Google, Subdomains & Subdirectories, Oh My!

You’re an IT professional and your company has just launched a new product line that is independent from the central roster of offerings. Marketing just came to you and it’s your job to create an area of the website devoted to this special new development.

A fair amount of content has already been developed and as you leaf through the new copy, it’s apparent that this product line stands alone from what your company has historically offered; it’s an innovation in your industry and you think it needs a special place to live online – maybe a subdomain? Or would it be better to house the new content within a subdirectory?

In the past week or so, there has been significant chatter online about Google’s stance on subdomains. Where historically, subdomains have been a great place for differentiated products or services, blogs, forums, informational content about a specific industry term, etc. and have enabled your company to hold positions with more than one domain, it appears Google is changing how it handles subdomains for some queries. Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s webspam team, explains that in the past,

Google has used something called “host crowding,” which means that Google will show up to two results from each hostname/subdomain of a domain name. That approach works very well to show 1-2 results from a subdomain, but we did hear complaints that for some types of searches (e.g. esoteric or long-tail searches), Google could return a search page with lots of results all from one domain. In the last few weeks we changed our algorithms to make that less likely to happen in the future.

In fact, Matt mentions that this new tweak has actually been in place for a bit already and no one has really seemed to notice yet.

The Affected Search Query

It is important to note that this change is not universal and does not affect results where the domain and subdomains are very relevant to the search query; branded terms will still return all relevant queries.

For example “oneupweb corporate podcasting” still returns results from both Oneupweb.com and one of our subdomains: Podgarden.Oneupweb.com (4 results total).

The types of queries expected to be affected are obscure or long-tail terms that a particular domain (subdomains included) are highly relevant for. These terms would not be branded terms, which is why some users would be frustrated when they receive many results from one domain.

Here’s an example where two Oneupweb sites (main and subdomain) position for one non-branded query: “corporate podcast production”. See Podgarden.Oneupweb.com at #1 & 2 and Oneupweb.com at #18.

So which is it? Subdomain or Subdirectory?

In his blog post, Matt Cutts leans toward subdirectories/folders, however his reason seems to be one of convenience, simplicity, and ease rather than of business goals or SEO.

When determining whether your blog, forum, or new product line should live on a subdomain or subdirectory, it’s important to keep in mind the purpose of subdomains and what they’re used for, and that the Google algorithm change will only apply to certain queries.