Subdomains vs. Subfolders: Which is best for SEO?

There have been some long standing myths about what ranks best for search engine optimization between subdomains and subfolders on your root domain. Both approaches can have value for SEO purposes. However, in my experience, the vast majority of marketing and web practitioners have an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of when and how to use them.

Let’s take a moment to look at this topic in more detail.

Which is Better: Subdomain vs. Subfolder

Definitions

Subdomain

While your root domain will show up as domain-name.com or www.domain-name.com, a subdomain shows up as subdomain.domain-name.com. Good examples of subdomains are:

As you can see, a subdomain is most freqently used when a specific area of the website is targeted to a very pointed topic or audience. AdWords is focused on Google’s PPC offering, the second link is the support site for a company called TigerTech, and the last example is the community website for my former employer, SolarWinds.

Subfolder

A subfolder is essentially a directory on the overall hierarchy / structure of your root domain itself. In your browser address bar, this shows up as www.domain-name.com/subfolder/. If you click on any of the keywords in my navigation, you can see what subfolder each of those tag items sits in.

Subdomain vs. Subfolder: When to Use Each

Let’s start with subfolders, since it is very straightforward to understand when to use them and how they work.

Subfolders are integral components on your root domain. When in doubt about where to put new content, ask yourself how important that content will be to getting your root domain ranked.

If it is a crucial piece, put it in a subfolder. It will serve to help increase your keyword coverage, grow your site page volume, and position you for relevant backlinks deeper than your home page (which we all should be chasing).

Subdomains can be a tougher challenge. For several years now, Google has given direction that subdomains are not considered part of the root domain. However, earlier this year, they advised that some changes have been made to how they handle subdomains.

This post led to quite a bit of confusion. Many practitioners, and even SEO experts automatically read this post to say that subdomains are now being considered as part of the root domain. Those individuals are dead wrong.

If you read it carefully, this is changing nothing about subdomain vs root domain ranking except for one thing – links between various subdomains and a root domain are now considered “internal links”.

This is a great modification in reality. Previously, gray hat SEOs could simply buy one domain for $7 – $20, and roll out a slew of subdomains on similar topics. Then, they could create a link farm by cross linking all of the various properties. That was a great way to cheat by hyper-optimizing the on-page and then providing relevant backlinks across the sites.

Now, each subdomain counts as a separate website for ranking purposes, but links between two subdomains are counted as internal.

No more games, no more link farms. Take that Gray Hat!

How to Use Subdomains for SEO

So now that we’re on the same page, you can see why the subfolder is the obvious answer for generating content and receiving direct benefits from it. But why would any reasonably cognizant SEO recommend using a subdomain? I’m glad you (I) asked!

In today’s web-heavy world, a new field called online reputation management (ORM) has emerged. A large piece of this practice is managing the SERPs for your name and/or brand terms (e.g. company or product names).

Without going into to much detail on ORM (which actually deserves a full post of its own), here’s the key point: subdomains can rank independently for a keyword. Google often hides multiple pages on one domain that rank for the same keyword and forces you to click “view more results” to see them. They only do this for same-domain URLs.

Many people worry that having multiple sites trying to rank for one keyword is too much work, and that very well may be true. But how much is it worth to own the two of the top 5 SERP positions for your most important terms or brand names? The only two ways to do this are to roll out a subdomain or launch a new website on a whole new root domain. At least the latter gives you external links, if you don’t mind managing a split brand (not recommended).

Summary: They are Not the Same for SEO Purposes

There is a long standing confusion that subdomains are considered part of your root domain, like subfolders are. This is simply not true. Subdomains are separate sites that are considered internal to your root domain only for counting backlinks. Subfolders are the best way to drive SEO for the root domain.

What other uses have you found for subdomains? Any creative ideas I missed here?

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