Which is best a subdomain or a subfolder?

written by Janet L Bartoli | Business of SEO, Planning & Strategy

November 29, 2022

What's Better, Subfolder or SubDomain?

subdomain vs subfolder

Should your business use a subdomain or a subfolder for important content?

First, we need to properly define a sub domain and a subfolder? 

A Subdomain is on the left of the root domain (subdomain.domain.com), while a subfolder is on the right of the root domain (domain.com/subfolder).
subdomain protocol

For as long as I can remember, this topic has been perplexing many business website owners. They want to know which is ideal from an SEO perspective. 

Many just do not understand the difference between a subdomain and a subfolder. 

My POV is still no different today than it was back in 2009 while I was working at LexisNexis. At that time I was asked where to include their knowledge resource area for their legal audience. 

I provided SEO justification, but I also provided some business justifications as well. 

After all, what might make sense from a search point of view, just might NOT be the most ideal from a business viewpoint.  

We work with a lot of staffing companies and recruiters, who either utilize a 3rd party jobs database like Job Diva or some other “off site” situation. 

Alternatively, we also see many recruiting websites that use a subdomain because they think this is some sort of “best practice”. Or are just not clear on whether or not they could include it as a subfolder, or section within their website. 

Will Subdomains Hurt SEO?

One long lasting myth is that using a subdomain over a subfolder will “hurt” your SEO efforts.

I’m here to let you know, that is absolutely not true. There are many reasons for and against the use of a subdomain. 

Ultimately, my seemingly vague point of view looks like this. “This is a business decision you need to make for your business and your clients. Not all businesses should use a subfolder and not all businesses should be using a subdomain. It really depends on the specific purpose you’d like to use one or the other for. 

I’m going to present to you both arguments for and against using a subdomain and subfolder. 

Again, it really does depend on your business purpose. There’s SEO activities we can deploy to either a subdomain or a subfolder to improve its visibility. 

When it comes to one being better than the other for SEO purposes, the short answer is this, there isn’t one that's better than the other. That’s not just my own POV, but here’s something directly from the “horse's mouth” 

Google has repeatedly said either is fine.

Matt Cutts said in 2012:

"They’re roughly equivalent. I would basically go with whichever one is easier for you in terms of configuration, your CMSs, all that sort of stuff… Both are on the same domain overall and so it’s really a question of which one is easier for you. Whichever one makes you happier I’d go ahead and do it that way."

Matt Cutts, Former Head of Webspam Google

And more recently, in 2022, John Mueller, current Head of Webspam with Google wrote on Mastodon that he would go with a subdomain over a www when he thinks the content on the subdomain can live on its own off of the www.

He said "my way of thinking with regards to subdomains is that it depends on what you're trying to do. Is it content that's meant to be tightly connected to the main site? then put it on the main site. If you want the content to stand on its own, then a subdomain is a good match."

He also shared that there are technical considerations to think about outside of SEO. He said "There's also the technical side-effect of subdomains sometimes making things a bit more complicated: verification in search console, tracking in analytics, DNS, hosting, security, CSPs, etc.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Using a Subdomain or a Subfolder

In an effort to help you decide which is best for your particular situation, I’ll outline the advantages and disadvantages to both.

Google treats subdomains as separate websites. This is one of the most important things to consider and understand when deciding whether or not to use a subdomain in your website. 

ny times cooking

The Disadvantages of Using a Subdomain 

Not every business will see these as disadvantages, review each and depending on your specific circumstance you may agree or not. These are the disadvantages I'm familiar with based on the years of experience working with all size organizations and when the decision to either use a subdomain or not came up. 

  1. The upkeep - it’s on a different domain, and could also use a separate CMS platform, which would require additional development bandwidth to maintain. Not many businesses have the team size to maintain another site. 
  2. Separate entities - Google sees that subdomain as a separate and unique domain from your root, or main domain. Therefore, sharing any link equity acquired by the larger, well-known main domain is not something that happens. (This does not mean you can include some cross-link domain activity, but it's still a separate domain regardless). Because it is a separate property from your main domain, where other pages in your website live, any new content you establish on that new subdomain, will have to establish itself as a "brand new website". So from an SEO POV that to me, would be a negative - assuming its related content to what is already living in your main website. 
  3. User Experience - How will your users use this separate domain? 

           Will it be confusing to them to click a link on your website.com only to be redirected to the separate.website.com site?  This one usually gets ignored or never tested, but your users/visitors ARE a lot more important and should be your top consideration, not Google. However, as a side benefit, when you take care of your visitors, you’re taking care to conform to Google standards indirectly. 

