When it comes to SEO in general, when should I use subdomains vs subdirectories (subfolders)?

The subdomains vs subdirectories debate is a bit strange because many people seem to think either one approach or the other should be implemented, when really they are two different animals all together and a combination of using both is appropriate in many situations with respect to search marketing.

The decision to utilize subdirectories and or subdomains can be thought of as a marketing and an information architecture consideration, largely based on how you want your site’s content to be recognized by the engines and how you want to position yourself on the web for maximum profitability.

You could think of it like this: a sub directory is like a label to help describe the meaning of a page or group of pages on a website while subdomains are actually separate sites in themselves.  For example, you could build up your existing website using subdirectories or you could create a totally new site using a subdomain.

When to use subdirectories

Let me first be clear that subdirectories from a search engine’s point of view are simply a cosmetic feature that help make a URL look more structured and logical.  Some webmasters will physically create sub directories on their file system to organize pages while other sites, for example sites built in drupal, serve up a URL path containing forward slashes to represent a subdirectory architecture in order to give the appearance of organized content on the server (with that said, you really don’t always need to use subdirectories if you wanted to have all pages on your site sitting in the web root).  And so, the benefits of subdirectories are…

  • Organization – Subdirectories are great for organizing content into meaningful, descriptive URLs.  If you’re looking to grow your site and categorize content in a meaninful, logical way then subdirectories are a good way to make your URL path’s more search friendly.
  • For relatively smaller sites, keeping your content in one place will help your site to build initial authority vs spreading too thin with sub domains.  Keep in mind that having content spread out across multiple sub domains won’t help with any one site’s authority/trust.
  • Building dominance in one place over time – The more authority and trust a site builds with the search engines the easier it becomes to rank new content for related keyword terms that would have taken you much longer had you started from scratch. New content can be organized by subfolders.
  • Easier to manage – Using sub directories can be easier to manage than sub domains for the less technically savvy.
  • Basic geo targetingUPDATE 3-11-10, google webmaster tools now lets us set geo-location preferences to sub directories.  The idea is to create a new “site” listing in google webmaster central that also includes the subdirectory, so in addition having a www.domain.com listing you would create an additional listing for www.domain.com/fr (France) or www.domain.com/uk (for the UK) and then set the geo location accordingly.  Note that you can’t assign an IP to a sub directory, and IP’s are generally signals of geo location, so sub domains would likely be a stronger candidate for pure geo targeting.

When subdomains are more appropriate

Remember that Google considers sub domains separate from their parent domains:  sub.yoursite.com is considered a different site altogether compared to yoursite.com when it comes to search engine authority.  A good rule of thumb is to market content using subdomains when each subdomain needs to be positioned as an expert on the topic at hand, so long as that content is semantically different.

  • Different content – If you have a site with many specific themes, topics or products that aren’t well related then using sub domains would be a better way to help partition chunks of the site into more categorical sections that search engines can promote.  Remember, being a jack of all trades won’t help you compete against the expert who dedicates their energy in one area of focus. For example, Google has their news product (news.google.com) and maps product (maps.google.com), and because they’re fundamentally different from each other and different than Google’s main search product, they aren’t mixed together on the same domain.
  • Be competitive in many, related areas – If you have the money and resources, then you can promote related themes that self re-enforce each other, say via the site navigation.  Consider seobook.com, Aaron Wall wrote a book on SEO (seobook.com).  Then take a look at tools.seobook.com: he’s targeting “SEO Tools”, training.seobook.com targets “SEO Training” and so on.  Do a search for “SEO” on wordtracker or keyword discovery’s free search tools and you will see each vertical (seo tools, seo training) is a popular topic among searchers.  There are several themes Wall is targeting and all themes are connected from the main site’s navigation, making it easy for visitors to be exposed to the sub domains – and so each theme/sub-vertical is exposed to the user through the site’s navigation.  Wall has spent a significant amount of time building each sub vertical because he knows that as his main site’s authority grows for the brand of “seo book” related searches it begins to drown out his main site’s ability to rank for broader “tools” and “training” related queries, so he built sub domains to become authoritative for just those themes.
  • Multiple listings – It’s possible, though not always to reap more than the two listing limit for a given query using sub domains in Google.  Subdomains can be a good way to snag more brand based searches.
  • Target different regional markets more effectively.  Sub domains are easier to market to specific geographical regions: you can assign an IP address to a sub domain and even set a geographical preference in Google’s webmaster tools for each sub domain (sub directories can have their geo-preference set but can’t be assigned an IP in another country, which might also be a signal of geo location).
  • Branching out using existing brand strength.  If you already have a well established domain and want to expand out into other areas not completely related to your main site’s topics then a sub domain might be a good option.  At the same time, people associate the sub domain with your main domain’s brand, which means it can be easy to build up momentum on a vertical related to your main site.
  • What are your business goal? If you plan on growing and then selling portions of your site in the future then using sub domains would make it easier to section off pieces for others to acquire/purchase.

