Friday, 6 May 2011

Country-Specific Domain Names and SEO

A client asked a question today: “Should I use a Country-Specific Domain Name (TLD) If I Am Targeting [That] Market?”
The short answer is Yes.
There are several benefits from doing this, and having a site aimed at each country you are targeting. But there are also some “traps” to watch out for if you do plan to do this.
Let me start with the benefits:
Increase Your Search Engine Rankings Where It Counts (Benefit #1)

This is the most simple, fundamental benefit of having separate web-sites for each country you are targeting - you get a big rankings boost.
Because most of my clients are Australian businesses who target an Australian audience, I work a lot with Australian (.com.au) domain names.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that it’s clearly easier to rank better in Australian users’ Google Search results if you have an Australian .com.au domain name.
Have a look at this (click on images to see rankings):
Search Engine Rankings Australia
Check it out - 9 out of the top 10 results are Australian web-sites.
Here’s what people in the U.K. see when they do the same search:
Search Engine Rankings UK
(Here 5 out of the top 10 results in the Search Engine Rankings are British web-sites.)
And for comparison, here’s the same page in the International version of Google:
International Search Engine Rankings
Here you see a different set of results again - this time, more American and International web-sites, with 8 of the top 10 sites being owned by American companies.
So we very clearly see there’s a very clear positive correlation here between having a site targeted to a particular country, and search engine rankings.
Increase your Click Through Rates (Benefit #2)
If SEO isn’t your style, and you’re more looking at Adwords results, consider what a country-specific domain name does to your credibility in that market.
If you have a .com.au domain name as the display URL in your Google Adwords account, and you’re targeting an American or British audience, in the half second it takes for someone to review your ad and decide to click, the seed of doubt enters their mind and they decide your site is “probably not relevant”.
On the other hand, if you were targeting an Australian audience, and your display URL showed a .com.au domain name, you would immediately GAIN credibility.
Increase your Conversion Rates by Tailoring Content to Each Market (Benefit #3)
Finally, one of the great things about having separate web-sites for each country you are targeting is that you can tailor the content to suit your market.
For example, the American market is less offended by heavy-selling, hyped-up advertising copy - whereas Australian, New Zealand and British consumers are generally more conservative in the marketing messages they respond to.
This presents businesspeople who own several different country targeted web-sites a unique opportunity to optimise their content in the same way that some successful direct mail marketers will segment and target their lists.
WARNING: Duplicate Content
But… There’s one BIG issue to consider if you’re planning to set up a second version of your web-site under a country-specific URL.
Duplicate Content on Multiple Domains Case Study #1
Recently, a client’s web-site was ranking poorly in search engines.
Found they were running the same site on both the .com and .com.au domain names - and every page (on one of the two sites) had received a duplicate content penalty. That meant roughly half the pages on each site were working.
The client was targeting an Australian audience, but they wanted to avoid some domain squatter or competitor owning the .com version of their domain name - so they registered both.
…And they couldn’t bear to not use the .com version of their domain (and let it sit there, going to waste), so they set their site up so that it would run on both the .com and .com.au domains.
It all seemed pretty logical to the web developer who set up their web-site… but little did they know it would end up causing big problems for their client.
When Google found their web-site(s), they quickly found all of the content was identical on the two domains and had to decide which version of the domain was the “legitimate” owner of the content, and which should be penalised for copyright infringement.
Google ended up deciding some of the content legitimately belonged to one web-site, and some belonged to the other - and it penalised both web-sites.
Ouch!
It only took a tiny bit of Search Engine Optimisation work to fix this.
We 301 (permanent) redirected all pages from one version of the site into the other (so that they kept the links that they had on both domains), changed some settings in their Google Webmaster Tools accounts (to fix a second issue to do with domain canonization) and did some minor on-page SEO tweaks.
Ever since, their rankings have been improving, and their positioning in search engines has never been better!
The Lesson: The lesson here is simply - if all of your customers are in one country, don’t run two web-sites.
(Oh, and speaking to an SEO guy can pay off - even if you’re *logically* doing the right thing. ;) )
Duplicate Content on Multiple Domains Case Study #2
This one’s a doozie… and it happened just prior to the last Google Algorithm update.
Another potential client - a corporate marketing firm - came to me asking to help them improve their search engine rankings.
Their web-site was part of a network of partner companies, each providing the same service in different regions. His site was targeting Australia.
I looked into the job and found that one of the major issues they faced was duplicated content… the same content was repeated over the multiple web-sites.
I’m not just talking about content which described their packaged services and business philisophy - they also had duplicated links pages which served to cross-promote the various partner companies.
But the client didn’t want to change these duplicate pages.
“I can’t do that. Part of the agreement with the international partners says we will all display these pages. They help us to get links to our sites, and mean we can cross-promote each other. And we haven’t been penalised so far…”
Famous last words…
A few weeks later when Google’s Algorithm was updated, all of the partner sites dropped significantly - all pages lost page rank, and the sites no longer featured on the first page of Google for any significant keywords.
They’re now “reassessing their options”.
The lesson: Don’t copy and paste content. Even if there is a short term benefit, it’s poison for search engine rankings.
Final Tip: Google Webmaster Tools
Australia (and many other countries) have tight restrictions on who can own their country-specific domain names. In Australia, there are a whole host of restrictions - and in general, you need a registered business entity in order to own the domain name you want to register.
But, if you don’t want to go to the effort of setting up structures in other countries, or if you already have a perfectly good .com domain name which you want to target to a specific country, the alternative is to set up a Google Webmaster Tools account for that domain and tell Google which country you are targeting.
Set up, or log-into your Google Webmaster Tools account, and make sure your site has been verified. Once you have done that…
Google Webmaster Tools geotargeting
  1. Click on Tools;
  2. Then Set Geographic Target;
  3. Then Associate a geographic location with this site, and finally;
  4. Select the Country or Region you want to target
Google does use some of its own tricks to work out which country or region a web-site is targeting, (you would have seen several British .com web-sites ranking well in search engines in the examples above,) but this helps to make sure they get it right.
This is as good as a country-specific domain name for Search Engine Optimisation purposes.

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