Everything You Need to Know About Subfolders, Subdomains, Microsites, and SEO | Perficient Digital

Everything You Need to Know About Subfolders, Subdomains, Microsites, and SEO

A Moz Top 10 Post

A Moz Top 10 Post

It’s not always clear what the best route is for structuring a website for SEO.

For example, you might be faced with a need to restructure the content on an existing site, or you might have new content or a new business strategy and you’re wondering: Should I create a new domain, a subdomain, a subfolder or a microsite?

Where to Put Your Web Content: The Choices

When discussing the various types of web structures that we can organize our web content into, we can group them into three buckets, essentially.

1. Root Domains / Second-Level Domains

A root domain is your main domain, for example, https://www.yourdomain.com. Though “root domain” is a commonly used term, the proper technical term is second-level domain. This is the site you register and point the DNS (domain name service) setting towards within the registrar where you purchased it.

2. Subdomains / Third-Level Domains

A subdomain is also known as a third-level domain, and looks something like this: https://blog.yourdomain.com. It’s common for people to put a blog on a subdomain, for example, but later I’ll share why this may not necessarily be the best choice from an SEO perspective.

3. Subfolders

Subfolders are the “file folders” on your website that hold your web page files, or documents. These files folders can exist on both a root domain and a subdomain. From a website user perspective, these are typically the navigational sections of a site.

For example, an “About” folder may have the following web page files:

https://www.yourdomain.com/about (“about” landing web page)
https://www.yourdomain.com/about/team (supporting web page)
https://www.yourdomain.com/about/community-service (supporting web page)

Provided that they are an integral part of the crawl path, these subfolders help make up the information architecture of the site—how you organize the content of your web pages to create topical themes.

When to Use a Subfolder

Let’s start with when to use a subfolder, because it’s typically the best choice for almost any scenario when deciding where to put web content.

Remember, you’ll already have a root domain (https://www.yourdomain.com), and the subfolder will exist as part of that main domain (like https://www.yourdomain.com/about).

Subfolders that are a fundamental part of the crawl path will contribute directly to how the search engines understand and rank the main domain as a whole. And they help create a great user experience when organized well.

Plus, subfolders can be registered by major search engine tools and can be geotargeted to specific countries and languages as needed.

Folder Setup on Search Console

The above screenshot shows a Search Console profile for a main domain, a subfolder, and for an individual page.

When to Use a Subdomain

One scenario where a business may feel the need to use a subdomain is if they need to create separation from the main domain due to the nature of the content on the subdomain, or to make it easier to manage.

One example is if a business has a membership training arm of the company, and the marketing team wants to market a unique URL such as https://training.yourdomain.com. Google Maps is another example of a subdomain in action (https://maps.google.com).

Keep in mind though that subdomains may not fully benefit from the link equity, positive metrics or rankings from the main domain they are associated with and vice versa, if Google thinks of them as being under separate ownership. For example, a blog on blogspot.com does not benefit from the authority of blogspot.com.

That said, if you already have content on a subdomain, it’s worth noting that the effort and consequences of moving that content to a root domain is typically not worth it, unless you spot an issue that compels you to do so.

(If you do decide to move the content from a subdomain to your main domain, a short-term loss in traffic is typical.)

When to Use a Separate Root Domain, Like a Microsite

I almost never advise clients to put web content that would be useful to their business and root domain on a separate domain altogether, though there are some scenarios where businesses may choose to do this.

When people choose to do this, it may lead to creating a microsite. A microsite is typically focused on one particular marketing initiative or topic. One example might be if a business hosts a weekly podcast, and wants a dedicated microsite for that venture and its content.

Because a microsite is an entirely different domain, for example, https://www.yourpodcast.com, you should only consider this option if you’re willing to put the time and effort into marketing and SEO for a completely separate site in order to drive traffic.

The overall reputation and credibility (the link graph) of the main domain does not inherently impact the microsite. And all the authority and credibility of the microsite does not inherently benefit the main domain.

In other words, you’ll need to have separate marketing and SEO programs for both the main domain and microsite, and I honestly can’t figure out how this isn’t extra work. By now, you may be getting the idea that I don’t typically recommend setting up a microsite, and you’d be right.

As I like to say, each domain you own requires a different marketing and promotional campaign to back it, and is that really what you want?

Here are some other scenarios that might lead you to a microsite:

  1. When you own a domain that matches a highly trafficked keyword search query, such as https://www.smalldogsweaters.com. In this case, it could make sense to have a microsite that targets the keyword “small dog sweaters.” Be careful with exact match domains though, as this is a tactic that has been abused by many SEOs in the past, so make sure anything you do on this is completely white hat in terms of approach (more reading on this here).
  2. If you plan to build a website and then eventually sell that domain. This is an alternative because you can’t sell a subdomain or a subfolder.
  3. When you’re looking to build a brand or buzz around an idea/product/service. These types of microsites can work well as the recipient of marketing efforts, but you’ll want to implement 301 redirects back to the main domain when the campaign is finished to continue benefitting from it.

Reasons Not to Use a Separate Root Domain or Microsite

Now that I’ve outlined some of the scenarios for using a microsite or separate domain, let’s look at some of the reasons you should consider not doing it:

  • Search algorithms favor larger, authoritative domains with history.
  • When you have multiple sites, it splits the benefits of links, so having content that could benefit your main domain elsewhere is counterintuitive.
  • Niche websites like microsites don’t offer the ability to target a broader focus on topics (and keywords) that may be important to your business.

