Andrew Raso March 16, 2023

What is the difference between a subdomain & a subdirectory?

There’s some healthy debate online about what the difference between a subdomain and a subdirectory is, and which of these domain directories is going to be better for your SEO. The fact is, SEO isn’t a magic trick that you can transform overnight by picking the ‘best’ option. A successful SEO strategy will take into account lots of unique factors in order to craft an approach that is right for your brand and makes the most sense for your business.

To give you a better sense of what a subdirectory and a subdomain are, and why you might choose one domain directory over the other, let’s break down the pros and cons of each.  

 

Best practices for blogs: Subdirectory vs. subdomain [Infographic] – Scott Design

source:hotdesign.com

What is a subdirectory?

A subdirectory works to organise your website’s content by creating folders under a root domain to form a hierarchy of information. Also known as subfolders, subdirectories nest certain pages within other pages, and are strongly linked back to the root domain.  

Pros of subdirectories

  • They keep your wins tied closely to the root domain — Because subdirectories tie everything back to your root domain, backlinks, page authority and domain authority are kept closely associated with the root, making for better SEO performance. 
  • They don’t need to be verified with the Google Search Console — Google also doesn’t need to crawl subdirectories separately, making it easier to have new and peripheral content indexed and verified, and keeping your root domain in a good position to be rewarded by better search engine results. This newly published content will also earn the domain authority you’ve already built. 
  • They synthesise content in a straightforward way — this is helpful not just for the purposes of search engine crawlers ranking your content, but your users too. By nesting content within larger categories, you create a simple hierarchy of information for site visitors to follow. With one site architecture, users will also get a smoother, better designed experience. 
  • They make Analytics simpler — with subdirectories, all of your Google Analytics lives in one place. Reports and performance tracking become a lot simpler to manage with subdirectories in place. Especially if you have a fairly static site, this will vastly simplify the way you track SEO performance.

Cons of subdirectories

  • They can get unwieldy — If you deploy lots and lots of subdirectories nested within one another, you’re going to start creating confusion for your users and for search engine crawlers. With too many layers of subdirectories, users can get turned off by the amount of clicks it takes them to reach the content they’re interested in, and Google may find it difficult to locate and index your newly added content. 
  • They make it difficult to establish an international presence — If you’re trying to launch your business in a new region, subdirectories can pose a problem for categorising different country content using domain endings. Likewise, subdirectories aren’t very conducive to creating content in different languages.
  • They may work against you on Google — If you have multiple versions of the same or similar content, like different country pages for the same product or service, subdirectories encourage Google to view all of these as duplicates. Google avoids indexing any pages it views as duplicate content, so using subdirectories may mean that your localised content is discounted by its algorithm.   

Subdirectory use cases

If you have a high ranking site, and you’d like your new content to enjoy the benefits of your status as a domain authority, using subdirectories will allow you to capitalise on that. If you have great, static content that’s currently contained within a subdomain, moving it to a subdirectory under your root domain could boost its SEO performance overnight. Unless you have specific business case requirements, which we’ll touch on in a moment, most SEO experts would recommend subdirectories for the best chance of maximising your search engine results page performance.  

What is a subdomain?

A subdomain is more like a website within a website – in fact, it’s often considered to be a child website within your main domain’s parent site. In the domain substructure, it comes before the first dot; think blog.yoursite.com or mobile.yoursite.com. Usually, subdomains also have their own management tools, like CMS, analytics, payment capabilities and more. A subdomain might also be referred to as a microsite.

Pros of subdomains

  • They’re great for eCommerce sites — If you’re an eCommerce retailer who also produces other branded content, a subdomain is a clean way to keep the experience for online shoppers streamlined and self-contained. It also allows you to work with technical elements just within that subdomain, like payment authentication or a specific CMS used only for your product or service pages. 
  • They allow for sophisticated branding — For some businesses, it makes sense for everything to be in one place, feeding back to the main brand page. For others, it’s separation, rather than synergy, that you want. For example, if you have a particular segment of your business that you’d like to appear in search engine results along with your main site, subdomains allow for this. Google treats subdomains like independent sites, which may be a benefit for your brand if you want to compartmentalise elements like your customer support or blog. 
  • They provide better security — If you require customers to log in, register details or process payments, it’s generally accepted that subdomains provide security, because you can keep elements like eCommerce on separate servers. 
  • They’re good for internationalisation — As well as allowing you to cleave off certain elements of your site that aren’t aligned with your core brand, subdomains are also really useful for producing region specific content. Because Google will treat your country subdomains as separate sites, you can vie for local Google results with your localised content as part of an international SEO strategy, without worrying about pages not being indexed or being ignored by the algorithm.   

Cons of subdomains

  • They need to be verified with the Google Search Console – Subdomains essentially add more work and admin at your end; you’ll need to verify each microsite separately, track their progress in Google Analytics as if they’re discrete sites, change any settings separately and update elements for each subdomain component you have. In some cases this is a benefit to your business, but a lot of the time it just makes it harder to keep your content updated and track your SEO performance. 
  • They can cause your content to compete against itself – If you’re optimising keywords on both your main site and a subdomain, ultimately you’re wasting your efforts and SEO budget by competing against yourself. Remember, subdomains are viewed by Google as their own sites, so unless you have a good reason for drawing a distinction between different content pillars, (e.g., not just a mobile version of your site) you’re just harming the domain authority you’ve already built.
  • They can be a bumpy ride for users – Because subdomains have their own site architecture, technical tools and often design, they can end up looking very different to your main site from a UE perspective. Sometimes, as in the case of an eCommerce store, this change of scenery makes sense. But other times, it can feel for a user like they’re being shunted around within a site that isn’t well-designed or strongly branded. This can affect your trustworthiness and the usability of your site overall. 
  • They’re more work – A subdomain comes with all the admin of your main website, content management systems, authentication of users sessions, design, the need to keep auditing and spot-checking content and functionality and so on. If you have a good reason for using one, this is fine. But if you’re just looking for a way to place your content in a hierarchy with domain directories? There are better ways to do this. 

Subdomain use cases

Subdomains are typically most useful for large companies that operate different segments of their business almost as their own ventures, for example the many aspects of the Disney corporation, or the large content pillar of cooking for the New York Times. In these cases, being viewed as separate entities is beneficial for the company; it allows them to brand the different parts of the site in different ways, and appear in search engine results pages twice. 

Likewise, for eCommerce brands or companies looking to launch in overseas regions, the separation a subdomain offers is handy for ensuring the right localised content is indexed by Google, and creating a streamlined shopping experience for customers. 

Talk to the experts about whether subdomains or subdirectories are right for your business

Now you know the pros and cons of both subdomains and subdirectories, you might know exactly which option is the right fit for your business. Or, you may still be unsure. Whatever the case, at Online Marketing Gurus, we’ll take the time to thoroughly audit your business, understand your goals and formulate the right SEO strategy to build your online presence and positively impact your bottom line. From subdomains to ccTLDs, eCommerce to blogs, we’ve got the know-how to take your SEO performance to the next level. Interested in some tailor made advice? Talk to us today!

About the Author

Andrew Raso

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