The internet helps make the world smaller by connecting us with people wherever they are. But when we represent ourselves online, it can still be helpful or important to show national affiliation or otherwise indicate a geographical area.
If you’ve used the internet for any amount of time, you’ve surely noticed that the endings of some URLs call out geography, helping you to get a sense of where an entity is operating from: .fr for France, .ca for Canada, .de for Germany, and so on. These are known as country code top-level domains (ccTLD).
What is a ccTLD?
Country code TLDs, or ccTLDs, are top-level domains (TLDs) that indicate a sovereign state. Thanks to ccTLDs, internet visitors can get a sense of where the entity behind a given website is coming from. As they are a key component of a business’s URL, top-level domains are part of a business’s identity. If a company wanted to dress up its URL beyond “.com,” it might want to get a website with a ccTLD.
As of May 2017, there were 255 two-character ccTLDs for countries that used the Latin alphabet. By June 2020, the total number of ccTLDs for all Latin and non-Latin alphabet-using countries was 316. The earliest of them trace their origin to RFC 1591, a document authored by Jon Postel, the American computer scientist who played a central role in standardizing the early internet. In 1994, Postel described the structure of the internet’s domain name system (DNS) hierarchy. You might think of it as a kind of Constitution for the people who make decisions about how the internet works.
One of those collections of people is called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and it is responsible for overall IP address and DNS coordination. Other organizations including InterNIC, RIPE NCC, and APNIC manage the structure of the world’s TLDs.
When are ccTLDs commonly used?
As a kind of internationalized domain that’s usually reserved for a country, ccTLDs bring geographical flavor and appeal to an organization’s home on the World Wide Web. They personalize and localize information that might otherwise go missed, making it easier for search engines to more appropriately cache their data and for people to navigate to it. While not all countries make their ccTLDs available for use by entities outside that country, some are highly valued for aesthetic reasons, i.e. spelling out a word instead of ending in .com.
Here are three primary use cases for ccTLDs:
- Making the same content available in different countries and languages. An international company may want to localize its internet presence, however formally or informally, by choosing a ccTLD that points to one of its major business hubs. An American company that does lots of business in India, for example, may very likely want to have a Hindi language website with a URL ending in .in, as well as an English site ending in .com. The opposite example also works—if an Indian company wanted to expand operations to the United Kingdom, it might pursue a URL ending in .co.uk, or perhaps .eu for the European Union.
- Making specific content available to a specific country or locality. Suppose an English-speaking company wanted to share its ideas and proposed expansion to the Spanish-speaking market, particularly within the country of Spain. That company could get a .es ccTLD and use that piece of internet real estate to create a dedicated site, complete with messaging customized for Spain’s audience. Doing so demonstrates a willingness to meet people where they are when it comes to developing an audience and spreading a message.
- To spell a name or serve some brand aesthetic. Some countries allow companies to register a domain with a foreign ccTLD without living there or being a citizen. Why would someone want to do this? Imagine a large shoe store wanted to purchase www.sho.es for its new (and highly memorable) web URL. It might theoretically be able to purchase these kinds of vanity URLs without actually being connected to the country the ccTLD pertains to—but international rules vary.
ccTLDs vs. other types of domains
ccTLDs are mostly all about indicating association with some specific country or dependent territory, but they are just one category within the wider world of top-level domains. Outside of ccTLDs, there are six other varieties of TLDs:
- Infrastructure top-level domain: This category consists of just one domain, .arpa (“address and routing parameter area”). It is designated exclusively for internet infrastructure purposes and is managed by IANA.
- Generic top-level domain (gTLD): This category predominantly consists of four giants: .com, .net, .info, and .org. Generic TLDs make up the lion’s share of registered domain names precisely because they are unspecialized and available to just about anyone.
- Generic restricted top-level domains (grTLD): These domains are managed under official ICANN accredited registrars and require certain proof of eligibility in order to register them. The TLDs .nyc and .us are two examples.
- Sponsored top-level domain (sTLD): These are proposed (and sponsored) by private entities representing a specific community that the website serves. Consider examples like .edu, .gov, or .int, which is sponsored by international treaty-based organizations.
- Internationalized country code top-level domains (IDN ccTLD): This category of TLD exists to designate internet-connected countries that do not use a Latin character set in their writing, like Greek, Hebrew, or Chinese. The Chinese TLD is .cn, the Greek TLD is .gr.
- Test top-level domains (tTLD): This refers to just one TLD, .test. Perhaps predictably, this is for use in testing software. It’s existed since June 1999, but will never interface with the global domain name system.
There are lots of top-level domains out there, and while ccTLDs represent just a fraction of the whole, they are a uniquely human piece of internet infrastructure. Far from a generic .com or .net, ccTLDs mark a spot on the map and help make a URL memorable at the same time.