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Subdomains and Subdirectories for Branding

Yesterday, we took a long, long, long, long… (you get the idea), look at the pros and cons of subdomains and subdirectories for SEO. But, I glossed over the benefits and disadvantages to brands of the different options. Let’s take a look, shall we?

SEO, Branding and URL Choices

Branding is a funny thing, in some ways more art than science (though, you can easily argue the same about SEO, too). While there are more formal definitions, I usually think about brands as representing the sum of every interaction your customers have with you:

Brand SEO

So, by definition, SEO plays a role in branding. If a customer looks for you on a search engine and can’t find you, that hurts both your business today (transactions) and your business tomorrow (brand). Ever hear someone say, “I looked for them on Google but couldn’t find them”? Experiences like that subtract from the overall experience customers have with you and diminish your brand.

Of course, your customers have to search for you in the first place before that experience can contribute to—or detract from—their brand experience. Yesterday, we listed the various types of URLs you can use for your business’s blog. In the interest of your time (and sanity), I’m not going to recap the differences (see the original post for more details), but list the types for your reference:

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

I particularly like #1 from an SEO and ease of management perspective. As it happens, I also think it’s the right one from a branding perspective in most cases. Here’s why.

In the excellent book “Kellog on Branding,” the authors list three challenges anyone building a brand faces:

  1. Cash
  2. Consistency
  3. Clutter

In other words, do you have the cash to get your message in front of every customer you want? …employees and partners who convey your message the same way every time? …a special way to be heard among the mess of messages in the marketplace?

So, ignoring SEO considerations for a moment, which of the four URL choices above works best from a cash, consistency, and clutter perspective?

Usually, it’s #1.

You’re already working to build your company’s brand. Your existing customers already know how to find you online. You’ve probably got the URL on every piece of collateral material (and if you don’t, just tell me you do for now, then go fix that). What benefit is there in giving your customers yet another place to try and find you?

That’s not to say I’ve never built a specific campaign using URL’s like those in #2, #3, and #4. It’s that when I’ve done it, it’s been with a very specific understanding of how to address the cash, consistency and clutter challenges. Since I believe that URLs should live forever, these usually aren’t short-term decisions. #1 isn’t a perfect choice for every single instance. But it’s rarely a bad choice for most situations. If you’re leaning towards one of the other options, just be sure and think through the implications of your choice for the long term. Which, really, is what brand building is all about.

Also, remember that you can use multiple domains (and domain types) to point to the same content, either as a tracking mechanism or to target specific customer segments so long as you use a 301 redirect. For example, I do this with the blog, using both timpeter.com/blog and thinksblog.com to direct traffic here.

Conclusion

As important as choosing the right URL is from an SEO and branding standpoint, none of these choices will provide you significant benefit if you lack quality content and your fair share of inbound links. Domains are only one (important) part of your SEO and branding picture.

But they’re not the whole picture.

When in doubt, pick the one that you can support most readily (cash and consistency) and that doesn’t confuse your customer (clutter). Then put your focus on building quality content and driving links to it. That will do at least as much in improving your SEO and improving your customer’s experience. When it all comes together, that’s what builds your brand.

URL Selection Note: Some services—usually social sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, and Slideshare—can help you build your brand and require using their URL with your brand and/or a generic identifier appended to it. Obviously, if the service helps you meet the needs of your customers and doesn’t offer you a better URL option, then go with their URL scheme. My rule of thumb is always optimize for customers first, search engines second. There’s also an argument that having your brand appear on multiple sites as either a subdomain or subdirectory can help you dominate the search results page for your brand. It’s a great idea and worth exploring if you’ve got the bandwidth to support it. But put the focus first on what helps your customers.

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Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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