This would be my second SEO negative, if I had to have one for the reasons mentioned - if it's confusing and possibly a deterrent to conversions, that too would be a reason to avoid the subdomain. 

The Advantages of Using a Subdomain 

In my own professional opinion there's really only one pure advantage to using a subdomain.  

  • Separate out large amounts of unique content for a specific purpose. For example, if you are a staffing or recruiting agency and you'd like to house your job listings in a separate subdomain off your main domain, this would be a great place to include those. As long as you OWN that subdomain and it does NOT belong to a third party i.e. Jobdiva, or similar software vendor. 
  • Use a subdomain for paid ad landing pages, or sales pages, maybe for  "student resources" or online training area. This allows a section of your website that is exclusively devoted to that one single purpose. This would make it simpler to focus on from an SEO standpoint. However, note that you can apply everything necessary for a well-optimized site on a subdomain as you can within a subfolder of your website. Don't misunderstand that just because you have this section devoted to one single purpose, that I'm saying that makes it an SEO winner. 
  • For Branding purposes -  For example, for those businesses that need to provide significant customer support, or a SaaS that requires how to guides, and knowledge resources, using a support.website.com subdomain would be a great idea! 
support subdomain

The Subfolder 

Your website should have a top level folder structure that supports good navigation. Those pages within those folders likely lives in a subfolder. For example, if you have a blog, your blog posts lives in that blog subfolder, like this example.com/blog/my-blog-post. In that example the /blog is the subfolder. 

If you want to restrict all your job openings into a separate folder, that might look like this example.com/jobs/healthcare/medical-assistant. In that example, I created a /jobs subfolder, and a /healthcare subfolder. That way, I can categorize specific industries and organize the jobs that way. 

There are quite a few advantages to using a subfolder over using a subdomain. Again, when it comes to SEO, they both can be optimized. The more important decision is to determine what you need that content to do, and who needs to have access? 

The Advantages of Using a Subfolder

  1. By using a subfolder, you designate an area in your main domain to include that specific information, i.e. your jobs area might use a subfolder and look something like this example.com/jobs/optical-sales-associate 
  2. Utilization of the Matador WordPress plugin if you are a Bullhorn user. I've had an opportunity to review this WordPress plugin and was very impressed by the features built into this powerful integration that helps manage job integration. 
  3. Single website to reference to all your potential clients, instead of having to refer them to a separate subdomain. This also ties into improved user experience because you avoid any confusion. 
  4. Less to manage. One single platform for all the pages within your website, and one team to manage it all with more simplicity. 
  5. Apply site-wide SEO tactics. Some websites have separate templates for services, or blog posts, etc - There's more ease to include all SEO to all pages in your website.

The Disadvantages of Using a Subfolder

Because there is so much in the way of scalability or optimization, there aren't many disadvantages for using a subfolder. The ONLY disadvantage is when you want to use specific pages in your website exclusively for paid advertising or only specific to one-off events like a seminar or other sales landing page. 

Need to Move Your Subdomain to a Subfolder?

There are many instances where you might have a subdomain and after much debate, you and your team decided migrating that subdomain to a subfolder in your main website would make more sense. 

Without getting into specifics around the many steps you should take when your team actually has to undergo a website migration of any kind, you should make sure to have the right team members involved. The MOST important team member anytime your website goes through a website migration should be your lead SEO or SEO consultant. 

I've been part of many website migrations and also helped in making the decision to move from a subdomain to a subfolder. 

One of my favorite case studies was when working with Fiat in that situation, they had one of their signature cars, the Fiat500 that lived on fiat500.fiat.com subdomain. The problems with this were many. They wanted to isolate the audience to only visitors from Italy, and could not understand why the bounce rate of 85% was so high. 

The first problem with this subdomain was that it was living on a .com geared to a North American audience and all the content was in English. So, what I helped them do was to migrate from fiat500.fiat.com to Fiat.it/fiat500. We migrated from subdomain on .com to a subfolder on their .it website, which was solely geared to that Italian audience they wanted. We also made sure all the content was created by someone who's first language was Italian. That move decreased that bounce rate of over 85% to below 38%. 

That's one of the best reasons to migrate the subdomain to a subfolder. 

In Summary:

There are pros and cons to each. Be sure to share this with your team before making any major moves with your website. 

  • Subdomains are separate websites from your main website 
  • There's quite a bit of maintenance involved if you want to maintain a subdomain 
  • SEO can be applied to either a subdomain or a subfolder
  • Subfolders are easily placed within your existing website and can be expanded to include other subfolders if need be
  • When moving from a subdomain to a subfolder, you should make sure to include a professional SEO so that you mitigate the risk of losing all that built up traffic from one location to the new location