Search engine optimization isn’t all that difficult, the hardest part is understanding all of the variables that go into it. There are just so many things to consider.
I initially wrote this post on the SEO impact of subdomains vs subdirectories in Feb. of 2014. A lot can change in the SEO world in just over a year, so I thought it was time to revisit things to see how the results of this case study compared to things in mid-2015.
Take a look at the original case study below. At the end of this post, you’ll have the opportunity to read my revised case study: SEO subdomains vs subdirectories (the results may surprise you).
This is by far one of the more popular posts I have ever written. It has over 200 back links, and has had numerous mentions in many SEO forums (some doubting my findings). It’s even been linked from an article on Search Engine Land. Truly crazy…
I haven’t really been paying a lot of attention to this blog over the past few years. It’s July 2021, and here I am revisiting a post I did over 7 years ago. I think it’s time that we update things to see if what I found back in 2014 is still valid today. Stay tuned all, something I’m working on.
A Case Study on Subdomains vs Subdirectories
There is much debate on when to use subdomains vs subdirectories for SEO (Search Engine Optimization). There are some people that will swear the choice isn’t about SEO, but should be more about your business situation. I agree your business needs should drive the use of subdomains on your site, but I’ll also debate that SEO should also factor into this decision.
Here’s the fact, if you set up your blog as a subdomain instead of a subdirectory, the ranking of your blog will suffer. I’ll prove that below in my case study.
When to use a subdomain
First a brief review on subdomains vs subdirectories. Using the following example:
asubdomain is the subdomain of the site, asitename is the domain, and afolder is the subdirectory (also known as a folder).
A sub-domain is treated by the search engines as a truly unique website. So if you have one domain with 3 different subdomains established, each is treated differently by Google. Any “link juice” that has been established for the main site (or any of the sub-domains) isn’t necessarily passed onto the sub-domains. This is an important fact to remember, especially if you have a well-established site with a number of back-links. You’ll be starting over in terms of link building if you create a subdomain.
However, there are valid reasons to use a sub-domain:
- Your site may sell a product or offer a service, but you want a presence in multiple languages. A subdomain could be established for each language you are targeting.
- Franchises may all focus on the same products, but will have unique content that needs to be called out for each franchisee (owner information, address, phone, specials, etc…). In this case a subdomain would be set up for each franchise store.
- Differing products for your company. Perhaps your company wants to focus marketing efforts for some of the various products they sell, in this case a subdomain may be a better approach to targeting traffic to each unique product.
These are just a few reasons and by no means are hard and fast rules. Your business situation should determine when you want to establish a subdomain. Just keep in mind, you are starting off from scratch in terms of SEO every time you create a new subdomain for your site.
Case Study – Subdomains vs Subdirectories for SEO
Let’s get to the meat of this article, looking at subdomains vs subdirectories. The following situation is fact, the site is real, and the search engine ranking is true. I’ve developed this case study to prove there is a difference in search engine ranking when using a subdirectory.
Quite simply I wasn’t ranking, for anything, anywhere. Not in Google, Bing, Yahoo, or even Google’s Blog search. Now before everyone starts saying you need to understand SEO concepts, I’ll tell you I do. I may not be an SEO Consultant or Search Engine expert, but I get it. I’ve maintained multiple blogs over the past few years, and have had my fair share of keywords that have ranked in the top 3 of Google’s search results, as well as keywords that have ranked number 1 in the SERP’s..
In my particular case, I had a site that I developed for a little side project that I was working on for myself. The site I’m referencing is a Career Network that I created called Vircara, and the intent is to bring students and professionals together to help students define a career choice. Great idea if you are a professional and want to mentor students.
I wanted a means to drive traffic to my main site, so I thought what better way to do that then establish a blog and focus on keywords that I was interested in targeting. As I wanted to separate my blog from my main site, I set up the blog using WordPress as a subdomain on my site (blog.vircara.com).
Facts of my Set-Up
To help everyone understand a little more on this site, here are the facts so you can understand how this fits into the SEO analysis.