Bonus Tip: When to Use Top-Level Domains Other Than .com

A lot of people wonder when it’s appropriate to choose another type of top-level domain (TLD) other than a .com. Here are some scenarios where you might use a TLD other than .com:

  • When you’re a government agency, nonprofit organization or university, you might choose to use .gov, .org or .edu, respectively
  • If you serve a non-US geographic location, like the UK, and want to use a TLD for that country, like .co.uk
  • If you serve multiple countries, you may want to have multiple TLDs. This is one case where having multiple domains is perfectly fine with little downside, but make sure to link them all together with hreflang tags.

Does any one TLD have the ability to rank better over another purely by the type? The answer here is no.

Many believe that there is some magic juice to having a .edu domain, but there really is not. College and university sites tend to have a lot of authority because they can attract a lot of links, so that is the source of their authority, not the simple fact that their TLD is a .edu.

While there are plenty of TLDs other than those mentioned above, and while some are pretty creative, they don’t inherently impact rankings. In other words, having a .lawyer TLD as an attorney does not mean you will see any additional ranking benefits over a .com.

Similarly, having a TLD other than .com does not put you at a disadvantage, either. This was confirmed in an exchange I had with Google’s Gary Illyes:

Me: My working assumption is that there is no inherent disadvantage based on the TLD someone uses. For example, a .shop has just as much opportunity to rank as a .com. Am I right on that?

Gary: Correct.

Finding the Perfect Home for Your Web Content

While you definitely have choices in where you file your web content, it’s almost always a good idea to have one root domain that is the recipient of all your marketing and SEO efforts, except in some of the cases I outlined in this post (such as serving multiple international markets).

While some marketing and businesses decisions may compel you to explore a subdomain or microsite, you should carefully weigh the long-term benefits and risks of doing so before a decision is made.

Want help making better decisions for your site’s SEO? We can help!

Art of SEO Series

This post is part of our Art of SEO series. Here are other posts in the series you might enjoy:

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14 responses to “Everything You Need to Know About Subfolders, Subdomains, Microsites, and SEO”

  1. Rakhi says:

    Great post-Eric, you have explained the entire topic in such a simple language, without using any confusing and complicated technical jargons.

  2. Show your domain some love with subfolders and a great content strategy. This is definitely a valentines day post if I ever saw one.

  3. I know a company around town that has two websites: one that focuses on their theater and one that focuses on building up their corporate training. They have different demographics that they’re trying to close, but they’re offering a very similar service.
    I understand about hosting under the same domain for SEO, but what would that do for sales/conversions. Would a user looking for corporate training by actors be put off by having to go through the theater page to look for the training?

  4. Eric Enge says:

    Hi Kenny – So they are on completely different web sites? If yes, the main challenge is that they truly need to be marketed separately to drive results. One approach you could take is to move the training site onto a subdodmain. That would keep it separate for conversion purposes. Just make sure that there is decent interlinking between the subdomain and the main domain if you do that.
    However, if the training site is already achieving its goals really well, it may be that you should imply leave it where it is. My recommendations are more concerned about where you start the placement of new content. If it’s already living somewhere and doing well, I’d probably be slow to move it.

  5. They are on completely different websites. And they would probably serve different intent. I don’t really know the goals, as I’m just a spectator. I would assume it’s working, as the company it’s from is fairly savvy.
    Just wondering, though. It just grinds my gears every time I see it.
    Thanks for the reply!

  6. Marcus says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks for shedding some light on what is often a somewhat controversial and grey area of SEO.
    I particularly liked your explanation of subdomains when used to host a blog. I’ve always known that subdomains don’t benefit from the authority of the main domain (as you mentioned), and I’ve always wondered why HubSpot have their blog on a subdomain instead of the main domain. I think this is a strange tactic to use, especially for a company that operates in the online marketing industry. But I think your point about the loss of traffic when moving content from a subdomain to a main domain (albeit short term) might explain why they haven’t done so.

  7. wayne says:

    I have had some luck with micro sites in the past, and you are right sometimes the extra work is worth it if you are just targeting a single product. But I suppose google is getting so smart these will be algorithm-ed to death in future updates.

  8. Greg Beddor says:

    Doomed/near death is right from what I can tell. To have a successful micro site these days you need pages of deep, unique content and a solid inbound link profile. IMO it’s definitely not as easy to get micro sites ranked as it used to be.

  9. John Payne says:

    Thanks, Eric, for the excellent and comprehensive article.
    I’m about to wrestle with this exact dilemma. I have a client who manufactures and supplies retrofit double glazing units. To date, it’s been aimed at the domestic market, but now they are splitting off a division aimed at the commercial market. The name of the product will remain the same (TwinGlaze). There will obviously be different marketing, aimed a a different demographic. They’re tossing around the idea of setting up a new domain. My inclination is to use a subdomain of the existing site.
    Any thoughts on this?
    Thanks again!
    John

  10. Eric Enge says:

    Given that it’s the same basic product, targeting a different audience segment, a subdomain probably is the best approach, so I agree with you.

  11. Fred says:

    I’ve actually seen some people utilize keyword-rich subdomains to try and get an edge in the SERPs, and… it actually worked. Although I often wonder if it would’ve worked just as well if they had just used a subfolder instead.

  12. Eric Enge says:

    Chances are pretty good that it would have worked just as well. There is not good algorthmic reason for Google to place extra weight on a subdomain over a subfolder.

  13. David says:

    Good reading post, Eric!
    I am wondering to build new website on subdomain. I have a small question, if my subdomain website is tank by Google, does it affect main domain?

  14. Eric Enge says:

    It can. Subdomains are closely associated with the main domain. However, if you remove the subdomain, the affect should not linger.

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