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Subdomains vs. Subfolders: Which Is Better for SEO & Why?

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Google ranks subdomains more or less the same as subdirectories (also referred to as subfolders).

But there’s a key difference, in that subdomains are considered standalone sites and distinct from the main domain.

It’s important to consider the practical impact on your SEO before choosing to place content on a subdomain or a subdirectory.

The Difference Between a Subdomain & Subdirectory

What Is a Subdirectory?

A website is typically made up of different category sections and web pages.

In the old days of HTML coding, a web designer would create folders and put the web pages into those folders.

That’s why they are called “subfolders or “subdirectories.”

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This is very similar to how file storage works on a desktop computer, where you create folders and put images or spreadsheet files into the folders.

Just like your desktop folders, the online folders would have a name like /green-widgets/. That’s where all the green widget HTML pages would go.

When you navigated to those pages, you would literally be navigating to a folder and an actual HTML file:

https://www.example.com/widgets/green-widgets/big-green-widget.html

Those folders, /widgets/ and /green-widgets/ are called subdirectories or subfolders.

In typical WordPress and other PHP-based websites, those subdirectories are virtual.

They don’t exist on the server where you can navigate to them with an FTP program and see the actual folders.

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Though virtual, they are still a part of the file structure of the website and are still called subdirectories.

A subdirectory is a part of the structure of the website that’s associated with the domain name.

What Is a Subdomain?

A subdomain is very different from a subdirectory; it is like an entirely different website.

The subdomain is associated with the domain, but not the website that is associated with the domain name.

A subdomain is generally considered as a standalone site that is branched off from the main domain.

This is an example of a subdomain:

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support.example.com

This is an example of a subdomain that contains a subdirectory:

support.example.com/faq/

Google Considers Subdomains as Separate Standalone Sites

Google has always treated subdomains as different sites, separate from the main domain.

This is evident within Google Search Console, where subdomains have to be verified separately from the content that exists under the main domain website.

Google’s John Mueller explained this in a Webmaster Video:

“You’ll need to verify subdomains separately in Search Console, make any changes to settings and track overall performance per subdomain.

We do have to learn how to crawl them separately but for the most part that’s just a formality for the first few days.”

When to Use a Subdomain

There are technical, branding, and SEO implications as to why a publisher would choose to host content on a subdomain.

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Technical Reasons to Use a Subdomain

A web developer may choose to host a staging version of a website on a password protected subdomain (a staging site is a copy of a site created by the developer in order to test a new web design template).

It’s easy to set up a new database and install a new version of a site in that subdomain that exactly replicates the production site (the version of the site that visitors visit).

As long as the subdomain is not linked from anywhere on the web, search engine crawlers will generally not find that subdomain. If they do, they won’t be able to crawl the staging site because it is password protected.

On a technical level, the staging site hosted on a subdomain can have the same directory, URL, and permalink structure as the main site that is live on the web.

Hosting a staging site on a subdirectory is trickier and errors in link structure can creep in.

For technical reasons, developers may find it easier to create a new database for a subdomain and treat that section like an independent website, keeping all database and CMS files completely separate from the rest of the main site.

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Splitting out a site on a subdomain allows the developer to easily use 100% different layout templates and technologies without affecting the main site.

Branding Reasons to Use a Subdomain

Branding is another reason to use a subdomain.

For example, publishers often choose to host their support sections on a subdomain.

There, a user can find downloadable documentation, FAQs, and Q&A forums under a subdomain like support.example.com

Screenshot example of the use of a subdomain vs a subdirectoryScreenshot of a Subdomain Used to Brand a Support Section

For branding purposes, some businesses may elect to create a separate subdomain to compartmentalize and brand a section of their site such as the support pages and keep them away from the rest of the main site.

SEO Reasons to Use Subdomains

There may also be SEO reasons for hosting on a subdomain; for example, if a publisher has a content topic that is completely different from that main site.

The publisher can choose to host that section on a subdomain in order to isolate that content within its own website but still be within the brand of the main site.

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Some news sites host their recipe content on a subdomain, for example.

I don’t know if that’s done for SEO reasons but it’s an example of how to separate one section of a site that has a vastly different topic from the rest of the site, where one section is static and relatively evergreen and the rest of the site is in a constant state of change.

Screenshot of a news site hosting recipe content on a subdomainScreenshot of a News Site Hosting Recipe Content on a Subdomain

By separating the recipe section from the rest of the site, a publisher can control what that entire section is about (recipes) and not allow the rest of the site to influence or overwhelm that one section.

Whether Google can rank a subdomain section better if it’s isolated is a matter of opinion.

But this is something that is done for SEO reasons, to allow a subdomain to rank on its own without influence from the main site and vice-versa.

Below is the SERP display for The New York Times’ recipe subdomain section.

When you search for “recipes NYTimes” Google displays it in the SERPs like a standalone website, complete with a six-pack listing of subsections.

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Screenshot of a subdomain being treated by Google like an independent websiteScreenshot of The New York Times Cooking Subdomain in Google’s SERPs

Subdirectory Layouts Are Useful

A site that is comprehensive can be seen as more authoritative than a site that only focuses on a granular part of a topic.

That doesn’t mean that the granular site less authoritative or useful.

But a site that can encompass the full breadth and depth of the topic can attract more links and be recognized as authoritative.

For that reason, a site might choose to use subfolders over a subdomain approach.

Another reason to use a subdirectory layout is that there is overlap between different sections.

Someone shopping online for cereal may want to pick up a pair of gym pants to use while working from home.

A site that carries both items is more useful than a site that only focuses on one or the other.

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Subdirectory or Subdomain? Choose What Works Best

The most important consideration for whether to use a subdomain is if it works for users.

Even so, the SEO, branding, and technical advantages of each need to be considered.

In general, if it makes sense for users that a section belongs with the rest of the site, then using a subdirectory structure is the best way to structure a website.

But if the section is better as a standalone site because it is so different from the rest of the site and you want it to keep associating that section with the branding or name of the main site, then a subdomain might be the better approach for you.

Sometimes, there just isn’t a definitive answer as to which way is best. But by taking all these factors into consideration, the choice becomes easier to make.


Image Credits:

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All screenshots taken by author, December 2020

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

Understanding the impact of your content at every touchpoint of the customer journey is essential – but that’s easier said than done. From attracting potential leads to nurturing them into loyal customers, there are many touchpoints to look into.

So how do you identify and take advantage of these opportunities for growth?

Watch this on-demand webinar and learn a comprehensive approach for measuring the value of your content initiatives, so you can optimize resource allocation for maximum impact.

You’ll learn:

  • Fresh methods for measuring your content’s impact.
  • Fascinating insights using first-touch attribution, and how it differs from the usual last-touch perspective.
  • Ways to persuade decision-makers to invest in more content by showcasing its value convincingly.

With Bill Franklin and Oliver Tani of DAC Group, we unravel the nuances of attribution modeling, emphasizing the significance of layering first-touch and last-touch attribution within your measurement strategy. 

Check out these insights to help you craft compelling content tailored to each stage, using an approach rooted in first-hand experience to ensure your content resonates.

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Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or new to content measurement, this webinar promises valuable insights and actionable tactics to elevate your SEO game and optimize your content initiatives for success. 

View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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