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Subdomain vs Subdirectory: Which is Better for Your SEO?

Contents
The SEO community LOVES debates more than any other marketing branch.

– Exact match domains or branded domains?
– Social signals or click-through rate?
– Short-form or long-form content?

It only makes sense. When there isn’t an official statement of SEO ranking factors, there are no answers to be given but only answers to be found.

And today’s to-be-found answer is no other than “Should your domain use subdomains or subdirectories?”.

Let’s find out.

What is a Subdomain?

If this very growrh hacking blog you’re reading was hosted in a subdomain, it would look like this: blog.growthrocks.com.

A subdomain is an additional part of your main website, functioning almost as a separate website under the same primary domain. Subdomains are commonly used to organize and separate content that has a distinct purpose or target audience from the main site. Accordingly, you might use a subdomain for your blog, another for your online store, and another one for your customer support portal.

Subdomains help you expand your website’s content without needing to purchase a new domain name. This is particularly useful for large organizations or websites with extensive and varied content or utilities.

Although subdomains offer more flexibility and clearer segmentation, they also require careful consideration in terms of your SEO strategy. Which brings us to the next point.

Subdomains and SEO

Subdomains are typically seen by search engines as separate entities from the main domain. This affects how content on subdomains is indexed and ranked.

One of the key considerations with subdomains is the division of domain authority. Unlike subdirectories, which pass on domain authority, subdomains may need to build their own. For example, it’s said that if you have a well-established website with a high domain authority it doesn’t mean that it will automatically pass this authority to its subdomains. 

However, there isn’t enough data to support that this is the case. It’s also possible that Google doesn’t treat subdomains much differently than subdirectories. Nonetheless, one thing is for certain: if you treat your subdomains differently, then Google won’t either. In other words, don’t hesitate to link one to the other internally when you should. Do exactly as you would with your subdirectories.

Pros & Cons of Subdomains

So what are the good and the bad of subdomains?

Pros

👍 Separation of content and target audiences: Subdomains are ideal for segmenting significantly different types of content or different target audiences, like separate product lines or service areas.

👍 Flexibility in design and functionality: They allow for distinct design and functionality, which can be tailored to the specific needs of each subdomain’s content or audience.

👍 Localization and internationalization: Subdomains are beneficial for targeting different geographical regions or languages, improving regional SEO and user experience.

Cons

👎 Possibly more SEO efforts: Each subdomain may require its own set of SEO strategies, as they are often treated as separate entities by search engines.

👎 Complexity in management: Managing multiple subdomains can be more complex and resource-intensive.

What is a Subdirectory?

This blog you are reading is actually part of a subdirectory, therefore it looks like this: growthrocks.com/blog. A subdirectory, also known as a subfolder, is a part of your main website that falls under the same primary domain.

Subdirectories are used to organize and categorize content within the same website, maintaining a structural hierarchy that is both user-friendly and search engine-friendly.

Subdirectories are particularly effective for grouping related content under a single domain without fragmenting the website’s authority. In terms of SEO, subdirectories are often favored because PageRank is passed more effectively from one page to another. Let’s have a look at this.

Subdirectories and SEO

Unlike subdomains, which are often seen as separate entities, subdirectories are considered part of the main domain. This means that any SEO efforts and link equity are shared across the entire domain, including all subdirectories.

In practice, when external links point to different pages within subdirectories, they contribute to the overall domain’s authority. This collective boost can benefit the SEO performance of all pages on the domain, including those within subdirectories—and vice versa. For instance, if a blog post in a subdirectory gains high-quality backlinks, those links can indirectly strengthen the SEO of the entire website.

What’s more, for businesses with diverse content offerings that are closely related, subdirectories allow for a cohesive brand presence under a single domain. This can be particularly beneficial for content marketing strategies that rely on a strong, unified brand voice and identity.

Subdirectories

These are the good news and bad news for subdirectories.

Pros

👍 Centralized domain authority: All SEO efforts under a subdirectory contribute to the main domain’s authority, potentially boosting the performance of all content on the site.

