Okay, let me just start off by saying I’m totally exited to share information on this topic. Yeah, I proudly wear my tech-geek badge. (I’ve also asked a few extra-techie folks on the ‘cause team to review and make sure I got this extra right. #sanitycheck)
But, seriously, today I want to dive into some scary-sounding technical parts of a website and show you how non-intimidating they truly are. Once we get through this, you’ll see how simple it really is once you learn the web-speak!
What we’re really focusing on today is how websites are organized and how that may or may not impact things like search ranking and your ability to pull analytics. We want to use this information to get your site most efficiently structured and keep you in front of your target audience.
First, let’s breakdown some components of a URL (or a Uniform Resource Locator—take that to trivia night!)
This is a URL.
The main domain name for the URL (and often the part most people remember because it’s readable, usually short, and highly reflective of the brand/business/site) is the word “example” in this case.
But that is only one component of a URL.
//www.example.com has six basic parts: //, www, example, com, /about-us and /our-founders. Some URLs may have as few as three: //example.com, for example, and it’s generally best to keep URLs from having more than seven. So you wouldn’t want to have more than this, for example:
For reference, here’s what each of these URL sections are called:
Your hyper-text transfer protocol, this section of a URL says “look at the web for this file.” This part of a URL is required and we strongly suggest you use HTTPS instead of HTTP to avoid Google ranking issues.
This is your subdomain. It is an optional part of your website. More on this to come.
This is your root domain, or basically the name of your filing system for all your content on your website. It may have a .co, .uk, .org or other ending depending on a number of factors.
These are subfolders on your website. While not all websites have subfolders, most do and we’ll talk about why.
In this example, this is a landing page, or a specific page with content that someone may call up and review. These may also have specific characters that follow, depending on the code language the page is written in, like .php, .html, etc.
Why do websites need all of this?
To answer that, think of a MASSIVE filing folder system. In that system, you have to catalogue and be able to find, let’s say, 100,000 different photographs. Now, you might be tempted to throw all of those in a drawer (or several!) and call it “done,” but finding anything again would be super hard and time consuming.
Instead, here’s how you might catalogue things so you can find them again:
When you or someone sees this in a locator record, you know WHO’s filing system to look in. We’re not looking at someone else’s, we’re looking at this one.
From there, we need to know WHERE to look.
So we ask:
Are all your records related to the same basic thing, or is your filing system big and comprehensive enough to take up lots of space in lots of locations?
Subdomains break up different big themes or technical capabilities:
In this case, our 100,000 photos take up lots of filing cabinets in lots of different rooms, so we’ve created a few subdomains to tell us which room to look in. Each room is themed, so contains only very specific kinds of photos, like:
Alternatively, we might decide to break up the 100,000 photos by photographer, location, or other factors.
The choice is yours, but it’s helpful to catalogue a subdomain by breaking it up into sections that people might search by. (More on the how and why of this to come below.)
Subfolders (also sometimes called subdirectories) break up similar items along different themes:
Ok, so now we know that we want to look in our catalogue, and in the Dogs subdomain because we’re looking for images of dogs and not buildings. But what if we want only dogs in winter, or dog portraits instead of photos of dog paws?
Subfolders tell us which “folder” to look in.
So if we have a url that’s //dogs.example.com/smiling-dogs/, then we know to look for a folder called “/smiling-dogs/” within the “dogs” room. If we have something like //dogs.example.com/smiling-dogs/winter/ then we know to look in:
- The “dogs” room
- For the “/smiling-dogs/” filing cabinet
- For the “winter” folder
You see, all of these components are simple organizational strategies to help better file and then retrieve information.
In fact, being strategic about your subfolders can spell the difference in spending seconds versus hours in Google Analytics as you try to get key information.
You are most likely already using some subfolders at least, but we want to look at how putting some thought into how you file things to help you, Google and your customers find information more easily!
Now let’s get to the juicy stuff: subdomains and subfolders
(sometimes called subdirectories—but I’m sticking with the term subfolders here).
These are subdomains.
These are subfolders.
You might think it’s not a big deal where the keyword (one, two, & three) appear in the URL, but the placement is communicating to the The Internet different things on how to file, retrieve, and rank your site. One is also easy to parse out all data in a single Google Analytics instance, while the other often requires multiple accounts and jumping between.
So…. subdomain…subfolder…which one do I use and when?
Great question! And the answer is one that’s hotly contested in the development world. But, first, let’s look at what Google says:
As John Mueller from Google Webmaster notes, it comes down to your individual business needs.
IMPORTANT: changing your URL structure is NOT a small lift and has the potential to disrupt your organic search rankings, so is NOT something you want to do often. Ideally, a website should plan for and create a site structure from day 1 that has the ability to expand and grow with it for years, or even decades.
