Every time someone says subfolders are better for SEO than subdomains, Wikipedia laughs all the way to the top of the search results. Laughable as the subdomain-versus-subfolder argument is, people still wage war against subdomains with the most nonsensical of arguments. Now, I’ve addressed those flawed in past articles, so I’ll cut to the chase with this one.
Subdomains are not for the faint-hearted. They are for crowd-sourcing sites (like en.Wikipedia.org), large Websites (like money.cnn.com/business), Web hosting sites (like Blogspot and WordPress), personal blogs (like blog.michael-martinez.com), corporate blogs (like blog.adobe.com and blog.twitter.com), and just about any other purpose you can think of.
If you can’t handle any of those kinds of sites, you can’t handle subdomains. There’s no shame in admitting defeat. But rest assured, every SEO strategy you can devise for a subfolder works equally well for a subdomain. Search engines don’t care if you’re using subdomains or subfolders.
A Couple of Things Do Separate Subdomains from Subfolders
Subdomains are separate hosts. That’s true for browsers and search engines. That doesn’t make them separate sites. Before you whip out the cheap shots about playing with semantics, think about what makes a Website a website. Websites are illusions. Every URL is a separate thing.
Now, subdomain URLs do look different from subfolder URLs. The subdomain name is placed before the root domain name and the subfolder name is placed after the root domain name. And that is all there is to the differences in URL structure between subdomains and subfolders. Both subdomains and subfolders can have subfolders nested in them.
*=> Okay, subdomains can also have subdomains. So that makes them slightly special.
You can host a million URLs in a single subfolder and each one of them could be a different Website. They’d use different themes, have different authors, their own logins. In fact, there are a few single-page website hosts that do that kind of thing. I know you’ve heard of at least one, a little site called Twitter.
Each host needs its own SSL certificate, if you’re serving encrypted content – or else you’ll need to pay for an expensive wildcard certificate. You could distribute subfolders across multiple IP addresses and then you could assign separate SSL certificates to each of them. But how many of you do that? Hands up? I can’t see any.
Any subdomain could be hosted on a different server from the root domain. All you need do is add an “A” record to your DNS zone and the nameservers will point the way for everyone. It’s a little more complicated to host a subfolder on a different server. You need to set up a reverse proxy and that’s messy and icky. I don’t ever want to have to do that. But it can be done.
So, really, there isn’t much about a subdomain that distinguishes it from a subfolder – basically you can set up a DNS entry for one and not for the other. You can do just about anything else for either of them.
Hosts Aren’t Websites: Collections of Pages are Websites
Links bind documents together. We create navigation widgets like menus and tabs and boxes with link lists and we use these widgets to glue together the pages of our Websites.
The search engine doesn’t know that the page it’s crawling is part of a “site” (that is, a collection of pages). It will figure that out from various signals like links between documents, meta data (maybe), page design (maybe), and links between documents.
It is possible to design a Website so that every page has a unique design. I’ve done that. I did it with a rather large site. Shoot me if I ever try that again.
So, really, as far as you and I are concerned, it’s the navigation that makes the Website. A search engine may be a little more demanding but you and I know a Website is a Website because we look at the navigation in the browser and we think, “Oh, this is a Website with a home page, an about page, a blog, etc.”
In other words, Websites are abstractions that we construct in our thoughts by applying systematic criteria. So a subdomain can be just as much a part of a site as a subfolder.
And you can divorce either a subdomain or a subfolder from other parts of a site. I’ve done that, too.
As long as you allow yourself to believe that Websites are hosts and hosts are Websites, you’re doing it wrong. The Web doesn’t work that way. People pretend that it works that way. Search engines need to do a little more work to keep up with our delusional interpretations of the Web.
Creating a Successful Subdomain Requires Flexible Thinking
Too many people have listened to the faux experts explain the imaginary differences between subdomains and “real” Websites for too many years. You’ve been schooled into a certain … well, school of thought. It’s an arbitrary interpretation.
Once you stop telling yourself (and your clients) that subdomains are different from subfolders, you can begin creating successful subdomains.
If you can ignore the imaginary barrier between subdomain and root domain that your schooled mind wants to insert into this illusion of a site we’ve created, you can overcome the urge to add “rel=’nofollow’” attributes to all the links on the root domain pointing to the subdomain.
