Which is Better? A Subdomain or a Subdirectory Website?
Which Works Best For You Depends on Your Product Line
There was a time when almost any web developer with knowledge of SEO would automatically choose a subdirectory. Is that still the case today?
- Subdomain — With a subdomain, the defining characteristic of the page or pages appears before the top level domain. An example might be: philadelphia.yourdomain.com.
- Subdirectory — With a subdirectory, the defining characteristic of the page or pages appears after the top level domain. Using the same example, a subdirectory would be: yourdomain.com/philadelphia. Sometimes, subdirectories are referred to as “subfolders.”
The Debate: Subdomains vs. Subfolders
Years ago, most developers and SEO’s would have thought that the automatic answer to this question was to use a subdirectory. That’s because it was thought that subdomains created a situation where Google looked at it as almost a completely different website for ranking purposes. But, that all changed a few years ago when John Mueller of Google made this announcement:
“In general, we see these (subdomains & subdirectories) the same.…There are lots of really strong opinions on this so, from my point of view, this is something that could go either way.”
Which is Best for SEO?
Now the issue of how Google treats subdomains and subdirectories for SEO purposes. I agree that if Google is comparing a website that is 100% subdirectory to that of one that is 100% subdomain, the rankings would be nearly identical. And, that’s what I believe Mueller is referring to.
But, the SEO game changes, in my opinion, when you have a site that offers both. A subdomain remains distinct from a root domain that only uses subdirectories. This also means that the keywords of a subdomain remain separate from a root domain. This may be advantageous to using a subdomain if ranking for it is more important than ranking for the entire site and the backlink juice to the subdomain is significantly better than to the root site. Therefore, a subdomain may rank well, but the overall site does not and vice versa.
Subdomains dilute the overall backlink juice power. A backlink from CNN to your website is going to help that subdomain immensely, but not the overall site as much. If that backlink went to a subdirectory, it would benefit the other divisions in the company.
On the other hand, let’s imagine that your company is on the verge of inventing the newest and greatest innovation in the history of widgets. And, because of this innovation, you believe that widgets will represent over 95% of the company’s revenues next year. It is going to get immense media coverage and backlinks from all over the world. This is your ticket to financial independence. In this instance, you might want to keep widgets on a subdomain, because the other products are significantly less important and you have a short window before you get competitors offering competing products.
When A Subdomain Makes Sense
There are numerous instances where a subdomain might make more sense than a subdirectory. Most commonly, it would be a situation where the products and services sold by the same company are completely different and not necessarily inter-related. It could also be a situation where there are different geographic markets or countries where legal requirements or the marketing message to the consumers is different. In such a case, Google would treat them as different websites that just happen to be under the same domain.
Google’s Mueller recommends only using a subdomain when it has something different to offer compared to the rest of the site. I think that is sage advice. So, if that is the case with your website, perhaps a subdomain strategy is best.
On many sites, the customer service or ecommerce parts of the site are formatted as a subdomain. This makes sense, because the customer service aspect of a business doesn’t contribute to the overall website’s domain authority much. It’s the same with an ecommerce portion of a website if ecommerce is an add-on and not the primary purpose of the website.
You will also often see that a company’s blog is on a subdomain. Like other options, a subdomain for the blog should not be an automatic choice. Like everything else, it depends on your personal situation. If the goal of your blog is to dominate rank for a specific keyword, a subdomain might be a good choice so as to not spread the backlink wealth over many more pages. You may end up ranking higher for specific keywords on the subdomain as compared to the root site.
When a Subdirectory Makes Most Sense
For most businesses, a subdirectory is the preferred methodology and will perform best for the overall performance of the site. Why? Because people are more used to navigating a subdirectory site.
Most businesses sell multiple products. And, most are extensions of the original product they sold. So, it makes sense to use subdirectories in this case. After all, they are selling to the same person at the same company. And, it’s always easier to sell something to an existing customer than to find a new one. Therefore, subdirectories make more sense, because the products are inter-related and potentially sold to the same company or person. They are also easier to navigate for the user, because they recognize the pages to be a part of the same website.
Subdomain & Subdirectory: A Smokin’ Example
One of my business colleagues owns a recreational cannabis shop. Naturally, it makes sense for him to also sell smoking paraphernalia too. These products should be set up as a subdirectory, because they are interrelated.
Interestingly, though, the legal restrictions surrounding cannabis sales in his state do not allow for large signage to be placed outside of the retail cannabis shop. So, he did something genius. He bought the car wash next door and gave it the same name as his cannabis shop to allow for a large sign adjacent to the two businesses. If I were advising him on the subdomain vs. subdirectory conundrum, and he wanted to keep both businesses on the same URL, I’d recommend that he use a subdomain for the car wash on the website.
Cookies? Now that might be a different recommendation.
Looking to create a new website and need some advice on the best way to proceed with the site structure? Consider Purplegator web development. At Purplegator, we’ll develop your new website and include the SEO building blocks during the design process.
Bob Bentz is the author of Relevance Raises Response: How to Engage and Acquire with Mobile Marketing.