eCommerce SEO: Country Specific Domains – Going International

This is a rather large area of concern for companies who intend on having, or have, online presence in more than one country.  How do you have the same products, and sometimes content, targeted at different countries without getting slapped by Google / search engines for duplicate content?  Since we’re doing a lot of Magento SEO work these days, you’ll probably see some references to this particular platform and how to tackle some of the issues involved in international eCommerce SEO below.

Through our own experiments with clients we’ve definitely seen some results that we can definitively form a strategy around.  Let’s look at the three big approaches to handling international SEO, and more specifically let’s dive into some of the issues surrounding eCommerce SEO in particular…

1. Multiple Country Specific Top Level Domains (ccTLDs)

The upside here is pretty clear for online merchants.  It’s no secret amongst merchants that users like to click on domains that have their own country extension.  Here in Canada this is particularly true because most online shoppers know that getting product shipped across the border from the USA is a royal pain.  Most USA based eCommerce sites don’t even ship to Canada (yes, still!).  So having your .ca in this particular case is very good for usability.

So that’s usability, but what about SEO?  Our own tests with our clients have our .ca domains doing much better in Google.ca search results than their .com counter parts.  Disclaimer:  You can also argue that .ca sites get more in-country links, helping build local authority/ranking.

This is our preferred method to handling USA / Canadian focused merchants.  We believe strongly in the power of the .ca domain name, both for SEO reasons and ultimately for the  valuable user experience reasons.

For those of you who do choose to deploy multiple TLDs for your multiple country specific storefronts, I strongly suggest you forgo the automatic IP redirect solution.  Search engines most likely crawl sites using USA based IP addresses so auto-redirecting them on the server side to the appropriate IP based match will keep them from ever seeing those country specific TLDs.  Instead, think of using landing pages or javascript based redirects that allow users to choose the right country specific site.

2. Multiple Sub-Domains

I honestly haven’t seen this method used on too many eCommerce focused sites.  The biggest one I know of is Wikipedia, but other than that I can’t find a great example of a shopping site using sub-domains for each country.  If anybody has one, please fire it into the comments so we can have a look!

The benefit with sub-domains is similar to the sub-folder approach.  You can have all of the domain authority flow up to the TLD of your site.  With that being said, there have been numerous folks within the SEO community mention that sub-domains will sometimes (yes, sometimes) not get the full TLD authority passed down to them.  If anybody knows what the definitive use-case is for this I’d love to know.  Email or comments please!

Maintenance of sub-domains on a single TLD is also a little easier and less costly than doing multiple country specific TLDs.  In the case of eCommerce stores, you may even want to look at having one TLD based checkout URL (and one SSL certificate) instead of having multiple sub-domain, or wildcard support, for your secure checkout pages.  This is a whole other topic of discussion that I’ll save for another post.

Both AspDotNetStorefront and Magento support this method.

3. Sub-Folder per Country per Language

Along with multiple top level domains, this is the most common method employed by eCommerce sites.  The biggest example of this method put in action is Apple.  http://www.apple.com is the USA site, while http://www.apple.com/ca/ is the Canadian store.

The major benefit to this method is that all links you receive to your site pass juice to the one single domain, no matter which country specific store the link may be referencing.

The major downside here isn’t so much an SEO problem, but more a usability and conversion issue.  There are many people, including myself, who believe that country specific domains have an inherent “trust factor” built in.  With this method, potential customers may not realize that en-ca means Canada.  Where as they know with absolute certainty that .ca means Canada.

In the Apple.com/ca/ example, it isn’t as much of a worry because Apple is commonly known to have a presence in Canada and therefor, no shipping or currency/tax issues.

Other, not so big brands, will have to weigh the potential link juice gains of this method with the possible trust-loss (and possible conversion drop) of this method.

As far as maintenance of this method goes, you’d need to have a platform that easily supports this method of multi-store / path naming.  Magento would be a good place to look for this.