An Outside-In View of Subdomains – Questions

by Barry Welford April 6th, 2010 

In this post and in the follow-up post in one week's time, we will be suggesting that you should go against what seems to be the current conventional wisdom on subdomains.This is not just to be controversial but to encourage you to do things differently.  This will involve you questioning some basic assumptions.

Defiance by Paul Denton Cocker.

We will be looking at things from a different perspective.  Please suspend judgment.  Try to get your mind around what is being suggested even if you are rebelling at what you are hearing.  Once you hear and understand the full explanation you will find that it all hangs together.  You may still reject this view, but at least you will have taken time to consider another point of view rather than relying on knee-jerk reactions.

The Official Google Word On Subdomains

In general, subdomains do not get the respect they deserve.  Perhaps it's that introductory sub.  However if you look at the Google view of all this as most recently set out (2007) by Matt Cutts, there seems to be a much more balanced acceptance of them, even though subdirectories or subfolders get Matt's preference:

My personal preference on subdomains vs. subdirectories is that I usually prefer the convenience of subdirectories for most of my content. A subdomain can be useful to separate out content that is completely different. Google uses subdomains for distinct products such news.google.com or maps.google.com, for example. If you’re a newer webmaster or SEO, I’d recommend using subdirectories until you start to feel pretty confident with the architecture of your site. At that point, you’ll be better equipped to make the right decision for your own site.

Before we evaluate what is the best approach to subdomains, let us quickly think about how we think.

The Intelligence Trap

girl hag

Perhaps many will have seen the image on the right before.  What do you see?  Some may see nothing in these blotches of blacks and grays.  Others will see an image of a pretty young girl while some see an old hag.  The surprising thing is that many people will find it almost impossible to see the other image once their mind has locked onto one image.  Your mind tries to see patterns in what is around you.  Thereafter that pattern may condition how you then perceive other aspects of the situation.

This can be even more so with highly intelligent people who try to understand complex and messy phenomena and then explain it to others with rapidly constructed reasons.  Edward de Bono calls that the Intelligence Trap:

A highly intelligent person may have a certain view on a subject and use his or her thinking just to support that view. This is done with arguments that make a great deal of sense. The more able a thinker is to support a point of view, the less inclined is that thinker to explore other points of view. Since the original point of view may be based on prejudice or habit, this failure to explore the subject is bad thinking.

A better basis for thinking is to look for the most simple explanation.  That is often described as Occam's Razor.  That is an approach much supported by Avinash Kaushik, the Google evangelist on Analytics, so perhaps it is worth considering.  Only look for something more complex than the simplest explanation if you spot things that are not explicable by this simple view.  If you think that some more complex theory is necessary, then you should do tests to prove it is needed.  In other words, it's that old KISS principle in operation.

An Outside In View Of Websites

Before we explore what subdomains really mean for us, we should take a look at a more fundamental notion.  What exactly is a website.  We propose the notion of an Outside-In View of a website to suggest using the perspective of a visitor (or a spider) rather than the website owner.  Such a visitor may not realize the full scope of a website.  To them, this is only a group of web pages they may visit.

The problem is that words paint pictures.  After all what does the word 'site' bring to mind.  Here is one standard definition: the area or exact plot of ground on which anything is, has been, or is to be located.  It brings with it an idea of a boundary or fence.  Something will be either 'onsite' or 'off-site'.

The word 'domain' has similar connotations.  Here are some definitions: the territory governed by a single ruler or government, realm, land to which there is superior title and absolute ownership.  Again there is the notion of either being inside the domain or outside the domain.  Our mental picture is linked to a physical picture of spaces with fences or boundaries.

The SEOmoz Explanation

For confirmation that this is the way many people thing about domains and web pages, check out this video by Rand Fishkin, one of the brightest and most engaging experts in the SEO world.  You can find more commentary on this somewhat technical explanation in a White Board Friday post on How the Link Graph Works.

This is an image derived from the picture that Rand presents.

page domain

In the comments, Darren Slatten had a problem with the concepts that Rand was presenting and I do too.  In particular I have an additional concern.  That relates to the boundary that Rand has put around each domain.  It is such a small item but it immediately locks in a concept that is open to question.  That concept will be described in the follow-up article on The Outside-In View of Subdomains – Answers.

You will find that there are two sides in this discussion and you may be on one side or the other.  Your answers to the following 3 key questions may be indicators of your position in that debate.  Why not give your answers in the comments.  The Answers post next week has already been drafted but will be modified to take account of what may surface in these comments.

  1. Is domain authority real?
  2. Are links between subdomains internal?
  3. Can subdomains be separate 'websites'?

See the follow-up post on Tuesday April 13 for the answers: An Outside-In View of Subdomains  -  Answers.

Barry Welford

Offering practical, effective ways of strengthening Internet marketing strategy and getting bottom-line success, particularly through local SEO.

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