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Tim Peter

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December 14, 2011

Subdomains vs. Subdirectories for SEO

December 14, 2011 | By | 13 Comments

SEOA reader, Zen, emailed a couple of weeks ago about using subdomains for blogs and said:

“I have a blog that has been sitting on WordPress for about 3 years. (The URL format is CompanyName.Wordpress.com) and I want to know if it’s true that, for SEO purposes, you are way better off having your blog reside on your website because WordPress is a subdomain so you will never receive the true benefits of SEO for your company… I’m considering changing my blog’s URL to a personal domain like CompanyNameBlog.com or CompanyWebsite.com/blog.”

Now, first off, I am a huge fan of small business blogs, both for their SEO benefit as well as for providing valuable information to customers. But Zen’s question really asks two things:

  1. What, if any, SEO benefits exist in hosting your blog outside your domain?
  2. What brand benefits exist when you host your blog outside your domain?

The first question gets into a hairy bit of technical SEO while the second relates more to brand strategy. Today we’ll look at the SEO side and tomorrow we’ll explore the brand implications of subdomains.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Are Subdomains Bad for SEO?

What is a Subdomain?

When looking at blogs, or any other content on a website, you’ll usually run into one of four common domain options. The question is, which works best for you on an SEO basis:

  1. www.YourBrand.com/YourBlog
  2. YourBlog.YourBrand.com
  3. YourBlog.SomeoneElsesBrand.com
  4. www.YourBLOG.com

Now, without dirtying our hands with the gory details, the part of the web address URL that appears before YourBrand and SomeoneElsesBrand (either www or YourBlog in example #’s 2 and 3 above) is called the subdomain. When “YourBlog” appears after “.com,” as in example #1, it is typically called the path, folder or subdirectory. And #4 is typically called the host, hostname, or just the domain. (If you actually are interested in the gory details, see Matt Cutts’ excellent overview on the parts of a URL).

Got that? Good. Let’s jump into the meat of the discussion then.

Subdomains and SEO

So, to answer Zen’s initial question, do subdomains hurt your company from an SEO perspective? The answer, as with most things SEO-related, is a bit tricky.

A blog hosted on a subdomain, as in examples #2 and #3 (as well as in Zen’s initial question) will receive SEO benefit the same as any other site. No research I could find suggests that subdomains are any better or worse in terms of their own ranking on search engines (whether they’re a good idea for your business is another matter; more on that in a moment). As long as the subdomain offers substantially distinct content, Google and the other search engines index and rank subdomains the same way they would any other website. In fact, according to a survey on SEOmoz, having strong keywords in a subdomain can improve your SEO rank for that keyword phrase.

However, there are several arguments against using subdomains:

  1. Search engines treat subdomains as though they are a separate entity from your primary domain. This one’s a biggie. In Zen’s question, using WordPress to host your blog isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t hurt the SEO opportunities for the blog. However, that SEO benefit doesn’t accrue to your primary domain, which is typically what you want. By this standard, option #2 isn’t great (you’re benefiting the blog, but not YourBrand.com) and #3 is particularly bad: you’re benefiting SomeElsesBrand.com and not yours.
  2. Managing subdomains can be a beast. Do you know what DNS and CNAME records are? Do you want to? Yeah, me neither (I already know far more than I want to about ‘em). Unless you’re ready, willing, and able to take on the management overhead, subdomains often prove more trouble than they’re worth.

For these reasons, I don’t usually recommend subdomains for your small business blog (there are a couple of caveats I talk about below). But if you have the option, using a folder (option #1 above), is usually best.

So, When Are Subdomains a Good Idea?

While a few use cases exist where subdomains might be the right answer, there are two typical scenarios where you’ll run into them:

  1. Highly localized content. Companies that offer content to specific languages or local areas often use subdomains targeted at those linguistic/geographic markets. For example, if I were to begin offering content in French for customers in Montreal, I might use fr.timpeter.com to distinguish the content from the rest of my site. By the same token, “hyper-local” news site, such as Patch.com, often use individual subdomains to build the local brand independent of the larger, “parent” brand (see peekskill.patch.com or bradenton.patch.com for real-world examples).
  2. Your hosting company prevents you from installing blogging software. Sometimes using a third-party blogging platform and a subdomain may be your only choice from an operational/technical standpoint. If you lack the skills/expertise/funds/desire to manage your hosting platform, then setting up a blog on WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger.com or TypePad using their subdomain may be your best option. You can always assign these blogs a subdomain using YourBrand or YourBlog.com (options #2 and #4 above) at a later date if you need to.

What About Folders/Subdirectories?

Folders/subdirectories (option #1 above) eliminate most of the challenges associated with subdomains and provide direct SEO benefit to your domain in most normal cases. For that reason, I recommend them and use them for almost everything I do.

What’s the downside? Well, like anything, subdirectories come with their own challenges. For one, you typically have to install blogging software on your host and manage it yourself (or pay IT professionals to do it for you). Happily, many hosting companies offer one-click installs and upgrades to streamline the process (it’s one of reasons I use Dreamhost [affiliate link]).