It’s a perfectly good idea to organize content using subdirectories on each of your subdomains as well, so using subdomains and subdirectories do actually go hand in hand.

If you’ve just skimmed this article

If you’re just skimming this article and want my executive summary, I’m saying subdirectories and subdomains can each be used to market web content differently, subdirectories describe what individual pages are about and subdomains describe what individual sites are about (Google treats subdomains as separate sites while subdirectories are just part of the same site).  You can also say that subdirectories are a more granular way of marketing content via a search engine while subdomains are a more general method.  Either way, search marketers can and should be using both, not arguing if one is simply better than the other.

Comments

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saching • 7 years ago

Thanks Mike for your article but i had very different experience while switching from subdomains to subdirectories. Can you/anyone please analyse and help me in choosing correct approach.

I started with www.idlefolks.com and had multiple subdirectories like uk.idlefolks.com or bangalore.idlefolks.com. I can see that google was relaxed while indexing the URLs. I thought that i am not getting that recognition to my root domain even though i am getting noticeable traffic on root as well as on subdomains.

Later i changed my subdomains to subfolders (i.e. www.idlefolks.com/uk) so that google can see traffic and give me higher ranking in search. To my amazement, google has stopped doing indexes of my old/new URLs from my sitemaps (may be old URLs/duplicate URLs are still active in its indices).

I am not able to figure out if i go back to subdomains or have patience now with subdirectories. Please help.

Thanks

Saching

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

Saching,  did you 301 redirect your subdomains (and all pages under the subdomains) to your new subfolders on your root domain? It looks like Google cached your home page on January 23rd, so I don't think there is any major penatly going on with your root domain.

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Dhiraj • 7 years ago

Hi Actually we want to create our site for different language, we confused that which one would be better but after doing lot of search on net and reading Matt article we approached subdirectory and we are getting good result on our targeted keyword offshore programming in google and other search engine as well, so this really very nice discussion to clear my confusion.

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David Jones • 7 years ago

http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/subdomains-and-subdirectories/ In this Matt comments that google will be penalising sites who spam the index using subdomains and linking from one to the next or even 301 redirects..I see no eveidence of this however....and there are many sites out there ranking highly who use subdomains to deliver content JUST for Google...it all seems like a contradiction...Google's own PR guy (effectively), says dont spam via subdomainsand dont produce content just for the search engines, but doing so clearly works!!!

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

I think subdomains are a great way to publish content for the purpose of targeting a sub niche relative to it's parent domain.  If you produce relevant content and make it accessible via SEO then you have a winner.  Spamming any index is a bad idea, no matter how you do it.

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Ken • 7 years ago

Mike, Thanks for a great post. I have been blogging for a while, and recently wanted to make sure I am maximizing the SEO value for my main site. My blog is currently located at blog.princetoncapitalllc.com, and as I said the main purpose is to get a better ranking for www.princetoncapitalllc.com. I thought this would be an easy question, but it appears as though there is a ton of debate on this, and a log of it contradictory. Even Matt's blog from Google does not appear to really answer the question on which is best for your SEO results. I believe you answered it best, but want to make sure. If your main purpose of a blog is to get better ranking results for your main (www) site, and therefore the blog has similar content to your pages in the main site, it is better to put it in a subfolder than in a subdomain. Correct? Ken

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

Ken, your best bet is to place your blog on your main site (in a subfolder).  Google will treat blog.princetoncapitalllc.com separately with respect to www.princetoncapitalllc.com, meaning the ranking authority blog.princetoncapitalllc.com accumulates will not benefit www.princetoncapitalllc.com.  By pooling your resources and placing more pages into the index for a single domain, that domain will gain more "trust" and ability to rank for other, related keywords you didn't necessarily plan on.