- This is an established domain, one that was originally set up by myself over 3 years ago
- The subdomain in question was originally created in March 2012
- The WordPress blog was established in March 2012 and had content posted to it throughout 2012 and 2013
- On page SEO optimization was done to my key content, with much emphasis on one particular post that I was trying to rank for
- Backlinks were built over time to both the subdomain, other articles on the site, and the post I was trying to rank for using reputable SEO practices. These backlinks consisted of both no-follow and do-follow links.
- I had links in my subdomain that pointed back to my main domain and links in my main domain that pointed back to the subdomain
- I focused my backlink strategy to the subdomain (and related posts), however there were a few backlinks that I had also built to the main domain.
- I was using a WordPress Theme that is targeted for SEO, something that I verified. In fact, I tried a number of different themes before settling on my current theme to see if that would make any difference.
Sub-Domain Use (The Before)
The primary key word I was targeting was “choosing a career”. While this keyword does have some competition, it’s not so popular where I shouldn’t be able to rank at least in the top 100. To frustrate me even more, I couldn’t even rank in the top 100 in Google’s Blog search tool. My blog name wasn’t even showing up in the Blog Search, which told me Google didn’t even recognize it as a blog.
The following screen shot shows the results of a search on my keyword for my targeted domain name:
Directory Use (The After)
After doing much research on the use of subdomains vs subdirectories, I decided to give the subdirectory route a go to see if that would make a difference. I set up a new instance of my WordPress blog as a subdirectory, exported my content from the subdomain instance, and imported that into my new blogs instance. I also set up 301 redirects from the subdomain posts to the new posts in the subdirectory, and then finally deleted the blog instance in the subdomain. I wanted to ensure the 301 redirects were in place for two reasons:
- Google wouldn’t penalize me for any duplicate content that it may have indexed
- Any incoming links to my subdomain would now point to the new instance of my WordPress blog in the subdirectory.
After verifying that all of my redirects were working, I waited. I gave it two weeks to ensure Google had a chance to index my new content, or at least attempt to crawl the old content so it could encounter my 301 redirect to the new content.
After two long weeks of waiting, and verifying that my new content was indeed indexed, I ran my tool once again to see where I ended up in the search rankings. And the result is – position 57 in the Google SERP’s.
I went from somewhere out of the top 100, and I know for a fact I wasn’t even in the top 200, to being number 57 in the SERP’s simply by changing from a subdomain to a subdirectory. Everything else related to my site remained constant.
Pretty clear evidence, at least in my simple mind, that putting your blog in a subdirectory has a significant impact on SEO over having it in a subdomain.
I would be very interested in hearing everyone thoughts on this matter, and would love to know what experiences you’ve had with subdomains vs subdirectories.
Note: This post is part of a broader topic on things to be aware of when starting a new blog.
If you’re looking for more information on improving the SEO of your site, you may want to speed your site up by using a CDN with Amazon CloudFront and W3 Total Cache.
Read My Latest on Subdomains vs Subdirectories For SEO
As I mentioned in the opening of this post, I decided to do another test on the SEO impacts of using a subdomain vs a subdirectory.
You can download that case study right here – SEO Subdomains vs Subdirectories.
I like your case study. Why do you think simply changing your blog over to a subdirectory had this impact?
Craig Emerson says
Great question. Google treats a subdomain as a unique site, so you are basically starting over when it comes to SEO. Since my www domain was perviously established, even though I didn’t have a ton of backlinks, I believe Google treated that more highly than my subdomain. Thanks for the comment.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MswMYk05tk Suggests otherwise now.
Read the article, very nice test. @Dan, Matt Cutts video was from 2012, correct? @Craig, you have done this test since then, correct? Rand Fishkin weighed in on this discussion, this year, too: http://moz.com/community/q/moz-s-official-stance-on-subdomain-vs-subfolder-does-it-need-updating
What do you guys think?