👍 Simplified management: Managing content within subdirectories is typically simpler, as they fall under the same domain and CMS.

👍 Unified brand presence: Subdirectories help maintain a cohesive brand identity and user experience across different website sections.

Cons

👎 Limited flexibility: Subdirectories might be less suitable for content that requires distinct design or functionality separate.

👎Potential for content overlap: Care must be taken to avoid content overlap as this can lead to keyword cannibalization.

When to use one over the other

As Google’s John Muller puts it – 

Source

So when should you use the “hammer” and when should you use the “screwdriver”?

When it’s better to use subdomains

Distinctly different content or services: If your website contains content or services that are significantly different from the main focus of your site, subdomains are ideal.

Targeting specific audiences or regions: Subdomains work well for targeting different customer segments, languages, or regional content.

Testing and development environments: Subdomains are ideal for creating distinct environments for testing or development purposes, without affecting the main website’s performance.

Branding purposes: When a brand or product line needs its own identity separate from the main brand, a subdomain can be effective. This approach allows for individualized branding and marketing strategies.

When it’s better to use subdirectories

Cohesive content strategy: When your website’s content is interrelated and aims to reinforce the main domain’s authority, and vice versa, subdirectories are the way to go. That’s what we do with our own blog as well.

SEO Benefits: Subdirectories are generally preferred for SEO as they benefit from the established authority of the main domain. This is particularly advantageous for new or smaller websites that are building their online presence.

Unified user experience: For maintaining a consistent user journey and branding across different sections of your website, subdirectories ensure that users feel they are navigating within the same site.

Resource and management efficiency: Managing one domain with subdirectories is often more straightforward and less resource-intensive than managing multiple subdomains with potentially different SEO strategies and content management systems.

Subdomains vs Subdirectories Examples

How do other domains deal with the ‘subdomain or subdirectory’ question? Here are some examples from popular domains.

Examples of Subdomains

Craigslist (cityname.craigslist.org)

Craigslist utilizes subdomains for different cities, such as newyork.craigslist.org, and for a good reason: each city or region has its own unique market and audience. Through subdomains, it offers a localized experience while keeping the overall design and functionality consistent. Think about it: how many people would be looking e.g. for an apartment both in NYC and in Austin at the same time?

Source

Disney (shop.disney.com)

Disney uses a subdomain for its online shopping platform. This subdomain strategy helps them to provide a dedicated eCommerce experience, separate from their entertainment and corporate content on the main domain.

Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki)

Each subdomain allows Wikipedia to organize and present content that is specifically tailored to speakers of a particular language. This ensures that users find content in their language easily without sifting through articles in languages they might not understand. For example, you will find Wikipedia’s article on growth hacking in the English language at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_hacking and in the German language at https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_Hacking

Examples of Subdirectories

Ahrefs (ahrefs.com/blog)

Ahref’s blog is hosted at ahrefs.com/blog. Their product pages are organized under similar subdirectories, like ahrefs.com/keywords-explorer. By using subdirectories, Ahrefs ensures that all the authoritative backlinks pointing to their blog posts and product pages contribute to the overall domain authority of ahrefs.com

Amazon (amazon.com/electronics)

Amazon organizes its vast array of products into different categories using subdirectories. For example, the electronics section is found at amazon.com/electronics. This structure helps users navigate the site more easily. It also allows Amazon to manage its diverse product range under the main domain.

Apple (apple.com/shop)

Apple uses subdirectories for different sections of its website, such as its online store (apple.com/shop). This approach maintains a cohesive brand experience across all product categories and supports services under the umbrella of the main domain.

Conclusion

Here is the TL;DR version of this SEO debate:

You shouldn’t use one or the other strictly for SEO reasons.
If a part of your website fits well with the rest of your site, it’s usually best to use a subdirectory structure to organize it.
If a section is very different from the rest of your site and you still want it to be linked to your main site’s brand, then using a subdomain might be a better choice.

Are you looking to migrate from your subdomain to your subdirectory or vice-versa seamlessly?

We have many SEO packages—site migration included.

Contact us and we’ll let you know the many ways we can help you with your website’s SEO.

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