SEO

Subdomains vs subfolders: what’s better for SEO?

When trying to structure a website, there’s been a long-standing debate over the use of subfolders compared to subdomains, and which one is better for SEO.

According to John Mueller, a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, subfolders and subdomains are treated the same by Google:

While Google might use the same ranking factors to index a subdomain as it would to index a subfolder, there is some logic to take into account when deciding for yourself.

Let me explain…

Sidebar - what is a subdomain? What is a subfolder?

I’ll make this quick, but it’s the difference between this URL:

https://www.turbinehq.com/blog/time-off-from-work-productivity

and this URL:

https://support.turbinehq.com/article/20-purchasing-and-expenses

The first link uses a series of subfolders: ‘/blog/blog-title’. The second link uses a subdomain, i.e. ‘support.turbine.com’.

So, why does this matter for SEO?

Well, there was (and remains to be) some contention around the use of subdomains vs subfolders. Moz’s SEO guru, Rand Fishkin, believes that subfolders are the way to go (read this debate). And he’s not the only one.

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Back in 2015, the domain company 'I Want My Name' experienced SEO penalties for switching to a subdomain structure – read more here.

More recently, the recruitment company, 'Monster', switched its website from ‘jobs.monster.com’ to ‘monster.com/jobs’ and saw a dramatic increase in traffic.

Around the same time, Credo also switched from a subdomain to a subfolder structure and experienced a similar rise in traffic.

So, there’s a lot of weight behind using subfolders over subdomains. But, switching from one to the other is not as simple as redirecting all your URLs…

Consider other SEO factors

I say this time and time again, but Google uses more than 200 things to determine the indexability of a web page. The URL structure is just one of them.

If you read this and decide that you want to make the switch, hold your horses. Making unprepared and mass changes to URL structures might result in lots of 301 or 302 redirects. It might cause lots of broken internal links. It might lead to dreaded 404 errors. It could destroy on-page speed or structured data.

This isn’t good for anyone, and it won’t be worth the trouble.

How to determine when to use a subfolder or subdomain

Many SEO Specialists (myself included) will tell you that subfolders are the wiser choice for most websites.

This way, you can house all of your URLs under a singular domain name and maintain a simple, logical structure by changing your subfolder pathways (i.e. ‘/blog’ or ‘/pricing’ etc.). This practice retains link authority and helps to build overall domain authority. These are key factors that search engines look for.

But, let’s say you’re Microsoft. You’re talking about multiple things. You might set up a dedicated subdomain to answer questions, and a dedicated subdomain to handle all your events.

Yes, these subdomains are under the umbrella of the Microsoft brand, but they’re neatly segregated away from the main site. And chances are, Microsoft has a dedicated team to manage each individual subdomain as if it were its own website.

In short…

Google wants to understand the overall topic of your website. If you have two separate products that talk about two separate things, use subdomains. That way, you can split your tones of voice and help Google better understand the purpose of your site. Equally (like Microsoft does), if you have something like a dedicated support site, segregate it with a subdomain and treat it like its own website.

If you have pages that are a part of your main website, like a pricing page, a blog or an about us page, use a subfolder.

Subdomains vs subfolders in 2019

The subdomain vs subfolder debate is still ongoing. Truthfully, there’s no such thing as a right answer. There is only best practice based on experience and experimentation.

We encourage you, then, to your best judgement. If you decide to make a switch, make sure it is well thought out. URLs are only one SEO factor. Consider the rest of your website first. 

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Callum Sharp

Marketing Copywriter and the go-to SEO guy at Articulate. Lover of Jack Kerouac, strong coffee and travelling. I can't afford a house because I like avocados too much.