Google, Subdomains, and Branding

Dec 7th

In the past any large company could use subdomains as an effective reputation management strategy. As eBay and others have aggressively used subdomains to dominate branded AND unbranded search results, and Google has improved their sitelinks technology, any relevancy gain by treating subdomains as a separate site has gone away. Google is going to start treating subdomains like subfolders, and limit the number of results from any site to two.

There is still an upside to using subdomains because they allow you to feature standout content, but that upside relates to how marketable the content on that subdomain is, whereas in the past using lots of subdomains allowed eBay to get 20 of the top 30 listings for some queries, even if the subdomain was recycled garbage.

This move adds value to regionalizing sites and creating niche brands (like MobileCrunch), since currently I believe ebay.ca and ebay.com will be seen as two separate sites. If sites are too aggressive with regionalization or creating niche brands and start double dipping that way then Google might eventually look to devalue that move as well, although that will be more of a challenge because it would create a lot of collateral damage.

Official announcement by Matt Cutts at Pubcon, reported first by Barry.

Published: December 7, 2007

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Comments

December 7, 2007 - 6:53pm

It's funny. I believe Google has probably already been doing this for some time (prior to the announcement). We have a site that makes use of subdomains instead of folders, and about a month ago, it would start to only return 2 results instead of one. To some degree it was a problem, on the other hand though, it does prevent our site from dominating the top 10 (which from a search user standpoint, I think is good).

December 7, 2007 - 7:47pm

Hi Aron,

As for the question to use subdomains vs folders.
I can only find conflicting opinions everywhere I go.
But for an example such as this, which do you think is best for ranking or is there no difference?

Examples:

sports.mydomain123.com
life.mydomain123.com
world.mydomain123.com
or
mydomain123.com/sports
mydomain123.com/life
mydomain123.com/world

and

sports.mydomain123.com/football.html
sports.mydomain123.com/soccer.html
or
mydomain123.com/sports/football.html
mydomain123.com/sports/soccer.html

If you know where an answer is or have time to answer I really appreciate any help. I'll make sure I share this post!

December 7, 2007 - 7:59pm

I tried to spell that out in the above post, when I wrote

There is still an upside to using subdomains because they allow you to feature standout content, but that upside relates to how marketable the content on that subdomain is

The key is to ensure the subdomains are logical breaks and the content level is (or intends to be) strong enough to be featured.

February 2, 2009 - 6:45pm

Hi Aaron,
One of my competitors is TopTenReviews and I consistently see them owning specific keyword phrases by using sub domains.

For example, if you do a search on Google for "video editing" they come up #1. I've tried a dozen keyword searches and each time they come up in the Top 3 by using subdomains: video-editing-software-review.toptenreviews. com

Seeing this in action, I feel like subdomains are the way to go because you can get your keyword phrase first in the domain name, while still using your existing domain name (which already has age on it and PR).

Can you share your latest thoughts on this? Are the results TopTenReviews are getting a fluke or a true indicator that subdomains are the way to go?

Thanks in advance for the help!

February 2, 2009 - 8:05pm

We give search strategy advice in our member forums. If we give it individualized, personalized, and free on the blog then it undermines our own business model.

December 7, 2007 - 8:06pm

Do you have some examples of this with a before and after? Is this "live" yet or only partially so? I'm looking at an example that is particularly of interest to me and don't see any difference.

Feel free to mail me to get the example I'm talking about.

December 7, 2007 - 9:26pm

Hi Greggles
I am still seeing 3 ebay listings on this search, but then there are only 1,600 results total according to Google for that search.

For brand related searches like SEO Book I am still seeing many results from my site. And I have 4 of the top 50 results in Google for SEO still.

December 7, 2007 - 10:50pm

This change and moving forward setting up the structure of a site really seems like a double-edge sword for me - and I'm sure other SEOs.

I'm a stickler for consistency and structure. In a perfect world I want to sub-domain a site to break apart relevant sections. Such as blog.company.com, careers.company.com, etc.

So if Google follows through with this, and I would like to rank in the top 10 for all these sections, in actuality I would have to do something such as companyblog.com, companycareers.com, etc?

December 8, 2007 - 12:32am

Hi MrThePlague
You can still use subdomains and rank them all, but they all will not rank at the same time for the same queries. Everything beyond the top couple matching results for each query might get stripped out.

December 8, 2007 - 4:36pm

Matt must hate you lately..

December 9, 2007 - 1:18am

Aaron said it the subdomain is for "standout content," and when it a repeat... I think just tricky. I have continued to see the tricky people get punished of time. When you focus on finding the shortcuts, the search engines find a way to stop you. I have enjoyed reading about all the companies lose page rank for many reasons as the less than good content was punished.

I hear many webmasters tell me or say how they can get traffic. I think, really wish I had about 50 good writers, to type into computers. I figure a good page makes 80 cents per year, and how do I afford to pay this writer.

A sub-domain used to recycle the same materials is not "Standout Content," it is tricky.

A good business is trusted, good content is trustworthy.

December 9, 2007 - 3:59am

I figure a good page makes 80 cents per year, and how do I afford to pay this writer.

That depends on the topic and site. Many of mine do more than that per day.

February 2, 2009 - 7:15pm

Google is going to start treating subdomains like subfolders, and limit the number of results from any site to two.

If I'm not mistaken, I've seen discussion of this for a few years now. I think most of the filtration that takes place in this area is manual and usually occurs in the top search spaces. There is protocol for Hostnames and if a site matches the criteria for that protocol, then follow it. Whether or not Google is going to limit the number of results is a moot point.

The Hostname is a powerful part of the overall equation. Usually if a site holds a top position and there are hostnames below that, there is a good chance that any removal of the third and fourth references is no big deal. That top position will typically remain intact. Plus you have that second instance they refer to. That is what you want to work on. ;)

You can't be hogging the results all the time, be happy with that ATF spot you have!

February 2, 2009 - 8:07pm

For branded search results (ie: seobook OR seo book) you can hog away, but it is now much harder to get that 3rd and 4th listing for non-branded keywords.

July 22, 2009 - 2:45pm

Nice article! Thanks Aaron.

I have a question though. By the statement "There is still an upside to using subdomains because they allow you to feature standout content, but that upside relates to how marketable the content on that subdomain is", do you mean, for example, if the subdomains have different theme but the same parent company, for brand identity? Say you have a company that does web design and it also has a branch that does something totally unrelated to web design, then do you think subdomain should be the better option as compared to subfolders as subfolders would decrease the keyboard relevancy of the domain because of different unrelated themes under the same domain. And buying a new domain could be another option though but subdomains could promote better branding in case of not so big companies.

What are your view regarding these Aaron?

Robin

July 22, 2009 - 4:09pm

Hi Robin
for really specific questions where the answer is more gray I try to answer them in the forums. If I answer such questions publicly its too easy for me to either give rushed half advice or value my time effectively at $0.

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