Should you use subdomains for your e-business website?

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Although the Google Toolbar currently does not show PageRank I feel confident in saying that PageRank is still playing it’s important role in the Google Search Engine ranking process. You probably know that the higher your PageRank the better because it means your site will appear before other sites with lower PageRank that are competing for your key terms. In order to get a high PageRank you must have other sites, preferably also with high PageRank, linking to your site. Hence webmasters actively chase link exchanges with other sites.

Generally when you do a link exchange your main website front page is the page that is linked to. It is that page which receives the highest PageRank and consequently distributes ranking to the sub-pages within your site. This is important to remember since ideally you want Google to index your entire website so all your pages will be showing up in search results. Of course if your sub-pages also have high PageRank then they will be appearing higher in search results as well.

So how exactly does it work when you build your website using subdomains rather than directories?

When I refer to a subdomain I mean something like this – http://toolbar.google.com. The Google Toolbar has it’s own house on Google.com. On the web hosting side of things subdomains can be completely separate from the main hosting with it’s own FTP and directory structure and/or can be simply a mapped folder/directory under the main directory. For the purposes of this article I am going to explain what happened when I divided my site into subdomains which were hosted under the one FTP account, however they were proper subdomains, not mapped redirects.

Back before PageRank was widely promoted and sought after I was busy working on the navigation of my business website, BetterEdit.com . I wasn’t thinking about the search engine optimisation (SEO) implications of my site, I just wanted my site to be easy to navigate and maintain.

Using subdomains: A case study at BetterEdit.com

BetterEdit in essence is two different websites, one for student proofreading and one for business proofreading (At one stage there was a third section for manuscript/book editing but I later decided to keep things as simple as possible and stored manuscript proofreading under the business section.)

Initially I kept all sections under the one domain, BetterEdit.com and used a directory for each. So it was /business and /student and all the corresponding sub-pages under these. I later learned about the subdomain options available on my webhost and thought that might be a good way to divide the two sections so I went about setting up the subdomains and transferred the content. From that point on the only page that was on the main domain was the first index page where users choose between the student or the business options and taken to the appropriate subdomain. This is the current system in place that you can see when you visit www.BetterEdit.com.

Tip: When I divided my site into subdomains I kept the pages in the original domain directories (/student and /business) on the server even though I had migrated the content from these pages to the subdomains and my navigation system no longer pointed to the main pages, only the subdomains. However because Google, other search engines and websites had indexed and/or linked to my main site sub-pages I didn’t want to delete them. Instead I used a meta refresh on all these pages to direct users back to the front page where they would navigate into the live site.

You can see this in action by trying to access one of the old pages like: www.betteredit.com/services.shtml

Eventually I became caught up in PageRank just like all the other webmasters out there. I investigated how Google treated subdomains and what was likely to happen to my site during the next Google dance (PageRank update). I learnt that Google treats subdomains as separate websites altogether. At that time my main index site had maintained a PageRank 4 and of course the subdomains were yet to have any visible PageRank because they had not existed during the last Google dance.

During the next update my main index dropped to a PageRank 3 and the subdomains were also ranked at 3. I was not too pleased at that point and determined that because I had changed the structure of my site the PageRank 4 had which I had on the main .com site had been divided to the three sites I had with the structure – two subdomains and one main .com. If you think about it there were no sites at all linking to my new subdomains except my one index page, so I should have been reasonably happy with a PageRanking of 3.

I wasn’t too worried about my drop in PageRank because I figured as Google indexed my new subdomains and I continued to add new content that my rankings would improve. During the next Google dance I was pleasantly surprised to have my main .com return to a PageRank 4 and my new subdomains also jump to a PageRank 4. Also, because my subdomains and index page were inter-linking sub-pages across all three sites many of my sub-pages had managed to go up to a PageRank 4 as well. In a directory structure they would probably have always remained one less than the root index unless I had some solid incoming links from other sites pointing directly to them, which is not likely since most incoming links always point to the root domain.

Although my case is far from conclusive it does illustrate a possible outcome from using subdomains. You may experience an initial drop in ranking when you first create the new subdomains but provided you stick by the hard SEO rule that fresh content is good and you work on making your subdomains unique and full of keyword rich copy then you may end up with three websites with high rankings instead of just one, which is certainly worth the time.

Yaro Starak
Webmaster

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8 Comments

  • Interested in this”When I divided my site into sub-domains I kept all the main pages from the directories on the server even though I had migrated the content on to the sub-domains and my navigation system no longer pointed to the older pages. ”

    Interested to find out what you mean by keeping all the pages from the subdirectories on the server.

  • The site at http://www.betteredit.com remained even though the “live” site was now under student.betteredit.com and business.betteredit.com. All visitors were directed to the subdomains.

    The content available for example at http://www.betteredit.com/services.shtml and all the files under the main www site are still there, but if anyone ever comes to those pages they are redirected to http://www.betteredit.com where they will have to choose to enter a subdomain.

    My old content was not deleted and remained online even though I didn’t consider it “active”.

    I hope that clarifies things?

    Yaro

  • If original content remains, are you worried about being penalised by Google for duplicate content, as I assume you are using a java redirect?

  • Slightly concerned, but not worried I would say best sums it up Matt. While there probably is some duplicate content most of my pages have changed over the years so duplication would be miminal.

    I’m not using a java redirect, it’s just a meta-refresh which is like a meta-tag (I don’t think that is java based).

    The alternative is to delete all the old content which means that if anyone came across an old page they would get 404 errors and then hopefully head to the main site anyway since my 404 custom page provides a simple site map.

    I’d say by now most of my old content is not highly indexed in Google anyway since none of my current pages point to it.

  • Another possible benefit of using subdomains – and I can’t say this with any confidence besides in theory speculation, but I *think* it should work – is that you can keep your link directory on one site while the incoming links point to your subdomains. That way the outgoing links leave one site and the incoming links go to another, much like what I talked about in this article.

  • Yaro,

    Nowadays, is your opinion on this matter any different? If so, can you point me to an article that reflects what do you think about it?

    Thanks.

  • this is still a question for me, subdomains are sometimes treated as separate domains for PR purposes, but you can also use link juice to update the pr of the subdomains.

    still trying to figure it out

  • I particularly like your point about interlinking and how it helps sub pages increase to a PR 4. I think this is a small yet powerful strong point of subdomains.

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