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Subdomain vs Subfolder – The Better SEO Option

Planning on building a new website, redesigning one, or making a major migration? The first concern you might have is zeroing in on the structure of your website for optimal search engine optimization.

There are two types of site structures that are widely used for websites, and the debate over which one is better has been long ongoing. We are talking about subdomain vs subfolders. How do they impact your SEO? How do they make your website more recognizable for search engines? Which one is the better option? Let us take a deep dive into the subdomain vs subfolder debate and identify which one comes out on top.

Difference Between a Subdomain & Subfolder

While both subdomains and subfolders have a lot of similarities, they are also vastly different from each other.

A subfolder can be defined as a “child directory” which functions under a parent directory. Simply put, it is a folder under another folder within a home directory. They act like a path within a parent domain.

Subdomains are similar and are also a content repository, but the major difference here is that subdomains also have their own URLs, which makes them directly accessible just like a normal website.

What is Subdomain?

Subdomains are separate domains created by websites when they don’t want those sections in the root domains. These domains serve their own unique purpose and Google sees them as completely different websites. For instance, Netflix has a vast list of subdomains, each serving a different purpose, such as:

  • help.netflix.com
  • dvd.netflix.com
  • blog.netflix.com 
  • jobs.netflix.com 

Now that you understand more about the difference between domain and subdomain, let us explore how subdomains operate and why they are beneficial.

How do subdomains look on a server?

As mentioned previously, Netflix has an array of subdomains, each operating as an independent entity that requires its own servers. In the early 2000s, the cost of operating separate servers and the memory space required for subdomains were very heavy on the pockets. But nowadays, with mobile-first indexing, the landscape of subdomains has changed. Subdomains are now mainly used for hosting mobile versions of your websites. For example, if your website is “www.abcd.com”, then its subdomain would look something like “m.abcd.com”.

Let’s assume that you want a subdomain to fill in contact forms from customers. Your subdomain for contacting would be m.contactabcd.com.

Businesses all across the globe use subdomains to host versions of their website in foreign languages or even for filing heavy data like big-sized downloadable resources or blogs.

Why Use Subdomains?

  • Technical Reasons 

Web developers often use a password-protected subdomain to host staging versions of websites for testing new templates, experimenting with the designs, and much more.

It is quite easy for developers to create a subdomain that replicates the main website. This is done by setting up a new database and installing a fresh version of the main website. Moreover, since this subdomain is not linked anywhere on the internet, search engine crawlers are not able to find it. Even if they do, these subdomains are password-protected, so the crawlers would not be able to do anything.

However, it can be tricky to use subdirectories to do the same, as there is a high possibility of major errors in the link structure that can be hard to navigate around.

Developers are more prone to using subdomains as it allows them to try multiple layout templates, designs, plugins, and other technologies without it having any effect on the main website.

  • Branding Reasons 

It is always preferable for a brand to compartmentalize its various sections on a website. Further expanding on the Netflix example, they have a separate support domain for users where they can easily access resources like FAQs, guides, and other support materials.

  • SEO Reasons 

There are many reasons why hosting a subdomain might prove to be useful for your website’s SEO. For instance, if you have a topic to publish that is in no way related to your main site, a subdomain is a perfect option to publish it on. This will isolate this new topic to its own URL away from your main website while still being related to your main website.

A very common example of this is news and media publishing websites hosting a subdomain for recipe content. It helps them separate the completely different content from their niche while still making it static and close to the brand.

Since Google sees subdomains as their own websites, publishing SEO-optimized content on them can significantly improve their rankings and give a boost to your brand’s reach. The subdomain can rank on its own and bring in newer demographics to your website for significant growth in organic traffic.

SEO Benefits of Using Subdomains 

  • Improves Rankings

Subdomains work seamlessly in incorporating their own SEO rankings with the parent website. This can be especially helpful for brands that want to segregate their content within a multitude of niches and domains.

Since subdomains are seen as different websites on Google, they stand on their own in terms of ranking. However, internal linking on these subdomains can help Google in connecting the dots and improve the reach of your parent website. Moreover, this can also bring in organic traffic to your main website from the users going on these subdomains and getting engaged with the content. This will work towards improving your website’s rankings.