Craig Emerson says
Thanks for commenting Devin. Yes, my test was done earlier in 2014. Regardless of the Cutts video, I stick by my results. I’m having issues accessing the Moz site right now, but I’ll have to check out this article (not sure if it’s the same one I’ve read previously).
sahil popli says
Hey Craig Nice article with all information i want but i am still confused with my case.
Let me explain
i want to make a coupon website which entertain 5-10 countries so what is best strategy to differentiate countries websites.
i will use wordpress multisite for this.
Craig Emerson says
You’ll probably want to look into using sub-domains for the different countries, assuming each will be in a unique language.
Steve P. says
Craig: Out of curiosity, where did http://www.vicara rank on those terms before the move? You show the rank of blog. before and www. after, but don’t show where the established site ranked before relocating the content.
Craig Emerson says
Not sure I understand the question Steve. Are you asking where the root domain ranked? That wasn’t really ranking for my keyword of the post that I was measuring if that’s what you mean.
Hi Craig, what would have happened if you had created the Blog (as a subdomain) at the same time as you created the website? And how would that have made a difference if you had created the Blog (as a subfolder) at the same time as your website?
Craig Emerson says
Good question that I don’t have a definitive answer for. My assumption is, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of difference.
I have one problem with your case study, you showed us the ranking for the subdomain before changing it to subdirectory but you didnt show us the ranking of the domain before the change and your ranking after change could be already there. Does it make sense?
Craig Emerson says
That’s because the blog didn’t exist at the root domain, only the subdomain. It would have been impossible for me to rank for that keyword at the domain as it never existed there until after the move.
Creare Site says
That’s a very good article but what about making subdomains for different niches of an advertisement website? For example let’s take Groupon.
Let’s say I do food.groupon.extension .. and another one with travel.groupon.. and I put from the root some links to the subdomains and back to root.
This will not strenghten the main domain name?
I think having links from subdomains to root and back on all of them will push every subdomain higher in Google.
Also this must have to do with the actual SEO you will do on that articles / websites so it will rise itself.
p.s. sorry for bad english, not a native speaker.
Craig Emerson says
You’re correct Valentin, linking your main domain to the subdomains will strengthen the subdomain, but the point is Google treats each subdomain separately.
Carol Amato says
What a cool case study! Awesome!
I’ve been simplifying my business and actually getting rid of unnecessary sites/arms of my business.
With my membership site, instead of going a brand new domain, I simply added “membership” to CarolAmato.com. So the XenForo software installation occurrs on http://www.carolamato.com/membership (to buy) and http://www.carolamato.com/members (to log in).
Better for branding, user experience, and as you so very well pointed out, for SEO purposes as well.
If I’m going to have an Authority Blog, why create a new little side site for every project? Makes no sense, unless in a completely different niche, which I’m avoiding at this time. Been there, done that.
Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend.
Craig Emerson says
Thanks Carol – I’ve always liked case studies and enjoy playing around with SEO, so I thought this was a good topic for a test. You nailed it with your membership site, and are spot on with your comment.
Thank you for the comment, always appreciate your insight into things! You have a wonderful week ahead Carol.
Donald McLeman says
Hi, Craig, this is an interesting case study.
I did wonder if there would be much of a difference but this shows it in action. It makes sense when you read your explanation.
I have to think how this applies to me. I’m planning to create a few niche sites. I was just assuming that new domains wouild be the way to go but I can see that if they’re close to my main topic then a sub-directory might be a good idea.
Something to mull over…
Thanks, have a good week!
Craig Emerson says
Thanks for the comment Donald. Definitely something to think about if you were planning a new site. If you think about it, it totally makes sense to go the sub-folder route. As you said, something to mull over.
Abdul Samad says
Nice experience informative article you wrote ,, i was searching something like that about sub extra folders for putting extra data or web pages in your running website should effect SEO?
You had a question earlier about a coupon site in various coutry and you insicated using a subdomian setup if each language is different
What if the language with all sites are english
Im basicallyworking an a coupon site only active in USA, UK, AUSTRALIA
Will a sub directory for each county be the way to go?
