Subdomains vs. Subfolders and ccTLDs vs. TLDs for SEO
February 10, 2020
5 minute read
I recently spoke about subdomains vs. subfolders and ccTLDs vs. TLDs for SEO at the Women in Tech SEO event at Zoopla HQ in London. If you missed the event or you simply want to know more about this subject, here’s a detailed recap of my presentation.
In my talk I covered structuring website content and configuring multi-territory sites while focusing on maximising potential SEO benefit and minimising costs.
My reason in choosing these topics this was to answer two evergreen questions that repeatedly come up in the SEO world and remain a challenge for many brands:
Should you put your content on a sub-domain or in a sub-folder?
Should you structure your multi-territory site under multiple ccTLDs or a single TLDs with sub-folders for country-specific content?
Sub-domain or a sub-folder?
Question 1: Should you put your content on a sub-domain or in a sub-folder?
This question a question that every SEO will hear comes up time and time again.
While Google assures us that it is becoming better at associating content on a sub-domains with the main domain, in this post I will present evidence proving that instead putting your content in a sub-folder delivers a considerable boost in domain authority, rankings and search traffic.
Googlers say Google has got much better at associating content on a sub-domains with the main domain and you don't need to worry about placing content on two separate sub-domains.
For example, Google's John Mueller says: “Do what is best for your business and server set up. Google is fine with both, and both rank.”
While I have every confidence that Google is very good at associating content on a sub-domain with the main domain, to me the answer to this question hasn’t changed in many years.
Sub-folders are almost always favorable when structuring a website and migration of subdomains correlates increases in traffic, rankings and associated conversions and at UNRVLD, has been a strategy we have implemented countless number of times.
These are typical areas where we look to migrate from sub-domain to a sub-folder, with every migration seeing a considerable boost in domain authority, rankings and search traffic.
Here are a few specific examples from UNRVLD's migration projects.
Example 1. Migration of 3 sites from sub-domains to sub-folders for a national house builder.
This graph from ahrefs shows an increase in referring domains post-migration of three sub-domains into sub-folders on a clients website.
Example 2. Migration of 2 sites from sub-domains to sub-folders for another national house builder.
The graph from ahrefs shows an increase in referring domains with every migration.
Example 3. Migration of 3 sites from sub-domains to sub-folders for a national retirement home builder.
The effect migrations have on the number of referring domains and organic traffic has had a positive effect every time we have implemented this strategy. Different brands and domains, but the same positive outcome. Repointing sub-domains to sub-folders consolidates back links, authority and all other signals under one domain to the benefit of all content.
To recap, even though engines say that from a ranking perspective content in subdomains and subdirectories is treated roughly equally, SEOs should still place link-worthy content like blogs in subfolders rather than subdomains.
Single TLD or multiple ccTLDs?
Question 2: Should you structure your multi-territory site under multiple ccTLDs or a single TLDs with sub-folders for country-specific content?
TLD is a top-level domain at the highest level in the hierarchical Domain Name System of the Internet. TLD in the domain name www.example.com, the top-level domain is com.
ccTLD is a country code top-level domain generally reserved for a country. ccTLD for Canadian is ca or for Germany is de.
There is no denying the fact that ccTLDs are a strong way to show search engines and users that your site content is specifically targeted to a certain territory and should appear on SERPs in that area. If example.fr, example.ca, and example.com are equal in quality, authority, trustworthiness, and other optimisations, example.fr will likely rank better in a French user's SERP than example.ca or example.com.
But, because they are seen by search engine crawlers as entirely separate sites, any link equity passed to one ccTLD site stays there and it does not impact the other site. So, if you're promoting several sites, you'll need to build up the authority of each ccTLD, which is often not financially viable.
I will present evidence that hosting your country-specific content on a single TLD in sub-folders means that any link equity built will impact all sites.
At UNRVLD, we have migrated from multiple ccTLDs to a single TLD with sub-folders many times, for many global brands. The most recent example is a global FMCG brand with ccTLDs for 52 territories.
In 12 months the SEO benefit from this large scale migration exceeded all expectations:
4,270,450 backlinks gained (4,641,396 vs 370,946)
10,314 referring domains gained (13,619 vs 3,305)
15 domain authority points gained increased from (71 vs 56)
In this post I have shared strong evidence that the following technical tactics have undeniable SEO benefits :
Using sub-folders instead of sub-domains.
Using a single TLD instead of multiple ccTLDs.
As SEOs, we need to look for smart and financially viable strategies for our clients. We should use the resources we have at our disposal creatively, focusing on tactics that will deliver the biggest returns in the fastest amount of time, not forgetting to take into consideration your business requirements. Migrations may not be suitable to all business. For example, if a brand plans to sell off their operation in one territory due to a monopoly ruling, there is no point migrating that territory under a single TLD in the first place.