Subdomains or Subdirectories One More Time

Perhaps it’s the buzz around the launch of Google Plus, but some other hot topics seem to have gone off the boil. Perhaps the most lively this year was the effect of the introduction of the Panda algorithm to grade the quality of web pages.  An interesting development on this seems to have happened without too much comment as yet.

It links in with a topic where in the past I seemed to be taking a contrarian view.  Subdomains or Subdirectories, that is the question.  What is the appropriate architecture for a ‘website’ that includes a number of web pages. Should they all be in subdirectories or subfolders of the main domain?  or is it more appropriate to create subdomains and put similar web pages into appropriate subdomains.

The definitive view on that is usually quoted as the article on
Subdomains and Subdirectories by Matt Cutts on December 10, 2007.  He said the two were equivalent and you could do either.  His usual preference was to go with what he regarded as the simpler approach, that is to use subdirectories.

Spring 2010

I took the opposing view because the Keyword Search Engine Report Pages (SERPs) treated the two differently at the time (and usually do so now).  A maximum of two entries would be shown from a single domain and its subdirectories.  However any number of entries from different subdomains could appear in a SERP if they were deemed relevant by the search algorithm.

I set out my logic for thinking this in an initial post, An Outside-In View Of Websites.  I then expanded the arguments in two articles on the Search Engine People blog, An Outside-In View of Subdomains – Questions and Answers.

I summarized my view as follows:

Subdomains have the appearance of independent ‘websites’ since they can appear in the SERP ranking lists as additional entries even though the main domain itself may already be represented by two entries.

It is almost as if the Google algorithms assume a slightly greater separation between web pages that appear on different subdomains.  This extra appearance for a subdomain in the SERP does increase the possibility that a prospect may click through to some other part of the domain space.

I was also expressing a counterview to the argument that in addition to Page Authority (for a single web page), there was also Domain Authority, which gave an extra boost to all web pages on the domain and on any subdirectories.  However the view was that this Domain Authority would not migrate sideways to other subdomains of the same domain.  This view does not seem to cover the fact that is itself a subdomain and there is also a URL, which might perhaps be regarded as the pure domain.

Summer 2011

Roll forward a year.  This spring, Panda rolls out and many very large websites are hit. Their rankings fall dramatically as does their visitor traffic.  For example, articles on the HubPages website saw a 50% drop in page views after Google’s Panda updates.  But there can be life after death.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, Site Claims to Loosen Google “Death Grip”., one of the largest sites hit hard by Google’s new “Panda” ranking algorithm change may have found a solution. The site, which has content on everything from fly fishing techniques to “generally accepted auditing standards,” has some low quality content but also original, high-quality articles, yet the entire site was punished by the new Google ranking system.

In June, a top Google search engineer, Matt Cutts, wrote to Paul Edmondson, CEO, suggesting that he might want to try subdomains, among other things.

The HubPages subdomain testing began in late June and already has shown positive results. Edmondson’s own articles on HubPages, which saw a 50% drop in page views after Google’s Panda updates, have returned to pre-Panda levels in the first three weeks since he activated subdomains for himself and several other authors.

“Our change is very positive for excellent authors, and not positive for weaker authors,” Edmondson said. “This is exactly what Google should want,” he said.

This result would seem to confirm that subdomains do have that degree of separation from the main domain whereas the subdirectories that were being used were closely associated with the domain.

That would certainly seem to be the simplest explanation for what we are seeing.  However the related articles below from very knowledgeable SEO experts show their skepticism that this is in fact the case.  They are sticking with the historical, majority view.  Time will tell which is the correct view.  … and of course, Google may also move the goalposts and change how they handle subdomains and subdirectories.

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