Google will not penalize is important point to learn. As their is more probability of content sharing between the root domain and subdomain. Thanks Bloggingflail, to point out this.
Παναγιώτης Σακαλάκης says
I’ve created a lot of subdomains over the years and I couldn’t agree more with your case study. It’s true, non of the subdomains I’ve created had any impact on SEO whatsoever. When I tried to create a subdirectory blog on WordPress, Google was able to index my site faster and I even hit a few search results as number one result. So I think your case study it’s still good for people who care about their SEO.
I personally prefer subdirectories. There are many benefits of subdirectories as compare to subdomains. I already implemented subdirectories. The result is positive.
What about if let say you web products / plugins online. I use subdirectories or regular slugs for marketing pages where customers can buy the products. However I use a subdomain using the same slug where I show a demo of the product. Is this bad in terms of SEO ?
Single shop page:
Page URL: httpx://domain.com/products/product-name/
Page TITLE: Product Name
Product Demo Page:
Page URL: httpx://product-name.domain.com/
Page TITLE: Product Name Demo
Let me know your thoughts
I need help. i want to setup Web Directory website like Yelp by WordPress with 3 languages (English,Persian(Farsi),
What’s the Best way?
SEO is very important for me
1. Stand Alone WordPress Or Multi WordPress?
2. Subdomains or Subdirectories ?
3. Which Plugin for Languages ?
I would be thankful if you help me
Thanks so much
Travesti Arkadaş says
I found this blog while I was lokking for these words ‘adding a subdomain vs folder’… That’s a super informative blogging… I was planning to move from subdirectory, to adding a subdomain, But after reading this blog, I decided to remain on subdirectory. That was awesome… My main site is a social dating site and its a niche software actually… And ı am not able to change coding stuff 🙂 but ı am not bad at wordpress… So my blog works on a subdirectory powered byr wordpres.s.. Thanks again
Hi bro, Love your case study and thanks a lot for sharing it.
I have a doubt, Suppose I have a php website and in a directory, I am installing wordpress and kept blogging.
Will it help in better SEO for the website?.
Craig Emerson says
You and 100’s of others have doubts. This post has been discussed in a number of SEO forums and has received considerable debate. Regardless of that, I stand by what I saw in the results when I did this years ago.
If I understand your question correctly, you’ll have WordPress installed and a standalone Website created in a separate directory. Any links pointing to either instance should help the other, as they are both on the same sub domain.
I was in a confusion and now cleared. I am also planning to move from sub-domain to sub-directory. Thanks for the case-study.
Hi bro, Your case study made my day. I have realized that i m in same path. Thank you bro for your wonderful content Long Live “SEO”
This is the answer for my questions. I am thinking of moving my subdomain to subfolder.
Jonathan Jefferies says
This is no longer true – in fact having a subdomain not only eases deployment (particularly functional components across multiple clouds/hosting environments) it also assists with SEO ranking and cross promotion once a baseline indexing level has been achieved. It does require some thought to cross linking/promotion across domains but the cumulative ranking impact over time is greater than sub-directory – our site moved from sub-directory to sub-domain and all things remaining equal we are now ranking higher than 6 months earlier without having materially changed anything else.
Using a subdomain has a lot of benefits over a sub directory such as separate deployment and better branding. You wouldn’t get the existing SEO ranking of your main domain though. It’s a trade-off yet will definitely yield better results in the long run.
AndyTLairdAndy T. Laird says
I have a website and we’re in the process of translating it into another language and my plan is to place this into a sub domain which I believe is the right thing to do? I assume this can rank as it’s own website. My mane website has 3 totally different subjects: Photography, Web Development, and Health all of which I have a passion about and keep me busy.At the moment they are in different categories on the main WordPress website. Should I place these into 3 different sub domains or categories?
AndyTLairdAndy T. Laird says
My apologies for the errors in my last comment! Perhaps i shouldn’t be typing during the early hours! What I meant was should I place these 3 different subjects into sub domains or directories?