Over the past weeks, I've been getting a lot of questions and comments about URLs and naming conventions. Here are a few typical queries:
- Department X has the address http://departmentx.case.edu. Our address is http://www.case.edu/school/foobar/
foobar.html. Can you change our address to http://foobar.case.edu?
- How can we get a shorter address for our page? Our long URL is wreaking havoc with our marketing.
- Our site has a long address that we've been printing in our mailings. We're not getting as much traffic as we hoped because the name is too long to type. How can we shorten it?
Today I'll address the first question, relating to subdomains, then continue the discussion on naming conventions in an upcoming article.
Subdomains: http://yourname.case.edu vs. http://www.case.edu/yourname vs. http://www.case.edu/your division/yourname
Here at Case we use a a hierarchical naming structure, featuring addresses such as http://www.case.edu/your division/yourname, on the main Case Web server. Subdomains, addresses such as http://yourname.case.edu, are used by Web sites housed on other servers because this is the most efficient way to include such sites within the case.edu domain. Subdomains aren't by nature special or better, they simply provide a technical solution to a technical problem. Sites housed on the main Case server cannot be changed to have subdomain addresses, but that's okay, there is no advantage to doing so. My former colleague, Kevin Adams, explains this in detail in his article Subdomains vs. Accounts - Case's Naming Conventions.
On personal and business sites subdomains are typically used when content resides on a different server or when content is topically distinctive from the main site—but not so distinct that it would benefit from a unique domain. For example, http://maps.google.com offers a distinctly different service than the search engine found at http://www.google.com/, but the common use of the google.com domain let's users know that both services are produced by the same entity and reinforces the Google brand. Google Analytics however uses http://www.google.com/analytics/ (a subfolder instead of a subdomain) as the analytics service is more closely tied to the search engine service.
Webmasters at Case and other universities could argue that their sites are topically distinctive—after all we house sites on topics ranging from Art History and Art to Darwin and Evolution—but collectively such subjects tie together in furtherance of our educational mission. There's no compelling reason to distinguish them through the use of subdomains.
Can't subdomains enhance search engine optimization (SEO)?
From what I've read the answer is no, although people have tried to use subdomains to cheat the system. When someone searches for a particular word or phrase most search engines will limit the number of results it shows from any given domain. Thus if you search for "Web Development Blog" on Google, you'll see that this blog shows up twice (Google's limit is normally 2 results). The main page shows up in the results as does one of the individual entry pages. The entry page is indented below to show that it is coming from the same site.
It used to be that subdomains were treated as separate sites, so marketers might distribute related content across subdomains so additional listings would show up on search engine results pages (SERPs). While this was helpful to marketers it wasn't so helpful to users, so Google has refined their algorithms, so that subdomains aren't given an automatic advantage. Relevance comes first, so this doesn't mean you will never see more than 2 subdomains appear on the same SERP. (A search for "Case Western Reserve" shows several subdomains.) It simply means that with all content being equal the subdomain won't have an advantage over a subfolder when it comes to issues of SEO.
If I can use a subdomain I'll have a shorter address than I have now.
While a subdomain may result in a slightly shorter file name, that will probably have very little impact on your marketing strategies. I'll discuss URL length and naming conventions further in an upcoming entry.