Subdomains or subdirectories? We’re often asked about the relative merits of these two approaches when developing a website’s directory structure. In the second of a two-part series, CSC’s Trung Tran examines the pros and cons of each approach for site management.
Part 2 – Site Set-up, management and maintenance considerations
Site setup and maintenance
Subdomains create more work. In essence, establishing a subdomain is like setting up a new website, with its own structure, SSL, templates and analytics tracking. While this reduces dependence on the root domain it needs more management effort. And because most software and applications operate at the domain level, routine maintenance needs to be replicated for each additional subdomain.
Areas to consider when setting up a subdomain include: Navigation Structure / Default Pages, Content Management System (CMS), Site Template, Analytics Tracking Code, Login Information, SSL, Hosting Space and IP Address.
Subdirectories are just extensions of an existing website so they would inherit the setup that has already been created.
Use subdomains for content separation, subdirectories for easier moderation. Because subdomains can operate as discrete websites, they make it possible to use different CMS and designs. This can be useful for separate teams or business units: for example HR could run a third-party job listing application without affecting the main website. Content moderation, on the other hand, is much easier with subdirectories because all of their content typically passes through a single CMS.
Avoid setting up a subdomain as an alias for a subdirectory, or use redirects or tags if this setup is necessary. When, for example, folder.example.com is setup as an alias for example.com/folder/, this can cause duplicate content issues, making it hard for search engines to decide which version is authoritative. If this type of subdomain alias setup is necessary for the website, a server-side redirect should be used to redirect the user to the main version (either the sub domain or sub directory). If redirects are not possible, Canonical Tags should be used on every duplicate page to show search engines which is the preferred version of the page.
These methods will transfer SEO benefits like PageRank to the main version of the webpage and prevent dilution of any “link juice”.
Both subdomains and subdirectories can be useful options for local-language websites. When you need websites for different markets and languages, it’s not always possible to use a localized domain extension (like .fr or .de) with relevant content in the local language (for example due to lack of domain name availability). Many companies therefore use subdomains and subdirectories of a single domain to host the regional website and language.
To keep website maintenance as simple as possible, it’s important not to mix pages in different languages within the same directory. It’s harder to find pages and update content, and because search engines index websites on a directory level, they may be confused when they find a directory with mixed-language content.
One option is to use subdirectories to host all the pages for a given language. For example: “company.com/de/” or “company.com/fr/”. This makes updating updates and geographic targeting easier. However some languages take up more (or less) character space, some are read from right to left and others include long compound words. This can affect site layout and not all content management systems can accommodate this at a directory level. Subdomains can be useful in these cases, because they make it possible to use a CMS that is more compatible with a particular language. They also ensure that inbound links in the same language are completely relevant to the site.
When it comes to running your websites and promoting your brand a combination of subdomains and subdirectories should be used depending on what requirements and resources you need.
Use subdomains if:
- You have multiple web applications running on different environments to that of the main site
- You have separate teams responsible for different areas of the business and they need control of the content. (Franchises, Business Units, Regional Teams)
- You want to target different regional markets more effectively.
Use subdirectories if:
- You have centralized or limited resources and personnel to manage the website.
- All the content is similar and it does not make sense to separate into multiple websites
- You need to keep all the online marketing efforts on the one domain name. Search Engine Optimization benefits as sub folders inherit the metrics of your root domain.