Introduction – the unclear question
The topic of using sub folders vs sub domains has been hot for quite some time now, and still, to this day, it’s pretty unclear what impact exactly does your choice have on SEO.
SEO is an important aspect to any business nowadays, and most business owners strive to appear at the top pages of Google search. In truth, SEO isn’t a complex topic (it might seem so though to the untrained eye), you just need to understand the logic behind the search engines and how they perceive your website and content.
A tiny bit of history to give you a clear idea of what we are trying to understand
In the past, SEO was all about stuffing as many keywords as possible into your content and just getting visitors to your website. Nobody worried (I mean even in the least) about customer experience, relevant content, duplicate content, trying to craft a meaningful story – none of that.
An attractive headline followed by content, which is stuffed with keywords. The rest was just technical work like applying Meta descriptions, H1 tags and all that, to make it easy for the search engines to crawl and identify your content and bring it up onto the search results.
Less value – more machinery. That’s “old” SEO in the nutshell. Today, both Google and customers are having none of that.
You won’t have a chance to get to even a mediocre position on SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), if you don’t create simply amazing content for your audience.
This trend has shifted the technical aspects of SEO to the background and allowed business owners with little to no SEO knowledge appear on attractive positions on SERPs, while doing almost no technical work or focusing on keywords, as long as their content was appreciated by users.
The tables have been turned. Less machinery – more value.
Now why did we need to go back and remember all this? Because, although SEO is less about technical work nowadays and more about value and relevance, there are still factors that need to be taken into account, simply because your content will not be considered by Google if you don’t follow the rules. These factors include link building, putting H1 tags, proper formatting, mobile optimization and so on.
The same is true about subdomains and subfolders. While the reasoning behind choosing a subdomain or a subfolder should be business/marketing strategy driven, the SEO aspect should be considered here as well. I’ll show you why.
Subdomains and Subfolders – a quick recap
Let’s quickly go over both terms using this example:
“mysubdomain” is the subdomain, “mysitename” is the domain, “com” is the domain extension, and “afolder” is the subfolder.
Subdomains have plenty of good uses.
Say if a business wants to separate some products or services from the core service, or focus their marketing campaigns on a specific product, or need to have their website translated in four different languages, subdomains can be extremely handy. Subdomains give you a chance to completely separate an aspect of your business, and focus on improving its online presence.
Now the biggest difference between those two is the fact (and it has been so for the last couple of years) that subdomains are treated as completely unique, new websites by Google. This means that the content you have on your domain, all the backlinks and other SEO aspects that you worked on for the last years won’t transfer to the subdomain. You will have to start fresh, in terms of SEO, each time you go with a new subdomain.
In case of subfolders, they won’t be treated as separate, unique websites (making the above mentioned strategic examples a lot harder to execute), but will share all the “love” that your main domain has.
This is exactly why you should consider the SEO aspects of choosing a subdomain or a subfolder for your marketing strategy, since you will technically lose all your SEO presence and have to start fresh. It’s not impossible, it’s just very time consuming, highly inefficient (in most cases) and simply a pain to deal with.
You will technically need to develop twice as much content as you do now, in order to maintain the domain, while also improving the online presence of your subdomain. Also, another thing is that if you dedicate the “double” effort to your domain only, you will have much bigger presence online. This isn’t technically a drawback, but seems like a waste of resources and energy.
Here is an example.
Imagine that you establish 100 total links to your domains, with 50 links going to subdomain and 50 going to the domain. Here is what you get in terms of keyword rankings:
Now imagine, that all 100 links go to your domain. The strength of your domain will effectively double, allowing it to rank up even higher for specific keywords, which in turn, will translate all of the “love” to any of your subfolders.
The reason behind continuous debate
The reason why this topic keeps receiving so much attention is the fact that Googlers – Matt Cutts and John Muller in particular – have stated that Google has gotten a lot better at recognizing and “syncing” subdomains to domains, which makes the usage of subdomains a less of a pain and more of a viable option. Here is John’s quote:
“If you want to put a blog on your main website in a subdirectory that’s fine, if you want to use a subdomain that’s fine. If you want to use a different domain name, that’s possible too. So all of these ways are essentially possible and I wouldn’t say that any one or the other is superior in any magical way.”
The thing is though that this is not entirely correct.
While Google has really gotten better at identifying subdomains and associating them with the domain, many case studies prove that, sometimes, this doesn’t work. Here is a good example from I Want My Name illustrating the point at hand. The website took a big hit after putting their blog on a subdomain and couldn’t recover for six months after moving it back to a subfolder.
SEO experts like Moz largely tend to agree. In his article, Rand Fishkin states that Google may recognize your subdomains and may associate them with your domain. Or it may not. The keyword here, as he says, is may.
Conclusion – Subdomains provide better exposure and customer experience
There is always a lot of talk going on around the topic, but the truth is that most big players choose to go with subdomains (think HubSpot, SalesForce, etc.) and my argument is that if they are doing it, then they probably know it’s okay to.
Subdomains provide a more compelling user experience and overall, are more beneficial for a business trying to showcase some uniqueness and leverage the strategic marketing aspects the subdomains offer. After all, all website and marketing activities are aimed to increase the sales and boost the growth of your company, and subdomains clearly have an edge over subfolders in every aspect of those goals.
Uri is the co-author of the Amazon no.1 Bestseller "The Smart Marketer's Guide to Google AdWords". He has been programming since he can remember himself. He lives by excels and numbers, rides bikes, loves dogs and a keen self-educator. Uri has a degree in finance and has been a google partner since 2013.