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



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.
 
To organize your pages on a site you have 3 choices. Which is best? Find out here
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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.
 
Well-constructed subfolders helps search engines understand and rank your site better.
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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.
 
Microsites create the need for multiple marketing and SEO efforts.
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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.
 
Marketing Two Web Properties is Harder Than Marketing One
 
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:
 
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).
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.
When you’re looking to build 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.
There are three reasons NOT to use a separate root domain or microsite. Do you know what they are?
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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.


 
EDU Domains Do Not Get a Ranking Bonus
 
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!
 

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