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When to Use Subdomains vs. Subfolders – A 2013 Update

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The issue of whether to use a subdomain or a subdirectory in relation to your website’s structure doesn’t have a cut-and-dried, perfect answer. Although some good general guidelines exist as to when one might find a subdomain more useful than a subdirectory, or vice versa, situations always arise which turn the usual advice on its head.

As well, changes in how search engines view website architecture and optimization recommendations may also change the approach that is best for your particular business. But first, let’s define the two terms. Yahoo Small Business Help section actually has a very clear definition of the differences between subdirectories and subdomains:

Your domain is a folder that contains your site files; a subdirectory is a folder contained within this main folder (such as http://www.yourdomain.com/subdirectory1). A subdomain, on the other hand, is basically an alias, another address that can be created for one of your subdirectories. An Internet user can enter the subdomain in his browser’s address bar to view the subdirectory with which it’s associated.

The original version of this article by Garrett French talked about instances in which you might choose to use one organizational structure over another, and the basic advice provided there is still applicable. However, one major change has occurred since that article was written – Google’s revision to their ranking algorithm known as Panda. Did Panda change the rules about subdomain vs. subdirectory?

Panda is still an ongoing consideration, and other algorithm adjustments continue to be made, of course. But a couple of specific Panda-related changes have caused some concern when discussing the subdomain vs. subdirectory controversy. In June of 2012, for example, many SEOs noticed a significant change in ranking favoring subdirectories, with some major companies such as Amazon and Facebook dominating the SERPs with a multitude of listings of subdirectories of their main site. SEOMoz’s Dr. Pete had a particularly interesting analysis of the phenomenon in their Dr. Pete Goes Crazy blog entry.

But in late October, 2012, Matt Cutts of Google’s Webspam team clarified the subdomain/subdirectory situation insofar as Google was concerned. He said:

“The historical reasons why you might’ve wanted to go for a subdomain don’t really apply as much, and that leaves you with, okay both are on the same domain, overall, and so it’s really a question of which one is easier for you.”

This implies strongly that any previous linking advantage you might have gained from using a subdomain is no longer a factor (see the video at the link for the technical talk). Since subdirectories are much easier to manage in most cases, the choice seems clearer.

However, instances still exist where a subdomain is worth the extra effort, even if Google will no longer give you extra brownie points for taking that path (no pun intended). Garrett’s original article goes into those situations, but a quick summary is:

  • Your site needs to exist in more than one language, but have the same content in each. If you sell in France, you might want to consider a “fr.example.com” version.
  • Large organizations with multiple goals under the umbrella of the same brand. Perhaps you sell a popular product, but want to develop a multi-faceted community area that is beyond Facebook’s capability but still tied to the brand’s URL. Sometimes this can be easily handled via navigation, but at times a subdomain may be the better choice to keep the traffic separate.
  • Franchises and similar regional operations may offer the same products, but need content that is more suited to their own location and customers.

Keep in mind, however, that if you do choose a subdomain, a lot more work is involved insofar as SEO efforts are concerned – in essence, you will need to double your efforts. With Google implying that any advantages that occurred in the past are no longer valid, think carefully before you choose!

The original article appears below.

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I read a post today on Subdomains vs. Subfolders over at Irish Wonder’s black hat blog.

I’ve not personally been in a situation where I’ve implemented subdomains, so I decided to research a little bit to see what the differences are between subdomains and subfolders and when it would make sense to use each.

Subdomains:

A subdomain looks like this: ducks.birdies.com

Consider subdomains only if your site is enormous (thousands of pages) and you have the time to build links for the subdomain, as it will be considered a separate site by search engines.

Subdomains, if grown with content and outside links, as if they were separate sites, can link to and increase the rankings of your primary domain.

So why use subdomains instead of just buying a whole new url? For one thing you might want to increase brand recognition between your subdomain and your primary domain. Your subdomain will carry the brand value you’ve developed for your url.

Here’s an example given by Rob Sullivan on when he used subdomains:

I recently consulted with a large legal website and they felt that they weren’t getting the traffic or exposure they should. Upon my analysis, I determined that this site, while organized into subfolders, was actually causing itself harm in the search engines. This is because there was so much information available on the site on a variety of topics that the engines were having problems categorizing it.So we devised a subdomain strategy that would help focus certain areas of the site to help them compete individually with their competitors.

Hot topics such as Bankrupcty and Divorce became their own subdomains because a) there was sufficient content (tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of pages) to support the subdomains and b) because they are highly searched for topics.

