The raging debate on the comparative benefits of subdomains vs subdirectories in SEO results or site ranking, visibility, SERP results need an objective approach.
This is because, in the Subdomains vs. Subfolders debate, Google has a neutral stand and states that it treats both subdomains and subfolders at par with no preferential treatment or bias to any one.
Google crawls and ranks both subfolders and subdomains in the same manner. It is for SEO experts to show their brilliance by getting a subdomain ranked higher than a subfolder.
But a majority of SEO professionals argue that subdomains are not gaining enough traction from SEO efforts. It seems the problem is with the quantum of effort as subdomains require hard work in elevating the rankings.
That can be explained by the way domains operate.
In most cases, choosing between subdomain and folder is a compulsion of business contexts. Most big businesses prefer to opt for subdomains though new SEO work will be a burden. This is because Search engines treat sub-domains as unique, individual websites.
A case study relating to a blog on a subdomain vs subdirectory scenario speaks of the challenges in staying with subdomains.
When a top-level domain (example.com) is sold by a registrar, the purchaser gets the right to the domain.
The content display on a website starts when a web hosting company connects the domain to an FTP server. When the domain connects to content on a server, there is a choice to make. The content will be housed either on a subdomain, (e.g, www.example.com) or at the top-level domain, (e.g, example.com).
In choice No 1, the content goes in the subdomain and Google treats all subdomains as totally new entities.
Problem of Fresh Link Building
The limitation with using subdomain will be the loss of “link juice” for the main site. A business owner running a well-established site will have to sacrifice precious back-links by running subdomains. This is because fresh start is required in link building when a subdomain is initiated.
Complusions to Use Subdomains
However, there are compulsions on use of subdomains. One instance is a company seeking to sell a product or service in multiple languages. For them, building a subdomain for each language will be advantageous.
Same is true for franchises playing unique content for each franchise such as owner info, address, phone number etc. In such cases, a subdomain would be good enough to identify each franchise store.
Using a subdomain will be a better approach in harnessing marketing efforts by leveraging the brand power of parent brand for attracting high traffic to each product.
Instead of generalizing reasons on use of subdomains it is safe to say that business situations determine the choice on subdomains.
Subdomain over Subfolder
Disney as a brand better illustrates the importance of subdomains. The main brand has multiple product offerings —cars.disney.com, videos.disney.com, disneyparks.disney.com, and princess.disney.com. Each of these subdomains with Disney serves a different purpose as marketing happens separately and links are also separate.
In short, “separate businesses of the main company” are taken care of by subdomains and each product will lead to great rankings.
Each subdomain acts independently and may or link with the main entity. These links are deciding factors in making a choice to migrate from subdomain to a subfolder. The subdomains bring own unique links of value as separate entities.
For example, links to cars.disney.com will be fully dedicated to “cars” movie franchise and will not deflect the attention on theme parks, entertainment, media, and shopping.
Why Choose a Subfolder Over a Subdomain?
But all businesses are not great international brands like Disney. They will be restricted to a few topics. Take the case of an attorney site. It may have family, personal injury, and liability law sections. The site may apprortion these into individual subdomains – familylaw.site.com.
Since Google treats this same as site.com/family- forcing the site owner has to obtain links for each subdomain. But better internal linking among the subdomains will also create some value.
On the other hand, starting with one main domain and then building links to subfolders will yield a total of 63 links pointing to the main subdomain. This is the folder or subdirectory advantage.
Case Study of Folder Benefit
A case study also shows the apparent difference in search engine rankings when the content is housed in subdomain or subdirectory.
There was an author who maintained his multiple blogs comfortably with a good share of keywords and his site ranked top in 3 Google’s search results. The keywords also ranked high 1 in the SERPs.
When he decided to draw more traffic to the site Vircara as a career making site with a blog focused on important keywords, problems started. He was keen that the blog must be separate from the main site that was already three years old.
The author made WordPress as a subdomain of the site (blog.vircara.com).
Tale of SubDomain Invisibility
Then he started posting content between 2012 and 2013. On page SEO optimization was done with emphasis on certain posts. Backlinks were built to subdomain with no-follow and do-follow links. The links in subdomain pointed to the main domain and vice versa.
For SEO, the primary keyword was “choosing a career” and key word research showed some competition despite the low popularity.
However, much to the chagrin of the author, the blog failed to show up in the Blog Search signaling that Google no longer recognizes the content as a blog.
To remedy the situation, the author did some more research on subdomains vs subdirectories tangle and decided to move the blog to a subdirectory. The WordPress blog was set up at the subdirectory by exporting the content from the subdomain.
Redirects were set up and made sure that they were all working. After two weeks, the new content was indexed and the results showed a rank of 57 in the Google SERPs.
That number was magical. The boost was the change from shifting the content from subdomain to subdirectory. All other variable remained constant. It was pretty clear that the shifting of blog to a subdirectory made the positive difference in ranking than staying in the subdomain.
Why Subfolder Links Grab High Rankings
In the subfolder approach, no heavy work is involved and that translates into better rankings.
Clearly, Google is not bothered whether it is ranking subdomains or subfolders. The site owner has to decide whether he wants separate entity profiles or gain value from folder links.
Now the big question, when to use the subfolder option? The answer is–whenever a domain’s optimization is at peak using subfolders will be a wise option.