Google’s algorithms have evolved and are quite apt now in differentiating domains and subdomains. Hence, it is always a good sign to the algorithms if your subdomains generate good engagement and send users over to your main website.

  • User Segmentation

Since most of the subdomains are used for unique purposes, they help segregate the various use cases of the users. Netflix does this by sending users to different subdomains made for different tasks, as discussed before.

  • Enhances user experience

Having multiple subdomains allows businesses to serve their users better. For instance, if someone is looking for payment support, Netflix’s subdomain for support has all the answers they would need instead of them having to go through various pages to find the answer they are looking for. Similarly, they have a subdomain for job openings, which only caters to this segment.

Using subdomains smartly can significantly enhance the user experience and help your users in navigating through anything related to your brand. 

What is Subfolder or Subdirectory?

A website has different sections for categories and web pages. These are often put into folders by developers, which are called subfolders or subdirectories. Think of it as file storage on your computer. You create different folders to organize different types of files on your desktop. A subdirectory works in the same way.

Subfolders have names similar to your desktop folders such as “/resume-templates”. This folder is where all the HTML pages for resume templates would go.

Subfolders are usually virtual on PHP-based websites and WordPress. They cannot be navigated through an FTP program since they don’t exist on the servers. However, they are still an important element for your website’s file structure.

In conclusion, a subfolder is an integral part of the website’s structure and is associated with your website’s domain name.

SEO benefits of using Subfolder

  • Link Equity

Link equity is an important ranking factor for search engines. Links traditionally should pass authority and value on a website from one webpage to another. This is determined by search engines when they refer to the thematic relevance, content quality, and relevance of the content linked. For this, search engines crawl the subfolders on a website comprehensively.

  • Increases domain authority

If your website has links from authoritative domains, it sends a signal to search engine algorithms that your content’s quality is good and reliable sources. This helps your website in increasing its domain authority. Since domain authority is a trailing metric and not a ranking factor, improving domain authority helps you in getting ahead of your competition on SERP rankings.

Google on Subdomains vs Subfolders 

John Mueller, a Senior Analyst and Google’s Head of Search Trends at Google noted that the subdomain vs subfolder argument was irrelevant, and Google’s algorithms process both in the same way. He said

Google Web Search is fine with using either subdomains or subdirectories…use what works best for your setup and think about your longer-term plans when picking one or the other.”

However, this does not seem to be entirely true as there have been a lot of questions about whether Google’s algorithms process subdomains and subfolders the same way. So, which one should you choose for your website? Let us see the verdict.

Subdomain or Subfolder? What to Choose

While John Mueller says that Google has gotten better at differentiating subdomains from main websites and allocating keywords in the root URLs, various businesses have found the case to be otherwise.

Looking into analytic proof, many studies were conducted, and the data showed that the results don’t match with what Google is saying. These studies found that the keywords used by subdomains were also allocated to the root domain. 

Hence, it was concluded that using subdomains as a structure for your website can prove to be a risk, as it might confuse search engines to identify your subdomain and parent domain correctly. This can potentially produce unwanted results, such as reducing the backlink strength of your website, segregating keywords under subdomains, and much more. For instance, one study found that the backlink strength of websites consistently started to funnel to their subdomains. This resulted in the keyword density being diluted away from the main websites. 

Based on these findings, subfolders clearly come out as a winner for SEO purposes. However, subdomains also serve a great purpose for websites that have theoretically diverse content and want to separate it from their main domain.

Subfolders are more capable of returning metrics from search engines. If you use analytics software on your website, such as HubSpot, it is advised to use subfolders. However, if you don’t, subdomains are a great option for storing CTA pages or landing pages for tracking metrics through tools like Google Analytics. Selecting website structure will always be a matter of your own use case. The key takeaway from this is that you should consider using subfolders before a subdomain. The latter should be preferred if their implementation is justified in your use case.

Conclusion

Your website should be the most profitable employee in your organization, and it’s always better to take the help of an SEO company like Infidigit to get the job done. Having experts who know the ins and outs of both subfolders and subdomains, we can help you in making full use of both, and significantly enhance your website’s SEO. Contact us to know more.

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