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Saching • 7 years ago

Thanks Mike for suggestion. I did change my .htaccess file later and i can see all old links of subdirectories to getting redirected to subdomains automatically by web server. I changed back to subdomains and i am happy with these now. Did couple of experiments with Google webmasters and i can play with it whenever it does not index my URLs. Thanks again.

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chris • 7 years ago

We are debating moving our distinct language sections into subdomains. Currently they are in subdirectories but we are wondering if for the future subdomains would be the way to go.... Both for linking benefits and ranking benefits.... Would you be able to comment on this?

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

If the location of your target audience is not a factor (meaning they could be anywhere in the world searching for your product/service) and the semantics of your Spanish section is the same as the semantics of your English section (for example) then best to keep on a single domain in subfolders - in this case you have just a single website in different languages and keep in mind Google doesn't consider a page witten in English that says the same thing as another page written in Spanish to be duplicate - so no duplicate penaltites there.

If the semantics of your content between languages is different or if they offer different services/products in each section then using subdomains would be the way to go - in this case you really have two websites (regardless of which or how many different languages appear on the site).

If the location of your target audience is a factor then you could use a different top level domain (.fr for France/french, .es for Span, etc.) for each language which would signal to the engines that your content would be best suited to show up for those searching in that particuar region of the world.  Google wbebmaster tools also allows you to set a geo preference for subdomains, so if you think the content in your spanish section (for example) might be sought after more in Spain, then setting up a subdomain and geo targeting that sub domain is the way to go (if you couldn't buy yourdomain.es)

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Chris • 7 years ago

Thanks for your assistance in this regard. It was a complex move to the new URL, things are not very clear in this field relating to multiple language environment. There are many factors which are difficult to face like the difficulty of finding keyword data for other languages....

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Binh • 7 years ago

Hi Mike,

Thanks for such a great article about subdomain vs subfolder. I've been searching for a good advice for so many months. I saw you responded to other people very open-mindedly so I wish to seek your wisdom.

I'm having this site http://jewell.vn which I'm building with 3 languages, which are Vietnamese, English, and Chinese accordingly.

I read the other comments and come to believe that because I'm targeting different languages, which mean different keywords, I'd go for this structure:

http://jewell.vn for Vietnamese
http://en.jewell.vn for English
http://zh.jewell.vn for Chinese would be a good choice.

However, I'm still in doubt of my own understanding, and wish you could confirm that is a good way to do.

Also, which one is be better for the main language Vietnamese? jewell.vn, vi.jewell.vn, or www.jewell.vn?

Come to www subdomain, it means "word wide web" (international) so would it be nice to use that for English instead of Vietnamese?

Thanks in advance,
Binh

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

using the non-www or www won't make a big difference, so long as you stick with one or the other and not allow both versions to be crawled (301 one to the other).  I'd go with what you think you'r users will remember, I like the www over the non-www.

Regarding the language strategy, refer to my previous comment.  It sounds like you will want to have a single site that is translated into different languages (so the semantics would be the same).  In that case I'd stick with a single site and use sub directories - any authority you build in one section will likely help out other sections.  It also couldn't hurt to give each language it's own subdomain (you could also geo trarget those sub domains in Google's web master tools), but in that case one language section's authority would not benefit any other sections' authority.

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Rohit • 7 years ago

Hi mike I know I found this blog bit late but I am happy to find it finally. my question is that we have a website http://www.otssolutions.com and we are planning to create our website in other languages also so shoul we create a different website for it like http://www.otssolutions.de or we should host it on same url like http://www.otssolutions.com/german ? please suggest me which would b the best

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Mike Shannon • 7 years ago

 Hi Rohit, see my comment here

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Nik • 7 years ago

I found this article to be most helpful. Trying to figure out the best solution between sub.domains vs. sub/directories was so confusing, but after reading this, I now feel I have a better handle on the subject matter. One thing's for sure, there's no one right answer. It all depends on how you want to approach and position your blog. So, after giving it some thought, I now know I want to build trust with my main site, reinforce the brand of my main site, and use my blog to publish content related to my main site. So the best solution for me will be to use a sub/directory. Thanks for this great post!

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