By Sam McCue
In the ever-evolving guessing game of how to please the search engine gods, there are always new questions to consider. When it comes to the debate around using subdomains versus subfolders, even Google doesn’t provide the answer we’re looking for. To the search giant, subdomains and subfolders are equal.
Although their statement of “use what works best for your setup” is a logical one, we know there are a few obvious SEO benefits you can receive from using subdomains and a few drawbacks that may cause you to go the subfolder route. There are four main elements to consider when deciding on a subfolder or subdomain approach.
Keywords in Your URL
It’s no secret that having keywords in your URL is a strong relevancy signal for Google’s ranking algorithms. Adding the same long-tailed phrases that you’re ranking for to the URL will give you the opportunity to own that phrase from the top down.
If you’re expecting your main domain to reap the SEO benefits from your subdomains, however, you are wrong. The two will be ranked as independent domains, so it is important to set up search console to crawl each as such. This will prevent delays or mistakes in search engines’ crawling of your domains, and it will help your traffic find the most relevant pages on your site.
It would also give you a second opportunity to rank on the search engine results pages (SERPs) and compete with yourself. Competing against yourself on results pages can be seen as a pro or a con. If, for example, your blog outranks your main domain for your branded keywords, this could be confusing for your audience. There is limited real estate in the SERPs, however, so two ranking domains are generally considered better than one.
How Your Organization Is Structured
If your company is home to more than one type of activity or if it services multiple verticals with different target audiences, a subdomain structure could help you appear more relevant to your customers. For example, if your business has a product that pertains to finance professionals, then a subdomain structure of finance.yourdomain.com would make sense.
Subdomains don’t just make sense from a product perspective. If your organization puts on events, a subdomain of events.yourdomain.com provides a clear path for your ideal customers to register for those events. Microsoft hosts thousands of events each year, ranging from in-person to on-demand webinars, and they funnel all of the interested traffic to events.microsoft.com. It’s also notable that, with that many events, this portion of their business requires its own server.
One of the widely observed uses of subdomains is hosting blog content. But does this really help your SEO? Digging for answers in the MOZ.com community forums leads to some surprising discourse on the matter. CEO and Co-Founder Rand Fishkin replied to a question with data-driven insights that support keeping blogs in a subfolder.
MOZ moved its popular SEO guide back to a subfolder, instead of guides.moz.com, and immediately saw higher results for the intended keyword ranking. Fishkin has a reputation of calling out Google when they’re wrong, and the results speak for themselves. Fishkin also tackled this issue in MOZ’s Whiteboard Friday series, where MOZ shows its own experience and success keeping the MOZ.com blog as a subfolder of its own site.
The popular site, iwantmyname.com, went the opposite direction. They moved their blog from a subfolder to a subdomain and were instantly penalized by the crawlers. Their results did not recover for about six months. To avoid any confusion or mitigate any loss of reputation, make sure to have 301 redirects in place for every URL that you move. Another way to avoid a penalty is to make sure the new pages follow SEO best practices, for instance, you’ll want to make sure all links between your main domain and your subdomain open in new tabs since this will affect your bounce rate.
However, inbound marketing and sales thought leader, HubSpot, hosts its blog on the subdomain "blog.hubspot.com."
Although there are compelling arguments on both sides of the fence, it all comes down to what best serves your business. As Matt Cutts, a principal engineer at Google for 16 years, states, "both are on the same domain, overall, and so it's really a question of which one is easier for you."Setting up a subdomain structure is a lot of work, and if the benefits aren’t realized quickly, you may have traveled down the path for nothing."
But if you’re gearing up for long-term sustainable growth in a variety of areas, it may be a good idea to start this structure now and grow your domain strength over time. Luckily for you, we’ve seen a thing or two, and we recently outlined a few of these use cases in our on-demand webinar, Connecting Keywords to Content. Watch to learn more about how content planning increases the strength of your brand and your domains.