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.
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.
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.
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.
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