I just received a message from a visitor to thesitewizard.com asking me whether she should start a new website under a new domain name, or whether she should simply put the site as a subdirectory of her existing site. As I explained to her, you gain something with either of these choices and lose something at the same time. This article briefly explains the benefits gained and lost with each option.
New readers of thesitewizard.com may not realize this, but the early articles on thesitewizard.com were originally published in a subdirectory of thefreecountry.com. As time progressed, and more and more articles were published, I realised that the sub-site was taking on a life of its own. It had its own audience and adherents, who, through their links, recommendations to others and email to me, were indirectly influencing the direction the whole site was going.
Since I had a slightly different focus in mind for thefreecountry.com, I thought that if I could spin off the webmaster articles onto its own site, the two sites could take their own separate paths, unhobbled by the other's direction in life (so to speak). And so thesitewizard.com was born.
When you separate two sites under two different domain names (not subdomain names, mind you), you allow both the sites to take on their own personality, themes and target audience, unencumbered by the interests and focus of the other. This is even more crucial if, as is the case for the visitor asking me this question, one of the sites has a commercial purpose and the other has a completely separate theme, unrelated to the commercial enterprise. For example, if your commercial arm sells "Widget X" and your new site is a blog talking about "Life in the Bronx", putting the two sites together might make your potential customers think that your Widget X is only for people living in the Bronx.
It's difficult to predict the fate of any site when you first start out. A site may be successful or it may not. It may be a joy to work on or a massive burden. Separating the domains uncouples the life of one site from the other. It allows one site to be killed off without the other being affected (like what I tried to do, unsuccessfully, with thefreecountry.com a few years ago).
In other words, separating the domains lets one site continue to exist without being dragged down by the fate of the other, should (perish the thought) such a thing ever happen.
The primary benefit, I think, of putting your new site in a folder on an existing domain is the additional links that the sub-site attracts.
For example, if you write a blog on your sub-site, and sell "Widget X" on your main site, links to your blog posts will be regarded as additional link credit for your main domain as a whole. This is especially useful if your main domain is a commercial site selling a product or service. I'm sure you have experienced how hard it is to get people to link to such sites. It is far easier to get them to link to a blog post, especially if your blog articles are interesting and do not look like blatant attempts to sell your products.
This benefit alone, I think, makes the use of a sub-directory a worthy option to consider, one that you should not discard lightly. Had I not separated thesitewizard.com and thefreecountry.com, the combined weight of links to the different kinds of materials on both sites, all pointing at one site, would probably have substantially improved my ranking in the search engines.
I tend to view subdomain names as creatures that try to stand astride two worlds, but that don't completely reap the benefits of either.
A subdomain looks like a completely new site, with a completely different top level directory structure from the main domain. Search engines load a robots.txt file from your subdomain root, such as subdomain.example.com/robots.txt, as though it is a whole new domain.
In spite of this, confusingly, search engines also sometimes treat it like a subdirectory of the main domain. It all depends on the search engine you're talking about, the linking structure between your two sites, and the state of the algorithm for that engine in question. And algorithms change all the time. Because you're never certain whether they will treat your subdomain as a separate site of its own or as a subdirectory of your main domain, the distinction between a subdomain and subdirectory is unreliable at best. It is thus hard to predict whether the links to your subdomain will automatically benefit your main site.
Similarly, it's entirely possible that the average user will regard your subdomain as belonging to the main business that you have on your domain name. Any confusion they might have with your business, such as Widget X being only for people living in the Bronx as mentioned earlier, might still be there with the subdomain. But this is just speculation. I really don't know what goes on in the mind of an average user. I've not been one for a very long time. If you are a webmaster, then neither have you. Judging from the number of successful phishing scams though, chances are that the average user will not even look at the URL, let alone notice the similarity of the domain names.
Whatever the case may be, I believe that the benefits and gains accruing from a subdomain name is uncertain, at best, and will vary with time. If you need to be clear on the costs and benefits of the alternative you choose, you might prefer to go with either the new domain name or just put your site in a sub-directory. At least in those cases, the pros and cons are more clearly defined.
You gain something and lose something whether you put your new site on a new domain name or in a sub-directory of your existing domain. The information provided in this article will hopeful give you a clearer idea of the costs and benefits to either alternative, enabling you to make a better-informed decision.
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