But, unless you’re dealing with the “highly localized scenario” outlined above (or fall into the rare case where you need the specific benefits of a ccTLD as outlined below), subdirectories are usually a good choice until you’re fully confident another option’s benefits outweigh its downsides. Matt Cutts made a similar recommendation a few years ago and I’ve yet to see him contradict it.

What about YourBlog.com?

Ah… now this is a juicy one. But, it gets into questions of branding more than SEO, so let’s tackle that tomorrow, OK?

Conclusion

Any choice you make regarding domains, subdomains, or subdirectories has some consequence from an SEO standpoint. When in doubt, I recommend subdirectories because they drive all the SEO value to a single domain. Unless you have a case where you don’t want that to happen, they’re usually the right choice (at least until Google changes its algorithm again).

Whew… that was a handful, huh? Curious about what domains do for your brand? Check back tomorrow for part 2. (Updated: And part 3, too).

ccTLD Note: The specific example used here generally only makes sense when you’re offering languages within a market, say Spanish-language content for Spanish-speaking customers living in the United States or French-language content for Francophones in Canada. When you’re targeting customers in a specific country, using a separate ccTLD (that’s country code Top Level Domain), is often a better approach. So, if you’re targeting customers in France, for example (as opposed to French-speaking customers in another country), using the domain YourBrand.fr can provide better SEO results than YourBrand.com/fr/. Your mileage may vary, of course, and the operational overhead of offering a fully localized site is non-trivial (to say nothing of the fact that some ccTLD’s, such as China, can require significant operational expertise in the market). Unless you’re actively trying to build business in a given market, don’t stress about it too much. And if you are actively trying to build business in a given market, drop me a line to learn how I can help.

Interested in learning more? Register to receive a free copy of my new special report, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World,” produced in conjunction with Vizergy, here. While it’s targeted to the hospitality industry specifically, most of the lessons apply across verticals. And, if that’s not enough, you might also enjoy some of our past coverage of the social, local, mobile web, including:

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Comments

  1. david t

    You’re confusing me on this post you inner mix subdomain and subdirectory in areas that don’t make any sense or am I just simply not reading it right?

    You were writing about subdomains in the first part of this post and then you wrote the line below.

    “However, there are several arguments against using subdirectories:”

  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for the comment and for the good catch. That was a typo and has now been updated to read correctly: “However, there are several arguments against using subdomains:”

  3. Good seo post. Article is too informative and cover almost all the necessary factors. Really appreciative article. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Excellent and clear, thanks.

    But, when it is possible you should use a different domains for SEO. At least you will have a different IP for the website.

    • Hi Dimitri,

      I think what you’re talking about covers two different areas. One is using different top-level domains (TLD’s) for various countries in which you operate (e.g., example.com as a primary/global, example.fr for France, example.co.uk for the United Kingdom, example.co.jp for Japan and so on). In general, I cautiously agree with this approach (it’s complicated, has many brand and operational issues and is likely worthy of a full post [or series of posts] of its own).

      The second area is using different domains for different lines of business or competing brand names. However, most companies doing this usually do this for brand reasons — or operational ones — as much as for any SEO benefit. As noted in my branding piece, when you’re trying to maintain consistency of brand, separate domains can make sense if your disparate brands don’t naturally align or target separate customer segments. In the real world, a company like Amazon does this with its Audible, Zappos, IMDb and MYHABIT brands, where each runs separate sites under separate domains. And hotel giant Wyndham Worldwide operates separate domains for its myriad hotel brands as each focuses on different consumer segments [Full disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and used to work with Wyndham Worldwide]. Again, though, I’d recommend a common domain unless there’s a compelling brand reason to use separate ones.

      As this is a complex topic, it’s also possible there’s a third option I’m not thinking of. If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in more detail. Please let me know either as a comment or as a possible guest post. And thanks for reading and for your comments.

  5. Hi Tim,
    I completely agree with you when it comes to blogs or something that should be separated from other content.

    I was thinking about microsites, which should target only the specific keywords. Of course it’s difficult to promote such websites, but it works.

  6. Found a typo in the last sentence. I believe, seeing as the paragraph is about subdomains, that it shouldn’t say that subdirectories prove more trouble than they are worth but rather that subdomains do.
    “Managing subdomains can be a beast. Do you know what DNS and CNAME records are? Do you want to? Yeah, me neither (I already know far more than I want to about ‘em). Unless you’re ready, willing, and able to take on the management overhead, subdirectories often prove more trouble than they’re worth.”

    • Good catch, Filip. Thanks. It’s been fixed.

  7. Hi Tim,

    It’s a good question, but from my personal experience of running many sites using both options at different times and on different sites, I would say a blog in a directory is always the best way to go if you can manage to get a blog cms installed that easily matches with the site.

    You can get a lot of link juice to flow from sub-domains, but you are boosting the Domain Authority much more by hosting a blog in a directory.

    • Hi Shaun,

      I think we agree that a subdirectory is almost always the right answer when you can manage it. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.

  8. Thanks… I was confused now I’m going to choose folder for my blog!!

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