Through this strategy they created various subdomains and then used the .htaccess 301 rewrite rules to make it appear that the content had moved.

Subfolders:

A subfolder looks like this: birdies.com/ducks

The vast majority of site builders will be better off sticking with subfolders for organizing their content.

How you organize your site and name your subfolders of course is part of your overall SEM strategy.

Rand Fishkin says it well in his Beginners Guide to SEM:

The URL of a document should ideally be as descriptive and brief as possible. If, for example, your site’s structure has several levels of files and navigation, the URL should reflect this with folders and subfolders. Individual pages’ URLs should also be descriptive without being overly lengthy, so that a visitor who sees only the URL could have a good idea of what to expect on the page.

Summary:

If you’re new at SEM marketing, or if your site has fewer than 10,000 pages then the chances are good that you’ll find little SEM benefit from subdomains and should instead concentrate on lining up your site’s structure and its folder-names with your overall site keyword strategy.

More subfolder vs. subdomain resources:
URL and Subfolder strategy (from Rand Fishkin)
Subdomains versus subdirectories (Webmaster World thread)
Will Subdomains Help With SEO? (Search Engine Watch thread)

Image: XXXX – Original Billboard Image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Garrett French educates SEO and PR teams on content and engagement-based link building strategies that drive targeted referral traffic and deliver SERP domination. Learn more about him and his services at CitationLabs.com.

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33 Comments

  1. Would ducks.birdies.com compete with swans.birdies.com? What about birdies.com/ducks and birdies.com/swans?

  2. Subdomains are looked at as completly seperate sites in the search engines and your sub folders are going to count for your overall URL. I normally use subdomains for load balancing. An interesting thing I have seen are people who buy one hosting account and set up multiple sub domains on their account. They use this for adsense and I have seen people make hundres of thousands doing this.

  3. Garrett French

    Elena - I'm going to do a post on that today... thank you for your question! Joe - what affect did the subdomains have on making those enormous stacks of cash? In other words... would they have made as much in adsense if they had simply created different sites?

  4. It was very cheap for them to do hundreds of subdomains rather then buying hosting accounts and domains for hundreds of sites. So you have to consider your cost per potential revenue here. By putting up the sub domains this person saved tons of money and his ROI was significant.

  5. Thanks very much, Garrett. I am very interested in this topic, as my company site had two subdomains, and all three "sites" were competing with one another (to use our earlier example: birdies.com, swans.birdies.com, and ducks.birdies.com)

  6. Garrett, What I wrote about subdomains vs subfolders applies primarily to blackhat - I haven't even considered a whitehat situation with, for example, a corporate site when writing that post. What you're considering here is very interesting but it's not what I meant initially.

    what affect did the subdomains have on making those enormous stacks of cash? In other words… would they have made as much in adsense if they had simply created different sites?
    This just shows that you're completely unfamiliar with blackhat tactics. When you use the blackhat business model you build tons of sites, be it for AdSense of for affiliate stuff. By saying "tons" I mean thousands of sites - imagine how much it would cost to use proper domains for each of these sites. Another tactic is to use third party hosting as in parasite hosting on authority domains, free hosting, etc. Not all blackhats stick to subdomains - some do actually buy separate domains for each site. Anyway, here's the idea in general. Hope I made myself clear enough.

  7. Hi, This is really nice article, but i like to know about sub sub folder like sub.subdomain.domain.com - can it worth or how its useful, i have seen some of sites have excellent ranking with sub sub domain. Looking for your valuable inputs in the same.

  8. Many webmasters prefer subdomains but I personally see no difference, I care only about content and links.

  9. Anyone know of a free utility or web script that would search a subdomain?

  10. Hello Subdomains form SEO point of view are very helpful - btw you get keyword in url. But without proper caution you can make more damage than gain from their implementation. When deciding for subdomains you need to be very carefull about subdomain & domain cross linking. Also the same IP address of subdomain and main domain is very suspicious to search engine crawlers. The sad part is when your main domain gets for instance in sandbox or worse get banned whole value of subdomain disappears. Hope this advice will help somebody Regards

  11. Subdomains also have the advantage of breaking up similar but different topics. An example: A used car site. The main domain is my main site. It is for used cars and truck. This is where my brand (or at least site name) recognition comes in. All keywords are based around manufacturers and models of cars and trucks Subdomain 1: RVs I want to still capitalize on my main sites brand but I need a new set of keywords. I do not want to dilute the keywords on my main site. This site will emphisize a different set of manufacturers and models and will rank for them. Subdomain 2: boats ETC Doing this I the correct keywords on each subdomain while still holding all the sites together from a user prospective.

