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…
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.