Favorite color. Snow vs beach. iPhone or Android. The list of eternally debated either/ors is long.
Another that has been a constant in my life for the last decade+ is “Should a blog be on a subdomain or in a subfolder to maximize SEO potential?”
This should be an interesting debate to anyone publishing content on the internet who wants that content to be seen by as many people as possible.
The argument is as old as Twitter (because that’s when people started debating things on the Internet, right?), but in the intervening years (and decades) there have been a lot of case studies written up and published to show one thing:
All things being equal, a subfolder (eg editorninja.com/blog/) will perform better than a subdomain (blog.editorninja.com) when focusing on organic traffic.John Doherty, EditorNinja founder
Of course, things are not always equal and everyone has an opinion so this article is worth reading to determine what the best approach is for your business.
Here is one example from my own experience when I was at HotPads.com and we moved our blog from a subdomain to a subfolder while at the same time moving from TypePad to WordPress.
Of course this is just one example and one example is never indicative of a trend, so we’ll cover a few case studies at the bottom of this post.
What are the differences between a subfolder and a subdomain?
To begin, let’s define what the differences are between a subfolder and a subdomain so you can begin to piece together your current setup and what may be required should you want or need to change it.
What is a subfolder?
A subfolder is a directory in your website’s file structure that shows up on the front end of your website as a URL like editorninja.com/services/* where * is the URL slug after the subfolder of /services/.
The file structure shows you or your site’s visitor where you are on the site via the URL. Of course some/many sites will often hide certain or all subfolders to make URLs shorter or easier to navigate to, and hopefully both.
Here is a view of a website’s file structure, where each of the folders are as you might guess a subfolder on this particular site:
What is a subdomain?
A subdomain on the other hand is best thought of as a completely separate website from the main website or main subdomain. To make things a bit more complicated but to be technically correct, even www.editorninja.com is a subdomain.
For the purpose of this article, we are talking about subdomains that are different from the main subdomain and if they are better or worse for SEO when your blog is located there.
Subdomains are most commonly used for a blog location when the main site’s technology does not offer blog functionality or uses a technology that the marketing team is not easily able to use. In those cases, the easiest way to stand up a blog for marketing purposes is to install a new WordPress (or similar) instance on a separate server and have it accessible via https://blog.site.com.
Why is a subfolder better for SEO?
As we already established, a subfolder is better for SEO and has been shown to be so many times.
A good SEO can rank pretty much any website for pretty much any term given enough time and budget, but if you’re reading this I am going to assume that you are not a professional SEO and are simply looking for the best setup for your blog to get the most impact from your content marketing.
Put simply, a subfolder is better for SEO because it is easier to maintain and easier to pass link equity to the blog index and category pages as well as individual sites.
Easier to maintain
A subfolder is easier to maintain than a subdomain because it is the same technology as your main marketing site that you are constantly keeping up to date and hopefully building new backlinks to consistently via your content and other efforts.
If your marketing site is on WordPress, then updating all of your plugins (for security and functionality) will also update your blog’s plugins to keep it up to date and secure.
In keeping with this, if you’re consistently monitoring your SEO metrics and how well your URLs are indexed via your XML sitemaps (you have those, right?), having your blog on your main domains and thus your XML sitemaps within your main site’s Search Console installation means it will be quicker and easier to check the status. By it being easier and quicker, you will do it more often.
Easier to link to
Another reason to have your blog in a subfolder as opposed to on a subdomain is that it is easier to link to a post on a subfolder that a subdomain.
Cross-linking from one subdomain to another is almost always (unless you really know what you’re doing) suboptimal to interlinking on the same subdomain. While you may interlink between your content just fine on a subdomain, the linking from the main domain to the subdomain will likely not be widespread and anything like a content archive on your main domain will not automatically update.
Thus, your content will not be as well linked to internally and it will not rank as well.
What if you can’t put your blog in a subfolder?
Nothing is truly straight forward when it comes to building a business or building a marketing engine, and sometimes it is simply not possible (or at least your developers tell you it is not) to put your blog in a subfolder.