  12. Anyone know of a free utility or web script that would search a subdomain ?

  13. Many webmasters prefer subdomains but I personally see no difference, I care only about content and links.

  14. This is really nice article, but i like to know about sub sub folder like sub.subdomain.domain.com - can it worth or how its useful, i have seen some of sites have excellent ranking with sub sub domain

  15. I'm thinking a subdomain would be really good if you had multiple levels on your site (based on your users) and you were going to have similar subfolder structures for each level. So if you had normal visitors, members, and staff - and you wanted to have a calendar for them to use in a calendar subfolder, it would probably be easier to use subdomains so then you could have: yourdomain.com/calendar staff.yourdomain.com/calendar/ members.yourdomain.com/calendar/ Right?

  16. Many webmasters prefer subdomains but I personally see no difference, I care only about content and links.

  17. Many webmasters prefer subdomains but I personally see no difference, I care only about content and links. it can't help in link exchange , they give u link from same ip . but subdirectory help to increase content in your site and bring visitor to your site and link from home page as internal link help you to increase keyword page rank

  18. Very interesting indeed. I have to say though, I am not sure that you need 10,000's of pages to consider sub domains. I think there are times when clear structuring and branding requires sub domains before that level. I for example run 3 sub domains each has about 2000 pages. Reason this is needed is that the topics are totally different and if I were to drop them all as sub directories the back links would be totally different. Its a very tough dicision to make though. Take advice if you are not sure.

  19. This is great! It sure clears things up for me. I think it's more of an issue of structuring and branding. An example would be related topics or keyword, but different physically products. It would be hard to group everything into main domain.

  20. Robin

    I think I agree with ADAC about branding and keyword dilution concept. I was planning myself for creating subdomains for unrelated themed website with the same brand. Lets see how it goes. Shahryar's point is also interesting that I think can make website maintenance and use better. BTW its funny how many have been spamming the comments just to add a keyboard backlink when they actually dont realise that all links are nofollow lol

  21. I completely agree with the writer of this post. If sub folders can not be made properly then a problem may crop up. So, if you do not have much knowledge regarding this, better consult with the experienced people of this field.

  22. Great information! I was hoping it worked slightly different so that I could get keywords in the subdomain without competing against my main domain. Looks like I either need a different solution, or need A LOT more content. thanks! Dr. Jeff

  23. Nerd

    What is a good structure for a bookmarking website ? I have just run a bookmarking website using Hotaru and need a blog (wp preferred) . should I sun it on sub domain or sub folder ? Thanx

  24. Awesome, I generally use sub domain to concentrate one verticals in that, this will help me in seo .

  25. Thanks for sharing the information about sub-domain vs sub folder.

  26. Hi Garrett, I think your advice is really good. But I don't think this comes down to having ten thousands of pages on your main site in order to use a sub-domain. A sub-folder is part of the main domain and a sub-domain can be thought as a category for the main domain name. It doesn't gets any simpler than that. Sergio

  27. for me, i like to choose subdomain over subfolder even though my web is not big enough, i like subdomain because it makes me focus to another certain title or keyword..

  28. Hi Garrett, Its a very good article to understand the difference between sub domain and sub folders. Thank you for sharing, Thanks, Rick.

  29. Thanks for sharing! I like subdomain than subfolder, but i think using subfolder will be good for normal web.

  30. Steve

    I have a small services business that I am looking to take to another city. The site gets some good keywords in the city I am in (NYC), but I am looking to start a branch in another city. What is the best way to do this without changing the NYC site at all since I dont want it to be one of those sites that just lists a bunch of different cities. Each city should seem like it is local to that city, but at the same time we want to brand the company as a whole. Any idea of how to best do that in regards to design and subdomains etc?

  31. Thanks for the great and helpful article. I will try to apply subdomains for the member profiles in my website. Hope it would make much more sense for the clients to reach to the profiles.

  32. Thanks Very much for this article. Earlier I was thinking to create different subdomains for my website but after reading this article, I feel that I will keep my folder structure intact.

  33. Garret, What about for a blog? It seems most sites put their blog on a sub-domain. Why is that? I have just recently started one of these myself. Any way this could be hurting myself? Same IP? Thanks, Jacob www.madisonartshop.com Blog.madisonartshop.com