Why Your Local Pages Might Be Happier on a Subdomain

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Whether to build local pages on a subdomain or within a subfolder has long been a topic of heated debate. I’ve never sought to sway anyone’s religious conviction, nor do I intend to begin doing so. If you’re a devout subfolder-er, then I’m sure you have your reasons, and I look forward to hearing them. I’ll add that I haven’t yet thought of any other instances wherein I’d argue in favor of a subdomain, but I believe local pages are an exception. So, for those of you still open to opportunity, prepare to be opportune.

What’s the Difference?

Before we get into the weeds, I’ll back up for just a moment, for those unsure of the distinction between a subdomain and a subfolder. 

Here’s the syntactic distinction between a subdomain and a subfolder. 

  • Subdomain: locations.domain.com
  • Subfolder: domain.com/locations

The most common example of a subdomain is www. It’s the bit that appears right before the dot that appears before a domain or TLD (top-level domain). In the case of www, the subdomain almost always resolves to the same destination as the TLD itself. This allows the user to arrive at the same destination, whether they enter “domain.com” or “www.domain.com.” 

In the case of the above example, “locations.domain.com,” the subdomain is being used to establish a separate site which hosts the local pages. Whatever the purpose of your subdomain, you’ll need to configure it in your domain’s DNS settings.  

On the other hand, creating subpages within a subfolder of your domain requires no additional DNS configuration. If you’re using a Content Management System, then all you’ll need to do is indicate within your CMS how you’d like your site organized, and the changes will be made in as much time as it takes for the code to be generated, as it all happens locally within your main site.       

Keep ‘em Separated

While Offspring frontman, Dexter Holland, was in medical school, he ran an experiment involving two different bacteria. He left the two vials of bacteria in a room to cool down, came back after about an hour, and noticed that the samples were still warm. This was because they were interacting with one another, due to their proximity. That’s when Dexter thought to himself, “I gotta keep ’em separated.”  

This is probably why Google treats subdomains as separate entities from their TLDs. As a result, subdomains can afford some distinct advantages when it comes to managing local pages.

SERP Domination

Since Google sees your subdomain as a separate site, this means that it has the ability to appear alongside your main site in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), thus providing greater visibility for your brand, effectively displacing your competition. This takes me back to some reputation management campaigns of yore, but seriously…  

Q: What’s better than being above the fold?  

A: “Seeing double” above the fold!

First Impressions Are a Big Deal

Using a subdomain offers the opportunity to provide additional context at first glance through the inclusion of a relevant keyword in the front of your URL. In the above example, “stores.dickssportinggoods.com” discloses the site’s exact purpose to the reader, before they even read its title. 

This fosters trust, ensuring visits with correct intent, reducing bounce rates, and increasing time-on-page, in-store traffic, online and offline conversions, and everything else that you’d want to see happen. Good things happen when you set proper expectations up front.

What’s Good for the Goose Isn’t Always Good for the Gander 

While there’s certainly some overlap, traditional SEO is not local SEO. Thus, you’ll most likely employ a different strategy for your local pages than you will for your main site. For instance, in a traditional link-building strategy, you’ll typically seek out the most authoritative links from top industry sites and major news publications. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for pages with proper ratios of inbound versus outbound links, and so on.  

Conversely, in a local link-building strategy, authority isn’t nearly as important. In local, what matters is relevance. Links from neighborhood churches, t-ball teams, and other local organizations (while sometimes on low-authority or unsightly, barely navigable sites) can offer a ton of relevance and search edification to your local pages.

What’s more, while links earned from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times can prove extremely painstaking, the sorts of links that will most benefit your local pages can be relatively easy to obtain. Sponsor a local event or extend a kind gesture to a local business owner — simply give back to your local community wherever possible — and you’ll have a stellar local backlink profile in no time.

Even more cringeworthy to a traditional SEO than links from low-authority t-ball sites, let’s not forget about directory links. While they were a traditional link-building staple a decade ago, no traditional SEO would be caught dead with one of these today. Still cost-effective and easy to get, relevant and targeted directories offer significant value to your local pages. In fact, here are 21 web directories that still have value.  

While it’s important to note that many directories offer nofollow links, studies suggest that Google has and will follow some nofollow links, providing SEO benefit. It’s also important to remember that all links, whether doffollow or nofollow, serve as editorial votes for your web pages. Not to mention, nofollow links from high-traffic sites like Yelp and Foursquare can bring valuable visits to your local pages, which is ultimately what you want anyway. Right?

Even if the differences in ideal link attributes aren’t enough, you’ll undoubtedly use a different anchor-text strategy for your main site than you will for your local pages. This is just one more reason to keep a clean separation. 

Second-tier Linking

We’ve talked about how isolating your local pages from your main site can be beneficial, but maybe you’re asking, “Shouldn’t my local pages pass authority to my main site?” Well, they still can, and the beauty of this structure is that it can allow them to do so, without sharing the “culpability” of direct association with their ideal local links. And as far as Google’s concerned, what could be more natural than your subdomain linking to your domain? Even though it may serve an entirely different function, why wouldn’t it? It obviously has your domain in common with your domain

Retain Your Link Authority

Across a given domain or subdomain, link authority is shared across all of its pages. Depending on the size of your business, your local pages could number in the hundreds or thousands. As subpages, these could comprise a significant portion of your site’s overall page count. You don’t want your hard-fought Wall Street Journal link authority bleeding out across all of your local pages, when it should be powering up the page for that new product that’s going to propel your company into the next echelon in 2021. Right? Protect your main site’s link authority by keeping your local pages (and their unruly constituents) on a subdomain.       

How About Convenience?

Local pages can be subject to frequent updates, especially in this #nextnormal, when guidelines are changing every time we turn around. When your local marketing team needs to announce store closures or re-openings, dine-in, take-out, masks required, etc., the last thing you want is for them to be waiting on your IT team to update your local pages. 

The independence of a subdomain can further empower your marketing team to manage your local pages via their own CMS and/or CDN, allowing them to make these vital updates in real time and preserving your brand’s hard-earned credibility.

In Summary

Keeping your local pages on a subdomain can equip you with some additional options. With a subdomain, you call the shots.

So, Really … Is a Subdomain Right for Your Brand? 

If you’re still reading, then you’re probably thoroughly sold on the benefits of using a subdomain for your local pages. If your brand doesn’t currently have local pages, understands how essential they are to local SEO, and is ready to start building them, then you probably already have a great CNAME in mind! On the other hand, if your brand already has thousands of local pages living in a subfolder and they’re all ranking well, then you may be asking “What’s the best way to migrate them to a subdomain?” The answer is “Very, very carefully.”

If the latter describes you and your brand, then you’ll want to consider all of the SEO factors currently supporting your local pages before making any changes. Depending on your circumstances (and available resources), your best course of action might even be to just leave ‘em put. While migrating them will afford you some distinct advantages (and probably serve you better in the long run), they’ll almost certainly sustain some SEO fallout in the process. It can be done successfully, but I had to throw out that disclaimer.

When transplanting a tree, if you plan meticulously, take all of the necessary precautions, and do it during the right time of the year, then you can mitigate the shock and ensure that it’ll thrive in its new home, allowing its sturdy boughs, hearty branches, and luscious leaves to reach new heights. If not, you could end up with a stunted or dead tree. More on this next time! 

To be clear, next time we’ll talk about best practices for migrating existing local pages from a subfolder to a subdomain, not arboriculture.         

Dave Summers is an enterprise account executive at Brandify.