So what do you do then? Here are a few ideas:
- Ask your developer about a “reverse proxy.” This is a tip I learned from a technical founder years ago (2012 I think!) where it is possible to route a separate technical stack (aka WordPress install that would go on a subdomain) onto a subfolder of a different technical configuration. They might say it’s not possible or too much work, but if you can prove its worth they’ll get it done.
- Put it on a subdomain but optimize your internal linking and make sure all of the technical SEO needs (like XML sitemaps and internal architecture) are built to allow search engines to first discover your blog from your main site and then allow them to rank it. Don’t reinvent the wheel here – use a CMS that is trusted and follow SEO best practices.
- Build pages on your main site instead of posts on a “blog.” While this will ultimately be more work to make sure they’re all indexed (in which case I recommend one page listing them all, that is easily accessible from your homepage), they’ll at least be on your main domain and better linked.
The ideal case, of course, is putting your blog in a subfolder of your main domain. But if that’s not possible, it’s not the end of the world.
I also recommend taking a long term view of your content marketing. Often the hardest battle to fight is simply getting a blog live (even though it can be done for the price of a monthly hosting plan!)
I encourage you to pick the battles you fight, and if you’re going to need to spend too much social capital to get “the right solution” then simply take what you can more easily get and prove that blogging is a worthy investment for the company before you push for a more optimal setup.
I would be completely remiss to tell you to put a blog on a subfolder for SEO purposes without giving you concrete examples to take to your boss or head of development (or web development company) to show the difference in organic traffic between subfolders and subdomains.
Example 1: HotPads blog
From late 2013 to early 2015, I was the head of marketing for Zillow’s brand HotPads.com. When I arrived there, the blog had been abandoned for a few years and was on the very old blogging platform TypePad.
I restarted the content marketing program, and over time traffic increased. But the platform was hard to work with and didn’t work with our updated branding on the main site, so I made the pitch (and hired the people) to redo the blog to WordPress and at the same time put it on a /blog subfolder instead of the old blog.hotpads.com subdomain.
Here is a graph of our organic traffic before and after the move around the middle of February that year.
Example 2: Monster.com
This next example comes from the good folks over at Sistrix, which is a Germany-based SEO toolbox widely used by SEO professionals.
A number of years ago, jobs site Monster.com moved a bunch of their content from subdomains to subfolders. Specifically, they moved areas like their hiring advice content and jobs themselves over to their main monster.co.uk domains and saw dramatic increases in organic traffic:
Example 3: Advanced Analytics
This next case study comes from Jesse at Advanced Analytics with a case study from the PinkCakeBox blog (which looks to no longer be live).
They had been blogging for a while on a subdomain, but saw a lot of chatter around the industry from trusted voices and decided to move their blog over to a subfolder instead.
The result? A 40% lift in organic traffic almost immediately. Incredible.
Now that we’ve spent a few thousand words talking about why a subfolder is better for SEO than a subdomain, let’s end with a few caveats.
First, no change is ever made in a silo and you need buy-in from across the involved teams to get things done. If you haven’t started your content marketing initiatives, be careful of spending too much social capital to get a blog stood up “in the best way.” Action is the best motivator, so take what you can get to start and build a case.
Second, if you’ve been blogging for a while and have a lot of content built up then a change from subdomain to subfolder will likely show a more dramatic change than if you have very little content. Be careful of overselling the potential.
Third, when moving a blog’s location (unless you keep all of the same technology and simply reverse proxy and redirect to a subfolder) there will be other changes needed as well which can both positively and negatively affect SEO. So make sure you have a good migration strategy (find someone to help with that here).
Finally, let me say that there will be a lot of people out there on the Internet saying “Well, we can’t know for sure that it’s the move that improves SEO. Could be other things!” And while technically they’re right (we can’t know anything for 100% sure after all), it’s also true that there are MANY MANY case studies out there showing the improvements people see. So do your research, but don’t let the doubts or questioning of well meaning (or not well meaning!) others keep you from doing what you need to do and what is right for your traffic and business.