generic and local domains across the translated keywords:

generic-vs-local-tld-translated
Immediately, it looks like there is something different with the French and Spanish results. They both have a much higher percentage of generic domains than I would expect and also a much higher percentage of generic domains than you see in NL, IT and DE.

My best guess as to why this is the case is that historically it was much harder to purchase .fr and .es domains due to tight restrictions on registrations. This graph, sourced via dnjournal shows what happened when the restrictions were lifted in 2004.

french-domain-ownership

Number of French domains owned over time

Obviously, by that point there were a lot of generic (mainly .com) domains targeting the French market. These domains will have built up history, trust, links, etc., and many a webmaster will have stuck with a .com rather than switching to a .fr. It’s worth noting that these generic domains, contrary to our hypothesis, are targeting one language rather than targeting a global market with multiple languages.

Take a look at the results for “apprendre le php”. The entire first page is full of generic domains entirely in French.

Compare this with the results for “php leren” in Dutch, where only one of the top 10 results is a generic domain.

If we could look again at the SERPS and plot the number of sites with a single language (even if they are on a generic .com domain) then I’m sure we would see an even more compelling graph with the majority of sites being single language.

rankings-multi-lang-vs-single-lang

I think this is the crux of the matter. Rather than talking about generic vs local tlds, we should be talking about whether you should have one website targeting each country or one big global site that holds all your content and targets all the relevant countries.

I would always vote that having one website per country will - in the long run - out perform one generic site targeting all the relevant countries and languages.
Things are never that simple, however, and as I’m sure you’re all aware, you can’t always have one site with a single language per country. There are many countries where many languages are spoken, i.e., Belgium has three official languages. In this example, I would set up one website targeting Belgium, and within the site I would have a folder for each of the three official languages.

Whilst I think this the data is informative and useful, it’s worth pointing out that there are some definite flaws that could invalidate the data. Firstly, to save time we chose to use Google translate to translate the 50 source keywords. We would never recommend a client uses anything other than a native speaker to do keyword research, but I think in this case the impact on the results was probably negligible. Secondly - and certainly more likely to have had an impact - we only looked at a sample of 50 keywords in each language. Only with a dramatically increased sample size can we really be confident that what we are seeing isn’t just a random quirk of the data that was chosen. Having said that, personally I’m inclined to trust the data (which is possibly because it agrees with what I already thought!).

Duncan Morris

Duncan Morris

Duncan founded Distilled with Will in 2005. He built the, now defunct website CMS from the ground-up, and consulted for some of the company’s first clients. Today Duncan leads the management team and helps to steer...   read more

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12 Comments

  1. I just finished a test trying to rank for SEO professional in Google.com.au and is now 3rd. I used a SEOprofessional.info.

    I think that domain TLDs dont matter that much for rankings, if you have local language. That being said, I think local TLDs is far better for long term.

    Local TLD + local language + local hosting = win imo

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  2. Great post, and very interesting conclusions.

    What language settings did you use in the browser when checking non-EN results?

    Belgium has three official languages. In this example, I would set up one website targeting Belgium, and within the site I would have a folder for each of the three official languages.


    Here's where you're always going to have problems. How to avoid dupe content filters (which dont always work in your favour) when having a BE-NL and a NL-NL site? Similar for BE-BE and BE_FR.

    One other factor that would have to enter the mix is the use of gTLDs that have been geotargeted using Webmaster Tools, or that are hosted in local IP space.

    International SEO is an area that certainly doesn't get enough coverage, and there's definitely a hole there currently to plug.

    Rgds
    Richard

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  3. Jazus - the old blockquote styling wont be missed LOL

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  4. Great post Duncan and great analysis.

    I think the major search engines could deal with this once and for all by allowing webmasters to select multiple countries to target. For example, in webmaster tools, rather than allow a webmaster to set ONE country, they could select multiple countries.

    This would give them the benefit of cleaning up non related sites from CC specific results too. Why guess when you can know?

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  5. @richard - If you want to have localised content for Belgium and Holland (which I think is a good idea) then you are always going to have duplicate content issues of one sort or another.

    Whilst I completely agree that the dupe content filters don't always work in your favour I think you give the search engines more of a chance with two sites on different domains compared with two folders on the same domain.

    Assuming you have the majority of these geo problems solved then I wouldn't worry about the edge cases where the dupe content filter chooses the wrong domain. I might think about putting in a javascript ip detector that can insert a "did you want to see our Dutch website" (in dutch!) message if you detect the user is on the wrong site.

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  6. Same situation here, trying to build a local website for the belgian and dutch community. According to you guys I should have two separate site:

    domain.be
    domain.nl

    Both will have the exact same content since the language is the same. Are you sure there will be no penalties for this? If we set up each domain in webmaster tools to target belgium / holland respectively, everything should work OK? Does anyone know of a case study of this?

    Regarding the duplicate content, would a rel canonical meta tag that links back to the other domain be a good idea? (cross domain canonical)

    Thanks.

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  7. International SEO - Good or Bad?

    IP detection - BAD - Between UK and US on .com it is canabalising the UK because Google crawls from the US - True or False?

    Local domains hosted locally - GOOD - best - True of False?

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  8. Gerald

    Comparing with climate change opponents is pretty funny, especially in light of the recent developments of bad science and the apparently long-forgotten prediction of the pending next Ice-Age which was the cover of many news magazines back in the 80's. And then to conjure up a reference to Sarah Palin is another great attempt at hilarity. Next time I need a laugh I will stop by.

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  9. We're looking to create an International SEO campaign for a client with properties in UK, USA, Ireland and Europe. I'm suggesting different ccTLD's over one TLD with sub folders and this article has helped my decision plus it's given weight to my argument to back up the decision.

    I'm going to run the comparisions above with the results from generic TLDs and local TLDs for our main keywords. I think it would be interesting to see if the proporations have changed. I will post my results here just in case anyone is interested

    Thanks
    Jason

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  10. Mohammed

    I know this is a really old post but it is highly relevant to my current issue.

    Anyway in the hope of a response.. Duncan you mentioned in the post that for sites in France .com domains rank highly in the serps due to historical issues and you also commented that people there were not so concerned with seeing .fr TLDs.

    Do you find this is still the case or is the preference for .fr for the french more pronounced now? It would save me some effort if the former is still the case.

    Thanks

    Mohammed

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  11. Duncan Morris

    @Mohammed

    I'm afraid I haven't really looked much as the french SERPS since this study.

    My guess would be due to the prevalence of .com results in the French SERPS that people are happy using .com results.

    I know people have previously reported seeing a higher CTR from the SERPS with a local tld. I've not seen any recent research to this effect.

    My view on this is that you shouldn't let your choice of domain name drive any business decisions. If the .com is right for the branding of your company then you should use that, and vice versa with the .fr.

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    • I absolutely agree with this. This is why you see retailers employing different practices. For instance ASOS uses sub-domains, while on the contrary Zolando user local TLDs. It is a matter of how you choose to brand and structure your business at an international level.

      Ofcourse as you pointed out CTR might get affected but as the brand gets stronger the CTR will improve as well.

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