Generally speaking, here’s what each organizational style is telling the search engine—
- Subdomain: example.com
The subdomain says, Hey Internet, the keyword “one” is part of my business BUT deserving enough of its own semi-related website that I’d like to optimize and rank for something a little different.
If you have a site with multiple, very different themes, you may want to consider a second website or creation of a subdomain.
Let’s look at a quick example—Purina.com
On the Homepage, there are two bars—one in the top right and one top center. Notice how “Shop Purina,” “News” and “Careers” have an arrow next to them. These are signaling (albeit subconsciously) that these links are going to take you elsewhere.
Here’s where they go:
Purina treats its Store like it’s a part of its original site BUT it is telling search engines that there may be different themes and content in “Shop” versus anything else found under the root domain. It does this too with its News.
Conversely, “careers” on Purina.com will take you to a completely external site:
You leave the Purina domain and go to Nestle Purina Careers instead.
Now, why would Purina do this?
Careers may seem the easiest to understand. As a recruitment tool, the careers website serves a distinctly different audience and purpose than anything else found on Purina. It’s for job-hunters, and needs to compete with other recruitment sites from Purina’s competitors. We can guess that this, combined with a site that their HR team can “own” are good reasons to split this site out from the rest.
For Store and News, Purina is telling search engines to treat those two as separate entities. This trusts it when Google says its algorithms know they are part of Purina and related to Purina, even if they are a subdomain.
We can only guess at why these two sections were strategically important to break out this way, but Purina is a company with a large, diverse offering and it’s fairly common to see in companies this diverse.
- Subfolder: com/one
The subfolder says, Hey Internet, the keyword “one” is part of my website AND deeply related to everything else within this domain (or subdomain). Subfolders may also have folders within them, signaling a hierarchy of importance.
Looking back at Purina:
Every other link on the Purina site is a subfolder—it’s telling Google that the information is within Purina.com and related to everything else on the site.
Note the /dogs indicating a subfolder.
And here is the subfolder /about-purina.
So should I use subdomains, subfolders, or both?
Let’s take a look at the benefits of these options BEFORE I tell you what I think gets you the most bang for your buck (and time, sweat, & tears—okay, no tears, but you get what I’m saying)…
- Showcase niche expertise
- Create keyword-rich URLS
- Treat different site sections drastically differently
- Differentiate the kinds of terms or themes your subdomains rank for
- Hosting fees go up
- Need multiple instances of Google Analytics/Search Engine Console (eg- additional data collection time)
- Likely need multiple content management systems (it’s possible to avoid this, but takes major custom development)
- Cross-platform updates will require a developer
- Need to be on top of your inter-linking game and may not fully integrate
- One site, one hosting fee
- All your content easily accessible and organized in one place
- You can still get a keyword or two into the URL
- You’re only working to get one site backlinks, and ranked, not multiple
- Need to prioritize your content carefully, so you’re ranking for what matters most
- Will probably need a developer to widely customize
They both sound kinda good…what about SEO impact?
Besides the extra cost in time and money to maintain subdomains, you’ll want to keep in mind that subdomains will transfer 90% of link juice whereas subfolders will transfer 100% link juice, according to marketer Neil Patel. That 10% difference could be a tough blow for some businesses to take, especially early on.
And, even though Google solemnly swears subdomains and subfolders are equally good, many people see how much more effort it takes to get a subdomain to rank and conclude subfolders are the way to go.
But then again—Google likes ranking niche websites so subdomains are great if you are presenting information on two very different topics. Say your business caters to both dog and cat parents. Maybe you run both www.cats.example.com and www.dogs.example.com.
There’s a lot to consider as you build your website—but…
My final verdict: subdomain or subfolder?
For the average business, subdomains are more costly to maintain, more expensive to create substantive amounts of content for and more complex to run. That in itself is usually enough to stop it from being worthwhile for the typical, local pet business. However, using subdomains can become a useful tool as your business begins to develop nuance, goes national/international or caters to multiple kinds of products and services.
See, just like I said, it’s really not that scary because, no matter if you use subdomains or subfolders, people ultimately want the same thing—great content. Give them accurate, engaging and useful information, and catalogue it in a meaningful, strategic way, and you’re off to creating a trusting and lasting relationship – with your customers and with Google.
Are you planning your website’s URL structure? IMPORTANT
As former Editor-In-Chief of some of the largest pet websites, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with URL issues and complications. That’s why I developed a unique process and 1/2 day workshop unavailable anywhere else to help you build a website URL plan to last you and your brand for the next decade. As Google notes, you do not want to have to change your URL structures down the road. Email our team today and ask about our 1/2-day Taxonomy Workshop to get your website built on a strong foundation.