That was always a stupid idea. It’s as stupid as using “nofollow” attributes on links pointing to your subfolders. If you won’t do that to a subfolder, then why on Earth would you want to do it to a subdomain? If you’re putting content on the subdomain that you want found in the search engines, don’t you want all the links you point to it to help?
*=> No, you can’t “hoard PageRank” by using “rel=’nofollow’” attributes.
You’re Not “Splitting Link Equity” When You Use Subdomains
Along with “link juice”, “link equity” is one of those SEO aphorisms that only makes partial sense (to me). It makes perfect sense to many other people but if you ask them what constitutes link equity you might embarrass them. Don’t do that in front of the clients.
I’m not sure where this crazy idea of “splitting equity” came from. I suspect it bled over from warnings against creating duplicate content. There is a scenario where you can publish the same content on multiple URLs and it earns links on all those URLs. Think of how people publish their blog posts on their own domains and Medium, or on their own domains and The Conversation.
If the copies of the content link to each other, they’ll flow PageRank-like value (you know – link equity, I think) to each other. Now, some people will be quick to point out that Medium/The Conversation get a share of that PageRank. And that’s true. But then our philosopher friends will counter by asking if the links pointing to Medium/The Conversation would exist if you didn’t syndicate the content?
In other words, if you’ve got a subdomain (Alfred) and a root domain (Doris) and you marry them through their navigation, whatever PageRank-like value they accrue will pass to each other the same way it would if Alfred were a subfolder.
*=> PageRank and its counterparts are calculated as a flow of value between documents, not between hosts or sites.
Furthermore, if anyone (you, your syndication partner, the search engines) is canonicalizing duplicate content to a single source, according to Google all the signals are collapsed into the primary source’s profile. So no “link equity” is being split. It’s all good. And I think Bing works that way, too.
The only way you’re going to “split equity” is to break the linkage between your various link-attracting documents. And that can happen regardless of whether they are on separate root domains, subdomains, or all in the same folder in the same root domain.
And that’s because it all comes down to the navigation – the links between the various URLs.
How to Optimize a Subdomain for SEO Success
So if you’ve read this far and you grok what I’ve said, then it should be obvious that whatever you do to make subfolders successful works equally well for subdomains. So if you want a cool URL that is easy to remember – and you want the content to be treated as if it’s part of the same site as everything else on the domain – then pick a subdomain if it looks better than a subfolder, and pick a subfolder if it looks better than a subdomain.
That is, let your sense of URL aesthetics be your guide because that’s all that matters. Well, that and you’ll have to do a little bit of extra work to set up the subdomain.
On the other hand, there’s no reason NOT to set up a subdomain as a completely separate site. If you (or the client) were thinking of creating a blog on a separately branded domain, you can save the trouble of registering a domain and just create a brandable subdomain.
You know, that’s what en.wikipedia.org did. It’s worked for them so far. So has it.wikipedia.org … and de.wikipedia.org. You know, they could be on to something with this subdomain business.
*=> Subdomains are very good candidates for differentiating content by language.
You don’t have to do that, but psychologically it makes it easier to sort things out in your mind. You have a native-language root domain and all the other languages can have their own subdomains. Of course, some people just put the other languages in their subfolders.
It’s really six of one, half dozen of the other. But remember to use proper hreflang markup however you do it.
Subdomains can have their own themes and navigation, but if they still link to the root domain consistently (and vice versa), they will be treated as both separate sites and part of the main sites. That’s a cool effect. (Note: The same is true for subfolders.)
The only secret to generating subdomain success is to ignore all the fake reasons people give you for not optimizing a subdomain. Whatever you would do for a root domain or a subfolder, you do that for the subdomain, too. All your SEO strategies work as well for subdomains as for subfolders.
Conclusion: Subdomain SEO Is Not Complicated
Subdomain SEO is only as complicated and mysterious as you choose to make it. While it’s sometimes helpful to create the illusion of a separate site via a subdomain, I guarantee you there are many orphaned subfolders and root domain pages scattered across the Web. They are separate sites, too. Or they look like parts of larger sites that only exist in the human imagination.
When working with subdomains, SEO should not feel any more complicated or dangerous or challenging than when you’re only working with a single root host.
See Also …
These fine SEO Theory articles explain why people who say subfolders work better for SEO are wrong.
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